Word-for-word or Thought-for-thought?

In his blog entitled “Word for word or Thought for thought?” (Jan. 7th 2013; http://www.hearthevoice.com/blog/68), David Capes states:
“I’m often asked whether The Voice is a word-for-word translation or a thought-for-thought translation. … To state the question as an either-or implies that there is a strict dichotomy between a word and a thought. It assumes there is little to nothing in common between them. In fact that is not true in the slightest. … People can keep a thought to themselves; but when they speak, they have expressed something they have thought. … My point is that there is no strict dichotomy between a word and a thought. Every word is a thought expressed. Those who distinguish strictly between a word-for-word translation and a thought-for thought translation exaggerate the difference and are trying to privilege one over the other.”

These are some helpful insights on the nature of translation. However, the problem is rather more complicated that Capes has suggested. This is because in any connected text, such as we have in a passage or pericope of Scripture, words are joined syntactically together, and hence their respective thoughts (senses, images, connotations, etc.) reflect off one another to evoke a composite conception. This mental representation—actually, a series of them that merge, one into the other as the text unfolds—reflects a compound perspective that consists of several pertinent worldview-influenced “frames of reference,” for example, sociocultural, organizational, situational, and (inter)textual. This constitutes the overall “meaning” of the biblical text, as intended by its author in his initial setting of communication in Hebrew (Aramaic) or Greek many-many years ago.

This complex scenario simply suggests that no translation can seriously claim to convey “the meaning of the original text” fully and completely. There will always be a certain degree of semantic and pragmatic (including “literary”) leakage—depending on the competency of the translator (or team), the type of translation carried out, and the specific language-culture concerned. More “literal” (word-for-word, formal correspondence, FC) versions inevitably have a harder time of it due to the very nature of interlingual communication, i.e., corresponding words between languages are only partially equivalent in meaning—and all too often misleading, confusing, nonsensical, or even erroneous when combined in unnatural or unusual collocations in the target language (TL) and their local cultural environment. On the other hand, “free” (thought-for-thought, functional equivalence, FE) versions are not perfect either because they must often select one from among several possible senses in a given context, or because they can express only a partial representation of the full contextual meaning intended by the original text.

Take, for example, the word for “Holy Spirit”—certainly a central biblical concept if there ever was one. But what are translators in most SE Bantu language settings to do when their normal word for (good, as opposed to malevolent) “spirit” has immediate reference to a (deceased human) ancestral spiritual being, that is, according to popular belief? Combine this conceptual barrier with the lack of the notion of “holy” in a spiritual sense—with the closest vernacular term referring either to a socially-determined ritual “purity” or to “cleanliness” in a physical sense. Then we see that there is a genuine challenge of communication which needs to be resolved through extended discussion, negotiation, and probably also a certain measure of compromise on the part of diverse members of the wider Christian constituency for whom the translation is being prepared.

So what does this mean then for ordinary Bible readers—that they cannot trust or rely upon their Scriptures? Not at all! Most translations do convey the essential message intended by the original text—to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how easily and clearly average people understand the particular version that they happen to be reading (or listening to). Furthermore, we must not ignore the important didactic and indoctrinating functions of local church communities, that is, to educate their respective memberships concerning the meaning of some of these key biblical concepts. In any case, serious students of the Scriptures can greatly enhance their understanding by using several versions (at least one FC and one FE translation) concurrently, and by making use of one or more of the many “study Bibles” that are hopefully available, which can help them to expand their own conceptual frames of reference to correspond more closely with those that match the biblical text (see Contextual Frames of Reference in Translation, St Jerome, 2008, chs. 8-9).

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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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