Saturday, 16 May 2009

Is all translation interpretation?

In an article about gender issues and the Bible, theologian Vern Poythress makes some important observations.

Poythress is discussing text that has implicit meaning which translators make explicit.
An explicit semantic content in the original has to be inferred in the translation, while what was only inferable from the semantics in the original becomes explicit in the translation. The shift from direct statement to inference is significant. It is a subtle change in meaning. To appreciate this difference fully, biblical scholars have to shift their point of view somewhat. Many biblical scholars spend most of their time thinking and writing about the theological value and interpretive implications of the passages they study. Their goal is to make explicit the many implications of the text. If two wordings leave the theological implications the same, they are equivalent from the scholar's point of view.
Of course we are also removed from the authors and readers of the original text by culture and time, so what may be implicit is still more obvious to them than to us, at least until our way of thinking changes. Though this is not quite what Poythress is getting at; rather the sentence construct: what is said and what is implied but left unsaid.
But literary stylists and linguists studying discourse focus on other aspects of the text. They would note that subtle differences exist between explicit and implicated information, direct and indirect address, active and passive constructions, second person and third person discourse. These produce subtle nuances in the meaning-texture of the total act of communication. Translation into another language never succeeds in conveying absolutely all of such nuances. But the faithful translator endeavors to do so as far as possible.
And this is a significant issue to which not everyone may necessarily subscribe. Do we get the main meaning and ensure that this is fully grasped in the translation, or do we carry across as many meanings as in the original. If the original possibly has a double meaning and we can keep ambiguity, do we? Poythress goes for the latter and I am inclined to agree.
Translators console themselves by saying that "all translation is interpretation." They are right. The most accurate translation can only be accomplished when we thoroughly understand the meaning of the original, including all its nuances in all their dimensions. Only then are we ready to produce a translation that conveys not only the main meaning but all the nuances of the original.

But the motto, "all translation is interpretation," is turned into another meaning if we then use it as a blanket justification for rewriting the text in the way that an interpretive commentary would do. An interpretive commentary expounds the implications of a text, and makes explicit what the text leaves implicit. Such has not generally been the job of mainstream translation. But the American religious public has become lazy about the Bible and busy with other affairs. So a translator may try to include the extra information in the text explicitly, in order to make it easy for them. He paraphrases. He explains metaphors in ordinary prose. He expands tightly packed theological exposition. By doing so, he provides a commentary through which he hopes to help readers to understand the Bible better. But when he labels his commentary "The Bible" and "translation," he has blurred the line between translation and commentary in an unfortunate way.
I tend more and more toward literal translations. Sure, they may not read quite as well as dynamic translations, but to really understand Scripture I think this is what is needed.

Dynamic, easy-reading, and children's Bibles have their place. To pick up the main themes of Scripture it is useful to read an easy-reading, flowing version. Reading a variety of versions allows one to contemplate other possible meanings that may not occur to him when reading his usual translation. But I think it is false when essentially dynamic versions claim to be just as accurate or more accurate than formal versions.

However translation always has limitations. Formal versions need to be aware that some limitations of language cannot easily be bridged. For example the preservation of word order into English is unnecessary and possibly inaccurate. Word order gives meaning more than emphasis in English; best to use normal English word order.

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