Why (Bible) translation matters

I have been skimming descriptions and reviews of the book Why Translation Matters, by literary translator Edith Grossman. I hope I can read Grossman’s book someday, because many of the things she advocates about translation ring true for me as a Bible translator.

The first reviewer on the Amazon.com webpage for this book excerpts these lines from Grossman’s book:

[T]he most fundamental description of what translators do is that we write–or perhaps rewrite–in language B a work of literature originally composed in language A, hoping that readers of the [translation] will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers.

“To my mind, a translator’s fidelity is not to lexical pairings but to context–the implications and echoes of the first author’s tone, intention, and level of discourse. Good translations are good because they are faithful to this contextual significance. They are not necessarily faithful to words or syntax, * * * because words do not `mean’ in isolation. Words `mean’ as indispensable parts of a contextual whole that includes the emotional tone and impact, the literary antecedents, the connotative nimbus as well as the denotations of each statement.

Anyone concerned about full-throated accuracy in Bible translation, including accuracy at literary levels, must take seriously the principles of translation that Grossman promotes and practices.

18 thoughts on “Why (Bible) translation matters

  1. CD-Host says:

    Bible translation most of the time is different than literary translation for several reasons:

    1) Because of the level os specificity that is desired in the text changes are less tolerated. So for example this has more in common with legal translation.

    2) Because the specific wording matters a great deal even small changes in wording completely change the meaning of the text. Very much like translation in areas like philosophy or mathematics.

    3) Bible translation carries with it a verse system inherited from a formal Latin translation. Bible translations are generally expected to hold up rather well at the verse by verse level, so the translator is not free to reorder phrases at all.

    4) Specific metaphors and often wording are famous. So the translator isn’t free

    5) The cultural differences between the bible and the recipient culture are much larger than the cultural differences translators are using being asked to handle. This can be compounded by translators wanting to not only preserve the original cultural but allow for a history of later cultural shifts.

    I think the problem is that bible translations are being asked to severe too many opposite and contradictory goals. I’ve advocated that for loose dynamic and paraphrase translations they adopt the Russian method of a 2 phase translation:

    a) Translate literally or formally
    b) Hire a writer (not a translator) skilled in the genre of the underlying text to construct their own text using the elements from the formal translation
    c) Have the translators and writers check the genre translation for accuracy

    That’s a good system for literary translation. But it openly abandons being suitable for study. It also openly abandons functions like formal liturgical use since common metaphors will drop out of the bible. And there are translations that do an excellent job of that. Andy Gaus’ Unvarnished New Testament is a great example of a translation in that spirit.

    i think most of the goals you want to achieve are best achieved if bibles stop trying to be all things to all people. A different translation for every 1-3 functions and most of the complex tradeoffs disappear.

  2. ernst wendland says:

    Thanks for your notice, Wayne (you might have known that this would bring me out of the woodwork!). I picked up the Grossman book several months ago and have found occasion to cite it several times. Here’s another quotable quote with reference to poetry:

    “…the confluence of sound, sense, and form in a poem presents an especially difficult problem in parsing for the translator. How can you separate the inseparable? …the translator continues the process initiated by the poet, searching for the ideal words, the perfect mode of expression needed to create a poem. …the language of the poem, its syntax, lexicon, and structures, by definition have to be altered drastically, even though the work’s statement and intention, its emotive content and imagery, must remain the same.” (p. 95)

    Now is such a perspective and strategy—a literary approach—“valid” for the translation of Scripture? I think so, not simply as an alternative methodology, but because I am convinced that the various texts/genres found in the various books of the Bible are, by and large, “literary” in character. If so (and I realize that some/many might not agree with me on that point), then this literary dimension must become a part of every translation “brief” (job commission), to a greater or lesser extent. I feel that this can be done, given competent personnel and adequate support, for any type of translation, whether more or less “formal” or “free” in nature.

    Thus, I also agree with the comments by CD-Host that the days of the one-size-fits-all translation are long past (despite the enthusiastic claims being made on the dust jackets of the some of the newer English versions). Here some insights of the “functionalist” school of translation studies are helpful. Most readers are probably familiar with these: pick the type/style of translation to fit the needs, wishes, medium of transmission, and setting of your primary target audience (or readership). Then accomplish this by the most effective means in keeping with the human and other resources available. If the “2 phase Russian method” gets the job done, then go with that with all you’ve got (I actually heard of something similar being done by some translation team [non-Russian] in Africa). But there are other options—one being, your main translation drafter is a MT literary artist to begin with (I’ve enjoyed this experience only once in my years of Bible translation).

