Friday, February 22, 2008

Rethinking Jobes: Translator Fears and Freedom

The anglo-centric Bible translators are afraid. They’re not afraid, as Koran translators in certain democratic states must be, of going to prison. No, the Bible translators are afraid of certain methods of translation.

The Bible translators are afraid of humility and ambiguity. Hmm, that sounds like Muhammed who sounds like Aristotle. (Thankfully, neither Ayaan Hirsi Ali nor Cheryl Glenn sounds like either one of them or is in jail because of them; but we digress, a little).

Let’s do this. First, let’s listen to some of the fears. Second, let’s rethink (with) Karen H. Jobes. Third, let’s muster the courage to translate a sacred anglo-centric text and see if we can still bravely declare our liberty.

1. Some Anglo-Centric Bible-Translator Fears

Listen to the fear of the concerns that might squander accuracy:

. . . what’s lacking in English translations, there isn’t a respect for the text as primary. Every translation is colored by concerns of political correctness or theological correctness, concern for audience (aimed at xth grade), and/or continuity of a translational tradition.

Why can’t we just have a straight up translation concerned with accuracy first? Something that hits the English speaker’s ear the way the original hit the Greek and Hebrew speaker’s ear.

--Richard A. Rhodes

I Totally agree, Myself being in the translation online translation business (see profile @ Language123)this is pretty common. The involvement of new ideas changing the meaning of the original text should not be acceptable, the text should remain intact regardless of the language pairs.

--Silvia (a professional translator endorsing the anglo-centric fears)

Now listen to the fear that the first Bible translators played modern or postmodern but not professional accuracy games:

I find beauty in realistic and impressionistic art. I do not find beauty in modern art, because I do not understand it. . . We are trying to ask too much of general audiences if we think they can be served by essentially literal translations. Professional translators are not allowed to obscure meaning by translating figures of speech literally from one language to another. Why should we not hold Bible translators to the same standard of accuracy and excellence in translation?

. . . as we do Bible translation into English or any other language we should not follow the practices of the authors of the N.T. or translators of the LXX when they translated. I realize that this may sound like heresy, but I really do have a high view of scripture and I really do believe that the Holy Spirit was involved when the authors wrote the N.T. But that does *not* mean that the Holy Spirit caused the LXX translators or N.T. authors to follow the best translation techniques. . . . we don't have to learn from the N.T. authors or LXX translators how we should translate accurate and naturally today. We are not creating *new* inspired texts. We are simply translating texts that are already written.

--Wayne Leman

I accept that in the original Hebrew there was very likely a deliberate word play . . . This word play has been recognised by modern, or perhaps post-modern, contemporary commentators. My scepticism is about whether the LXX translators or the thinker Paul, pre-modern people . . . would have recognised this word play and . . . translated . . . with an entirely different word in order to preserve the word play.

--Peter Kirk

2. μετανοετε (rethink everything!), says Karen H. Jobes

Okay, that’s being a little inaccurate. Jobes didn’t say that. But neither did Jesus. (It was Matthew translating with a flair for modern art and with a knack for simultaneous interpretation).

But Jobes is calling on anglo-centric Bible translators to rethink everything. She’s going before the U.N. (And, to avoid ambiguities, Matthew really was before the U.N.). She’s calling on any with ears to hear and with eyes to see.

Look! Listen! She’s saying this:

You have heard that it was said:

“Either Formal Equivalence or Dynamic Equivalence.”

But I say to you:

“Just about every Bible translation has stirred hot controversy ever since the first one, the Septuagint, was produced”


“the apostles of Jesus Christ apparently did not hesitate to preserve the Lord’s teachings in Greek translation or to use the Greek translation of the Old Testament authoritatively in their writings that became the New Testament. Therefore, the example of the divinely inspired New Testament writers themselves provides the warrant for the translation of Scripture into other languages.”


an anglo-centric Bible translator is not greater than his or her master. In great humility, with great ambiguity, “the translator must so identify his or her translation with the speaker being translated that the translator must use the first-person when speaking in the target language on behalf of the speaker, much as the Bible translator must seek to be invisible to the Bible reader. More importantly, Bible translation is not just the translation of ancient texts but, like simultaneous translation, it is a living act of communication”

To be clear, Jobes wants accuracy (and so does Matthew). But she doesn’t DO what Muhammed and Aristotle do, taking the original “talent” of some objective, accurate, unambigous text they’ve been given and hiding it away in the dirt, later to whine like one wicked and slothful servant: “I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed.”

