The conversation around Bible translation continues. Is it appropriate for a translation to be faithful to the stylistic choices of the original (Iyov’s formulation)? Which currently available formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence translations seek to be faithful to the stylistic choices of the original? To what extent are they successful? Significant areas of agreement have emerged. In this post, I try to highlight them.
The premise of the discussion deserves repeating. It was supplied by Rich Rhodes in a post of April 2006: “We do need to talk about the difference between the lies of literal translations and the lies of dynamic equivalent translations. All translations lie (since I’ve gotten us stuck with that metaphor).”
This is an essential premise, because, as Rich can also say, as part of the team at the Better Bibles blog, “In fact, this whole blog is about showing that literal translations effectively lie to us.” Okay, but it might be more productive to concentrate on understanding the ways in which dynamic equivalent translations lie, if that is the translation technique of choice. Otherwise, the discussion is about scoring points for one’s side, not about producing better Bibles.
Point-scoring aside, agreements have emerged in the discussion of the past few days:
(1) A dynamic equivalent translation (done properly) of the Bible should be no less accomplished, rhetorically speaking, than the source texts it renders.
Peter Kirk assented to this principle, while noting that it should also be no more accomplished. This leads me to mention a second and even broader area of agreement:
(2) A dynamic equivalent translation (done properly) of the Bible should respect the style and register of the original language texts it translates.
Wayne Leman puts it this way: “I fully agree with the idea that a DE translation should have the same level of literary quality as that of its source text.”
The point is put very colorfully by Rich Rhodes, but also relativized, as follows: “If I had my druthers would I like to see the GNB upgraded for stylistic appropriateness? You bet. But do I use it? All the time. But then I like first order referential accuracy.”
In my view, the question of first order referential accuracy is the nub of the whole question (see his post for an illuminating discussion). But I differ with Rich about how accurate GNB is in this sense. It is my considered opinion that GNB, CEV, and the like are so concerned about second order referential accuracy that they often fail to achieve first order referential accuracy. In terms of Rich’s excellent example, where the original language text has something like “Ouch!” GNB too often has something like “It hurts me” instead.
Indeed, I would argue that first-order referential accuracy is unlikely to be achieved if the stylistic choices of the original are not respected.
The debate has been hamstrung to some extent because of the thesis I began with:
If a text is literary, its dynamic equivalent must also be literary.
That led some people to conclude that I thought the original language texts of the Bible are written in a uniform literary style. Nothing was further from my thoughts. It is the leveling to an identical, monotonous style and register which has long characterized Bible translation. It is this leveling I protest.
Doug Chaplin put the discussion on the right track by showing us what a “literary” translation of a non-literary text might look like. By “literary” he means “stylistically equivalent.” His translation of Mark 1:19-22 (note also the ensuing comments) deserves careful consideration. To my mind, it marks an improvement over previously available so-called formal and so-called dynamic equivalent translations.
Theory is nice, but practice is more revealing. The translation I offered of Psalm 51 attracted many helpful comments (here, here, and here), especially those made by Wayne Leman. But I want to highlight Rich Rhodes’ remark on my translation: “[T]he way you're approaching this, is, I would argue, dynamic equivalence. You are concerned about balancing naturalness with referential accuracy and phrasing it in the corresponding style.” Indeed, that is precisely what I’m trying to do.
Lingamish, who likes to claim to be a bone-head but isn’t, put matters nicely in the form of two maxims:
1. A truly literary translation will suggest the foreignness of the original without being incomprehensible.
2. A literary translation will not be literary in ways that the original is not.
Of course, there will always be differences of opinion about how literary a particular text is. Peter Kirk seems to have trouble accepting that much of the Hebrew Bible is written in literary Hebrew. He is welcome to his opinion. But the consensus goes in the other direction, and those who share it will perforce translate the bulk of the Hebrew Bible into a variety of rhetorically accomplished, literary styles if indeed they choose to translate in a way that respects the stylistic choices of the source texts.
Finally, I would like to point out what I consider to be red herrings in the discussion. The claim is sometimes made that since the message of the Bible is communicated if presented at the level a 6th grader can understand, then that is the level it should be translated at.
Well yes, for those who read at a 6th grade level. What about those of us who read at a 10th, 11th, or 12th grade level? Those of us who do will naturally prefer translations like NJPSV, NRSV, REB, or NJB rather than (T)NIV or HCSB, and we will be quite non-plussed by GNB, CEV, and NCT. NJPSV, NRSV, REB, and NJB make use of the full range of vocabulary the English language offers.
On the other hand, as I have pointed out often on this blog, even a translation like NJPSV or NRSV tends to smooth out and simplify the texture of the original. Far less so than GNB, CEV, and so on, but they still do.
But the larger point is another. None of the standard, mass-marketed translations currently available aims at stylistic and rhetorical equivalence with the same doggedness as Doug does with his translation of Mark 1:19-22 and as I do with my translation of Psalm 51.
A few precedents are nonetheless worthy of note. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, the translator who has worked the hardest on “balancing naturalness with referential accuracy and phrasing it in the corresponding style” (Rich Rhodes’ formulation) has been Robert Alter. It’s been awhile since I looked at it, but I think Richard Lattimore’s translation of the New Testament was moving in the right direction. Lattimore had an advantage over most translators of NT Greek. He was widely read in the classics, with an ear for style those who are illiterate in the classics simply do not possess. But he was fastidious about being faithful to the stylistic choices of the New Testament writers. He never classicized.