Why Translation Matters

I picked up Edith Grossman’s book (Why Translation Matters) several months ago and have found occasion to cite it several times. Here’s a sample quote with reference to poetry:

“…the confluence of sound, sense, and form in a poem presents an especially difficult problem in parsing for the translator. How can you separate the inseparable? …the translator continues the process initiated by the poet, searching for the ideal words, the perfect mode of expression needed to create a poem. …the language of the poem, its syntax, lexicon, and structures, by definition have to be altered drastically, even though the work’s statement and intention, its emotive content and imagery, must remain the same.” (p. 95)

Now is such a perspective and strategy—a literary approach—“valid” for the translation of Scripture? I think so, not simply as an alternative methodology, but because I am convinced that the various texts/genres found in the various books of the Bible are, by and large, “literary” in character. If so (and I realize that some/many might not agree with me on that point), then this literary dimension must become a part of every translation “brief” (job commission), to a greater or lesser extent. I feel that this can be done, given competent personnel and adequate support, for any type of translation, whether more or less “formal” or “free” in nature.

The days of the one-size-fits-all translation are long past (despite the enthusiastic claims being made on the dust jackets of the some of the newer English versions). Here some insights of the “functionalist” school of translation studies are helpful. Most readers are probably familiar with these: pick the type/style of translation to fit the needs, wishes, medium of transmission, and setting of your primary target audience (or readership). Then accomplish this by the most effective means in keeping with the human and other resources available. One option might be this: Begin with a MT literary artist to prepare a first draft (however, I have enjoyed such a human resource only once in my years of Bible translation) and have fellow translation team “exegetes” refine that draft with reference to the original text.

There are a number of more “literary” translations to choose from nowadays in English. But I think that if we could put the best of each one of them all together into one version, smoothed out for a common style and register, then we’d be close to what we’re looking for—a genuine artistic-rhetorical rendition, suitable as a devotional edition, for example.


About ewendland

I am currently an instructor at the Lutheran Seminary, Lusaka, ZAMBIA (since 1968). My academic training has been in biblical studies (BA, Northwestern College; MST, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary), Bible translation (several SIL courses), linguistics (MA, University of Wisconsin, Madison), and African languages (PhD, UWM). I am a “retired” translation consultant for the United Bible Societies (having worked with projects in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). I currently still serve as an external examiner in Zambian languages (University of Zambia) and as visiting professor in OT, NT, and Ancient Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, with an affiliation to the Centre for Bible Interpretation and Translation in Africa (http://sun.academia.edu/EWENDLAND). My research and writing interests focus on the literary (structural, poetic, rhetorical) analysis of biblical texts and their oratorical translation, especially in southeastern Bantu languages (http://www.amazon.com/Ernst-R.-Wendland/e/B001HPLMX6).
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