Friday, November 6, 2015

Weekly Knox: Classic Quote on Translation

"The translator, let me suggest in passing, must never be frightened of the word 'paraphrase'; it is a bogey of the half-educated.  As I have already tried to point out, it is almost impossible to translate a sentence without paraphrasing; it is a paraphrase when you translate 'Comment vous portez-vous?' by 'How are you?'  But often enough it will be a single word that calls for paraphrase.  When St. Paul describes people as "wise according to the flesh', the translator is under an obligation to paraphrase.  In English speech, you might be called fat according to the flesh, or thin according to the flesh, but not wise or foolish.  The flesh here means natural, human standards of judging, and the translator has got to say so.  'Wise according to the flesh' is Hebrew in English dress; it is not English."  
--Englishing the Bible 8-9


citizen DAK said...

So then, what do some of the attempts at paraphrasing that verse look like... And which is most effectively "English"?

Anil Wang said...

Wise according to the flesh I understand but what does fat according to the flesh mean? The problem with paraphrases is the translation has a different one because the meaning of words vary with region and time period, you're never really sure what it means but you can make (an often incorrect) guess at it. With an odd phrase like "wise according to the flesh", you know you don't know so you look it up, and then you never have to worry about relearning it across translations because it's meaning does not vary with time and region.

True story. I was poorly catechized and many homilies were practically Arian in nature, but I did know the Nicene Creed. Unfortunately the paraphrase "one in being with the Father" really lead me astray. I alternately thought it mean "solidarity and faithfulness to God" and "one in being, in the Buddhist sense". Had the new translation "consubstantial with the Father" been used, I would have not made that mistake. I may not have known what it meant, but I would have asked and not simply assumed that I knew what it meant.

Christopher Buckley said...

On the street yesterday, I thought "nom de plume."

Translating it literally gives us "name of the feather."

Translating it dynamically (or, to Knox's point, "paraphrasing") gives us "pen name."

Which is the wiser approach for Scriptural translation?

wxmarc said...

Great example, Christopher!

I think it illustrates a problem with literal (or mostly literal) translations. In spoken language, phrases and idioms often have a meaning that has little to do with their component words. I suspect that a lot of Americans don't know the literal translation of "nom de plume," but that doesn't impair their understanding of what the phrase means. The word "plume" (feather) is simply a vestige of an earlier time when people wrote with quill and ink, but it has no significance for interpretation.

Perhaps the main challenge is that it's harder to recognize and interpret idioms in an ancient text. There are no native speakers to consult. But I do think it's worth trying to decipher idioms and translate meaning, rather than translating word-for-word. It will never be as precise as we'd like, but on balance, I'm inclined to think it will convey the meaning to the reader more accurately than a word-for-word translation.

Anonymous said...

For me, for a Scriptural translation, I prefer a literal translation that projects a masked Hebraic/Greek English.

If we are to put the Scriptures from a purely English perspective, we might lose the unique Hebraic/Greek characteristics that the Scriptures originally had. God surely has a purpose for choosing Hebrew and Greek as media for revealing His Word to us men. We ought to preserve this unique Hebraic/Greek character of the Scriptures as much as possible.

It is also noted that even New Testament writers tend to incorporate Hebraisms in the Greek language of the New Testament, though they had maximized the potential of the Greek language to express complex thoughts, they resorted to keeping Hebrew/Aramaic tendencies especially when the writers aim to bring resonance of the New Testament Christian faith as a reference from the Old Testament Jewish background.

I assume that we should do the same in an English translation, we should take advantage of the capability of English to communicate biblical thoughts, especially since English had its drop of influence from many ancient languages such as Greek and Latin. This is an advantage that English has as compared from other modern languages. But we should not put aside the unique Hebraic and Greek characteristics that the Scriptures have and must never be watered down to just English alone.