Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Problem with Literal Translations, Part 3


In the second paragraph, Stephens addresses some very important concepts related to the reading of God’s word in English. Specifically, he points out some difficulties readers encounter when reading a “‘literal,’ or verbal” translation. Some of his observations and arguments are very accurate, while others seem to be overstatements. Here is my assessment.

First, I appreciate his equating literal translations with verbal translation. That is, in his 19th century way of thinking, he knows that a good translation is one that is primarily concerned with each specific word rather than the various general thoughts that arise from those words. It is very important to note here that this scholar/translator is not denigrating literal/verbal translations. He is merely observing the inadequacies of literal translations and offering a complimentary tool which will help readers fill in the gaps.

Where the author’s bias shows through most clearly in this short piece is his denigration of Paul’s writing. While Peter acknowledges that Paul has written some things “hard to understand,” Stephens goes in a totally different direction. Peter says that the content or substance of what Paul wrote is hard to comprehend, whereas Stephens tries to say that it is merely Paul’s style which makes his writing hard to understand.

I do think this is one of the fundamental flaws of most all paraphrasing. It seems to me to be very audacious to think that our main problem with understanding Paul is merely formal. If anyone thinks otherwise, all they have to do is read his epistle to the Romans in ANY paraphrase and tell me they understand it. The simple fact of the matter is that Paul has written things/concepts/arguments/etc. that are hard to understand. It doesn’t matter how clearly you write about a difficult subject, it will always be hard to understand. When I think of the times I’ve tried to explain some of these concepts to my young children, it becomes clear that it really doesn’t matter how many creative and clear ways I could reformulate the same concept, it's just over their heads.

Well, I do like paraphrases and I do think they have an important role to play, so let’s move on. I appreciate the words and thoughts expressed by Dr. Stephens in this second paragraph. Specifically I love this sentence, “Now a translation [read literal/verbal translation] can only represent in English words the form of the original; it is debarred not only from introducing explanatory words, but even, to a great extent, from the use of free idiomatic English renderings.” I believe that we need to recapture this vision for Bible translation in our day. Not only here in the States with English translations, but also with missions translation work around the world.

So why does this understanding of translation need to be reestablished in our day. First of all, what Stephens has written was not just true for his day and false for ours. This is a truth which will last as long as Bibles are being translated, that is, until Christ returns. The very nature of translation, as messy as it is, requires that certain rules govern the process. The verbal and formal aspects of a written work must be carried over as faithfully as possible when doing translation. Only a paraphrase, with its purpose clearly stated, can (and at times should) get away with ignoring the actual words and forms an author uses and focus primarily on the thoughts being presented.

Another nice thing about this sentence is that it is so emphatically against the concept of dynamic equivalent translation and yet it is written by a scholar/translator. He understands both the necessity of a literal/verbal translation, and the benefits of a paraphrase. He is not confusing the two. Each stands in its own place; the paraphrase subordinate to the translation. “It necessarily reproduces, in large part, the idioms of the Greek language in English words.” And so, he offers his paraphrase.

Well, I know I have not presented any arguments against dynamic equivalent translations yet. I’m not just shouting with out reason, my reasons will come later. All I’m trying to do at this point is look at one historical document which can shed light on today’s debate and use that as a springboard for later discussions. I do hope to present a logically sound argument for why I love literal translations, and like all sorts of paraphrases, and reject most dynamic equivalent translations at some point.

Be well.

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