Sunday, November 23, 2008

It's Not Just True for Biblical Materials: All Translation Is Interpretation

This past weekend on NPR, I heard a report on some of the issues inherent in translating works of literature from one language to another. Although there were no issues of religious doctrine involved, some of the comments sounded remarkably similar to concerns over biblical interpretation.
"There is no such thing as a literal translation, by nature of choosing one word or another, you influence the next step," (Bea Basso, an Italian translator) says.
If people are saying this about works for which lots and lots of native speakers can still be found, just how much worse must it be for works that are at least 2000 years old?

Of course, finding native speakers can be a problem for more recently-written works, too.
...regional linguistic differences can factor into a work, too — which is why Basso (who's from Venice) found it odd when she was asked to translate plays by Neapolitan author Eduardo De Filippo.

"Every region in Italy is so dramatically different ... the dialect, the customs, the food," says Basso. "Eduardo De Filippo uses an old dialect [from] the late 50s, so not even my Neapolitan friends would always know, they would have to ask their grandmothers. That happened several times."

This just underscores what I say all the time: "all translation is interpretation." There's simply no way around having to make choices as to which word most accurately represents the original intent. And one person may well make different (significantly different) choices than another person.

Here's another example:
"Rabelais, the author of this very strange book, ends the chapter with a sputtering iteration. I believe it's something like 43 different words in French for s- - -,"* says Raffel. "My problem was finding 43 different words because English is not so plentiful in these things."
I wonder if the French have greater or less difficulty finding an appropriate translation for σκυβαλα as found in Philippians 3:4b-14?

*That's not my censorship. NPR did that themselves, both in the text link and in the article heard on the radio.

1 comment:

  1. Mark,
    I heard the same segment and had the similar thoughts. I am a Fuller Grad from '78--old dude. I teach at a Christian high school and was given a Bible class this year. I thought this piece might be a good introduction to the translation issue. Most kids think that there is a one-to-one ratio on translation. The problems come with the non-literal translations because then the translator can put his/her own interpretations into the text. My bent is that the "literal" translation brings a baggage that is more hidden. Who ever says, "Verily I say unto you ...."? We end up thinking that there is some biblical way of talking that is not natural speech. Jesus' use of agricultural and animal herding metaphors is not naturally understood by most Westerners also. We have to be told what they mean. This was not true of the original hearers. Having to be informed as to Jesus’ culture has the unintended result of removing the message from our culture by some degree of relevance.

    I just read a fund raising letter from Ken Meyers of Mars Hill Audio that illustrates the point. (If you are not familiar with MHA, look it up on the net and get a free sample.) In it he compares the translation of Romans 12:1-2 in the KJV to the RSV translation. The difference is the translation of one word (logikos). Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice is either “reasonable service” (KJV) or “spiritual worship” (RSV). Paul uses this word only once so its meaning is not totally clear. But it is clear that the philosophical understanding of what reason is was different to the translators.

    After doing some research, Myers asserts that the phrase is meant to transmit the idea that our lives must be lived deliberatively as the next part of the passage goes on further to describe.

    So, you see, seminary training has its value. But, who seems to care? Modern American Christians suppose that there is no barrier between them and the original meaning of the scriptures they hold so dear.

    Blessings on you as you stand in the gap!

    Ron Schooler

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