My wife and I smile about an anecdote of an elderly lady concerned for the souls of Indians in Mexico. She wrote to a missionary there and asked him to send her a dictionary of one of the languages so that she could translate the Bible into that language. I hope that you smile at this story also. The lady was well-intentioned but did not realize that it takes much more knowledge of a language than access to a dictionary to translate anything into that language, let alone an ancient, complex document such as the Bible.
Before we can translate anything into any language, someone on our translation team must be a fluent speaker of that language. Translation professionals say that it is best that the translator be a native speaker of that language. And, ideally, it should be a native speaker who is considered by their peers to be a good speaker of the language, known to follow the the language patterns (rules) which speakers of that language have developed and used over a long period of time. And it should be someone who has a good sense for composing in the various genres of that language, and able to use the rich storehouse of figurative expressions in the language.
Translation is truly an awesome responsibility for anyone, more so when translating a text so important as that of the Bible. A good translator must be able to resist the pressure of importing syntax and word combinations which are not part of their own language. A good translator need not necessarily have a formal knowledge of the syntactic and lexical rules of their own language, but they need to sense intuitively when those rules are being broken. They must know how to revise improper wordings until they become proper. A good translator recognizes that there is often more than one proper way to word something. A good translator knows the difference between high-level oratorical language and colloquial, slangy language.
Unfortunately, sometimes those who translate the Bible to English lack some of these qualities. They may speak and write English well, but they may not have a good enough intuitive grasp of the language to detect translation wordings which are not part of the grammar of their language. (Here I am using the term grammar in the linguistic sense to refer to all patterns of a language which are followed by its speakers, including sound patterns, syntax, word combinations, and discourse patterns such as proper ways to introduce new characters in a story.)
There are exercises which any of us can do which can help us discover and state explicitly what we already know implicitly about our own language. Let’s try one of these exercises, the search to discover some of the syntax of one of the shortest but most important words in English, the conjunction “and.” Following are a number of sentences which have the word “and.” A sentence may or may not be grammatical. You should be able to discover facts about the grammar of English “and” if you can intuitively sense which sentences are properly worded and which are not. You may never have had this particular exercise in any of your English grammar classes in the past, but you may be able to discover something about the grammar of “and” from these sentence. Try to express what you sense are some rules that you follow for the proper usage of English “and”, as you examine these sentences. You don’t have to use any special terminology to express your grammatical observations. Just tell what you have observed in your own words.
- I saw Jeff and Marie at the store yesterday.
- I saw my wife and my spouse at the store yesterday.
- I like my car and my automobile.
- Our son and daughter each have a significant other.
- We are students and pupils in Professor Rhodes’ Semantics 451 class.
- My wife helps and assists me with the housework.
- Pastor Hobbins delivered the homily and sermon at our church this morning.
- I like the trousers you have on and the slacks you are wearing.
- This morning I washed my car and changed the spark plugs.
- My elderly parents are living with us and residing with us.
OK, what observations can you make about what can and cannot be properly joined together with the word “and”?
In our next post we’ll followup with implications for use of the word “and” when translating the Bible to English.