    There are a number of more “literary” translations to choose from nowadays in English. I had not heard of The Unvarnished New Testament, so thanks, CD, for the tip. But I think that if we could put the best of each one of them all together into one version, smoothed out for a common style and register, then we’d be close to what we’re looking for—in a devotional edition, for example.

  3. ernst wendland says:

    Indeed, the REB has some good renderings, but at times it lets me down. Of course, no translation is perfect. For devotionals then I like to compare several versions, to see which one seems to best capture the spirit of the text. If time allows I also like to consult “Die Gute Nachricht”, which has some nice “literary” renderings in German–I think (despite my name, I am certainly not a reliable critic of passages in this language!).

  4. Mike Tisdell says:

    While I strongly disagree with the premise of this thread, I am in near complete agreement with Edith Grossman. One of my very favorite translations is the translation of “My Fair Lady” in Hebrew; the translations are masterful! Here is an example:
    “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain” becomes “ברד ירד בדרום ספרד הערב”

    The literal translation might leave one scratching their head i.e. it is “Hail fell in the south of Spain tonight.” However, this translation captures the rhyme and rhythm of the original very well in Hebrew. While the literal meaning of the text is almost completely lost, the emotion and feel of the original is captured very well. Here is a video that of this scene from My fair Lady (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IX7gBxAOMU) for those interested in understanding how this sounds in Hebrew.

    In her book, Edith Grossman expresses the freedom translators have to make these kinds of literary choices when she says, “I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves — forgive me, I mean ourselves — as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so.” And I believe she is right, a good literary translator will make many of these kinds of authorial decisions. They become as much an author as they are a translator.

    That being said, I think a translation methodology for the bible that relies too much on reader-response theories is a huge mistake much like the translation of a legal document that relied on reader-response theories would be a huge mistake. While it is reasonable for the translator of “My fair lady” to decide what meaning is important in the original text and what meaning may be abandoned (as in the example above) in order to elicit the correct response, the translator of the bible is not free to make these kinds of choices because it is the author who was inspired by God to write Scripture and not the translator. A translator of Scripture should not feel free to abandon meaning in order to elicit a specific response like the translator of a literary work is free to do. There are boundaries that must be applied to bible translation that are not appropriate for the translation of most other literary works.

    While I think we would all agree that every translator is required engage in some amount of interpretation when translating the text, I believe that too many modern translators have become almost commentators of the text and are no longer just translating the text. Many modern translators have, in my opinion mistakenly, assumed the role of pastor, teacher, and translator. While the response of the reader to the text is important, it is a mistake to assume that the translation alone should be able to always elicit the right response; sometimes the right response comes only after a teacher explains the text. A significant part of the MIT issue today is caused, in my opinion, by translators who have crossed boundaries that bible translators should have never crossed. In English, The Voice is a good example of a bible translation that has embraced this kind of reader-response ideology; here is Psalms 1:2 from the Voice:

    “For you, the Eternal One’s Word is your happiness. It is your focus – from dusk to dawn and in the nights that separate the two – you are consumed with its message.”

    Can anyone honestly say that this translation captures the meaning of the Hebrew text?

    כי אם בתורת יהוה חפצו ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה

  5. ernst wendland says:

    Mike Tisdell: “I strongly disagree with the premise of this thread … A translation methodology for the bible that relies too much on reader-response theories is a huge mistake. … A translator of Scripture should not feel free to abandon meaning in order to elicit a specific response like the translator of a literary work is free to do.”

    I am not quite sure which “premise” you are referring to. If it is that I subscribe to reader-response theory, or that I feel that Bible translators can blithely ignore meaning in the search for an emotive response from text-responders, then I apologize if I gave that impression because that is not what I intended in my comments. (I do not think that CD-Host and Wayne Leman meant to imply this either.) I have written about my opposition to RR criticism on several occasions in the past.

    This was in fact one of the problems with Eugene Nida’s “dynamic equivalence” approach to translation; it was misunderstood (and perhaps also misapplied) as a RR-oriented methodology. He (and others) later adopted the term “functional equivalence” to better convey their point and purpose:
    When translating a passage of Scripture we try to determine its functional profile in the original context of communication and then reproduce this in the TL text, to the extent possible (with the understanding that complete 100% communication is not possible) in view of the new target audience, cultural setting, and medium of transmission involved.

