The Back Page – Translation


The Back Page

Translation

“Translating is like chewing food for someone else to eat. If a person has no teeth, he must swallow
what another has chewed for him. Though most of the nutrition may remain, the food is bound to lose
something of its taste and texture in the process.”
Most Christians rely on translations so they can read the scriptures. How can we make sure that as
much as possible of the original nutrition, taste, and texture survive the translating process and get
through to us? What principles guide good translation? Two overarching desiderata are 1) it must
accurately reflect the original and 2) it must communicate well in the target language.
By “accurately reflecting the original” we mean that a good translation neither adds to nor detracts
from nor colors the source document. In that sense, all good translation should be “literal.” But “literal”
must not be understood as “word-for-word.” No good translation can be word-for-word. In Spanish, when
describing the weather, one might say, “Hace calor hoy.” Word-for-word would be “It does (or makes)
heat today,” but in English we say “It’s hot today.” This is translating sense-for-sense.
Translation must guard against bleeding into interpretation. Ambiguities in the original are best
rendered as ambiguities, rather than interpreted. For example, 2 Cor 5:14 begins, “For the love of Christ
controls us.” Does that mean “the love that Christ showed us,” or “our love for Christ”? The Greek
original could be interpreted either way. So it is best to translate with the ambiguous “the love of Christ”
rather than the interpretive “Christ’s love” or “love for Christ.” The exegete can then take over the job of
interpreting.
Modern translations often smooth over what we consider awkwardness or embarrassments in the
originals. For example, six times the Hebrew Old Testament speaks of a person “that pisseth against the
wall”(KJV). We don’t often use the p-word in polite society today, or even talk much about urinating
against a wall. So most newer translations render the phrase as “male.” That is OK, since that is what the
phrase means, and “male” makes for more comfortable reading from the pulpit. But by translating this
way we lose something of the earthiness of the Hebrew, and so something of its taste and texture. In this
case, that may not be all bad.

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