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.

Vernaculars and Lingua Francas, Part One: Foundations

I have an interest in lingua francas (or linguas franca, or linguae francae, or whatever). The phrase means, literally, “language of the Franks.” The explanation is that from an Arabic perspective, all Europeans were “Franks.” In the first half of the Second Millenium, there was a specific language form called Lingua Franca, a Romance-based pidgin spoken in the Mediterranean area. The term has come to be generalized to refer to any language used for communication among a group of people who do not have a mother tongue in common.

Recently on this very blog the matter was discussed of whether one can properly translate from a vernacular into a lingua franca or vice versa. Specifically, the issue seemed to be whether one can translate from a vernacular like ancient Hebrew into a lingua franca like English without compromising the accuracy and integrity of the foreign text. The implication seemed to be that translation of this sort was not really possible. I’ll tip you off to where I am going with this by saying that I don’t see any reason why this sort of thing ought to be problematic. Of course, you have to recognize that whatever languages you are dealing with—vernaculars or linguafrancas or whatever—there is always going to be some compromise in translation. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the Italian aphorism, “the translator is a traitor” or “translation is treason.” So it depends on what your purpose is. If the purpose in translating is to examine and appreciate every nuance of the source text, that is basically just impossible in translation. You would have to study the source text itself, and even then, if we are dealing with something as remote to us today as the Hebrew scriptures, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can ever fully recover all the information in, and surrounding, the text. But if our purpose is to treat the source text as a meaningful message to be shared—something that people need to hear, to bring a text to them that would be inaccessible to them because of linguistic and cultural differences—then translation certainly is possible, whether we are talking about vernaculars or lingua francas. What would be the status of the church today if the scriptures were not translated, because people thought it was not appropriate to do so? The history of Christianity is a history of translation. Some other time we could draw out some quotes from famous people like Jerome, Wycliffe, Erasmus, Luther, and Tyndale about the value of translating the Bible, or more contemporary figures like J.B. Phillips, Andrew Walls or Lamin Sanneh.

I will first explain my qualifications to discuss topics like lingua francas and translation into them. I’m a PhD linguist (1983) with a specialty in creole languages. When we’re discussing lingua francas, we are dealing in the area of contact languages and language contact (two slightly different things). The one language that I speak fluently other than English is St. Lucian French Creole. I speak some French and Spanish, too, and Gullah, but I speak French Creole better than I speak French. I regularly participate in conferences on pidgin and creole languages and have published some of these papers, on the topics of the grammar or the sociolinguistics of creole languages, and other papers I have presented are available in sort of a semi-published form. One of the topics I have dealt with is the translation of the Bible or other literature into creole languages, and I have presented papers like that to groups of creolists, groups of Bible translation scholars, and once as an invited lecture at the National Museum of Language. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will add that I am pretty well familiar with the basic literature on language contact, and personally know pretty much all the major players in that area, and they know me as colleague.

So let’s start by defining our terms. A vernacular language is a language that people grow up speaking as a mother tongue and as the language they are most comfortable with. It’s not a tricky thing to explain. Whether or not something is a vernacular language doesn’t depend on its internal make-up, but rather what use it is put to. English—or rather a specific dialect of Engilsh—is my vernacular. What is a lingua franca? Whenever I hear the term “lingua franca,” I automatically mentally paraphrase it as “trade language.” That is, it is a language that is not the mother tongue of a set of interlocutors, but which they use as a medium of communication. Again, the term “lingua franca” does not describe what a language is like, internally, but rather the use to which it is put.

Here is an important point: A particular language can be both a vernacular and a lingua franca. In fact, that is quite often the case. For me, English is my vernacular, but for other people, English might be a language that they use to communicate with, but it is not their mother tongue. Here’s an example. Once when I was in East Germany (you can tell this was a while back), giving a paper at an International Congress of Linguists, I went on a bus tour to Dresden at the end of the conference and sat next to a woman from Japan. She didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Japanese, but I figured out that she was a French professor back in Japan, and I speak some French. So we carried on a sort of conversation in French. For many people, French is their vernacular, but in this case, when I was talking with a Japanese woman in Germany, French was our lingua franca.

