On the complexities of Bible translation (2)

As noted in the preceding post, communication by means of translation is a complicated procedure due to the fact that at least two different languages, cultures, conceptual grids, and semiotic systems are involved. In fact, in those project settings where translators are not able to access the original text, it is necessary to introduce a version in a third language-culture and cognitive framework (world-view), one that may be quite foreign in both respects to the SL as well as the TL. Such a “bridge translation” is often composed in a major western Language of Wider Communication (LWC), such as English, Spanish, French, or Russian. This inevitably presents a team with some serious conceptual and translational problems. However, in the case of a regional LWC, like Swahili in east Africa or Chewa further to the south, the situation is not as problematic because these languages belong to the same linguistic family (Bantu) as many others in the area, and they also reflect many more cultural similarities. Hence, such versions may serve as a “model” for projects being carried out in related languages.

A translation of the Scriptures presents further challenges because of the great time-gap that exists between the initial setting of composition and the present-day. As a result, the original writers and their cultural environment can no longer be directly observed or investigated. Thus, the real test for Bible translators is presented by the initial “re-conceptualization” process. Once they have accomplished that assignment in relation to the Hebrew or Greek text and its setting (with the help of critical commentaries, dictionaries, concordances, and other exegetical aids—including electronic tools like Paratext and Logos), the second step, creating a linguistic “re-presentation” in the TL is not quite so difficult. Nevertheless, determining the relevant textual “appropriateness” (relevance, acceptability, etc.) for a particular target group is still a formidable task that requires of translators the highest level of competence and commitment.

The task of interlingual communication is further complicated by the prestigious nature of the source text that is being rendered in the case of the Holy Scriptures. A sacred, authoritative, revered (“high-value”) SL document (albeit the edited copy of a long line of copies) will always take precedence in value over its translation. Therefore, any TL version must continually be comparatively examined and improved where possible in the light of the original (as determined on the basis of a consensus of conservative text-critical studies). Such an assessment involves several areas of implication that need to be closely monitored. Thus, a laudable desire to express as much as possible of the intended “meaning” of the Word of God (certainly the ideal goal, though admittedly unachievable) requires that one pay attention to not only the content of the biblical text but also to its presumed communicative functions and emotive impact in relation to its intended audience and their social setting and situational context.

However, there is even more of a debt to the original to repay in the case of Scripture translation: Translators must carefully study the linguistic and literary forms of the source document being translated, not only to determine its semantic content and pragmatic intent but also because these artistically composed forms themselves often convey, display, or represent meaning—namely, semiotic significance of a stylistic, structural, aesthetic, and/or rhetorical nature. Many examples of this could be cited from virtually every biblical book and pericope, including audible phonological effects such as punning and alliteration, word order variations to indicate topic and focus, repetition that produces thematic cohesion as well as emphasis, constructions serving to mark structural peaks and boundaries within a discourse, rhetorical devices that generate emotion and suspense, and creative formal arrangements which appear to reflect an artistic impulse to beautify the text conceptually and/or to give it a special aural appeal. In short then, every well-shaped literary composition gives abundant evidence of the fact that form has meaning too and must therefore be given its due in any translation effort. This is a primary goal of a literary-oriented approach, one that may be attempted and accomplished to a greater or lesser extent in every application of the method, depending on local community desires, requirements, and resources.

Thus, the familiar proverb traddutore—traditore, roughly put: “the translator is a traitor,” applies also to the form of verbal discourse. The more literary the text, the more “traitorous” a translator inevitably becomes! Moreover, not only “two principal models” of translation exist—a “formal imitation” of the original text and a version that aims for “content correspondence,” as is commonly stated, but there is at least one other possibility to consider: This is a rendering that seeks to achieve the closest possible degree of semantic equivalence, but does so by utilizing the most excellent available TL structural and stylistic forms in the process. It is arguable that in the case of the recognized and documented “literature of Scripture” (SIL International, 2004) no less of a translational goal ought to be set forth before all those engaged in the project.

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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