    However, if you are referring to my stated premise (above)that the different texts of Scripture evince various genres of literature, and furthermore that this calls for a “literary approach” in Bible translating, then we will have to agree to disagree. I believe that the Psalter, for example, is religious literature that was composed for a number of purposes (teaching, preaching, prayer, praise, apologetics, etc.) which we, I think, should try to convey stylistically also in translation—again, to the degree possible, given a number of sometimes competing variables and production-related factors. Of course, we may want to emphasize the “informative”, referential (or didactic) function in our work, but we must not forget the others either, such as the expressive and affective functions when rendering the psalm-hymns of praise.

    I feel too that in addition to these underlying rhetorical and emotive factors, there is also a significant “artistic” dimension to consider in the Scriptures—the pure beauty of form on the macro- and micro-levels of discourse organization. If agreed (you may not), the question is: Are we able to render at least some of these aesthetic elements too in our translations? I like to think that we can succeed in this respect(it seems to work in Chewa, and I suspect that we can do this in English and other languages as well, with a bit of effort).

    Grossman also offers a good suggestion here—a sort of “bottom line” to aim for: “I believe that of all these poetic elements, the most important is rhythm. Not all poems employ the specific rhythmic, organizational devices of meter or rhyme or regular stanza divisions, but I think that almost every poem uses rhythmic stresses and their effects to create a powerful, frequently subliminal esthetic pull between the tension of anticipation or expectation and its satisfaction or release. It often seems that this in particular is what people mean when they refer to the music of a verse.” (pp. 96-97)

    May I suggest that these notions apply equally well to the Psalms and also to the other genres of biblical poetry as well? (I would argue the
    same for biblical prose as well, but perhaps that’s a bridge too far at this stage.) But how often do we see this concern reflected in our translations, especially those being marketed as “essentially literal”? Quite frankly, I have been rather disappointed in what I have read, even at the most basic level of rhythm that Grossman calls attention to. The traditional block formatting of these bibles works counter to the very principle of rhythmic stress and euphony when orally articulating the text in a public venue.

    But why would the Scriptures have been composed in such a literary mode, some might ask? In reply, we simply need to recall the predominantly oral-aural manner of textual transmission in ANE times. There were few manuscripts, they were difficult to read, and most people could not decipher them anyway, being non-literate (for most purposes). Thus, the biblical text, the Hebrew as well as the Greek, was manifestly crafted in a literary (artistic, rhetorical) way, which would make it more memorable and memorizable, including in a more precise, exact manner. Can our translations—in English or any language—not be a little more creative along these same lines? I’ve written more on this subject elsewhere, but this is probably (more than) enough
    for now. A final question for consideration: How “well” (in literary, artistic terms) were the original Scriptures actually composed, and how does the answer to this concern our translations today?

  6. Mike Tisdell says:

    At this point, I would point out that poetry in Biblical Hebrew is not characterized by meter, rhyme, or rhythmic stresses (there are some exceptions, but this is not the way biblical Hebrew poetry is normally composed). As far as prose is concerned, meter, rhyme, or rhythmic stresses have nothing to do with its composition. Hebrew, like many conjugated and declined languages, sounds rhythmic because of the nature of the language itself and not because the author is attempting to communicate in rhyme. For example, if I say “ישבתי בביתי וקראתי באור מנורתי” (yashavti bevaiti veqarati beor menorati) the words sound like I am attempting a rhyme because they all nearly all end with the “ti” sound; however, I could not have said the same thing in a way that didn’t sound like a rhyme because Hebrew uses common suffixes for the first person declension and the first person perfect verbs. The “ti” sound simply indicates (I, me, or mine). The sentence simply says “I sat in my home and read by the light of my lamp.” If someone attempts to add rhyme, meter, and/or rhythmic stresses into a translation of biblical Hebrew poetry they are actually introducing something that was likely not part of the original text. Placing the text into stanzas is may be a good way to show the poetic nature of the underlying text but adding rhyme and rhyme and/or rhythmic stresses in many cases would be going too far.
    MOST IMPORTANTLY, the bible translator needs to be far more cognizant of the meaning of the original text and should not feel the freedom to change the meaning in favor of style in the way a translator of a modern literary work might.
    Also, realize that sometimes it is the functional equivalent translations that miss “poetry” that is seen in the more literal translations. I recently posted an example of Ex. 1:5 in another thread and I will reiterate that portion here. Most functional equivalent translations of Ex. 1:5 read something like “All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons” and while this captures the meaning of the text, this translation misses the unusual poetic imagery that is unique to this verse. In Hebrew the idea of “generations” can be conveyed in several ways i.e. “toldot” (Ge. 5.) or “dor” (Duet. 7:9). In Ex. 1:5 we have an unusual phrase that “means” generations but is very flowery i.e. “it was all the souls going out of the loins of Jacab, seventy souls.” Most translations completely hide the unusual aspect of this verse. Some translations, like the “The Voice,” introduce flowery language where none exists, as I pointed out in the earlier example, but they often miss the intended meaning of the intended text. While I would prefer a translation that brings out the flowery language of phrases like the one in Ex. 1:5, I would always choose the common dynamic equivalent (but boring) translation over a version (like The Voice) that adds in its own flowery language but miscommunicates the meaning of the text.

