As I noted in a previous post, Karen Jobes is correct to point out that translations intent on preserving “the grammatical, syntactical, and semantic forms of the original statements,” not to mention the same number of words used per utterance, tend to convey a message that only appears to be faithful to the original statements. For example, if one translates every waw in the Hebrew Bible with ‘and’ in translation, the result is awkward, stilted English. The magnificent flow of the narrative and poetry of the literature being translated is betrayed, not preserved, by substituting ‘and’ for every waw in the Hebrew.
Still, Jobes is only half-right. The other tendency translations are subject to is that of producing a text which is flatter, less ambiguous, and less complex than the source text. The translation she worked on, TNIV, is characterized by this tendency, though not to the same extent as translations like GNB and CEV.
Below the fold, I try to define faithful translation all over again. In the preparation of this post, I found an essay by Anthony Pym (online here) to be especially helpful.
Translations that strive for formal equivalence (FE) are famous for carrying over in translation features of the source language which are foreign to the target language. The result is a text which taxes the reader on several levels, requiring the reader to make sense out of unfamiliar figures of speech, grammar, syntax, and discourse structure, not to mention unfamiliar geography, units of measurement, and religious concepts like propitiation and atonement. The original readers of the texts did not struggle with such things. Why should readers of the texts in translation have to?
Translations that strive for dynamic equivalence (DE) are famous for taming the ambiguity occurent in the source text, adding explanation, shortening sentences, reducing lexical density, and lowering type-token ratios. Very oral texts become more written, and written texts become more oral (Schlesinger 1989). Metaphors and figures of speech tend to be replaced by straight-up propositional language. Poetry is washed away. The original readers of the texts in question were treated to full-bodied language rich in culture-specific concepts, figures of speech, and co-textual references. Why should readers of the texts in translation settle for anything less?
There are sociocultural reasons behind the choice to use one translation technique rather than the other. The more routine and less prestigious a particular text is deemed to be, the more likely accommodating DE translation technique will be employed in rendering it (Even-Zohar 1978; Toury 1995:271, 278). Conversely, in the words of Mona Baker, “The higher the status of the source text and language, the less the tendency to normalize it” (1996:183).
These statements are true as far as they go, and explain, for example, why the target audience of a quintessentially DE translation like CEV is, according to those who produced it, that half of the US adult population which, according to statistics released by the National Center of Education, has “very limited reading and writing skills. Those who market CEV "downscale" the target audience further, and pitch it to children of elementary school age.
CEV, like Hillary Clinton, is a “low-scale” item of merchandise. TNIV, now that’s more “upscale,” as in Barack Obama. As for RSV = ESV, NRSV, and REB, well, now we are really upscale, as in smells and bells and pomp and circumstance.
But there is more to be said, and Anthony Pym says it! To paraphrase, bad translation – in polite terms, translation in need of improvement – is essentially risk-averse. In the case of Bible translation, DE-style risk-aversion results in harmonizing discrepancies contained in the original, smoothing out grammatical and syntactical rough edges, standardizing message and style in accordance with safe, orthodox, and/or PC templates, and reducing intrinsic complexity and ambiguity. But an “essentially literal” translation, which presumably does none of these things, is even more risk-averse. In order to avoid making the wrong interpretative choice, it makes no interpretative choice at all. It merely transliterates the conceptual labels, figures of speech, and syntax of the original into another language.
Faithful translation is about taking risks, not avoiding them. In this I find myself in agreement with Anthony Pym, a gifted scholar of translation theory who deserves to be widely read. He puts it this way:
A text that is clear and readily applicable avoids many communicative risks and can thus find rewards in the short term. . . . On the other hand, a text that is dialectically abstruse and resolutely non-superficial runs a severe risk of not being understood in the short term. . . . [It] finishes very much in media res . . . [but] has the potential to produce rewards over vast stretches of space and time, wherever and whenever loyalty to [learning as a vocation] survives. (pp. 20-21 here)
The Bible, I’ve noticed, is a resolutely non-superficial text. A faithful translation of it will be taxing on a contemporary reader in ways it was not for its original readers. It is a classic case of “no pain, no gain.”
Baker, Mona. 1996. “Corpus-based translation studies: The challenges that lie ahead.” Harold Somers, ed. Terminology, LSP and Translation. Studies in language engineering in honour of Juan C. Sager. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins. 175-186.
Even-Zohar, Itamar. 1978. “The position of translated literature within the literary polysystem.” James S. Holmes et al., eds. Literature and Translation. New Perspectives in Literary Studies. Leuven: Acco. 117-127.
Pym, Anthony. “On Toury’s laws of how translators translate.” 2007. Online here.
Schlesinger, Miriam. 1989. Simultaneous Interpretation as a Factor in Effecting Shifts in the Position of Texts in the Oral-Literate Continuum. MA thesis. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University.
Toury, Gideon. 1995. Descriptive Translation Studies and beyond. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.