What is a translation, and how might it be bad?

A translation is a text with qualities of equivalence to a prior text in another language, such that the new text is taken as a substitute for the original. You may not realize it, but “equivalence” is a problematic concept in translation theory. I include it anyway in my definition of translation, because without some notion — some intention and perception — of equivalence, you wouldn’t call the new text a translation. My solution is to make it subjective. For something to be considered a translation, the translator and the audience for the translation have to recognize that the newly constructed text is somehow equivalent to the original text.

I’m not going to try to explain translation in objective, scientific terms, because all attempts I have seen to do so have been problematic and unsatisfying. Despite the problems, translation has been taking place as long as there has been a diversity of languages, and the fact of translation is not dependent on scientific explanation. As philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser said, “To explain why a man slipped on a banana peel, we do not need a general theory of slipping.”

You might call this explanation of translation anthropological or sociological, rather than linguistic or psychological. All definitions that I have seen that attempt to be psychological or linguistic have either recognized their own inadequacy, or else have just looked wrong to me. If this definition doesn’t jive with common sense, then as far as I am concerned it is wrong. It is based on people, and the central character is the translator, who has to be able to understand two languages. Of course the intended audience for the translation is crucial too. For the translation to accomplish its purpose, the audience has to accept it as a substitute for the original text.

Okay, now, given this definition of translation, what counts as a legitimate translation and what does not? For a translation to be good, it has to accomplish its purpose(s). Basically, that means that the translation has to be somehow equivalent, in the mind of the translator, to the source text, and the audience of the translation has to accept it as a substitute for the original. One could add the theological element in the case of Bible translation, namely that God is also one of the active participants in the process, and He gives His blessing on the resulting translation as a new expression of His message. But that part of the equation is least susceptible to analysis, except that you could say that the success of the translation and the happy reception of the translation among the target audience is a sign of God’s blessing on the translation as an expression of His own message.

What does it mean to say that a translation is bad? Notions of “good” and “bad” are a little naive in relation to translation, and I would rather talk in terms of a translation as being successful or unsuccessful, or to use terms that I like but are maybe a little more pretentious, felicitous or infelicitous. There are three ways a translation can get off track. First, the translator could misunderstand the source text. Secondly, the translator could produce a translation text that doesn’t communicate well because the translator isn’t in tune with the language of the intended audience. These are two types of mistranslations. A third thing that could go wrong is that the translator is dishonest, and presents the translated text as an equivalent of the source text when he or she knows it is not.

It should be obvious that if the translator misunderstands the language of the source text, a mistranslation will result. If we are talking about Bible translation, that is where exegesis and hermeneutics and a knowledge of the Biblical languages are important. Or, the translator may not be able to correctly anticipate how the audience of the translation will receive and understand the translation. There are lots and lots of examples, many humorous, where the translation doesn’t work because the translator doesn’t adequately understand the target language, or otherwise fails to anticipate how the audience will receive and understand the text. Here’s a recent example I like: According to the BBC, the Swansea Council wanted to make a bilingual road sign in both English and Welsh that read, “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” They sent this text by e-mail to a translation service, and when they got the response, they added the Welsh to the road sign, and what the Welsh part of it says, in back translation, is “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.” For other examples of humorous mistranslations, go to www.engrish.com.

Now in addition to mistranslations based on misunderstandings of either the source language or the target language, a third way a translation might be what we could call infelicitous is if the translator is either dishonest or cavalier in how the translation is presented as an equivalent of the source text. I don’t have specific examples to give, and we have to be careful about accusing people of dishonesty, but I am saying that it is something conceivable. And one reason I bring it up is to say that unless it can be demonstrated that the translator misunderstood the source text, or unintentionally communicated poorly to the target audience, or was dishonest, then I don’t think you can say that the translation is bad or wrong. This message has gotten too long, and I will have to continue this thought later, but there are some translations that are unfairly criticized as being out of the bounds of proper translation, when in fact there was no dishonesty and nothing unintential.

13 thoughts on “What is a translation, and how might it be bad?

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks for this. But isn’t there another category of error, where the translator understands the source text and communicates well to the target audience, and is not deliberately dishonest, but in some unintentional way fails to express the meaning of the source text adequately or accurately in the target language? Many of the alleged errors in Bible translations, and indeed perceived inadequacies of whole versions, are in this category.

    Thus for example, when people complain about The Message, they are not usually faulting Peterson’s exegesis, nor suggesting that he “isn’t in tune with the language of the intended audience”, nor suggesting that he is dishonest. Rather, they are suggesting that he is honestly but misguidedly presenting as a translation (or maybe only as a paraphrase) something which is not genuinely equivalent to the original. Or we might make similar points about the Cotton Patch Bible. How would you react to this idea? Perhaps The Message and the CPB are not actually “bad”, but would it not be possible for a version of this general type to be “bad” because it goes beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in a Bible translation?

