translation equivalence – introduction #2

(This is the second post in my series on translation equivalence. Be sure to read the first post for background information.)

Sometimes an idiom in one language can have a different idiom in another language as a translation equivalent. Cheyennes say, “Nato’semhaeto ho’honaa’e,” literally, “I’m going to swallow a rock.” One possible English translation equivalent is the idiom, “I’m going to stick to my guns.” Another would be the English idiom, “I’m not going to back down.” As with all idioms, the meaning of the Cheyenne idiom has nothing to do, literally, with the meaning of its parts. The meaning of the Cheyenne idiom has nothing to do with swallowing or rocks. A literal translation of the Cheyenne idiom, therefore, is not a translation equivalent, since a translation equivalent, by definition, must match meanings between two languages.

Anyone who has studied a language beside their own knows that many wordings between the two languages do not match up word for word, or even the same words in different orders. To speak or write a language well, it is necessary to express concepts in that language the way that social conventions have determined those things are worded in that language. To be a fluent speaker of a language you must follow the syntactic and lexical rules of that language. 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.

But this most basic principle of translation equivalence is often thrown out the window (translate that italicized phrase into any other language!) when it comes to Bible translation. For some reason, Bible translators often try to match up forms of one language with forms of another language even when their meanings do not match, or at least when those forms are not used in the target language. In other words, Bible translators often do not use translation equivalents of the forms in the biblical languages. As a Bible translator myself, observing lack of translation equivalence is the most frustrating experience I have as I work with native speakers of languages who are translating the Bible and as I evaluate English translations of the Bible.

Instead of asking the question: “How would a native speaker of this language express the meaning of the wording of the source language,” Bible translators often force the target language wording to answer a question more like: “How can we say it as closely as possible to the form of the source language so maybe it can be understood?” The idea of actual translation equivalence is often not considered.

We might be able to understand a Spanish speaker who is learning English if they say to us, “How are you called?” But we immediately know that they are not saying it in English the way we actually ask someone their name. Would that matter to us? I think so. Most of us understand better and feel more comfortable when things are said following the normal rules of our own language.

(to be continued)

10 thoughts on “translation equivalence – introduction #2

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    swallow a rock is very descriptive – stick to my guns is a time-limited metaphor I hope. I would still go for literal here to discover and introduce the foreign imagery into the translation.

    How are you called? eventually I would have to decide if it meant – what is your name, or how does God call you – a divine passive. Of course I am being stubborn here – and sometimes I will completely miss the idiom – unavoidably. Even explaining an idiom in English to an English speaker is difficult.

    Here’s an old example I learned as a child – vous tirez ma jambe will not do as a translation of you’re pulling my leg.

    One rule we try to follow in our translation at our work is to use a translator whose mother-tongue is the target language. This is very hard to do even in a bilingual country – time and money get in the way of achievement of the legal requirements. We have had some funny gaffes – translating spaces as vierges (virgins) and ‘drag and drop’ (re mouse movement) – well I don’t remember but my translator did fix it.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    You may want to stick to your guns. But Bob is right and agrees with Christine Ammer, who says “This expression, originally put as stand to one’s guns, alluded to a gunner remaining by his post. Its figurative use dates from the mid-1800s.” Now you may want to “swallow a rock” which is also precisely equal to “stick to your word” but then there’s the harder issue of “swallowing an idea.”

    Speaking of “swallowing pride,” I remember Pike saying something much different from what you say the late Pike would say. He told this story of a teacher of his who spoke of the abstract idealized desire for each language to have one word per equivalently matched meaning. The student Pike objected: “But professor, how then would any of us learn another language”? (And, yes, you guessed it, by his words “another language” Pike also meant “an other’s language.”–Hope you don’t mind, Wayne; you’ve got me blogging about nearly equivalent things).

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk, I don’t understand how you can say that “stick to my guns” is not a translation equivalent of the Cheyenne idiom.

    The English idiom stick to my guns originated, of course, with the idea of standing by one’s guns. But that is not the meaning today of the English idiom. That’s what an idiom is, namely, a lexical unit which does not mean the sum of the meanings of its parts. It has a unique meaning for that particular expression. Etymological meaning does not equate with actual meaning when it comes to idioms. Note this webpage answer to someone’s query on what “stick to my guns” means.

    Or am I missing something that you are saying? I could easily be.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob commented:

    swallow a rock is very descriptive – stick to my guns is a time-limited metaphor I hope. I would still go for literal here to discover and introduce the foreign imagery into the translation.

    Yes, you could do that, Bob, but in that case you would not be using a translation equivalent. The meanings of idioms have nothing to do with the meanings of their individual parts.

    How are you called?

    Please read my first post in this series which points out that this is the literal translation of the Spanish way of asking someone what their name is. In translation we need to find the equivalent expression used in English or any other language to match the meaning and function of the Spanish question. The English translation equivalent of the Spanish question is: “What is your name?”

    Here’s an old example I learned as a child – vous tirez ma jambe will not do as a translation of you’re pulling my leg.

    Excellent! You are making the same point that I am in this series.

    One rule we try to follow in our translation at our work is to use a translator whose mother-tongue is the target language.

