Vernaculars and Lingua Francas, Part Two: Translation Implications

I have already explained something about vernaculars and lingua francas. They are not two types of languages, but two uses of language, depending on whether or not the language is the mother tongue of the speakers or is an “other-than-mother-tongue” that speakers use to communicate with each other. I wouldn’t say that there is a contrast between vernaculars and lingua francas, but rather that there is a distinction that can be made between language as vernacular and language as lingua franca. The same language can be a vernacular in one context and a lingua franca in another.

So what does this have to do with literature and translation? Recently on this blog, an essay in the New York Review of Books by Tim Parks was referenced that brought the words “lingua franca” and “translation” together. Here, apparently, the term “lingua franca” was used as a sort of metaphor. Parks was drawing on an earlier article by Sheldon Pollock entitled “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History,” where instead of lingua franca, “cosmopolitan(ism)” is used in comparison and contrast with “vernacular.”

I like what Pollock has to say. He starts his article,

Few things seem to us as natural as the multiplicity of vernacular languages that different peoples use for making sense of life through texts, that is, for making literature. And few things seem as unnatural as their abandonment and gradual disappearance in the present. In fact, literary language loss is often viewed as part of a more general reduction of cultural diversity, one considered as dangerous as the reduction of biological diversity to which it is often compared. The homogenization of culture today, of which language loss is one aspect, seems without precedent in human history, at least for the scope, speed, and manner in which changes are taking place.

This common sense view of the world needs two important qualifications. First, the vernacular ways of being that we see vanishing everywhere were themselves created over time…. Second, by the very fact of their creation, the new vernaculars replaced a range of much older cultural practices. These earlier practices, which seemed to belong to everywhere in general and nowhere in particular, affiliated their users to a larger world rather than a smaller place. They were, in a sense to be argued out in this essay, cosmopolitan practices….

This quote agrees with my very democratic beliefs about languages (mother tongues/vernaculars) and my regrets that the major world languages like English might be crowding out the minority languages of the world, along with their associated literatures and views of the world.

Here is Tim Parks’ summary of Pollock: “We needn’t think about the spread of English as necessarily in conflict with the world’s vernaculars; he wants us to avoid thinking in terms of ‘either/or’ and work towards a relationship that is ‘both/and.’” That agrees with my disinclination toward structuralist approaches to language and my rejection of sharp dichotomies (if that is not a self contradiction).

So what does Parks say about vernacular vs. lingua franca in relation to translation? He makes an interesting observation, though it is not about approaches to translation. Rather, it is about original text authorship with translation in mind. Parks says that authors tend to write in a different style when they think of their language as a lingua franca than when they think of it as simply a vernacular. Or, to put it another way, if an author envisions his or her literary work being translated into other languages, that has a bearing on the writer’s style. Using a literary work written in Italian, for example, if the author’s intended audience is mother tongue speakers of Italian, the writing style will tend to take greater advantage of inwardly-turned, language-specific literary devices. However, if the author wants the work to be translated and brought to an international audience, then even if the work is written in Italian, it will be a different sort of Italian, a more easily-translated form of Italian that does not capitalize as much on language-specific literary devices. Awareness of translation and a desire to have one’s works understood as widely as possible will influence how someone writes.

Parks’ intuition (as he calls it) is that the contemporary writers he studied…

had already performed a translation within their own languages; they had discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things. Naturally, there was an impoverishment… but there was also a huge gain in communicability….

He observes that “there is a spirit abroad, especially in the world of fiction, that is seeking maximum communicability and that has fastened onto the world’s present lingua franca [viz., English] as something that can be absorbed and built into other vernaculars so that they can continue to exist while becoming more easily translated into each other.”

Parks’ essay was about the composition of original texts rather than the translation of those texts into other languages, except where he says, twice, that “the success of translation very largely depends on the levels of complexity in the original text.” His point was that as authors become aware of translation and a wider international audience, they tend to write in such a way as to make translation easier. A way of putting this is that the authors become aware of their language as being not just a vernacular, where the target audience is comprised of fellow speakers of the same language, but as a lingua franca, i.e., they are conscious of their language as a gateway for communication with speakers of other languages, through translation.

So how do we who are concerned with translation make use of this information? While it is not correct to say that some languages are vernaculars and other languages are lingua francas (except in the case of pidgins, which, by definitions are only lingua francas and not vernaculars), I think there is indeed a connection, in that translators, like authors, have to be aware of their target audience and its needs. In fact, translators have to be aware both of the original audience of the original text and of the target audience for the translation. One of the basic principles for any kind of communication is to know your audience. One of the cardinal principles of translation is to identify the target audience for the translation. It is not reasonable or wise to consider all the speakers of a certain language as being the target audience, especially in the case of a language with so many dialects and registers as English. There are translations directed toward children, translations directed toward speakers of English as a second language, translations for educated people who want to get as close to the source language as possible, translations for educated people who want to see the scriptures communicated in contemporary language, translations for reading aloud, translations for liturgical use, translations for very average North Americans without a lot of theological sophistication. It is not a matter of one-size-fits-all. In the case of English, we have so many translations of the Bible to choose from, and different translations each have at least the potential of being valid for their target audience and stated purpose. Obviously, though, translators, when going through so much effort, and publishers, when investing so much, are going to be concerned about getting as large a market share as possible.

Even in the case of languages that don’t have the luxury of multiple translations, Bible translators have to pinpoint their target audience and dialectal variety.