  2. David Frank says:

    Peter — I would not consider the Message, or even the Cotton Patch Bible, to be in error. Those are both translations on some level. Taking the Cotton Patch Bible as an example, what is crucial is that it is honest about itself. If you read the preface, it makes it really clear what it says it is. If it presented itself as “the Bible” without qualification, and if the audience accepted it as such, then I would have a problem with it.

    I would accept The Message as a Bible translation on some level too. As we all know, it is impossible for any translation to completely represent the meaning of the source text. Even a so-called literal translation can’t do that. Nor a meaning-based translation. No translation can be completely equivalent to the original, and for the most part different translations focus on different aspects of the original to try to keep equivalent in the translation. The translator has to choose which meanings to focus on, and the Message represents the translator’s choice in what to focus in in the translation. As long as people aren’t misled in what they are getting, I don’t have a problem with The Message.

    A reason I wrote what I wrote is precisely because I wanted to make a distinction between the statements “This isn’t a proper translation” and “This isn’t how I would have translated it.” I think the two are confused sometimes, and that can lead to feuding. Given the definition I gave of translation, the differences between different translations have a lot to do with different meanings in a semantically complex text that the translator is focusing on (since the translator cannot translate them all at the same time), and different audiences and purposes for the translation. Unfair accusations about translations come from judging another translation according to an audience or purpose that the translator didn’t have.

  3. Mike Sangrey says:

    Peter, wouldn’t what you’re suggesting fall under number two?

    That is, Secondly, the translator could produce a translation text that doesn’t communicate well because the translator isn’t in tune with the language of the intended audience.

    It seems to me field testing of English translations has shown that some tuning is needed (to not make too fine a point).

    Also, I couldn’t help but wonder if there exists three mirror-image categories. These would be applied to the audience. In the interest of fostering cooperation between the translator and the audience, this other list would focus on the audience’s involvement in the communication. It seems to me, given the very nature of communication (it’s a communal thing with both individual and corporate features) that these other, audience-focused, categories would be as helpful as David’s three.

    For example, number one would then be something like, the translation doesn’t agree with my exegesis, and therefore I perceive it to not be equivalent to the original.

  4. Dru says:

    I agree. David, I think your statement “I wanted to make a distinction between the statements “This isn’t a proper translation” and “This isn’t how I would have translated it.”” is important. I also think it’s very legitimate to say, ‘I respect this translation, but the person/panel has different priorities to mine’. Not accepting this principle is the reason for a lot of the polite flaming on blogs like this one – ‘We’re Christians. We don’t flame. We just impugn each others theological credibility’

    To me, for example, it is important that a translation has some of the register of the original. This is why I said some months ago that for me, different ones were better for the Old and New Testaments. On the other hand, it is clear that this is less important for some other people, for whom relatively simple modern English idiom is the critical ingredient. On this spectrum, I don’t have anything like such an aversion to the milder forms of Biblish provided it’s modern Biblish rather than C17 Biblish and, I suppose, provided it is reasonably well written, rather than just contorted. I think there’s a valuable place for the very literal translation, but that place is not for ordinary reading.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    Mike, I am not at all talking about cases where “the translator isn’t in tune with the language of the intended audience”. On the contrary, in these cases the translator may be too much in tune with this language, so much so that he or she unintentionally distorts the message to meet their expectations. I’m not saying that The Message of CPB do this, just that in principle it could happen.

    David, I suppose the danger I see is that your third option is simply “the translator is dishonest”. This implies imputing wrong motives for a translation which does not seem to be properly equivalent to the original. Later on you write “dishonest or cavalier”, to which perhaps I could add “incompetent”, as giving alternative reasons why a translation might fail to reflect the translator’s exegesis. As it is very hard for third parties to distinguish between dishonesty, carelessness and incompetence, I suggest that it would be better to broaden this category to avoid imputing wrong motives.

  6. David Frank says:

    Yes, I would consider the The Message to be a translation of the Bible. It is interesting to look at marginal cases, but I don’t think The Message is marginal as a translation of the Bible. As a type of translation, I would think The Message could be grouped with the Better Life Bible. That doesn’t mean that one couldn’t find any fault in The Message. It probably has some exegetical flaws in it, but I am not up on that and I am not stating that as a fact. Of course, The Message does not convey all the meaning of the original. No translation could do that. I would say that there are some very central meanings to the scriptures that are communicated better in The Message than in a more literal translation, which is more focused on word-level meanings.

