Wednesday, September 18, 2013

On The Expressions "Word-For-Word" And "Literal" Dealing With Translations

If you haven't been over to the Cripplegate blog to see Jesse Johnson's post on using the expression "word-for-word" with regard to Bible translation, you simply need to click on over and check it out. The post is called "A Word about Word-for-Word." Here's a snippet:
"Languages consist of words, and words have meaning, but they have meaning only in their context. To use a common example from Spanish 101: '¿Cómo te llamas?' Word-for-word, it means 'how do you call yourself?' In Spanish it is how, not what. It is reflexive (you call yourself), and it is call—the word for name is nowhere to be found. Yet obviously you would translate this 'what is your name?' The meaning of the phrase is more than the meaning of the word. It makes more sense to say that you are looking for a 'phrase-for-phrase' translation than a 'word-for-word.'"
Jesse dealt with the expression "word-for-word." Let me go ahead and chime in on the use of the word "literal." How literal is literal? I don't even really like the word literal when it comes to translation. You'll hear people debating occasionally back-and-forth about Bible translations. It won't be too long before you'll hear something like this: "The New American Standard is more literal than the NIV." The goal in translation is to faithfully communicate the author's intent. Faithfulness in translation is critical. If you're saying something the author is not saying, you're not actually translating. Communicating is essential, too. If someone can't understand your translation as it stands, has it really been translated? You can't really translate without taking some sort of interpretation. I understand, though, the reason for leaving something intentionally vague in a mass-published translation so that the student of God's Word can wrestle through the options and land his or her plane where the evidence leads them. It also allows a teacher the flexibility of explaining the Word of God without having to say "such-and-such translation got it wrong here." Ambiguity lends itself better to explanation, especially when dealing with something like the Word of God where there are different interpretations for words, phrases, and clauses. I don't think literalness is what undergirds the philosophy. In my mind, and in the minds of many that I speak with, they equate literalness with accuracy. I think what undergirds the translation philosophy behind works like the New American Standard is intentional ambiguity that maintains the closest resemblance to the word-, phrase-, and clause-order found in the Greek text-types. That philosophy, however, has to be understood for what it is and the purpose that it serves. It can't be equated with accuracy. I think something is "literal" when it best captures the author's intent and meaning. Moving forward with this understanding, consider the following.

For a literal translation, how literal is the translation "baptizing" for βαπτίζοντες or "apostle" for ἀπόστολος?

Of the following two options, what is more literal in your opinion?
  1. "I am completely blown away at how quickly you are turning away..." (Gal. 1:6)
  2. "I am amazed at how quickly you are turning away..." (Gal. 1:6)
Or, what about the following two options?
  1. "Paul, an apostle who was not called by men nor received his apostleship through a single human person, but rather an apostle who was made an apostle through Jesus Christ and selected by God the Father..." (Gal. 1:1)
  2. "Paul, an apostle not from men or through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father..." (Gal. 1:1)
Or, how about the following two?
  1. "No one at any time in the history of the world has ever seen God the Father" (John 1:18).
  2. "No one has seen God at any time" (John 1:18).
On the translation "baptizing" above (see Matt. 28:19-20 and the Great Commission), I remember asking Robert Thomas over breakfast at Norm's why they didn't translate it "immersing" or something like it when they did the NAS (not the updated version). According to him, there was a financial motivation in keeping with the traditional transliteration. By doing so, the NAS could be used by a broader audience, not just those who believed immersion in water as the proper way. When the HCSB came out, it made me think about the translation of the word again. Why did a translation put out by the Southern Baptist Convention choose to not move away from the standard transliterated gloss? I suspect the answer is really quite simple. It wasn't entirely a Southern Baptist translation, although Southern Baptists represented nearly one-third of the ninety-member translation team. I wonder, though, if the translation team had only consisted of Southern Baptists, would they have still gone with forms of "baptize" when translating the βαπτιδ- word group?

Coming back full-circle, I understand the reason for leaving something intentionally vague so that the student of God's Word can wrestle through the options and land his or her plane where the evidence leads them. What happens though when people are not investing the time to study the Word of God for themselves? Intentionally vague might not be very helpful. In the place of John 1:18 above, might someone think Jesus isn't God by the second translation? What are they to think when they encounter Gal. 1:1 in the second example? What does the clause "not from men or through man" even mean? And what about the translation of θαυμάζω in Gal. 1:6? Does it really communicate the seriousness of what some of the Galatians were in the process of doing? I'll let this be my final word on the subject (until the next time I think about it): We've got a number of "literal" translations that are effective for mass use, fit for local-church ministry, and waiting for students (and teachers) to uncover the meaning for themselves through proper study of God's Word. We've got that. I'd really like to see some scholars in our day and age wrestle with translation beyond the intentional ambiguity and beyond the simple glosses. I'm so thankful to be able to pick up a fresh approach to a passage and see what sort of help it can be for me in understanding the passage. This is one of the reasons why I work hard at doing my own translation when I teach. I'm surprised none of the mainstream translations will go further in their translation of Rom. 5:8 than simply "for us" (ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν). Will someone go one step forward and give us the translation "in our place" or "as our substitution?"

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