Obligatory possession and Bible translation

Each translation has its particular approach, and should have an audience in mind. The translators have to ask, “Who is going to read this translation, and how can we render the source text in a way that is suitable for them?” We are blessed in English to have a number of different translations of the Scriptures, and where there are differences among those translations, the differences can be attributable to different approaches, and perhaps different audiences in mind. A big part of this is the translators’ conception of what translation really is, and that leads to different choices in how to approach translation. We can criticize particular “faults” of different translations, but generally translations are the way they are because of the translators’ different conceptions of what is most important to focus on and preserve in translation. In analyzing the differences in translations, rather than focus on perceived flaws, I prefer to deal on the philosophical level, where the real differences lie. I’m fascinated by the question, “What is translation, really?” There certainly isn’t universal agreement on the answer to that question. Once you identify a philosophy of translation, that goes a long way towards explaining why a particular translation is the way it is. I have to add, though, that even if a body of translators shared a common philosophy of translation, they could still produce different translations if they have different subgroups in mind as their audience, and different purposes in mind for the translation, e.g. meditation, study, liturgical use.

In order to talk about what translation is, I want to start by talking about the nature of meaning. Everybody should agree that meaning is a central concern in translation. You want to produce a translation that has the same meaning as the original text from another language. I hope I’m not overstating the situation when I suggest that meaning is universally understood as the bottom line in translation. This is sometimes explained in terms of equivalence. You want a translation that is in some important way — in fact, in every way possible — equivalent to the source text. You want a translation that enables the reader to plumb the depth of meaning in the source text in all its richness.

So here I’m just going to meditate some on the meaning of meaning, and later I can go on to make more explicit the implications for how we translate. In order to consider this very deep subject, I’m going to start with the topic of obligatory possession in Bible translation, and use that as a basis for thinking about the nature of meaning.

Obligatory possession. This is a topic that Bible translators need to understand before working on a translation into a language that doesn’t yet have the Bible. I’m not talking about English here, but the concept is interesting and worth considering. The fact is that sometimes, when one is translating, one needs to actually make the translation more specific, in certain ways, than the source text. It’s not that it is desirable to do that, but rather that it simply isn’t avoidable sometimes. That fact is true even with respect to translation into English in certain cases. But it is most obvious when one is translating into another language that forces choices that the translator may not be prepared for. You may have heard of languages that don’t have a single word for ‘brother,’ for example, but rather words meaning specifically ‘younger brother’ or ‘older brother.’ The translator has to figure out which word is the best choice in each context, and the choice can’t be avoided. More relevant for today’s topic, there are languages that have obligatory possession for certain categories of noun, particularly body parts and kinship terms.

In The Bible Translator 1.4.166-69 (1950), William Thompson describes the Guajiro language in which one can’t talk in detached ways about eyes, arms, legs, fathers, sons, etc. Obviously, each of these things has a possessor, semantically-speaking, and in Guajiro, one can’t talk about these concepts as if they weren’t possessed — though one can in English and in Greek. In languages like this, you can’t just talk about “the heart,” “an eye,” “a father,” “sons,” and so forth, but instead you have to specify “a person’s heart” or “your eye” or “the boy’s father” or “our sons.” It only makes sense, when you think about it, because each of these things naturally has a possessor. Some languages just don’t allow for discussing naturally-possessed things in abstract ways. So the translator has to do some thinking to translate, for example, Matthew 6:22a, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” Fortunately, vv. 22b and 23 do get more specific: “So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness” (RSV). Matthew 7:3 wouldn’t be a problem: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV). But what about Luke 10:23, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see,” or I Cor. 12:14-26, with language like “The eye cannot say to the hand“? Or when it comes to kinship terms, how do you translate Gal. 4:2-6, with language like “…until the date set by the father” (RSV; NIV specifies “his father” for Greek τοῦ πατρός) and “because you are sons” ?

When you think about it, all body parts and all kinship terms are possessed. In English and Greek, we can talk about eyes and hands and bodies in abstract ways, but each of these things is possessed, implicitly if not explicitly. Even if you see a detached hand, you know it came from a body. You can’t have a daughter without having a parent. The point I wanted to get to is that, even though we may talk about meaning in abstract terms, it, too, is something obligatorily possessed. That’s true semantically speaking — just not grammatically speaking. We can talk about “the meaning (of a text),” but that meaning must be in relation to a person. A text means something to a person. Meanings cannot be disembodied. They must go along with a mind, or they don’t exist at all. (I’m going to address the theological side of this shortly.)

It is common to think and talk about words and texts as though they have meaning, and in a sense, this is right. But in a deeper sense, the meanings aren’t really in the language itself, but in the minds of the people who are using that language as a medium of communication. Language is a systematic, socially-agreed-upon way of expressing meaning among individuals. We use language because we want to influence each other, whether it be in the way of informing, comforting, exhorting, bonding, warning, and so forth. Much of language has to do with informing, namely, I have something in my head that I want you to get into yours, so we use the medium of language to do that. Words and grammatical constructions have meanings because we attribute meanings to them.

My position is that all meanings are localized. None are disembodied. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as absolute truth. I’m talking about meaning, not truth. But I equate absolute truth with God’s truth, and we as people should want to get our truth in line with God’s truth. That isn’t always easy, because we are limited in our understanding. Similarly, the closest thing to objective meaning is God’s meaning. It is not impersonal; it is God’s. Let’s not quibble about the fact that God doesn’t have a body. He has a mind, and thoughts. He is infinite, while we are limited in our understanding and perspective. The Scriptures are God’s message, God’s communication to us, and as I have argued before, their meaning is even above and beyond the individual humans who wrote them. Yet God uses human vessels and a human means of communication to express His knowledge and love and will to us.

There are implications of this for translation, but I’ll write more about that soon. This is all part of an overall philosophy of language and meaning and communication and translation that can guide us in how we seek to spread God’s message through translation. Once you have a sound philosophy of translation, choices in how you translate flow out of that.