    I like the Cotton Patch translation, but it is more marginal as a translation, in that it doesn’t claim to be “the Bible” or “a translation of the Bible,” and if it did so, I might have to fault it on honesty. The preface makes it clear what it is. Still, I would say it is marginally a Bible translation, even if it doesn’t claim to be, because it is obviously based on the Bible, using the Bible as a source text. The Cotton Patch Bible would group together with J.B., by Archibald MacLeish, or Godspell.

    And Peter, I never accused anyone of dishonesty. I only said that it is at least theoretically possible for a translation to be dishonest. And the only reason I brought that up was to be able to say that unless some product in the realm of translation either miscommunicates with the source text or with the target audience, or else is dishonest somehow, then it shouldn’t be disallowed as being a translation.

    I gave funny examples of mistranslations, and I can’t think of examples of dishonest translations, but I am sure I have seen something like this portayed in movies, for humorous effect, where an interpreter gives a meaning different from what the person actually said, either to get two people fighting with each other, or to keep them from fighting with each other, etc. If anybody can find an example like that, I would love to see it.

    Finally, Peter, I can’t think of an example of what you would call an incompetent translation, unless it involves a miscommunication with either the source text or the target audience. I can’t even imagine such a thing. Perhaps you don’t understand that my intention is to be very inclusive in my definition of translation, and I am not eager to disallow anything as being a translation on the basis of miscommunication or dishonesty, much less for any other reason.

  7. Rich Rhodes says:

    There is a very interesting case which shows that translation is as essentially anthropological as it is linguistic in Farsi. In Iranian street rallies they crowds chant “Death to America” or “Death to Israel”. In fact, in Iranian culture this is just a stronger version of “Down with …” as documented here by someone who is an accomplished translator and an Iranian American bi-cultural.

    However, if you try to make the milder translation, many Farsi-English bilinguals are up in arms (as seen, for example here, and their complaints sound eeriely like the complaints about dynamic equivalent renderings in Bible translation.

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    David, let me give a hypothetical example of what might happen which doesn’t fit into any of your categories. I say hypothetical, but I am quite sure this has happened, indeed I have found probable examples of it in final checking.

    A member of a translation team, an exegete, makes a correct draft translation of the original text, clearly indicating that they have correctly understood that text. But the target language rendering is not entirely clear and natural, and is indeed somewhat ambiguous. Another member of the team, a stylist, has tidied up the language, without reference to the source text, but unfortunately has misunderstood the first team member’s intention and so changed the rendering to something which is demonstrably incorrect, although now in the clear and natural form of the target language.

    In this example we cannot say that “the translator misunderstood the source text”, as the exegete’s exegesis is correct. Nor is it a case of “a translation text that doesn’t communicate well because the translator isn’t in tune with the language of the intended audience”; the stylist may be perfectly in tune with this language. Nor was there any dishonesty. The error is not in the exegesis, nor in the clarity or naturalness of the target language rendering. But the translation is clearly not equivalent to the original, in that it is not an accurate reflection of the results of the exegesis. Can we not say that it is a bad translation?

  9. Bob MacDonald says:

    Here’s some advice on translation I gave myself over a year ago:

    “First: don’t worry about too many details; second: trust that you will be able to learn; third: there are mistakes – expect to correct them.

    “It is a multipass operation though I polished the first few psalms more than I perhaps should have to begin with. What was surprising was how easy Psalm 1 was – but how long it took: at least 6 weeks. The structure of verse 1 is beautiful – and it is missed by most translations – quite unnecessarily. I began with Fokkelman – a very hard book to read and not intended for beginners, but it introduced me to the idea of micro-structures and I remain keenly interested in structure. Structure has the capacity to resolve ambiguity and to enable communication. Pattern reveals and corroborates potential meaning.

    “If there is such a thing as the work of the Spirit and the Word of God, then it will be known in the pattern, not in a priori dictation of meaning. And the pattern will also be a fully human communication – a poet struggling to find words appropriate to his covenant dialogue.”

  10. David Frank says:

    I am going back to what Peter Kirk said about another way a translation could go wrong, apart from miscommunication with the source text or miscommunication with the target audience or dishonesty. After thinking about what Peter said, I will have to add that schizophrenia on the part of the translator could also result in a mistranslation. And since Peter mentioned a scenario where a translation was done by a team (quite normal), the analogy of schizophrenia in an individual would be a dysfunctional translation team. That is, all the required competencies and intentions would be there in the team, but a failure to work together properly could result in a sort of schizophrenic translation.

  11. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks, David. I suspect that given the size of the translation task a team doesn’t have to be dysfunctional for errors like this to creep in, just human and so less than perfect. Of course a perfect consultant will pick up such problems, but consultants are also human!

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