(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)