Turning a lion into a kitty cat

image HT: John Hobbins

I searched the BBB archives and only found one mention of Martin Shields. He has begun a series of posts on Bible translation that is well worth reading.

  1. what’s wrong with a literal translation?
  2. what’s wrong with the “plain meaning” of scripture
  3. a foreignising translation of genesis 1, part I

This called to mind Jim West’s recent “quote of the year” by Robert Carroll:

“The Bible’s domestication robs it of much of its alien qualities and so impoverishes our readings of it.”

Robert Carroll

image I’m unsure of the source of the quote but it might be from Wolf in the Sheepfold: The Bible as Problematic for Theology a book by Carroll that West mentioned in November.

Shields proposes that it is possible to reflect the “alien qualities” of the original text without resorting to unnatural language. Shields promises some examples of foreignizing translations in upcoming posts. I look forward to reading what he produces.

18 thoughts on “Turning a lion into a kitty cat

  1. John Hobbins says:

    Those images are fantastic! They tell the whole story.

    I read the Psalms, Job, and the prophets in Hebrew, and I hear the roar of a lion. I read almost any English translation thereof, and I hear the purr of a kitten.

  2. Mike Sangrey says:

    Shields proposes that it is possible to reflect the “alien qualities” of the original text without resorting to unnatural language.

    Yes. How does a science fiction story do this? It’s foreign; and yet, it’s not.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    For that matter, Mike, how does a good historical novel do this? Or a fantasy novel set (as so many are) in a pseudo-mediaeval world? I mention these alternatives because they are closer parallels to what we need to get into the world(s) of the Bible.

  4. David Ker says:

    Maybe we should talk about Tolkien. In addition to his trilogy he also translated quite a few ancient texts (I’m thinking of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and I am wondering if in translation he was as skillful at this sort of foreignizing as he was in the LOTR. I’ve also read translations of Beowulf that made me feel I was being invited into a foreign world without being incomprehensible.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    I think C.S. Lewis is a better example than Tolkien. Tolkien, like Lewis, invented some fantasy worlds. But Tolkien created some foreign language to go with that world. That’s fine for the purposes of that genre of fantasy other-world literature. But I personally prefer fantasy other-world literature that is expressed using my own language, English, as Lewis does in the Narnia tales and the Space Trilogy.

    I believe that accurately referring to the foreign culture items and practices which occur in the Bible sufficiently foreignizes the text. I don’t think it is necessary to foreignize the text further with non-English syntax and word combinations. In other words, for adequate Bible translation for the *majority* of speakers of a language there should be *no* transculturation, but there true linguistic translation.

  6. Mike Sangrey says:

    John wrote:
    I read the Psalms, Job, and the prophets in Hebrew, and I hear the roar of a lion. I read almost any English translation thereof, and I hear the purr of a kitten.

    I don’t read Hebrew; however, I’ve seen enough of the flattening you refer to in the New Testament to agree that this a problem.

    Modern translation theory works from the original text toward its propositional content (the meaning). I think that method produces accuracy. However, I also don’t think a good translation should sound like a sequence of propositions. So, after the propositional content is developed, the translator (or translation team) should seek to mirror (mimic) the original style. The propositions should be conveyed with that style.

    My favorite example of this is the Prodigal father. When his son came home he exhibits a bouncing excitement. That excitement is missing in translations.

  7. codepoke says:

    David, this is one of the most exciting posts I’ve read in a long, long time. Thank you.

    When I hear a statement like John’s above, that the Psalms roar like a lion in a language I will never access, I get angry. I write computer code for a living, and I know what happens when a committee gets its hands on anything. They make it better. It quits making mistakes. It works best for the largest number of people. Everyone becomes an order of magnitude happier.

    And the art is gone.

    I’m dying for a translation of God’s fiery words that commits a violent work of art! I can’t even understand a blog like WombMan’s Bible (http://wombmansbible.blogspot.com/), but as I taste the issues in passing he makes me want to cry. I’ll gladly struggle through awkward phrasings and heavy-handed restructurings if someone will give me the passion.

    Aren’t there enough safe versions out there? Can’t someone break radically and translate the fire of God’s heart, even if it’s near-indefensible before a panel of educated critics?

