Yesterday I was checking the translation of Romans 11 into another language (through a literal translation back to English). I came to verse 16 and thought about it. I realized that the translation that I was checking, as well as every English translation I know about, had a translation gap. What I mean by a translation gap is that a significant amount of background information for this verse was known by the original author, and, probably, assumed to be known by his original audience. But many (most?) people reading that verse today in translations into other languages would not share that background information with the original author or his audience.
Here is how the passage reads in the TEV (Good News Translation) which our children grew up on:
If the first piece of bread is given to God, then the whole loaf is his also; and if the roots of a tree are offered to God, the branches are his also.
The TEV is one of the most idiomatic translations ever produced in English. Its English is natural. Yet someone without background knowledge of Jewish religious customs would not understand Rom. 11:16 in the TEV or any other translation, for that matter. And we really can’t make an encyclopedia out of our translations, filling in all such large translation gaps.
But somehow we need to ensure that translation users have access to the background information needed to understand translation gaps. We can place this information in Bible study notes, a separate commentary, or have a footnote telling the reader to ask a Bible teacher to explain about first fruit offerings.
Are you alert to translation gaps as you read the Bible? Do you use them as “teachable moments” to learn something you didn’t know before that will help you understand the translation better? If you are a Bible teacher or minister, are you able to walk in the shoes of your class or congregation so that you can anticipate what will be translation gaps for them that need to be filled in.
The translation process is not complete until its original meaning has been communicated to its audience. Partial communication of original meaning is a form of inaccuracy. Yes, as much as I might prefer otherwise, I recognize that we cannot communicate all of that original meaning by filling every gap in the translation itself. No translation, however literal or idiomatic, can communicate every part of the meaning which was part of an original communication event. But we still need to be alert to what aspects of original meaning need to be filled in, one way or another, for our translation users.
As an exercise for the comments on this post, let’s have some of you mention and fill in the translation gaps that you find in any translation of Rom. 11:16. (Please do not comment on the TEV wording, since the TEV wording is not the point of this post. The point of this post applies to every translation of Rom. 11:16.)
What background information is needed for this verse to make sense to users of any translation of it? Even if the answer seems obvious to you, given your own background knowledge, feel free to do this exercise.