We talk a lot about word-for-word translation. In a previous posting, Wayne points out “[a] truly word-for-word translation would be an interlinear translation,” So, it seems to me, no translation would then be truly word-for-word. Wayne goes on to offer three possible explanations for what ESV proponents might mean by the phrase as they compare their preferred translation with those translations felt to not be word-for-word:
- There is greater concordance of words…
- There is a higher degree of formal equivalence…
- There is an attempt to translate each word of the original biblical text with some word or words in English.
I think the last is the most likely. And, to be more specific, I think the term word-for-word, as it is used by its proponents, refers to the translation method. I think it has less to do with concordance and/or formal equivalence. These first two explanations appear to me to form metrics which measure the word-for-word quality of the translation. The later, however, is the kernel.
I think this would explain why ESV’s translation of Hebrews, when compared to other NT books, is less conformable to the word-for-word norm. Hebrews doesn’t measure up as well to the “matching a word in the original with a word in the translation” metric. Even though it is still thought of as word-for-word, it evidences exceptions to the method.
Wayne’s use of comparative terms (greater concordance, higher degree) in his assessment of what the ESV team means by word-for-word translation also indicates there are exceptions to the word-for-word rule when this method is followed. The word attempt in the last explanation clearly shows that exceptions are required.
And this brings us closer to the point of this post. I think there is a deeper reason word-for-word proponents allow for, even require, exceptions to their otherwise word-for-word method. And that’s my question: When following a word-for-word method to translations, why are there exceptions?
Whenever we discuss a translation choice according to a word-for-word perspective, we invariably run head-first into the list of exceptions. Word order is an obvious problem. So, we have to handle that exception. Metaphors sometimes don’t work. Though, thankfully, many Biblical metaphors are quite basic to human life and they tend to work in Western, civilized cultures. But it’s still true that as the translation process progresses, each metaphor is considered for its value within the destination culture—that is, should an exception be made? Within the word-for-word perspective there’s hesitancy to translate an original word with more than one destination word. Doing so would also be an exception. However, it is necessary to do so in many cases; so, the exception is allowed. Translating with less words is also frowned on—it is exceptional. John 3:27 presents a common case. The KJV and NKJV (as well as other word-for-word translations such as NASB and ASV) render it “John answered and said…” The ESV allows (rightfully, I think) the exception, ”John answered,” rendering with two words what is four in the original. Puns and other purposeful ambiguities are not even thought of as exceptional. They’re just not handled at all. Admittedly, these communication devices are very difficult to handle by any translation method. They lay outside the purview of the current science of translation. In fact, all these exceptions seem to reside outside of the linguistic theory which supports word-for-word translation.
Why the exceptions? Why are they even viewed as exceptions? Why doesn’t the theory supporting the word-for-word translation methodology explain these practical, common artifacts of the text? And do so, not as exceptions, but as part and parcel of how the language works?
William James said:
Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there ever floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to… Anyone will renovate his science who will steadily look after the irregular phenomena, and when science is renewed, its new formulas often have more of the voice of the exceptions in them than of what were supposed to be the rules.
I suggest the reason for the exceptions is because the linguistic theory underlying the word-for-word translation method is inherently broken. A renewed translation method will incorporate the exceptional into the norm as, in fact, normal. As I see it, the theory supporting word-for-word translation does not have the explanatory power to incorporate the exceptions into the norm. It has to handle them as exceptions. And worse, while William James refers to exceptions “minute and seldom seen,” the exceptions met with in word-for-word Bible translation are significant and frequent.
The problem is: the normal, communicating human being doesn’t view as exceptional the kinds of exceptions required by a word-for-word method. Language simply doesn’t work that way. They think of these artifacts as just normal and natural. That is, a language provides to the language user a rather coherent system. And the language user processes a text written in that language in a rather unexceptional way–the user doesn’t have to start, stop, and stutter their way through a text. This is not to say that authors can’t use the language in creative ways. It’s to say that the creative ways don’t require exceptional ways of processing them.
But, word-for-word translation method does view them as exceptional? So, why doesn’t the method sync-up with the normal way language works? Why are word-for-word translations so exceptional?