On “literary” Bible translation

One of the problems with Eugene A. Nida’s well-known “dynamic equivalence” approach to translation (The Theory and Practice of Translation) was that it was often misunderstood (hence also misapplied) as a purely Reader-Response type of methodology. He (and other colleagues) later adopted the term “functional equivalence” to better convey their point and purpose (e.g., From One Language To Another). If I might summarize: When translating a given passage of Scripture we try to determine its overall “functional profile” in the original context of communication and then aim to reproduce this set of functions in the target language (TL) text, to the extent possible (with the understanding that complete 100% communication is not possible) in view of the new target audience, their cultural setting, the intended situation of use, and the medium of transmission involved.

When seeking to apply a “literary functional equivalence” (LiFE) approach to the different genres in the literature of Scripture, we might encounter macro-functions such as informative, expressive, evocative, imperative, rhetorical, artistic, among others. These need to be more closely specified then (based on careful text analysis) with reference to the book or pericope at hand. The Psalter, for example, is religious literature that was composed for a number of purposes (teaching, preaching, prayer, praise, apologetics, etc.). Our aim (according to the LiFE method) is to try to convey these functional elements structurally and stylistically  in translation—again, to the degree possible, given a number of sometimes competing variables and production-related factors. Of course, we may want to emphasize the “informative”, referential (or didactic) function in our work, but we must not forget the others either, such as the expressive and affective functions when rendering the psalm-hymns of praise.

I feel that in addition to some of these more obvious rhetorical and emotive factors, there is also a significant “artistic” dimension to consider in the Scriptures—the pure beauty of form on the macro- and micro-levels of discourse organization. If agreed (certain scholars do not), the question is: Are we able to render at least some of these aesthetic elements too in our translations? I like to think that we can succeed in this respect (it seems to work in the Chewa language, and I suspect that we can do this in English and other languages as well, with a bit of time, effort, and project support).

Edith Grossman (see earlier entry) also offers a good suggestion here—a sort of “bottom line” to aim for: “I believe that of all these poetic elements, the most important is rhythm. Not all poems employ the specific rhythmic, organizational devices of meter or rhyme or regular stanza divisions, but I think that almost every poem uses rhythmic stresses and their effects to create a powerful, frequently subliminal esthetic pull between the tension of anticipation or expectation and its satisfaction or release. It often seems that this in particular is what people mean when they refer to the music of a verse” (Why Translation Matters, pp. 96-97).

May I suggest that these notions apply equally well to the Psalms and also to the other genres of biblical poetry—and many prose passages as well. But how often do we see this concern actually reflected in our translations, especially those being marketed as “essentially literal”? Quite frankly, I have been rather disappointed in what I have read, even at the most basic level of rhythm that Grossman calls attention to. The traditional block formatting style of these bibles works counter to the very principle of rhythmic stress and euphony when orally articulating the text in a public venue.

But why would the Scriptures have been composed in such a literary mode, some might ask? In reply, we simply need to recall the predominantly oral-aural manner of textual transmission in ANE times. There were few manuscripts, they were difficult to read, and most people could not decipher them anyway, being non-literate (for most purposes). Thus, the biblical text, the Hebrew as well as the Greek, was manifestly crafted in a literary (artistic, rhetorical) way, which would make it more memorable and memorizable, including in a more precise, exact manner. Can our translations—in English or any language—not be a little more creative along these same lines? I have written more on this subject elsewhere, but this is probably (more than) enough for now. A final question for consideration: How “well” (excellently, in literary, artistic terms) were the original texts of Scripture actually composed, and to what degree does the answer to this concern our translations today?


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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