JIN Di and the “artistic integrity” approach to translation-5

Toward the end of his book Literary Translation, Prof. Di Jin takes up the important issue of style. Here is what he has to say (summarized):

“The creative imagination of the translator, just like his freedom to utilize the most appropriate linguistic and artistic means available in the target language, is only meaningful when it helps to re-present the message in a way closer to the source message than would be possible without the transformation, never when it produces something irrelevant. . . . [T]he original author’s styles will never reach the target language readers directly. The crucial question for us is whether our distinctive styles achieve the right effects, ‘equivalence in difference’, and our critic’s judgement is a conclusive ‘yes’. . . . [T]he translator, any translator, has to be a master of his or her own language in the first place and be capable of producing elegant writing… . . . Style has been very much neglected in translation studies because of its deceptive simplicity. Yet it is the subtlest part of literary writing and is in any translation certainly one of the most outstanding factors that contribute to the effect the translation produces on its readers. . . . [A]ll good writers employ stylistic variations to achieve varying purposes in their writing…” (pp. 146-149)

If it is true to say that style has been neglected in secular translation studies, then this assertion applies much more widely and deeply in sacred translation work. Indeed, the subject of “style” may come up for discussion in the Introduction to some new version, but this is normally dealt with only in terms of a general translation approach that has been applied throughout the text, whether more or less formally correspondent or functionally equivalent. Some of these preliminary claims are overly optimistic at best (some might say, naively impossible). For example, the “essentially literal” English Standard Version makes this bold declaration: “But throughout, our goal has been to retain the depth of meaning and enduring language that have made their indelible mark on the English-speaking world…[with] an emphasis on literary excellence” (Preface). At any rate, not much, if anything, is ever detailed as to precisely how the dynamic style of the biblical Hebrew or Greek text will be similarly reproduced with respect to its artistry (beauty of form) or rhetoric (power of form)—in short, the aesthetic appeal and persuasive impact of the original. In those cases where such a contention is put forward—e.g., “The ESV lets the stylistic variety of the biblical writers fully express itself” (ibid.)—nothing is said as to the criteria that were applied in coming to this decision, or which “experts” were chosen to make the literary evaluation.

The mention of “styles” in the preceding quote, as well as in the Jin citation above, is indeed significant, for translating the Scriptures uniformly throughout would be a mis-representation and constitute a serious error of methodology. Thus, different texts must vary stylistically also in translation, according to the genre of biblical literature being rendered—whether predominantly narrative (Genesis 37), genealogical (Genesis 5), procedural (Exodus 26), legislative (Leviticus 4), panegyric (Exodus 15), or prophetic (Genesis 49) in nature. Most likely it will not be possible to match all of these distinctive styles by means of target language literary equivalents, but some of the basic distinctions in terms of form and function need to be made—prose as distinct from poetry, and direct speech from reported discourse or a narrative report.

Furthermore, there is need for the translator (at least one respected, highly competent member of the translation team) to actively demonstrate “creative imagination” in his (her) work so as to stimulate and encourage the others, most of whom will probably be reluctant (even afraid) to apply their literary (or oratorical) skills to the rendering of the Word of God. This happens, first of all, because they do not realize or fully appreciate the degree to which the biblical text actually does manifest literary artistry and rhetoric—a feature which thereby constitutes a significant aspect of its overall “meaning” and hence liable for translation. The second reason for a “literary failure” with respect to translation technique is because many translators are relatively unfamiliar with the full inventory of stylistic devices that are actually present in their mother tongue—whether in oral or written texts—and therefore available for translation purposes. Verbal “masters” (expert wordsmiths) have been few and far between in the many projects that I have worked with over the years (for various reasons). There is also the pressure of tradition in the case of languages that can boast of a long history of Bible translation and a number of published versions already. If none of the extant, including perhaps some popular modern versions, happen to display a distinct literary style, then translators may be reluctant to flow against the stream, especially in the case of a religious text that will often be used in public worship. And finally, there is a certain “fear factor,” in a sense related to the preceding point; thus translators may not wish to possibly alienate their sponsors and supporters by proposing and seeking to justify a new translation technique and style for the Scriptures. It’s simply too easy to follow the well-worn paths of past precedent and procedure.

Having said this, I must hasten to add that I am not suggesting that a literary (LiFE) translation of the Bible is suitable for each project and every setting. A great deal of pre-project audience surveying, educating, and negotiating is necessary before a final decision regarding its “skopos” (primary goal) and “brief” (job description) can be made. And the end result will probably be a much more limited vision and target audience for such a novel translation, perhaps restricted to some type of audio rendition designed to attract a more youthful constituency, maybe even via a correspondingly lively musical version.


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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