    Side note: While I have often heard the claim over the years that many have misapplied Nida’s ideas, I have been reading some of Nida’s lesser known writings lately and I am not so sure that some of the reader-response methods are really that much of a misapplication of his ideas; some of his own writings seem to lean in this direction.

  7. ernst wendland says:

    Thanks for your comments, Mike. To a certain extent I think that we are talking (writing) past each other at the moment, and I suspect that, deep down, we are not all that different in our translation philosophy. Our conception of what constitutes Hebrew “poetry”—and how to accommodate that dimension of “meaning” (including its emotive, rhetorical, and artistic aspects) in translation—may still differ somewhat. It would be good to have a chance to discuss that further. Unfortunately, just yesterday I received a 370 page pre-pub document to edit, so I will now have to break off my part in this conversation. A final note on Nida: it’s a pity that you never had the opportunity (apparently) to hear one of the oral presentations of his conception of and approach to Bible translation. That might have led to an adjustment of your current perspective on his work. Thanks again for the useful interaction!
    Ernst (Lusaka)

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    must take seriously the principles of translation that Grossman promotes and practices.

    What Grossman practices is what’s fascinating. Can it (always) be a product of what she promotes (i.e., the translation theory that would favor target language and context over the literary forms of the source)? Or have we, from the snippet quote above, really understood Grossman?

    Let’s look at the second sentence of Don Quijote by Cervantes. Then let’s compare the English translations of this sentence and the phrases therein offered by three translators, Pierre Motteux (1700), Walter Starkie (1957), and Grossman (2003).

    Una olla de algo más vaca que carnero,
    salpicón las más noches,
    duelos y quebrantos los sábados,
    lantejas los viernes,
    algún palomino de añadidura los domingos,
    consumían las tres partes de su hacienda.

    His diet consisted more of beef than mutton; and with minced meat on most nights, lentils on Fridays, eggs and bacon on Saturdays, and a pigeon extraordinary on Sundays, he consumed three quarters of his revenue;

    His stew had more beef than mutton in it and most nights he ate the remains salted and cold. Lentil soup on Fridays, ‘tripe and trouble’ on Saturdays and an occasional pigeon as an extra delicacy on Sundays, consumed three-quarters of his income.

    An occasional stew, beef more than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays – these consumed three-fourths of his income.

    Does any of these three translators do a better job of attending “not to lexical pairings but to context–the implications and echoes of the first author’s tone, intention, and level of discourse”?

    It should be clear that Grossman’s intended improvement over the two former translators is that she actually attends to lexical pairings of the Spanish of Cervantes and of his readers and her English for her readers. What the protagonist eats on Saturdays, for example, is served up to readers with a literary flare. The what is clearly a pair of things, which Motteux renders as two literal food items (e.g., “eggs and bacon”) but which Starkie and Grossman both read as a literal and a metaphorical food. Talk about mixing metaphors. 🙂 Notice how Starkie, more than Grossman, suggests wordplay by Cervantes. I read Mike Tisdell’s objections to calling Hebrew rhyming, but here isn’t the pair “duelos y quebrantos” rather marked as rhyme since the other food items in this list don’t seem to play together as well, in the very short context of this single sentence? Starkie uses English alliteration to suggest a poetry and marks the phrase with scare quotes: ‘tripe and trouble’. Grossman’s “eggs and abstinence” suggests humor, wordplay, (i.e., How can one’s stew on Saturdays include “abstinence”?), but she loses what Starkie gains, I think. The important point to make here is that each translator is interpreting, is deciding how much of the literal, how much of the metaphorical, how many of the various meanings in the literary, to convey. “Basic English” or simply ostensibly clear readings of the text would do it violence, would rob it, would lose much for the readers.

    For Sundays’ fare, there’s “algún palomino de añadidura” in the soup. It’s a pigeon (either “extraordinary” or “occasional”) for Motteux and Starkie respectively. But Grossman, in this context, seems to want to pair her English lexis with Cervantes’s Spanish lexis more tightly than her two counterparts do. So she makes it “sometimes squab.” This is clever – because the English reader and the Spanish reader see and hear what’s literary: the marked alliterations in the phrase. Grossman here, likewise, is using an English culinary term (i.e., “squab”) to match other terms for meat (i.e., “beef” and “lamb”). Otherwise, I think most “natural” English readers would be just fine with pigeon.

