Translators as “match-makers”

In a relatively recent popular book on the topic of secular translation (but with brief periodic references to the Bible) Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber, 2011), David Bellos has some interesting and insightful things to say about the process of translating. Below I have noted just a few of those with special reference to the subject of translation “matching” (italics added):

“Translators are matchmakers of a particular kind. It’s not as simple as the marriage of content and form. Just as when we match faces and portraits, we rely on multiple dimensions and qualities to judge when a translation has occurred…. Not all of them are great at their job, and not many have the time and leisure to wait for the best match to come. But when we say that a translation is an acceptable one, what we name is an overall relationship between source and target that is neither identity, nor equivalence, nor analogy—just that complex thing called a good match. That’s the truth about translation.” (p. 322)

“What translators do is find matches, not equivalences, for the units of which a work is made, in the hope and expectation that their sum will produce a new work that can serve overall as a substitute for the source.” (p. 308)

“What counts as a satisfactory match is a judgment call, and is never fixed. The only certainty is that a match cannot be the same as the thing that it matches. If you want the same thing, that’s quite all right. You can read the original.” (p. 309)

To be sure, the concept of “matching” is useful as a way of referring to how a translation, whether literal or free, is prepared and how translators may be trained (see ch. 4 of the guidebook Hebrew Poetry in the Bible –United Bible Societies, 2000). On the other hand, to use a common expression (with pardon!) from contemporary news reportage on the world’s current economic or ecological crisis and its many proposed solutions, “The devil is in the details.” How then should one define “matching” (V) or a “match” (N) with reference to the “multiple dimensions and qualities” of translation—its process or its product?

Webster’s dictionary might work for a start: a “match” is “to be equal, similar, suitable, or corresponding in some way.” But the big question in the case of any type of translation remains: match with respect to linguistic form (and on which levels: lexical, syntactic, structural, none or all of the preceding), semantic content, and/or communicative function? And on what basis does one determine whether a match has been successfully made? That question goes back again to the basic translation-initial queries: “for whom—and when/where (in which primary setting)?”

In any case, we could probably happily live with the term “translation matching” as a practical label for what translators are trying to do–as long as the concept is clearly explained does not give ordinary Bible practitioners an overly mechanical or literalistic notion of their task and how to carry it out. However, consultant-instructors with some experience in translator-training might reasonably suspect that in the attempt to explain what “matching” or “a good match” is in more detail, certain qualifying criteria such as “equivalence,” “correspondence,” or “similarity” will still need to be used as well in the effort to define or determine relative “acceptability.”

Furthermore, while it is true to assert that “a [translation] match cannot be the same as the thing [text] that it matches,” it may be somewhat misleading or confusing to say that “What counts as a satisfactory match is a judgment call, and is never fixed”—as if the whole process depends rather uncertainly on a translator’s intuition, competency, or particular mood at the moment. In other words, when translating the Scriptures, for example, it is possible (indeed, necessary) to specify the translation process and its intended goal (product) more precisely in terms of a community (committee)-defined and mutually agreed job commission (project “brief”) and a primary communicative purpose (Skopos) in view of the intended user constituency and desired use within a specific socio-religious setting.

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 ( 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 (
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