Thursday, September 11, 2008

Literal vs. Idiomatic Bible Translation Method

My experience at the Nida School has been very eye-opening so far into the many different perspectives on translation studies.  We have quite a bit to read, and I came across this quote describing the problem with the debate over whether a literal or idiomatic translation was the better approach.

As is the case in many debates, those in the two camps often wind up talking past each other.  This is sometimes because of differing definitions of or assumptions behind key terms, and sometimes because of differing perceptions of the nature of the subject matter under debate. ...  It is always desirable, but never easy, to agree on terms so that those debating can at least be talking about the same thing.  It is even more difficult, but at least equally desirable, to achieve a perspective which will allow one to understand both sides, to see not so much what was wrong with each, but what was right as well, and how intelligent people could reasonably see each as not just reasonable but right (Tuggy 2003, 244).

That last part describes what I'm trying to accomplish here - get a perspective to understand the different approaches to translation and see what is good about each of them. 

Source Information:

Tuggy, David. 2003. “The literal-idiomatic Bible translation debate from the perspective of cognitive grammar.” In Kurt Feyaerts, ed., The Bible through metaphor and translation: a cognitive semantic perspective, pp. 239-288. Bern: Peter Lang, 2003.


  1. Douglas, if I might add one other idea... Most people are incapable of talking about translation because they just don't understand why things "sound right" in their own language. It's like asking Tiger Woods to break down every element of his swing. He just does it that way. We can't use language to talk about language without creating confusion.

    Another idea... once translators get together and work together on a committee I think they have a tendency to understand better the way the others are doing things. And those labels aren't helpful for describing what's going on.

  2. Thanks for your comments, David.

    The main point of Tuggy's article was related to how unhelpful some of our categories and labels actually are once you get into doing translation. Every translation is in some sense a mediation between those two extremes and that translators are always making choices that emphasize one thing at the expense of another for a variety of good reasons.

    You're right that often people can't explain why they do things a certain way in language.

    On the other hand, scholars talking abstractly on these things need to agree on what terms mean in order to have a fruitful discussion. That's one issue I've noticed in the meetings at Nida is that the linguists have different terms than the translation studies scholars, but the words often overlap, same term used several different ways. I suppose that problem is inherent to interdisciplinary discussions.

  3. David,

    Actually your Tiger Woods example works the other way. Tiger through years of practice, video, more practice, observation, etc. IS able to break down every element of his swing. The weekend duffer like myself cannot; I just swing away.

    I think the good translator in a similar fashion to Tiger should be able to break down all of the tools at their disposal, their own presuppositions, and all the different elements in a text.

    The challenge as far as I can tell is how do you translate the euphemisms, metaphors, and similes of an ancient high context society to modern low context society in a way that represents the original intentions of the author.

    For one of many example see:

  4. Scott,

    You're right that a good translator should be able to explain their approach and explain why they make certain decisions, but in actual practice (outside of English where scholarly committees do the translation), a native speaker may be working as the translator who doesn't have the same background in Bible or linguistics or translation method that the translation consultant has. In that case, the translators can't always break down what they're doing (at least, this is what I've learned from several colleagues here at Nida who work as translation consultants for UBS and SIL).

    Translating figurative language like euphemism and metaphor is very difficult to do, but I don't know that it is best phrased as happening from a "high" ancient context to a "low" modern one. They're just different. The ancient world had a much different worldview/cosmology than the modern world.

    But the issue gets even more complicated when you start working cross-culturally and deal with the issues of translating an ancient text that has many resonances with Western culture into a non-Western culture in Africa or South America or Asia.

    Some would also object that we can't really get at "original intentions" either. I personally think that any writer has a message that he/she intends to transmit and that there are ways to get at what that intended meaning was, but I feel obligated to point out that many who work in translation studies and literary criticism start hearing "red alert" sirens going off when they hear the word "intent."

    One of the things I will be researching here this week is how translations use euphemism.

  5. I realize that ancients had a much different worldview and cosmology. Almost every research paper I write begins at the different worldview that the ancients operated from within.

    The problem with your statement is that the difference between "high" and "low" is not one of worldview or culture; however, it is one of society. For example, if I was to use a simile, "Yellow like the farm house" you would have some context for what I meant because you know yellow and farmhouse, but mostly you have a "low" context for that statement-there are many things I would still have to explain for it to have my full meaning.

    My brother, on the other hand, would know exactly what I intended because he has a "high" context for that statement-there are few things I would have to explain. In fact, it would be insulting to him to explain those things. This is the situation with the Bible: people writing to each other in high context situations using language that can be misconstrued outside of the shared context.

    Ronald Simkins writes:

    Ancient Israel was what Edward Hall has characterized as a high context society. In high context societies a rich common culture is assumed by all members of the society, and the identity of individual members is defined in terms of that culture. Moreover, because the society is based upon a common culture, each individual requires an adequate understanding of that culture in order to function well within society… On the other hand, low context societies tend to produce very detailed texts. Because little culture is shared among its members, texts must describe in detail all the relevant cultural features that are necessary to understand the text. The texts produced by high context societies, on the other hand, frequently lack this detail. They are written by insiders for insiders… The Bible was produced by a high context society for high context readers.

    This is why our low context society produces the detail rich history, and even newspaper articles that are everywhere. This low context writing simply was not necessary for the ancients, and because of that i believe it can lead to some problems.

    You're right about the word "intent" but I am a hermeneut and exegete at heart (and by training)so the gulf between the intent of an author and the meaning we give a text in reading are things I can't avoid. I think of the word "you" in the NT and how individuals in modern society hear that word, and how actually most of the "you" usages in the NT are plural, and the different ways an author may have "intended" that you to be heard by a group (church) rather than read by an individual in an English translation.

    If you admit that you were wrong, then I'll admit that I was right!! ;)

    And you HAVE TO post something on where your research leads concerning the translation of euphemism.

  6. Scott,

    I am by training an ancient historian and text critic, and when I see the words "high" and "low" used in connection to culture, I revert to categories of "prestige/cosmopolitan" vs. "common/low." The terms seemed to be making an unnecessary value distinction between the cultures. Obviously, you were using the terms differently and I agree with the description that you gave.

    It's an example for how we can't just assume the same background knowledge among ourselves whereas the Bible, most Second Temple Jewish literature, and definitely early rabbinic literature were insider texts where much of the relevant context was assumed.

    I'll admit that you were right since I think we're actually in agreement on the issue now that the terms have been clarified.

    I'll post some things about translating euphemism if I find anything interesting to say. I'm focusing on describing what has been done, not necessarily coming up with better ways to do it.

  7. Hi,
    I just stumbled upon you blog and I really appreciate what you are doing. I am curious, has there been any discussion of relevance theory (a la Wilson and Sperber?). In the states, this seems to be a central discussion going on at SIL. What are your thoughts on the value of relevance (as burgeoning as it may be) for translation and has there been any discussion there in that regard? Thanks.

  8. Rob,

    I'm glad you stumbled across my blog here. Yes, there was some discussion of Relevance Theory at the Nida School. Several of the participants were from SIL and we had several presentations that dealt with RT (esp. Sperber and Wilson). I think it's an interesting approach and worth pursuing more for its applications to Bible translation. I don't know enough about it to evaluate it in detail, but it did come up numerous times at the school.