This will be my final post on selections from the book Literary Translation: Quest for Artistic Integrity by Prof Di Jin (St Jerome, 2003). I have been reflecting on some of Jin’s insights from the perspective of Bible translation—a “literary” rendition in particular. Here is another one:
“A message that is acquired by the translator thinking totally in the source language becomes a good message in the target language by the same translator thinking totally in the target language. This is the strange but necessary union of two totalities that is requisite for successful transition. . . . [T]he message-orientated translator enjoys an unprecedented freedom of choice because he or she is not shackled by the bondage of words and structures. In fact, this complete freedom from source-language interference will enable one to find an inexhaustible pool of linguistic and artistic resources in the target language, which is normally the mother tongue, open before one’s eyes. One may not be able to spot the best choice at once, but the consciousness of the availability of the rich resources there brings with it realistic expectations of further improvements. . . . Query: what motivates this endless pursuit of an ideal that is always ready to reveal a new defect when you think you have it as fine as possible? Answer: dedication to the art and love of the work.” (pp. 150, 154, 158)
Such expertise in both SL and TL is not easy to achieve in many of the Bible translation projects being conducted in the world today, as in the past. It may be easier to achieve in major languages with a long literary history, but in these cases (English, Spanish, French, etc.) one must often deal with tradition and a constituency that has become used to—even comfortable with—certain terms and wordings that, truth be told, do not really communicate very well (e.g., the “KJV factor” in English). In other languages, it is not so easy to find (or afford!) staff suitably qualified in the biblical languages to serve full-time on a translation project that can take from 10-20 years overall. Furthermore, based on my experience in SE Africa, even in the case of MT translators, it is very rare to find those who are really “experts” in the sense that they have actually researched or studied in detail the full oral and written resources of their language, including the different genres of prose and poetry.
The task of Bible translators is made more challenging by the fact that they are working with a sacred text and one in which certain SL forms do convey important “meanings” in terms of literary function, for example, acrostic (alphabetic) constructions, chiastic (reversed parallel) structures, and the familiar “parallelism” of Hebrew poetry (see Translating the Literature of Scripture for examples). In these cases, translators must comparatively examine and carefully evaluate these forms to see how similar functions (informative, expressive, imperative, artistic, rhetorical, etc.) can be expressed idiomatically in the target language. Research has found, for example, that the parallel phrasing that we find throughout a book like the Psalms can be re-presented with similar impact and appeal in Bantu poetic forms, with certain adjustments of course, such as: word order variations to maintain the original “topic” and “focus”; filling in the implicit verbs where “gapping” occurs in the second line, the manifold use of demonstrative forms for naturalness and clarity of reference, and the enhancement of rhythm as well as euphony through judicious lexical choice and combination.
As for the motivation for excellence over many years of repeated drafts, testings, consultations, and revisions, in addition to personal “dedication” and “love for the work” that Jin mentions above, Bible translators can add (at least) two more: having a version of the Scriptures that speaks meaningfully as well as powerfully, even beautifully, in one’s mother tongue—and the ultimate, carrying out this literary labor of love for the glory of God, who gave us his saving Word in the first place (1 Corinthians 10:31).