Home > Bible, linguistics, translation > >Is all translation interpretation?

>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.

Categories: Bible, linguistics, translation
  1. 2009 May 16 at 10:58

    Have you heard of enclusio. they are textual clues as to where a passage starts and ends. Often the chapter and verse cuts up the flow of the text in an artificial way. There are many enclusio all through the Bible and they serve to give the emphasis you are talking about. I cannot remember the hebrew now but there is a very good one around adam and eve eating the fruit. Hopefully you will be able to google up a good article on it. I think that enclusio also is made up of sets of 7 words and right in the middle of the whole thing adam ate the fruit sticks there like a beacon.
    I have heard many messages from that passage and many different points (which are all facts as such). but I have not always heard that the main emphasis is the same.
    I think this is many who preach using the Bible have something to say and find a place in the bible that says it. I have done this myself.
    A while back God brought to mind this question: Do you make the Bible talk or does it make you talk? I resolved from then to be careful not to make the Bible say what I wanted but to let my words by generated from what it says. A particular decision to stay on the big topics and certainties. I don’t have enough Hebrew or greek or even English knowledge of the bible to get into any minute sub sub sub plots.
    since that time I believe I have had a greater clarity in hearing Gods voice both through meditating on the bible and with personal words and prophecy

  2. 2009 May 17 at 05:03

    Do you mean these?
    White Spaces
    The TEB is not divided according to standard chapters and paragraph divisions common in all major English translations. Hebrew manuscripts contain special “gaps” or “white spaces” in the text. They are found in every book of the Hebrew Bible except the Psalms. Such divisions are very ancient, and are also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (dating from 200 B.C.E.). These are of two types: the major breaks, called Petuchot (“Open”), are much like our paragraph breaks, and are indicated in the TEB with a full space and new flush paragraph; and the minor breaks, called Setumot (“Closed”), that are indicated with fifteen unbreakable spaces. The smaller divisions are perhaps the most fascinating, as they seem to suddenly appear to block off or emphasize portions of the text—sometimes even a single verse. For example, in Genesis 3:16, this single verse is separated from the text by these minor spaces before and after. Although these are well known and discussed by the ancient rabbis, they do not appear in modern translations of the Bible, including the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh. Apparently the temptation is quite strong to divide and section the Hebrew text according to a modern Western sense of breaks and transitions. This is unfortunate, since the divisions in the Hebrew manuscripts often strike one as wholly removed from our assumptions about how a text should be divided. For example, there is no chapter division in the Hebrew text between Genesis 2 and 3, while there is a major division between verses 21 and 22 of chapter 3, and then only a minor break as you begin chapter 4. Often even new chapters have no break, for example, 41-44:17, which is a single extended section, through four chapters, then suddenly a major break after verse 17. This shows how important verse 18, which follows, is to the narrative flow of the original manuscript. It is interesting that modern authors, such as Beckett and Pinter make use of such breaks, pauses, and “silences” to draw attention to key elements of their narratives. (see the Reader’s Guide).The TEB is the first major translation to reflect in its page appearance the actual “white space” divisions of the ancient Hebrew manuscripts. Just thumbing through its pages offers the reader a new and unique experience; to be able to “peer through” the English to the original Hebrew text. Rather than following the official divisions established by Maimonides (Hilkhot Sefer Torah 8:4), and found in all “Rabbinic Bibles,” the TEB faithfully reproduces the actual divisions of the most ancient Hebrew manuscript—the Leningrad Codex. The differences between this manuscript and the Rabbinic tradition are not that great, and a list will appear in the preface of the published versions of the TEV, however they certainly are significant and worth preserving in this translation. For example, the Leningrad

  3. 2009 May 20 at 09:50

    no, google enclusio and you will get what I was talking about.
    I talked about this post on Sunday and then said that beyond the subtle becoming obvious and the obvious subtle we can look at major themes to get major points. related that to 3 major points about giving in bible 1. We give from what we have and in proportion to what we have 2. Give the first/best 3. give to God

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