And she doesn’t DO what anglo-centric Bible translators do either, making Xerox copies of the originals to drop like fully-inspired accurate and unambiguous leaflets from the heavens.

No, Jobes does DO what Joshua does. (And by Joshua, I mean Yeshua, or “Jesus” as he’s less accurately translated). Her method is to see that the living original is planted and dies in the ground so that it can multiply as originals now alive and anew and a-plenty. She’s not afraid. She scatters subjective humility and vague ambiguity.

3. The Certain Soiling Inaccuracies (Be not afraid—there’s good potential):

Let’s turn from the fear of mishandling sacred texts such as the Organon, the Koran, and the Bible. That’s not necessarily taking Leman’s turn today: his turn to “everyday examples of translation equivalence and then [his] turn to equivalence in Bible translation.” Even in his “everyday” examples he’s afraid of a “literal translation” which anglo-centric Bible translators do not hold as equal to the “translation equivalent” which is another name for the debated “dynamic equivalence” which is simply finding “an expression that means the same in each language.”

(Tomorrow, Leman will re-“introduce” the anglo-centered fear of “inaccuracy-by-literal translation,” and much more prescriptively. He will mandate with some misquoted authority [to which I'll add some italics and bolded font]: “To translate properly, we need to match equivalent form-meaning composites, as the late tagmemicist, Ken Pike, would have said. The meanings of the forms must match for there to be translation equivalence.” And then we'll remember, in stark contrast, that Pike’s only prescriptions for his monolingual demonstration were these: 1] the interpersonal interaction was likely to fail [but not either for fear of “literal translation” or for any trepidation about some mis-match between unequal form-meaning composites]; 2] the other person's language “should” be the one they use; 3] he and the other person “should” be friendly; and 4] Pike would wrap up with a poem [with all its ambiguities and with his audience-focused humility]. Now, lest you're missing the fear Leman’s introducing, he’s promised to keep on re-introducing it until we have the fears down. Here's what he'll say on the third day: “translation equivalents between languages where literal translation isn't proper”; and Leman will use "pregnancy" in TNIV as more "proper"--to which I'll have to reply in a comment that Willis Barnstone is more accurate when more literal. Stay tuned.)

No, let’s return to something more comfortable. I’m talking about our own subjectivities, and our abilities plurally. The kind of thing that allows us to declare: “We hold these truths. . .” Sure I’m talking about an extant text in our possession: the original, the autographed, the Declaration of Independence with certain knowledge, even, of what’s on the back of it.

Let’s just take a snippet, and be aware all the time of whether we’re insiders and outsiders. The comfort zone changes depending on which side of the Atlantic (on which side of the Occident, on which side of the American canal) we find ourselves. For example, French speakers Elise Marienstras and Naomi Wulf have confessed to being on the outside of this text:

It is thus quite difficult for French readers of the American Declaration of Independence to understand the perennial and sacred character of a document that still remains, with its original wording, a moral and political guide -- the first part of a “secular American bible” whose second part would be the Constitution.

Don’t be afraid whoever and whereever you are when you hear that word “bible.” We’re going back in the direction of Jobes: in which we turn from equivalence in Bible translation and turn to everyday examples of translation, but not necessarily of “equivalence” as towards invariable “accuracy.” We’re turning in our ambiguous humble subjectivities to this seed of a text:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights;”

Where have we scattered (in translation)? You might want to skip to the good stuff.

some fell by the way side

We hold these truths to be [sacred and undeniable] selfevident, that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and inalienables,”

--one real original, a seed draft that fell by the wayside, 28 June 1776.

Cherokee Elias Boudinot in the 1830s did NOT translate the “American Declaration of Independence.” Could it be because the text unmercilessly refers to his nation as “the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”? Boudinot did translate the Cherokee Nation Constitution into English, and he did translate the Bible, texts that gave more equal treatment.

Here's Fukuzawa Yukichi's Japanese translation of 1866 (and where's "their Creator"?)

some fell on stony ground

“As a result, we reaffirm the following to be self evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,”

--A Modern American Declaration of Liberty, 1999

“We think that all people are created the same and that God wants every one of us to be free and happy.”

--The Declaration of Independence Translated for Kids, 2000

“Everyone can see that the following things are true: That all men are created equal; All people are created with equal rights; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; God made them with rights that cannot be taken away;”

--The NEW MILLENNIUM Declaration of Independence Line by Line Mr. Peel’s 7th Grade Social Studies Class, 2003

We think it’s pretty obvious that God created every person equal, and he gave each person specific unchanging rights which should never be trampled upon. . .”

