Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Direct Translation is Transliteration

The most direct translation is transliteration. And I mean two things by that.

First, the English word translation is literally a transliteration. That is, our word brings across the sounds of a Roman word by means of our letters of our alphabet. For example, as early as 1388, John Wyclif and his followers, in The Holy Bible, made from the Latin Vulgate wrote "Thei setten in her translaciouns oneli the names of thre thingis, that is of water, of blood, and of spirit." Likewise, Miles Coverdale, in 1535, wrote "I thought it my dedicate this translacyon vnto youre hyghnesse" and, in 1549, entitled his "translacyon," The Byble in Englyshe, that is the olde and new Testament, after the translacion appoynted to bee read in the Churches. Similarly, in 2009, Willis Barnstone quoted the aim of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible: "Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light"; and then he wrote his own aim: "I undertook a new translation of the New Testament to give a chastely modern, literary version of a major world text." (I'm quoting here from the Oxford English Dictionary online and from Barnstone's page 14 of The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas.)

Notice how Wyclif's translaciouns, Coverdale's translacyon and translacion, and the 1611 versioners' and Barnstone's translation are transliterations. The English word (with various spellings) is a nearly-equivalent sounding transliteration of the Latin word translatio. Literally, however, the Roman's Latin word did not exactly mean for them what our English word has come to mean for us. The Latin word literally meant "to carry across" and is a variant of the Latin word transferre, which is closer in meaning to the English transliteration of this word: our English word transfer. To be sure, Romans such as Cicero and Quintilian would use translatio figurally to mean things like "reddo" and "verto" and "converto" (or what we in English mean by words such as render and change and convert, words we use also for "translation"). The Latin word translatio, then, gained a wider range of uses than we have, perhaps, for our English word, translation. In fact, we tend to limit the meaning range for "translation." Because it's a transliteration, we make "translation" very abstract. We make it scientific, in fact. We look to experts to tell us what it is and what it must not be.

Second, the most direct translation is transliteration in the very specific way we think of "translation."  For example, Barnstone surveys three [3] possibilities.  On the one hand, there are "two extremes that can be satisfied happily:  [1] a gloss for the reader who wants help with the source text [i.e., an interlinear], and [2] imitation for the ['translating'] writer who wants to collaborate with, adapt, or rewrite a precursor's [originally-authored] work." On the other hand, "[t]here is also [3] a middle ground between [1] gloss and [2] imitation, whose purpose is to hear the source author more clearly than the translator author" (page 1290).  Can we see how transliteration is a very direct gloss?  It gives help with the sounds of the source text, and in this post I'm talking about the Latin source word, translatio, and our English appropriation of that word, as a translation -- indeed, as the very word translation in English.

Bloggers (and especially bibliobloggers) who care about "translation" tend to argue over what translation is, and what it must not be.  And they argue along these lines.  For instance, Rich Rhodes comments as follows to a reader of his Better Bibles blog post, "Thinking About Scripture":
You believe that translation is the process of matching words part for part (morpheme for morpheme) between Greek and English. At least, this is what it appears to me you mean. If so, that’s where the problem lies. We believe that translation is what translators do between modern languages and therefore the principles of that kind of translation should be applied to Bible translation.
Notice how Rhodes believes that translation should not be this extreme glossing process of matching words and/ or morphemes.  Instead, he and his colleagues suggest that "translation" between languages that are living is the sort of principled "translation" that must occur with respect to the dead languages of the Bible.  And he clarifies, "Modern translation standards are that a translation should match the original, not just in reference, but also in tone and implication. If Paul or Luke used an ordinary word or expression, then the translation should use an ordinary word or expression." It sounds as if Rhodes is looking to Barnstone's middle way.

Likewise, Joel Hoffman engages with Doug Chaplins's post, on "The oddity of plenary verbal inspiration." Hoffman, in his post "What’s Plenary Verbal Inspiration Got To Do With Translation?," gets logical (and I truncate the argument slightly here):
"if every Hebrew and Greek word in the current version of the Bible is inspired"
then it "seems like a good idea if you believe that one point of the words was to convey a message in a particular way"
Notice how Hoffman is making the extreme position of "translation" as a "gloss" somewhat contingent on a person's belief about the God-inspired nature of the words.