    Very good. That is a rule that should be insisted on for every translation.

    The problem with many English translations of the Bible is that they are often done by English-speaking Bible scholars who do not use their mother tongue when they translate to English. Instead, they use a Bible dialect of English which they have learned as Bible scholars, but it not their mother tongue.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    Did I say that? Your Mrs Gobbledygook says to your Dear Mrs Schönenberger in English: “Don’t mind people that might be laughing at you.” To which the latter might reply with “Möchten Sie mich auf den Arm nehmen?” The translation equivalent is that the former wasn’t listening very well to the latter, who was trying to say something about the problems of being a woman using an English idiom with sexist ambiguities.

    I’m just trying to say that “translation equivalence” is pretty dreamy stuff. Unless it’s Vulcan Spock and the Greek man Aristotle talking through the translation machine Noam Chomsky invented.

  6. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    I can’t get away from the feeling that the church has been sold a bill of goods. People argue over and over that because the Bible was written in a different time and culture the foreignness is important to the message.


    Again, hogwash.

    There is no value in including foreignness when it can be avoided. We are deceived because our culture has interacted with the Scriptures for so long that we can almost understand the Greek and Hebrew wording (or the AV wording that we take for the Greek and Hebrew wording).

    And if a particular idiom is quaint in English (like “swallow a rock”), then all the more reason to avoid it. It actually means something different precisely because it loses the “shock” value that J. K. Gayle and I have talked about before — the idea that native speakers don’t so much understand words (and idioms) as react to their meanings.

    Having quasi-literal “translations” of Greek and Hebrew only reinforces the mistaken idea that the writers of Scripture were purposefully vague (or mystical).

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    I’m shocked, Rich. Can’t believe you didn’t avoid the quaint “hogwash.” Our culture’s interacted with it so long it needs no connection with pig swill. Too bad for African American writers such as Carlo Parcelli and Ishmael Reed, both of whom use “Massa Swill” (which puns the Master’s will and his swill). But we’d have to be children of slaves to understand, right?

  8. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    I’m still bemused by the assumption you seem to make that translational equivalence is:

    1) impossible in principle, and

    2) only a platonic ideal.

    And since you reject the notion that there are platonic ideals, you continue to focus on the problem cases instead of on the normative stuff that makes most of the bilingual world work almost as well as monolingual societies.

    I, too, reject the existence of platonic ideals, but I do not believe that that commits me to saying that I must focus on the possible vaguenesses and mismatches in cross-linguistic situations.

    Put more straight forwardly, I think I can tell what people mean most of the time when they are speaking to me. I certainly believe that that is as true in translation, I can find ways in language X to say with some comfortable degree of certainty what someone speaking language Y means.

    You keep bringing up Pike’s monolingual demonstrations which I think prove that something like the strong version of the Whorf hypothesis is wrong. Even if every language (in fact, every speaker) has its (his/her) own unique array of categories dividing up the world — which I firmly believe — there is enough overlap to make effective communication happen. Society would fall apart otherwise.

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk wrote:

    I’m just trying to say that “translation equivalence” is pretty dreamy stuff.

    I don’t think it is, Kurk. Many, many people who have learned more than one language can give many examples of translation equivalence, the kinds of examples I am giving in this series. There are huge numbers of translation equivalents even among European languages which are not literal translation equivalents. It’s just the way languages are. Speakers of languages come up with wonderful and amazing ways to say the same things in quite different ways.

    I’m sure you’ve found numerous examples in your own work on Greek where the Greek expressions do not literally match any English expressions if we are attempting to state the Greek meaning accurately in English. That’s all I’m trying to do in this series, to demonstrate what translation equivalence is. It’s an important concept in the field of translation theory and practice. Professional translators are reminded all the time to translate the meaning of expressions into the standard, natural ways that that meaning is expressed in the target language.

    Otherwise, there cab be a diplomatic snafu when, as the story goes, one translator literally translated “Something is rotten in Denmark” and it offended the Danish ambassador who did not know the English idiom.

    Or Bible English “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” gets translated into Russian as “the vodka is willing but the meat is rotten.” Now, that translation was done by a computer many years ago. But human translators don’t do much better if they don’t take into account meaning in context, idioms, etc.

  10. J. K. Gayle says:

    Rich and Wayne,
    Now it seems we may be moving to some agreement in our conversations. But as soon as we start playing Translator Monopoly and one of your pieces lands on a text of the Bible set, you guys insist on playing with real money. When anyone calls foul, you say “okay, it’s now real money for all of it.”

    I think we agree that any text is intrinsically social. But a translator is more than a messenger who can be shot (and whose final gasp might be, “hey, I was only the delivery person”).

    The most profound thing about Kenneth Pike was not slot-filler and form-function distinctions (for equivalence and accuracy in translation). No, Pike understood how important the personal is in the interpersonal. And the most important distinctions are in the questions Who’s on the inside, Who’s on the outside, and Which directions are they moving toward.

    When you confess anger, or fear of lessons “to learn from the N.T. authors or LXX translators how we should translate accurate and naturally today,” aren’t we beginning to agree on the social subjectivities in our translating?

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