--The Declaration of Independence for Dummies, Part I, 2003

some fell among thorns

“All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, you and me is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else.”

--H. L. Mencken’s “The Declaration of Independence in American,” 1921

“He is always the same Jew. That so obvious a fact is not recognized by the average head-clerk in a German government department, or by an officer in the police administration, is also a self-evident and natural fact.”

--James Murphy’s translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, 1942

“Hỡi đồng bào cả nước, Tất cả mọi người đều sinh ra có quyền bình đẳng. Tạo hoá cho họ những quyền không ai có thể xâm phạm được; . . . Suy rộng ra, câu ấy có nghĩa là: tất cả các dân tộc trên thế giới đều sinh ra bình đẳng, dân tộc nào cũng có quyền sống, quyền sung sướng và quyền tự do.”

--Hồ Chí Minh’s Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, 1945

other fell on good ground,
and did yield fruit that sprang up
and increased;
and brought forth,
some thirty, and some sixty,
and some an hundred

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights;”

--Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s and colleagues’ Declaration of Sentiments, 1848

“. . . a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men [black and white] are created equal.”

--Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” 1863

And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men [of any color] are created equal . . .’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”

--Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1863

“Nous tenons pour évidentes pour elles-mêmes les vérités suivantes : tous les hommes sont créés égaux ; ils sont doués par le Créateur de certains droits inaliénables;”

--French (contemporary)

“Wir halten diese Wahrheiten für ausgemacht, daß alle Menschen gleich erschaffen worden, daß sie von ihrem Schöpfer mit gewissen unveräusserlichen Rechten begabt worden,”

--German 1776

“Folgende Wahrheiten erachten wir als selbstverständlich: daß alle Menschen gleich geschaffen sind; daß sie von ihrem Schöpfer mit gewissen unveräußerlichen Rechten ausgestattet sind;”

--German 1950

“Noi consideriamo come verità evidenti in se medesime che tutti gli uomini sono stati creati uguali; che han ricevuti dal loro Creatore certi diritti inalienabili;”

--Italian 1776

“Noi riteniamo che le seguenti verità siano di per sé stesse evidenti, che tutti gli uomini sono stati creati uguali, che essi sono stati dotati dal loro Creatore di alcuni Diritti inalienabili,”

--Italian 1961

Noi riteniamo che le seguenti verità siano di per se stesse evidenti; che tutti gli uomini sono stati creati uguali, che essi sono dotati dal loro creatore di alcuni Diritti inalienabili,”

--Italian (contemporary)

“Kita berpegang kepada kebenaran yang nyata ini, bahawa semua manusia diciptakan sama tarafnya, bahawa mereka dikurniakan oleh Pencipta mereka hak-hak tertentu yang tidak boleh dipisahkan;”

--Malaysian, 2002

“Nós sustentamos estas verdades como auto evidentes: que todos os homens nascem iguais e que são dotados pelo Criador de certos direitos inalienáveis,”

--Portugese (contemporary)

“Nosotros creemos ser evidente en sí mismo, que todos los hombres nacen iguales y dotados por su Criador de ciertos derechos inagenables:”

-- Spanish 1821

“Sostenemos como evidentes estas verdades: que todos los hombres son creados iguales; que son dotados por su Creador de ciertos derechos inalienables;”

-- Spanish (contemporary)

and here's more good, more Japanese and Hebrew and Polish and Russian. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Them's fightin' words...

Rubs cheek. Looks at gauntlet in the dust. Tries to decide whether to pick it up, turn the other cheek or just go read Agatha Christie...

Spaghetti sauce is always better after a few days so I'll wait and see who else adds to the mix before I get in line for a serving.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for stopping by, Lingamish.

Don't want to influence you either way, but I'd recommend either Murder on the Orient Express, in Nyungwe, or, in Chinese, "The Case of the Discontented Soldier." But then again, one of my daughter's favorite children's books is Spaghetti, I Say! (with a bunch of primates trying to get along, but in English, of course.)

There's plenty for all, and will be leftovers I'm sure.

Richard A. Rhodes said...

Fear is not the right spin on what I feel -- unless you think that if I say, "I'm afraid that's what'll happen." that actually means I feel fear.

No my feelings about the matter are closer to frustration and simmering rage. There are all these hidden agendas -- a lot of which are even hidden to the holders.

People wax on about the "beauty" of the translations in the AV translational tradition. (If you have a week, I can deconstruct that!)

