translation equivalence – introduction

Translation equivalence exists between forms in a source language and a target language if their meaning matches.(1) I would also claim that a translation equivalent needs to be what people in a target language actually say or write for that particular meaning. In other words, translation equivalence should answer the question, “What do the speakers of this language actually say to express the desired meaning?” This is a very different question from ones that are often asked, instead, such as, “What could the speakers of this language say to express the desired meaning?” or, “Could the speakers of this language understand this wording as expressing the desired meaning?”

Let’s look at some everyday examples of translation equivalence and then turn to equivalence in Bible translation.

When Spanish speakers want to learn the name of a person, they ask that person, “¿Cómo se llama?” A literal translation of the Spanish is: “How do you call yourself?” (or even more literally, in the Spanish word order, “How self you call?” But neither of these literal translations is what we English speakers say to someone to learn their name. The translation equivalent we use is, of course, “What’s your name?” In the Cheyenne Indian language the translation equivalent is, “Nitonshivih?” literally, “you-how-named?”

In English we say, “It’s hot” about the weather. The Spanish translation equivalent is “Hace calor,” literally “It makes hot.” If we literally translate “It’s hot” from English to Spanish, we would get something like, “Es caliente,” which would not be good Spanish.

In Spanish a young couple will often say, “Vamos a dar un paseo,” literally, “we are going to give a walk.” It would not be good English to use that literal translation for the same meaning. Instead, the English translation equivalent is, “We’re going for a walk.”

In English we have an idiom, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” We cannot translate this idiom literally to any other language and get a translation equivalent. Instead, we have to use an expression that means the same in each language. For Cheyenne we would say, “Ema’xêhoo’koho,” literally “it-much-rain” or, in a smoother translation, “It’s raining a lot.”

Cheyennes say, “Ma’eno enehpoese,” which literally means “The turtle is obstructing hanging.” If we leave the translation literal no English speakers would know what that idiom means. The translation equivalent in English is, “It’s foggy.”

John Hobbins rightly criticizes translations such as the CEV whose translation equivalents, as a whole, make the CEV sound flat in terms of literary quality. But translations of the Bible need not sound flat at all.

(to be continued)

(1) It’s actually more complicated than this for the best translation, since we also want translation equivalence to match social register and literary genre, whenever possible.

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