I pulled a standard reference book off my shelf entitled Pidgins and Creoles (1989, Cambridge University Press), written by my friend John Holm, and found this definition on p. 607: “Lingua Franca is the earliest known European-based pidgin: the term lingua franca (uncapitalized, often with the English plural form lingua francas) has come to mean any vehicular language used as a means of communication between two or more groups with no other language in common.” Terms like vernacular and lingua franca do not describe types of languages, but rather uses to which languages are put. English is a vernacular to many, many people, especially in North America, the U.K., and Australia, but it is also becoming increasingly a lingua franca for scholarly work, business, politics, etc.

There are two main types of lingua francas: some are languages that are used as vernaculars in other contexts, like the English and French examples I gave, and then there are pidgins, which by definition are nobody’s mother tongue. A pidgin is a language form that is not fully developed as a normal language and has no native speakers but is used as a medium of communication between groups that do not have a language in common. Note that there are some languages that have “pidgin” in the name but which are no longer pidgins, but rather have become creoles, in that over time they have become mother tongues and the language of a community. Examples are Hawaiian Pidgin or New Guinea Pidgin English. A creole language is a vernacular language that has its origin as a pidgin.

When I say there are two main kinds of lingua francas—languages that also serve as vernaculars in other contexts, on the one hand, and pidgins, on the other—I should acknowledge that there are a few exceptions that I don’t think are relevant here. An exception would be artificially created languages like Esperanto, which are not pidgins, and are not, as far as I know, anyone’s mother tongue. A creole language, however, despite its origin as a pidgin, is by definition a vernacular. As I said, creoles are my professional specialty, including translation into creoles.

I’m afraid I’m being too pedantic here, but one point is that vernacular and lingua francas are not two different types of languages, but rather two different uses to which language types are put. Any language can be a vernacular as long as it has native speakers, but it could at the same time be a lingua franca in other contexts, for other sets of people. A pidgin is a particular kind of lingua franca that does not have native speakers. Pidgins, as a specific type of lingua franca, are typologically distinctive. I could teach a graduate level course on this stuff, or give a lecture, or, in this case, try to boil it down to a short, comprehesible blog post.

There is nothing about a lingua franca that would disqualify it from being a language that you could legitimately translate into or out of. However, I will leave that discussion for part two, to follow.

Does a Translation Have to Sound like a Translation?

I raise the question of whether a translation should necessarily and inevitably sound like a translation because there are people who seem to think that this is the case. That is, since the translation takes as its starting point a text in a foreign language–if it weren’t “foreign,” we wouldn’t be translating it, would we?–and probably also takes as its point of departure different historical and cultural settings and a foreign worldview, then, according to this understanding of translation, a translation could not be faithful unless it were to retain some of that foreignness. According to this understanding of translation, domestication does violence to the translation. I disagree. This does bring us, though, to the whole question of what translation is, which we might try to explain in terms of purpose.

Let’s think about this by using a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. This book is very compelling reading. Here is a relevant sample:

By eliminating simple obedience on principle, we drift into an unevangelical interpretation of the Bible. We take it for granted as we open the Bible that we have a key to its interpretation. But then the key we use would not be the living Christ, who is both Judge and Saviour, and our use of this key no longer depends on the will of the living Holy Spirit alone. The key we use is a general doctrine of grace which we can apply as we will. The problem of discipleship then becomes a problem of exegesis as well. If our exegesis is truly evangelical, we shall realize that we cannot identify ourselves altogether with those whom Jesus called, for they themselves are part and parcel of the Word of God in the Scriptures, and therefore part of the message.

I highly recommend this book. And to merely reflect on what Bonhoeffer says would be to do negate everything he says.

But my real point in bringing this up here is to illustrate what I mean about translation. I had gotten past this point in reading the book when I started to ask myself, “Isn’t this a translation? Bonhoeffer wrote in German, didn’t he? Why doesn’t it sound like a translation?” I checked, and on the copyright page it says, “Translated from the German NACHFOLGE first published 1937… by R.H. Fuller, with some revision by Irmgard Booth.” I double checked elsewhere, and, yes, the translator was Reginald H. Fuller, though you have to look at the fine print to get this information.