There is the thinly veiled complementation/egalitarian debate, so people want their Bible to be either "doctrinally" correct, or gender-correct.

There is the notion that reading level (whatever THAT means) is important.

Then there are the influential theologians who hold the political high ground and think that linguists should just stay out of the Bible translation business. But they don't have to actually say that. They just get to freeze us out by ignoring us.

Nowhere is the primacy of the text given its full measure of respect. (And that from people who will fight tooth and nail about inerrancy!)

And at the root there is the question of what will sell. (Forgetting somehow that Jesus said a LOT more about dealing right with money than he did about dealing right with sex. D'ya think maybe we've gotten a little off track in the 21st century evangelical church?)

Nope. This is definitely anger.

J. K. Gayle said...

I appreciate your anger, and the various very personal issues you comment on here. Not at all trying to spin your emotions, but don't think avoiding (a) the lowliness of the translator and (b) the richly personal and interpersonal takes everyone may have on any text is an efficient solution to translator inaccuracies.

You end here with something really profound:

And at the root there is the question of what will sell. (Forgetting somehow that Jesus said a LOT more about dealing right with money than he did about dealing right with sex. D'ya think maybe we've gotten a little off track in the 21st century evangelical church?)

So may I respond by saying, Is Jesus amused when we count his sayings if we discount his behavior towards women, and men? Isn't there something hugely significant about the tiniest of little mustard seeds that must die in order to live on? Did I misquote you in the blogpost here on your ostensible need to discount concerns of certain people in order to focus on the only thing that matters in translation (hang the process, it's), majority text accuracy?

Richard A. Rhodes said...

Yeah, I think you have.

As I see it there are two basic camps in (English) Bible translation.

One thinks that the text is primary -- and then squabbles about things like how much of the meaning and meanings can be brought over in translation.

The other thinks that theology is primary. Their concern is that if theologians aren't running the translation show, we'll get it wrong.

I think you and John Hobbins and the BBB folks are all in the first group -- in spite of our differences.

And I don't think it's a matter of failing to value the process to want to put theologians in their proper place -- present at the table but not running roughshod over questions of interpretation that can be answered from the text alone, and not driving interpretations based on doctrinal theories -- and recognizing that even archeological findings trump doctrinal theories.

Does this make me an ogre?

For most of the languages of the world, it is the linguists who do the translation, and the fact that the translations are arguably better than the theologically driven translations of European languages (and not by a little) ought to count for something.

OK, so these linguists tend to be theologically sophisticated, but the point is that you get better quality translations from linguists than from theologians almost all of whom are very linguistically naïve. That's why Wayne started BBB, to make that point to the (mostly) monolingual Bible reading public.

J. K. Gayle said...

I'm glad you and Wayne started BBB. You seem to be moving toward your goal with it, but there's always more. Yes, theologically sophisticated linguists may make better translators of the Bible than no longer linguistically-naïve theologians. John's probably with you in one of those "basic camps," although he may say otherwise.

Today, I just read for the first time Ishmael Reed's English translation of the 8th chapter of Daniel Olorunfẹmi Fagunwa's Igbo Olodumare. Reed confesses to "taking liberties" (after all it is Ishmael Reed). But Reed also tells us he's "struggled with the Yoruba language for ten years, under two fellowships," and has been "assisted in this translation by [his] teacher for over a decade, Ade Amoloran." When announcing he was working on the translation, Reed suggested, rather resistantly, that it would be for those "never prepared . . . for the prospect of African civilizations other than Egypt" and for people who will know nothing of "those African writers who write in the native languages," and for "Western audiences [who] are discouraged from learning about this literature, partially due to the ignorant propaganda promoted by public intellectuals"—and especially for those "who believe that no African literature exists." Reed "would rank [Fagunwa’s] work next to any of the world’s great epics." Reed is angry. And rightly.

Does any of that make you angry? Doesn't anger come from your own affairs? Is a theologically savvy Christian linguist better able to translate Fagunwa than Reed, likely a linguistically- and theologically-naïve scholar? Now, it's fair to have issues with Reed. The feminists he attacks, afrafeminists even, have issues with him.

But there comes a point when we have to ask ourselves (whoever we are today) about the people, yes even the women, in the Bible. Were they really less sophisticated than we are? Do they deserve their anger less than you do? Are their methods of translation anything we can learn from? Can we learn anything from Reed, translating a Nigerian's novel?

J. K. Gayle said...

Our conversation continued over here, but somehow the automatic link went away. Here's the link to the continued conversation, again. Bon voyage.