In a paper given at the last annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Karen Jobes challenges the claim that an “an essentially literal” translation of a text yields a more accurate representation of the source text’s meaning than does a translation that aims for “functional” or “dynamic equivalence.” Her thesis is the following: “The fidelity of a translation to the original language cannot be adequately evaluated by pitting formal and functional equivalence against each other” (page 16; the entire paper is available online here).
The Zondervan blog has initiated a discussion of her paper; go here. I was invited to blog in reply. Here goes.
As did Richard Rhodes not too long ago on the excellent Better Bibles Blog, Karen Jobes takes a look at standards of accuracy in translation beyond the realm of Bible translation. In particular, she looks at the practice of simultaneous translation in such fora as international conferences and the United Nations. Karen highlights a key finding by bolding it in her paper:
Linguists studying [simultaneous] translations discovered that the failure to communicate accurately the meaning of the source utterance was found in those places where the simultaneous translator rendered the source utterance too literally, that is, when preservation of the grammatical, syntactical, and semantic forms of the original statements was given too high a priority in producing the translation. (p. 10)
An excellent point. I worked on occasion as a simultaneous interpreter at international conferences while living in Italy, and I attest to its truth. When translating on the fly, any attempt at formal equivalence inevitably backfires. In a worst case scenario, formal equivalence is symptomatic of the fact that the simultaneous translator does not understand the utterance to be translated well enough to translate properly.
Karen also notes that studies of simultaneous translation have shown that accurate translation from one language to another sometimes requires far fewer or far more words in translation than are found in the source text. It all depends on the peculiarities of the two languages involved.
Another excellent point. For example, in terms of translating from ancient Hebrew into English, the English will almost inevitably be more verbose.
Still, I think the value of analogies drawn from the world of simultaneous translation (Karen Jobes) and professional translation standards in the European Union (Richard Rhodes) is limited in terms of the practice of Bible translation. I will explain why in an upcoming post.