    For readers wanting to compare Grossman’s practice in translation with that of others, they might start at the beginning, here:


    And I would urge readers of Grossman’s Cervantes to see how she handles his Spanish sonnets. Of particular fun (i.e., wordplay again) is the poem “Urganda the Unrecognized,” which is a most clever piece of literature that we could discuss further in this thread if any is so inclined. Grossman offers a fascinating footnote that gets at both the intended meaning of this poem and how its lexis functions and how its lexis must work. Her translation and footnote certainly get at questions this BBB post raises:

    Does Grossman pull off in translation practice what she would promote in theory? To understand just exactly what Grossman means to promote, isn’t it instructive to look at how closely, in practice, she does attend to “lexical pairings” and is also “faithful to words”?

  9. Mike Tisdell says:

    J.K Gayle,

    Looking at these examples, I would lean towards Starkie’s translation first but I would want to understand why Motteux chose “Bacon and Eggs” i.e. is this an idiom that I do not understand because of my limited knowledge of Spanish? Is it an idiom that was well understood in Motteux’s time but no longer understood today? A little research could sway me back to Motteux’s translation. I would also want to understand why all of these translators tried to introduce a food item on Saturday at all?

    I find Grossman’s translation the least desirable of all. She clings woodenly to the original word order where the other translators both placed the days of the week in sequential order (as an English reader would expect). And her choice of “abstinence” seems to me be very poor choice because it often conveys an idea of sexual abstinence in English which is a meaning that I hope she did not intend to convey.

    As these translations relate to bible translation, I don’t think either of the first two would be unacceptable but I do think the bible translator would need to do much more work trying to understand the idiom “duelos y quebrantos” before choosing a translation. A literary translator has a lot more freedom to “go with the gut” than a bible translator does.

    P.S. I enjoyed your posts and the examples you presented. Thanks.

  10. ernst wendland says:

    “A literary translator has a lot more freedom to ‘go with the gut’ than a bible translator does.”
    Back for a minute: This assertion might suggest a false dichotomy, no doubt unintended–namely, that a Bible translator cannot be a literary translator as well, or vice-versa.

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    (My mistake, Mike T. I should have realized wp doesn’t allow commenters to delete their own posts. It seems my mistake – maybe not refreshing my browser here? Anyway …)

    Grossman is definitely playing with the playful language of Cervantes. Given who Don Quioxte is, I find “abstinence” to be rather funny (probably intentionally so).

  12. Mike Tisdell says:

    ernst wendland,

    I think you read more into my statement then I had intended. Maybe I should have said:

    “when one is working on a translation of contemporary literature one has a lot more freedom to ‘go with the gut’ than one does when working on a translation of the bible translator”

    Yes, I recognize that bible translators might also work on the translation of other literature and when they do the boundaries are different.

  13. ernst wendland says:

    Mike wrote: “I think you read more into my statement than I had intended.”

    Thanks for your subsequent clarification, Mike, which I agree with. But truth be told (yes, even on betterbibles.com!), I deliberately over-read you simply to imply this point, which I now propose explicitly: Perhaps some of our Bible translations, whether in English or any other language, would actually sound better when pronounced (or proclaimed or performed) aloud if a proficient “literary translator” were somehow involved in the project along the way (as drafter, stylist, reviewer)–the sooner the better.

  14. exegete77 says:

    Ernst, your last comment seems to reflect what GW translation team did when it employed an English stylist. Is that what you meant?

    (BTW, I always appreciate your input here)


  15. wendland2012 says:

    Good observation, Rich–I had forgotten about GW’s rather elaborate translation procedure. It is worth noting (in part) for the record:
    “When the translator [biblical scholar] had completed his translation of a particular book, the translation was reviewed by an English reviewer. This expert in English style read the translator’s text and suggested changes. The English reviewer was primarily concerned with naturalness in English. However, computer technology allowed the English reviewer to check carefully and ensure that any proposed revisions would not destroy the translation’s consistency.
    “When the English reviewer had finished reading and reviewing the text, the translator and the English reviewer worked together to produce a second draft that improved the accuracy and naturalness of the translation…” (“The Translation Process of God’s Word,” 1995).
    In my African Bible translation projects, I always tried to find (and employ) a biblical scholar who was also a stylist in the TL to produce the first draft. It worked out better that way in the production process(for reasons which I won’t get into here), but I was rarely successful in this effort.

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