  8. David Ker says:

    Wayne, CS Lewis is an interesting case. The work of his that I find most transports me into another world is Til We Have Faces. For me the Narnian Chronicles and the Space Trilogy now just sound quaint. But Til We Have Faces haunts my memories with his masterful writing and I think it will weather the centuries better than Narnia.

    I have a similar sensation when I read the Living Bible. It is clear English but its contemporaneity sounds funny to my ears.

    Alter said this about Fox’s Five Books of Moses: “Fox’s translation has the rare virtue of making constantly visible in English the Hebraic quality of the original, challenging preconceptions of what the Bible is really like. A bracing protest against the bland modernity of all the recent English versions of the Bible.”

    Now there are parts of that encomium that I can embrace as being fine goals. But more to the point as I read what little Fox I have access to (through what’s available on Amazon) I’m not seeing any blatant Biblish. He is creative in trying to make explicit wordplay. And there is that feeling of “foreignness that we’re all trying to put a finger on.

    I don’t know. Maybe someone else can help me out here.

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    But more to the point as I read what little Fox I have access to (through what’s available on Amazon) I’m not seeing any blatant Biblish.

    No, I don’t think Alter or Fox have Biblish in their translations. Perhaps they don’t because they are not translating within the Tyndale-KJV tradition which is where so much Biblish is retained in current Bible versions.

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    codepoke wrote:

    I’ll gladly struggle through awkward phrasings and heavy-handed restructurings if someone will give me the passion.

    I believe — as an article of faith for Bible translators — that we can have the passion without awkward English. We just don’t have enough literary experts, like J.B. Phillips, on our Bible translation teams. There are stylists like me who can cut down some of the hills and fill the valleys to make a smoother ride. But that doesn’t create the passion that you want, and I want it also, since it actually is in much of the Bible.

  11. Peter Kirk says:

    I was indeed thinking of Tolkien and Lewis. Their English (not their Elvish, Old Solar etc) seems old fashioned to us because it is indeed 50 years or so old, written by people born in the 19th century. English has changed vastly since these people were educated a century ago. I don’t think they were being deliberately archaic in their language, just writing in what they considered to be good literary style. Tolkien showed himself aware of language change in the way he made use of the ambiguity of “man” in “The Return of the King”.

  12. Martin Shields says:

    David Ker’s note about the manner in which Til We Have Faces transports him to another world is particularly apt. One way the difference between conventional translation methodologies and foreignising translation is sometimes characterised is that the former seek to transport the author into the reader’s world while the latter seeks to transport the reader into the author’s world.

    I agree with Wayne that non-standard English is not integral to producing a translation which reflects the foreignness of the Bible. Rather, the problem with many English translations lies in the choice to render terms which have considerable social and cultural baggage in their ancient context with English words which do not reflect the significant impact of that baggage and so allow the modern reader to domesticate the text, to overlook those distinctions. One obvious example would be the word “star.” English translations correctly render the Hebrew term to the extent that the word refers to the objects we know as a star. But the translation cannot easily convey the fact that our understanding of a star is far different from that of the ancient reader. A foreignising translation would thus seek to highlight the distinction whereas most translations all too readily allow the reader to impose their modern ideas on the text.

  13. Peter Kirk says:

    Martin, it is easy to say that, but do you have any specific suggestion for how to translate “star” in a way which conveys the understanding of the ancient readers? I really don’t think the English language, or any modern language, has the resources to do that, at least without using repeated lengthy phrases.

  14. David Ker says:

    That’s funny you should mention star because I was just puzzling over that word in Matthew’s nativity narrative. Matthew did not think he was writing nonsense. He had something in mind but his worldview is obscure to me.

  15. Martin Shields says:

    Hi Peter. The short answer, of course, is that you cannot find a translation for “star” which comprehensively encompasses the ancient view, and of course we’re aiming for a translation and not a commentary. I think the best approach (if attempting to highlight the foreignness of the text) is to search for simple translations which cause the reader to take note and ask “why didn’t they just say ‘star’?” (It’s worth noting that in Hebrew Gen 1 deliberately avoids using the term star.) So there are a number of possibilities, perhaps “sky-light” or “night-light” (both terms have obvious problems).

  16. David Ker says:

    Martin did the original writer of Gen 1 deliberately avoid a more natural term for star in order to avoid association with contemporary cultic practice? I’m just wondering about the “deliberately” part.

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