Friday, September 17, 2010

Mounce: What Makes a Translation Accurate?

Mounce has an interesting discussion up Koinonia, a blog hosted by Zondervan, regarding the question, "What Makes a Bible Translation Accurate?"
Obviously I can't settle the debate in one blog, and I am in process of thinking about it myself; but I would like to encourage all of us to start thinking about this.

I think most of our gut reactions would be: "word for word." An accurate translation is one that is as least interpretive as possible, one that reflects the grammar of the Greek and Hebrew. The basis of this claim is structural. We have been trained to think that if we stick as close to the form of the foreign language as possible, then we are being more accurate.

But I have been wondering if accuracy is really a matter of structure. I have long held that accuracy mandates the distinction between dependent and independent constructions, and I still hold to that. But beyond that, I wonder if a "literal" translation that makes no real sense in English can accurately be called "literal," or even a translation that makes a biblical writer sound almost illiterate. We know this is not true in the case of idioms; we rarely translate the idiom "into the ages or ages" word for word. We translate the meaning as "forever." But what about other Greek and Hebrew constructions that when translated make no sense?

I am not talking about natural language, translating into the modern English idiom of our own subculture the way the NLT does. I am simply wondering if a "word of word" translation that makes no real sense can in any way be called "accurate."

I am wondering if "accuracy" is also about accurately conveying the authorial meaning? What do you think?
I, of course, recognize Mounce's expertise as a linguist, but I'll tell you what I think: dynamic equivalence typically raises more problems than it solves. Even if perhaps often "wooden", I prefer a translation that is as literal as possible. In fact, "into the ages or ages" is just fine with me. Is it really that difficult to explain such a rendering as an idiom for "forever"?

Give people credit.


Anonymous said...

I've heard it said that "To read Scripture is to interpret Scripture". It would therefore follow that to translate Scripture from one language to another would *certainly* involve interpreting it.

I think it therefore follows that an accurate translation is one which conveys (as best as linguistically possible in the target language) the original intended meaning of the Greek/Hebrew author.

However, even once we've agreed the interpretation of a given passage, agreeing on the best way to render that in a particular language, time period and culture is an incredibly subjective thing.

Josh McManaway said...

I think I can see Mounce's point, even if he chose a bad example. For instance, in German, if one were to translate 'Ich werde sehen' literally, it would be something like, "I become to learn" instead of "I will learn."

Likewise, in the Bible, I think there are definitely times when translating literally would make nonsense of a passage. I agree with you, however, that dynamic equivalency has its issues. When I translate for class, I give the most wooden translation possible without sounding like English is my 6th language.

Tom Gourlay said...

So, where does this leave us??
Douay Rheims??

I really would like to know your thoughts (without getting into political musings etc. I am no scholar, so I won't ever be able to read the Greek, but what is a reliable English translation?

Bob MacDonald said...

I would put many things above accuracy in the sense you have suggested. Accuracy must include feel, shape, sound, rhythm, shibboleth, love, and person. My translations are personal - they are part of my moment by moment dialogue - whether inner or outer. Structure is also IMO an inaccurate word (hah) to apply to literal. For me, strucutre is sound and silence, rhythm and recurrence, and is a vital part of the rendering of poetry. So I have for instance given Qoheleth a try in the style Dr. Seuss and I think it has some merit. But most of my work recently is in the Psalter.