In this post, I will butter Rich up by counting the ways in which I find his reflections of help to translators and to Bible translators in particular. I will then throw him in the oven and roast him by taking issue with his basic thesis.
Rich claims that literary translation is impossible, and enlists José Ortega y Gasset to make his point. He also claims that translation between living languages today invariably makes use of dynamic equivalence translation technique, whereas Bible translators, Neanderthals that they are, insist on making use of discredited literal and literary translation techniques. In response, I will make a case for carefully annotated literary translations à la Robert Alter.
A most excellent thing about Rich Rhodes is that he writes in completely understandable prose. This is not a minor detail. There are days when I think: life is short; why even bother engaging people who can’t write crisply and clearly? But even on days when I think like that, I would still read Rich with pleasure.
Rich is right on when he says: “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).” He also chooses a great example in his Better Bibles post: how to translate Ἰουδαῖοι in John 7:11, 13. I believe he is entirely correct, whatever J. I. Packer might think (which I can’t quite figure out from Rich’s references), when he points out that in these instances, the term refers, in the concrete, to “Jewish leaders.”
In a translation free of annotation, it would be wise to translate as Rich suggests. In a literary translation of the kind José Ortega y Gasset desired – and which I desire, it would be important, on the contrary, to translate “Jews,” and add a footnote to the following effect: ‘Jews’ refers, in the concrete, to Jewish leaders. The usage is not unlike that someone from Wales or Northern Ireland might make of the term ‘the British’; that is, the term has negative connotations and refers in context to others even though the speaker herself may in fact be British.
Why maintain ‘Jews’ in translation? Because it preserves a particularity of the original, to wit: a prima facie inclusive term is used in a restrictive sense. The usage is a reflection of the fierce intramural debate that was occurring among ‘Jews’ of different persuasions at the time the gospel of John was written. Insofar as the gospel testifies to the expulsion of Jews who understood Jesus to be such things as son of God, Messiah, and God-in-the-flesh from mainstream synagogue life, the debate was clearly moving to a definitive parting of the ways. That explains the use in context of ‘the Jews’ in John 7:11, 13.
The usage is burdened with some very heavy baggage. That’s precisely the point: a dynamic translation like ‘Jewish leaders’ hides this fact. To remove the baggage from the sight of a reader of the gospel in translation involves a mutilation. I can see why it might be done in a popular translation. But it should be obvious that a translation which retains the baggage of the original performs a service to anyone interested in more fully grasping the nuances of the original.
José Ortega y Gasset is more helpful here than Rich wishes to acknowledge. For Ortega, literary translation is no more possible / impossible than dynamic equivalent style translation (to the extent that they differ; it’s important not to play them off against each other completely). As Rich knows, Ortega was far from arguing for the point he wishes to make.
Ortega identifies two inevitable facets of translation, the “misery” and the “splendor” of which all translation partakes. Here is a fine summary of Ortega’s analysis by David R. Knechtges – I have copy-edited here and there:
In 1937 the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset published in the Argentine newspaper La Nación an article entitled “ La miseria y el esplendor de la traducción” (The Misery and Splendor of Translation). In this article Ortega y Gasset identifies two important facets of translation. One he calls “misery,” the other “splendor.” The “misery of translation” stems from the pessimistic proposition that except for scientific works, which basically are written in their own special language, it is impossible to translate from one language to another. The reason for this miserable state of affairs is that there is a vast linguistic and cultural gulf that separates different languages. “Languages separate us and discommunicate, not simply because they are different languages, but because they proceed from different mental pictures from disparate intellectual systems — in the last instance, from divergent philosophies.” Despite this ostensibly pessimistic view of translation, Ortega y Gasset is actually optimistic, for he sees in the process of translation a redeeming quality that he calls the “splendor of translation.” To him, a translation is not a “magic manipulation” from one language to another, or even a “duplicate of the original text,” but rather is one that draws attention to the cultural and linguistic differences in order to “force the reader from his linguistic habits and oblige him to move within those of the author.” Thus, a good translation is one that allows the reader to undertake a metaphorical “voyage to the foreign, to the absolutely foreign, which another very remote time and another very different civilization comprise.” This enhanced “historical consciousness” has the beneficial result — or in Ortega y Gasset's words, the “splendor” — of introducing new perspectives that may challenge conventional beliefs.
Sorry, Rich, but I’m with Ortega all the way.
It’s fine to emphasize, with someone like Lawrence Venuti, that translation is an ethnocentric act of violence which domesticates a foreign text and conceals itself ‘by producing the effect of transparency,’ which is, however, an ‘illusion.’ Your ‘All translations lie’ makes the same point.
But when all is said and done, it is wiser – as does María Teresa Sánchez in this fine piece - to place the discussion in a wider context, beyond the overheated language that characterizes the discussion today. Translation, like all art, is a lie. But, as Picasso put it, it is also, if it is any good at all, a lie that tells the truth.
The truth, furthermore, needs to meet us as a stranger. Its power to transform the familiar in our lives depends on its otherness coming through. An excellent literary translation accomplishes that. An excellent dynamic translation, in my experience, does not.
A literary translation, in order to be understood, will push the reader beyond the limits of his or her already acquired knowledge. It may have to be read and reread, perhaps with the aid of explanatory notes. A dynamic translation aims to be instantly comprehensible. Fine. But make no mistake: with fast food, you get what you pay for.