Found in Translation-2

I would like to cite and comment on a few more quotes from the book of the title above (see preceding post), this time on the subject of translating poetry.

“Where poetry translation is concerned, sometimes two, three, or ten heads are truly better than one. Even if not all those heads can understand the source language, knowing the language of poetry–and having diverse viewpoints involved in the process–is sometimes even more important” (p.106). In one sense this is true; fixing a number of discerning eyes–and ears (especially in the case of poetry)!–on the task can certainly help to improve and polish up the final poetic product. However, I think that the adage “too many cooks can spoil…” is also true. One creative “head” is needed to compose the initial draft and to act as the final arbiter concerning all proposed revisions from her/his colleagues on the project. The longer the poetic composition, the more important it is to have a single unifying perspective (and audition) on how the text should be expressed. The initial poet-composer need not be an expert in the source language either, for example, biblical Hebrew in the case of one of the psalms. I would rather have a MT expert in the target language compose the first draft, which may then be corrected or revised with reference to the original text by one or more SL specialists.

“In many ways, translating poetry is like playing music. First, you must be able to read the score to understand the original composition. But if the poet’s instrument is language, then each poem is designed specifically for that instrument. Thus converting a poem into another language is like trying to play a piano sonata on a trombone. The melody of the poem may be recognizable in any language, but its sound will be completely different once it’s translated. It takes a fine and discerning ear. Often it takes another poet” (106). “Playing music” indeed–that is an excellent analogy for translating poetry. And why is this so? Because of the emphasis on sound as a vehicle of communicating the essential “message” of an artistic composition. The sounds of each poetic/musical piece are unique and contribute a great deal to its overall impact and appeal. The same is true for the religious poetry of the Bible, whether this happens to be the totally lyric Song of Songs, the liturgical Psalter, or the pastoral prophetic oracles. The Hebrew phonology certainly contributes to the meaning of any pericope. But how can this literary effect be duplicated in another language? First, the importance of this dimension of the original text must be recognized and analyzed as part of the exegetical process. This must then be factored into the translators’ working procedures as they attempt to re-create the biblical text in their language. In the end, “often”–I would say, always–“it takes another poet!”

“Translating is like being a medium, standing in the shoes of the person you’re translating; one becomes another. It is the closest possible reading of a literary text” (Charles Simic, p.107). This is another excellent analogy. Not only must the (principal) translator render the TL text in view of a particular audience and setting of reception, but s/he must also seek to “step into the shoes”–or better, enter into the mindset–of the biblical author (to the extent possible) in order to imagine his original audience and the emotive impact and esthetic effect that he wanted his poetic message to have on them. All this is over and above the theological and/or ethical content of the message that he was/is communicating.

“Poetry itself is about the impossible. All arts are about doing the impossible. That’s their attraction” (107). “Impossible” expression–impossible message: So how is it possible for fallible human beings to communicate the words and ideas of an infallible God? But He gave us His Word to do just that–in terms of form as well as content–as recorded in the sacred Scriptures. He would not have given his disciples this assignment (Matthew 28:19) if it were impossible to carry out. And we know that “with God’s help, everything is possible” (Mark 10:27)–whether “salvation” itself, or communicating the essential Good News about it. That brings all Bible translators into this work-related frame of reference, including their “impossible” (humanly-speaking”) task, as it has been, and is being, carried out throughout the ages and in all of the world’s many language-cultures.

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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2 Responses to Found in Translation-2

  1. Thanks so much for your review of our book, Ernst. Bible translation is very close to my heart as well. In fact, there will be an article of mine on Bible translation in the April issue of Christianity Today.
    Again, thanks for talking about our book.
    Jost Zetzsche

    • ewendland says:

      Thanks for your comment Jost. I hope that my blogs did not suggest that the few quotes I mentioned were the only ones dealing with Bible translation in your book. Indeed, there were a number of other interesting insights, especially the one on “Finding Jesus (and God) in Chinese”. Having recently done a Christian literature workshop in Hong Kong, I discovered that God’s Chinese “name” is still a burning and very sensitive issue. To be sure, Bible translators may be “faceless” (and there’s a reason for that), but they are, in most cases, not “impartial converters of language”. I look forward to your article in Christianity Today. Shalom! ernst

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