Sunday, November 30, 2008

Eye-Popping Post!

Two semesters before I started learning ancient Greek, I started learning modern Japanese. My roommate was from Japan, and got frustrated with me for using おめでと (or 御目出度) to mean literally "eye-popping." In Japan, of course, "omedeto" is the phrase for "congratulations," not for "eye popping" of any kind. But my other Japanese friend on campus named himself "Earl Farley" using American English sounds for "R" and "L" and "F" for which there are no equivalents in Japanese. We loved to play with each others' language, Earl Farley and eye-popping me.

Today, Wayne Leman has this great discussion going following his interesting post at BBB, "This post will open your eyes." The example he gives is from Matthew who is, I think, probably using a Greek-translated Hebrew idiom. But the conversation opens with John Hobbins' wonderful question about whether the BBB blog has mainly "promoted the dynamic translation philosophy." John confesses he's looked for some "positive information regarding the literal translation philosophy."  UPDATE:  ALTHOUGH JOHN HOBBINS DOES PROTEST DE TRANSLATION IN THIS POST, HE CLARIFIES HERE THAT IT'S ANOTHER JOHN WHO MAKES THESE COMMENTS THAT I'M REFERRING TO.

I told my story of wordplay with the Japanese (and Earl's with our English) because I'm making the point here that literal translation often offers the most word play. And the original native speaker doesn't always get to decide how others play with her language. Nor does the linguist or scholar always get to decide what plays best.

Since we're talking about the limits of "dynamic translation philosophy," here's a bit of helpful insight from translator Reynolds Price, from pages 20-22 of his Three Gospels:
Despite such a likably humane doctrine as what might be called the universality of the human heart in all times and places, it remains beyond doubt that human beings alive on the same day in the same city block—not to speak of different countries and centuries—will witness, reflect on, and respond to equal stimuli in ways as divergent as an infant’s and a leopard’s. Can any of us claim seriously to feel at all confident of sharing the feelings of a poor Roman Jew—or a Roman’s senator’s well-heeled wife—as they sat together in a threatened domus ecclesia (a house church) in the mid-sixties AD and listened as Mark or some literate friend read the agony scene in Mark’s gospel—Jesus terrified in the lonely hours before his arrest—while, a few yards away, Nero’s or Galba’s police combed the streets fro bodies to feed an imperial craving for scapegoats? Or try imagining the contrary pulls on a young Greek sailor as he paused near the harbor in Ephesus by the great temple of Artemis with its many-breasted statue of the goddess, and then chose to follow a gently importunate man from the Jesus sect up a blind alley into a dim room to hear the ancient Beloved Disciple recount Jesus’ fourth and last appearance after death. Now try to convey your imagined experience to others less resourceful than you.

Such exercises are both entirely legitimate and also laughable; they smack more of the ludicrous Hollywood fumblings in Quo Vadis or Ben Hur. In fact, we have no firm notion of how it felt to exist in Rome, Palestine, or Asia Minor some two thousand years ago—burdened with all the assumptions and hopes of our past lives. . . .

Archaeology has often made it possible for us to imagine clearly enough the look of ancient life. What is certain to be lost forever is the feel and the tone of specific moments in prior centuries—the million unexamined assumptions that underlie the thoughts and actions of a particular human being at a given moment. Especially irrecoverable are the thoughts and choices, the fears of and reliance on the realms of angels and demons, of that large majority of people who never read or wrote a word but were sure that they lived at the momentary mercy of overlord, goblins, not to speak of an unimagined world of microbes. Nonetheless, in an understandable effort to bridge the chasms between our minds and those of the gospel writers—as well as he minds of their subjects and their audiences—translators who convince themselves of possessing access to the psychic atmospheres of the first century have frequently lurched into slangy or loose-mouthed approximations that ring suspiciously wrong and pretend to strip from their subjects the immoveable screens of age and distance.

Attempts to find, for instance, what some leading students of modern translation have called a dynamic equivalence for first-century Greek are logically suspect in the extreme but have been pursued so often by individuals and groups that we now have in English several popular versions of the gospels that constitute what are well-intended but almost certainly major distortions of their originals.

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