TRANSLATION CHOICES: A continuum of possibilities—or compromises

We recognize that every translation is only a partial (indeed a very pale) image or reflection of the original text because only selected constituents of the source language document can be adequately, let alone equivalently, represented in the target language. Therefore, a choice must always be made—that is, in the light of the total frame of reference presented by the translation setting and in accordance with context-related “situational relevance.” Also applicable here is the ethical “integrity factor,” namely, the desire to keep the inevitable interference, distortion, or loss, in crucial areas of communicative significance to a minimum.

Thus, there is, in practice, a continuum of possibilities that capable and creative translators may work with, that is, with specific reference now to an “oratorical” (an aurally attuned literary) version, as schematized on the diagram below:

A proposed translation continuum:
less <=================== “oratorical” =====================> MORE
[Oral-aural features applied, in increasing scope: phonological < morphological < lexical < syntactic < textual]

Different types (or “styles”) of translation also range along this continuum, that is moving from a completely “foreignized” formal correspondence interlinear version at one end to a fully “domesticated,” functionally equivalent genre transformation at the other. However, the chief requirement or guideline is that every declared, or intended, “oratorical-literary” version would display at least some audibly perceptible artistic embellishment aimed at rendering the text more natural sounding and hence potentially more memorable–and memorizable (!)–in the TL.

Every translation has its particular strengths and weaknesses, both exegetically and stylistically, depending on which aspects of the original text the translators (and their sponsors or commissioners) have chosen to either to downplay or to highlight during their work. (Thus, the simple diagram above might also be referred to as a “continuum of compromises”!) The “perfect” translation never has been, nor ever will be, realized in human language. Therefore, the ideal is to have several diverse renderings available in a given sociolinguistic setting so that they may be used to complement each other during any kind of Scripture study, instruction, or proclamation, thus enriching the overall communication of the biblical message.

It is also important to educate the primary audience (readership) of a given version, whether under discussion or already published, concerning the basic principles of Scripture interpretation and translation—plus how one’s approach to these matters affects the choices or options that translators have available to them in a particular communicative and religious setting. Such instruction is especially important in the case of a version (such as a literary rendition) that diverges stylistically to an appreciable degree (e.g., lexical choice, syntactic complexity, features of format, paratextual resources) from standard translations which a religious community has become used to.

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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