Each translation has its particular approach, and should have an audience in mind. The translators have to ask, “Who is going to read this translation, and how can we render the source text in a way that is suitable for them?” We are blessed in English to have a number of different translations of the Scriptures, and where there are differences among those translations, the differences can be attributable to different approaches, and perhaps different audiences in mind. A big part of this is the translators’ conception of what translation really is, and that leads to different choices in how to approach translation. We can criticize particular “faults” of different translations, but generally translations are the way they are because of the translators’ different conceptions of what is most important to focus on and preserve in translation. In analyzing the differences in translations, rather than focus on perceived flaws, I prefer to deal on the philosophical level, where the real differences lie. I’m fascinated by the question, “What is translation, really?” There certainly isn’t universal agreement on the answer to that question. Once you identify a philosophy of translation, that goes a long way towards explaining why a particular translation is the way it is. I have to add, though, that even if a body of translators shared a common philosophy of translation, they could still produce different translations if they have different subgroups in mind as their audience, and different purposes in mind for the translation, e.g. meditation, study, liturgical use.
In order to talk about what translation is, I want to start by talking about the nature of meaning. Everybody should agree that meaning is a central concern in translation. You want to produce a translation that has the same meaning as the original text from another language. I hope I’m not overstating the situation when I suggest that meaning is universally understood as the bottom line in translation. This is sometimes explained in terms of equivalence. You want a translation that is in some important way — in fact, in every way possible — equivalent to the source text. You want a translation that enables the reader to plumb the depth of meaning in the source text in all its richness.
So here I’m just going to meditate some on the meaning of meaning, and later I can go on to make more explicit the implications for how we translate. In order to consider this very deep subject, I’m going to start with the topic of obligatory possession in Bible translation, and use that as a basis for thinking about the nature of meaning.
Obligatory possession. This is a topic that Bible translators need to understand before working on a translation into a language that doesn’t yet have the Bible. I’m not talking about English here, but the concept is interesting and worth considering. The fact is that sometimes, when one is translating, one needs to actually make the translation more specific, in certain ways, than the source text. It’s not that it is desirable to do that, but rather that it simply isn’t avoidable sometimes. That fact is true even with respect to translation into English in certain cases. But it is most obvious when one is translating into another language that forces choices that the translator may not be prepared for. You may have heard of languages that don’t have a single word for ‘brother,’ for example, but rather words meaning specifically ‘younger brother’ or ‘older brother.’ The translator has to figure out which word is the best choice in each context, and the choice can’t be avoided. More relevant for today’s topic, there are languages that have obligatory possession for certain categories of noun, particularly body parts and kinship terms.
In The Bible Translator 1.4.166-69 (1950), William Thompson describes the Guajiro language in which one can’t talk in detached ways about eyes, arms, legs, fathers, sons, etc. Obviously, each of these things has a possessor, semantically-speaking, and in Guajiro, one can’t talk about these concepts as if they weren’t possessed — though one can in English and in Greek. In languages like this, you can’t just talk about “the heart,” “an eye,” “a father,” “sons,” and so forth, but instead you have to specify “a person’s heart” or “your eye” or “the boy’s father” or “our sons.” It only makes sense, when you think about it, because each of these things naturally has a possessor. Some languages just don’t allow for discussing naturally-possessed things in abstract ways. So the translator has to do some thinking to translate, for example, Matthew 6:22a, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” Fortunately, vv. 22b and 23 do get more specific: “So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness” (RSV). Matthew 7:3 wouldn’t be a problem: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV). But what about Luke 10:23, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see,” or I Cor. 12:14-26, with language like “The eye cannot say to the hand“? Or when it comes to kinship terms, how do you translate Gal. 4:2-6, with language like “…until the date set by the father” (RSV; NIV specifies “his father” for Greek τοῦ πατρός) and “because you are sons” ?
When you think about it, all body parts and all kinship terms are possessed. In English and Greek, we can talk about eyes and hands and bodies in abstract ways, but each of these things is possessed, implicitly if not explicitly. Even if you see a detached hand, you know it came from a body. You can’t have a daughter without having a parent. The point I wanted to get to is that, even though we may talk about meaning in abstract terms, it, too, is something obligatorily possessed. That’s true semantically speaking — just not grammatically speaking. We can talk about “the meaning (of a text),” but that meaning must be in relation to a person. A text means something to a person. Meanings cannot be disembodied. They must go along with a mind, or they don’t exist at all. (I’m going to address the theological side of this shortly.)
It is common to think and talk about words and texts as though they have meaning, and in a sense, this is right. But in a deeper sense, the meanings aren’t really in the language itself, but in the minds of the people who are using that language as a medium of communication. Language is a systematic, socially-agreed-upon way of expressing meaning among individuals. We use language because we want to influence each other, whether it be in the way of informing, comforting, exhorting, bonding, warning, and so forth. Much of language has to do with informing, namely, I have something in my head that I want you to get into yours, so we use the medium of language to do that. Words and grammatical constructions have meanings because we attribute meanings to them.
My position is that all meanings are localized. None are disembodied. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as absolute truth. I’m talking about meaning, not truth. But I equate absolute truth with God’s truth, and we as people should want to get our truth in line with God’s truth. That isn’t always easy, because we are limited in our understanding. Similarly, the closest thing to objective meaning is God’s meaning. It is not impersonal; it is God’s. Let’s not quibble about the fact that God doesn’t have a body. He has a mind, and thoughts. He is infinite, while we are limited in our understanding and perspective. The Scriptures are God’s message, God’s communication to us, and as I have argued before, their meaning is even above and beyond the individual humans who wrote them. Yet God uses human vessels and a human means of communication to express His knowledge and love and will to us.
There are implications of this for translation, but I’ll write more about that soon. This is all part of an overall philosophy of language and meaning and communication and translation that can guide us in how we seek to spread God’s message through translation. Once you have a sound philosophy of translation, choices in how you translate flow out of that.