A year ago I was sworn in as a county planning commissioner. It has been an adventure. I’ve had years of practice as a dean making decisions that affect people’s life options — decisions that can cost people thousands of dollars. But the kinds of decisions I have participated in as a member of the Planning Commission are another whole kettle of fish. The cost to the various parties when conditional use permits are granted or denied (at first approximation, allowing people to build or not) can run into the millions of dollars, especially here in the Bay Area where, even with the housing downturn, properties in the low rent district are still $250,000 or more.
I found myself in the position of being appointed to this position because of a dust-up in the summer of 2007 in which our section of Castro Valley was proposed to be moved from the Castro Valley planning area to the planning area immediately to our west. For any number of reasons our neighborhood was against the proposal and I ended up being one of the spokespersons. This put me on the political radar.
Castro Valley is wealthier and and has more desirable property than most of the area west of us — better schools, more businesses, better services, less crime, and, no surprise, higher property values.
But the point that is of interest to us here at BBB is how the political argument played out. Castro Valley is all hills and valleys while the land to our west is flat land out to the Bay. For planning purposes it makes little sense to group hill country with flat lands. The issues are entirely different. In spite of that, a key charge in the excessively emotional debate was that the folks in Castro Valley looked down on the the people of flat lands. The charge arose because the people involved took language too literally. The physical fact that the western ridge of Castro Valley looks down on the flat lands was taken as a figurative truth. While it’s literally true, it’s not figuratively true. The Castro Valley folks have nothing against the flat lands. Many in our neighborhood grew up in the flat lands.
So it was an offense taken, not one given. As a result it was very hard to counter.
Taking figurative language literally is a problem in thinking about translation as well.
We characterize the fact that languages don’t match exactly by saying that something is “lost in translation”, forgetting that that expression is only a metaphor. But the truth is that the underlying issue is one of mismatch. Meanings are both lost and gained. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset talked about this by saying that that every utterance is both “exuberant” and “deficient”. Every translation lacks some parts of the meaning that were in the original. But it likewise includes some meanings that weren’t there in the original.
Take just about any theologically loaded term, like ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the word of God’. We read such terms with the weight of two millenia of theology on them, and hear things in the passages containing them that aren’t there in the original.
So we hear ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ as synonymous with the Bible. Sometimes that isn’t much of a problem:
ἐκάθισεν δὲ ἐνιαυτὸν καὶ μῆνας ἓξ διδάσκων ἐν αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ
And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (Acts 18:11, NIV)
But sometimes that reading doesn’t make sense at all:
καὶ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ηὔξανεν καὶ ἐπληθύνετο ὁ ἀριθμὸς τῶν μαθητῶν ἐν Ἰερουσαλὴμ σφόδρα πολύς τε ὄχλος τῶν ἱερέων ὑπήκουον τῇ πίστει
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7, ESV)
Huh? How can the Bible increase?
Clearly in this case ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the word of God’ means something else — metonymically it refers to the effect of the preaching of the word of God. But then English phrase the word of God can’t mean that.
Translate conservatively and you get the wrong idea. This is exactly the kind of example that shows that you have to translate the meaning rather than the wording to avoid saying something that the original does not say.
To listen to the debate one would believe that formal equivalent translations lose little and add nothing, while dynamic equivalent translations lose much and add much. Ergo FE beats DE. (And that’s why you get to slam DE translations as less accurate.)
Gimme a break.
The dirty little secret is that FE translations add as much, and sometimes even more than good DE translations. Well, maybe add isn’t quite the right way to talk about how much one can get the wrong idea from the same wording.
1) a FE translation ALWAYS loses more than a serious DE translation, especially in places where it is possible to lose almost nothing, and
2) for most of the Scripture it is possible to lose almost nothing.
3) For most of the cases in which people complain the loudest about the lost associations of DE, the communicative value of such secondary meanings is so much less important than the primary meaning that the cost of trying to keep the associations at the expense of a phrasing that distorts the primary meanings is too high to be acceptable.
and 4) the notion of the “foreignness” of Scripture that is currently being bandied about unscrutinized is one of those things added in translation. None of Scripture was foreign in any way to its original audience. It shouldn’t be to us.