Yesterday I wrote about Bible translations, hoping to stir people to at least investigate the issues surrounding what has become a hot topic in the church. I believe that an influx of poor translations is beginning to erode the confidence Christians have in their Bibles, and unfortunately, this erosion of confidence happens with good reason. Yesterday evening I was reading Translating Truth, a book that is due for publication in the next couple of weeks. The third chapter, written by C. John Collins, provided an interesting example of translation gone awry and I thought I would share that today.
Philosophy of Translation
Collins quotes A.J. Krailsheimer, a teacher of French at Oxford, who translated Pascal’s Pensees into English. Here is how Krailsheimer explained his goal in this translation:
The purpose of any translation is to enable those who have little or no knowledge of the original language to read with reasonable confidence works which would otherwise have been inaccessible to them. It does not help if the translator introduces variants of his own, instead of following as faithfully as possible the chosen original, ultimate criterion of accuracy and authenticity.
This goal is little more than we would expect in any translation. He seeks to faithfully reproduce what would otherwise be inaccessible to the reader. He attempts to be as faithful as he can to the original, unwilling to sacrifice accuracy or authenticity by adding his own variants.
It is interesting to contrast this philosophy of translation with Eugene Nida, the father of dynamic equivalence. Nida writes:
To translate is to try to stimulate in the new reader in the new language the same reaction to the text as the original author wished to stimulate in his first and immediate readers.
Note the difference between these two philosophies. The first seeks a faithful translation of the words used by the original author while the second focuses primarily on the reader and his reaction to the author’s underlying intent. What can be lost in this method of translation is what Anthony Nichols refers to as “exegetical potential.”
This would mean in practice that a good translation of the NT will preserve a sense of historical and cultural distance…It will take the modern reader back into the alien milieu of first century Judaism where the Christian movement began. It will show him how the gospel of Jesus appeared to a Jew, and not how that Jew would have thought had he been an Australian or an American.
Collins teaches Latin to his children and a few years ago his sister gave him a Latin Daily Phrase and Culture Calendar. In this calendar, most days have a Latin phrase accompanied by a suggested translation. There is also sometimes a literal translation given. What he found in these translations provides an interesting metaphor for the translation of Scripture.
My Latin has gotten a little bit rusty through the years, so forgive me if my attempts at translation are not perfectly accurate!
After making the necessary changes
(lit.: Things having been changed that had to be changed).
The literal version, which renders the Latin with fair precision, makes some sense but translates to very difficult English. A slightly better rendering might be the necessary changes having been changed or the necessary changes having been made. From there it is not difficult to smooth the translation to After making the necessary changes. We can consider this a good, essentially literal translation of the original words.
Ubi leges valent, ibi populus potest valere
Where the laws are good, there the people are flourishing
(lit.: Where laws are healthy, there the people are able to be healthy).
This translation is somewhat true to the author’s words, but does not capture the author’s intended repetition of “valere.” A better translation, capturing this literary device, would be Where laws are healthy, the people can be healthy. This example shows, then, a decent but still flawed translation. At the very least it could have been better as it was quite simple to improve the translation to still be readable while maintaining the literary device.
Quod cibus est aliis, aliis est venenum.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
(lit.: That which is food to some is poison to others).
Collins points out something I noticed immediately when reading this translation. The literal translation is not quite literal enough because it misses the chiasmus, or parallel between the two parts of the sentence. A better translation would be What is food to some, to others is poison. This maintains the aliis, aliis construct. So again, we have a translation that keeps most of the words intact, but ignores a literary device.
Pares cum paribus facillime congregantur.
Birds of a feather flock together.
(lit.: Equals most easily congregate with equals).
In this case the literal translation bears resemblance in meaning to the original but very little similarity in the words (which literally translate to something like Equals with equals most easily congregate). The translator has seen fit to interpret and contextualize this phrase, rendering it with a modern aphorism. Returning to Nichols’ quote, we see that this translation may capture the author’s intended meaning, but it maintains none of its exegetical potential.
Mundus vult decipi.
There’s a sucker born every minute.
(lit.: the world wants to be deceived).
This is another case where the translator has done far more than translate, but has ignored the actual words and instead translated what he feels is the author’s intent. As Collins says, “Few lay people would call these last two “accurate” translations, because the words of the original have exercised no control over the renderings.” The exegetical potential is gone and the reader is forced to accept the author’s interpretation of both the words and his understanding of intended meaning.
I found this quite a helpful metaphor in understanding the differences between translation philosophies. The first example might equate to an essentially literal translation of the Bible like the ESV, KJV, NKJV or NASB. The second and third examples might be similar to a dynamic equivalent translation like the NIV or even the NLT. The final two examples strike me as being similar to The Message or the CEV.
And so we return to where we were yesterday. When reading your Bible, do you have confidence that you are reading the words of God? Do you have confidence that the translator has done his utmost to faithfully reproduce the author’s words, or has he also interjected his understanding of the words? Has he maintained the exegetical potential of the Scriptures, or has he done the exegesis on your behalf?