Furthermore, Bill Mounce asks a similar question rhetorically: "The question is whether functional translations betray a lower view of Scripture since they don’t translate every Greek word." His post, "Words, and the Word of God—γαρ," is to draw this conclusion:
So what is my point? You don’t have to agree with the exegesis, but hopefully you can see how not translating every word does not necessarily indicate a person’s view of inspiration. Even the ESV and NET don’t translate every word; just skim the footnotes on the NET Bible to see all the occurrences of δε that went untranslated.
There is not an exact equivalence between the Greek and English words, and sometimes an explicit translation is too strong, and the sense of the Greek is carried over in context or by punctuation. But nowhere in this discussion is there a justified criticism on a person’s view of verbal plenary inspiration.
Mounce is, like Rhodes and Hoffman, rejecting the one "extreme" notion of gloss as proper "translation."  Interestingly, he seems also to want to avoid the other "extreme" Barnstone outlines.

Nonetheless, if you look closely as what these "extreme"-avoiding bloggers do, you notice how they have no problem with the most extreme sort of glossing there is:  "transliteration" as direct "translation."  They each gloss the Latin word translatio for their English translation.  Now, they will concede that the Latin did not exactly mean what their English does.  And yet, they conceive of "translation" as a very limited range of activities, as a science if you will.  Moreover, they limit that range even further by declaring out of bounds the very sort of "extreme" that they find themselves engaging in.  Translation, and not anything extreme, is very bounded and very protected.  This is not to say that the limited notion of translation does not have value.  Nor am I trying to claim that Barnstone's and the others' middle ground is hardly the best approach.  Moreover, will anyone mistake what I'm trying to say as "anything goes" in thinking about other ways of theorizing and of practicing "translation"?

If we have time for another post, then we will look at other metaphors for "translation" beyond the limited one appropriated from the sounds of a figural Latin metaphor.  We might even look at how Cicero and Quintilian followed Greeks such as Aristotle and Plato.  We might imagine that there are other ways of viewing what we in English call "translation."


Henry Neufeld said...

I'm surprised you haven't gotten any comments yet on this one. I may respond in a post on my blog, but I would have to note that I don't see your "transliteration as translation" point simply because I wouldn't see translation as used in English as a translated Latin word. It has developed life of its own in its new home.

For the remainder of the range, I think I'm with you, in that many things one person might not call "translation" do translate in some form or another. I might not like a translation that completely reshapes the message within a new cultural matrix, yet such a translation does convey some part of the meaning, perhaps even more meaning than a translation done according to my preferences.

J. K. Gayle said...


Thanks for your thoughts here and for inviting others to share theirs as well. My first point (not made clear enough, obviously) is precisely yours: how can we "see translation as used in English as a translated Latin word"? Tranliteration is such a cheat, a short-cut. Once upon a time, somebody who read Cicero or Quintilian or another such writer (and then speaker) of "translatio" was a somebody who wrote also in "English." And rather than translating what the Roman wrote (or spoke), that English writer presumed the Latin meant "translation." And maybe the Roman did mean that. Only the meaning was metaphorical (i.e., meaning something like our "transfer") which is much wider in range of meaning than our "translation."

That brings us to where you and I most clearly seem to agree: there are many ways to conceive of "translation," including (I think) as "transfer" perhaps, and much more. But I'd love to hear others' thoughts too.

Henry Neufeld said...

Since translation isn't a single thing, at least as I see it, I would agree that we can't see just what it should be unless we also know what the goal is.

Is it translation, for example, if I make a children's rendering of a story? I would think so.

But I hope for more commentary from others.

J. K. Gayle said...

"we can't see just what it should be unless we also know what the goal is."

Henry, You've prompted me to write another post to get at some of these issues (namely, to look at how words in a language, translated with the aim of faithfulness to the author, can actually have the effect of whitewashing the ugliness of the words.)

Yes - it'd be good to have more commentary from others. Thanks for prompting conversation!