I was originally hesitant to read The Cost of Discipleship because I assumed it must be very difficult to slog through, especially since so few people seem to actually read it. I’ve been surprised to discover that, whatever problem people might have in reading Bonhoeffer’s book, it is not because of the difficult language or because it reads like something that came from another language. Bonhoeffer is a very clear–though challenging–writer. You literally would not know that this is a translation. I am glad that this book reads like Bonhoeffer is a good English writer, because otherwise I would be distracted by the strangeness, in which case I might not be able to get all the way through it, or if I did, it would be arduous work. This book reads like it was written for me.

Back to Bible translation, I have dialogued in the past with someone who has a keen, though amateur, interest in Bible translation, who says that when reading the Bible (such as in English), one should have the feeling that one is reading a book that was written for someone else. In other words, my friend would insist on a foreignizing kind of translation. I disagree. One certainly could do that kind of translation if one wanted to, especially if one had in mind an audience looking for that kind of translation. But I would not agree that a translation of the Bible should necessarily sound foreign. I believe that the scriptures are for all generations, and that even though the first audience might have lived in a different culture with a different worldview and thousands of years ago, the scriptures were also written for me, and that’s why I am reading them.

I have communicated with someone else who does have a rich background of translation into other languages, and he started asking himself (and us) more recently how it can be possible to translate worldviews in the process of Bible translation. In studying the creation story in Genesis, he realized this worldview issue was so rich and deep, and yet it seemed impossible to do justice to translating worldviews in the process of translating the Bible. My response to him was that, generally speaking, the purpose of translation is not to communicate worldviews, but the text itself. In translating the scriptures, it just isn’t possible to convey everything about the worldview surrounding the original text in the translation, except maybe by using lots of footnotes.

So what is the purpose of translation? In essence, the purpose of translating is to bring a text to a new audience. The purpose of translating the Bible, specifically, is to bring the Bible to a new audience. It is to allow a new audience to “own” the text, to make it theirs. If we are talking about the epistles of Paul, for example, the purpose in translating them would be so the new audience that doesn’t know Greek can understand what Paul was saying. It may be inevitable that sometimes the message sounds foreign, but there is nothing about this that suggests that the translation should sound foreign, generally speaking. Unless, of course, someone, for some reason, set out specifically to make a foreign-sounding, special-purpose translation.

We take the Bible for granted in English. We might say, “I was reading my Bible,” referring to an English Bible, and this is perfectly appropriate. I once heard a seminary student report how the Greek professor held up an English Bible and said, “This isn’t the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible.” Again, I disagree. If a translation of the Bible has accomplished its purpose, then the result is your Bible.

I understand that the early, Greek-speaking, church father John Chrysostom said, in reference to the Hebrew scriptures, that even though the biblical text was Jewish in origin, “The text and the meaning are ours.” That’s cool. We should all be able to appreciate the scriptures as ours. Over the past nearly 30 years I have had the privilege of helping produce translations of the Bible into several Creole language varieties. It is incredible and satisfying to hear the reactions. Here are some recent, real testimonials, from bilingual Creole/English speakers: “I had no idea how wonderful and fulfilling God’s Word could be until I began reading those words in my native tongue. It gives me a sense of ownership.” “When I heard the [Creole Gospel of John] recording I felt a personal connection to it. It just went right inside, to the deepest part of me.” “It is SO meaningful!” Here are a couple of other quotes from a little further back, translated from French Creole into English: “The work is ours, the New Testament is ours.” “We see the Word of God in our hands today, and it is in our mother tongue…. And we have already seen that there is understanding. Understanding takes place in our church when we use the Word of God in the language we are most comfortable with.”

Do you read a Bible that speaks your language? You should.

Defining “general-purpose”

I used the term “general-purpose translations” before here, but I don’t have a clear definition of what it really means. It feels pretty intuitive to me however. I would classify translations such as the NIV, ESV, NLT, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET and the Good News (among many many others) as general-purpose translations. The intended audience is any adult native speaker of English, and the intended use is, well, general: it could be for reading privately, devotionally, for studying, for preaching from or for reading out aloud.

What about those non-general-purpose translations? Well I’d classify The Message and the LOLCat Bible as non-general-purpose due to their deliberately unusual language, and the reasons for their being translated in the first place. The CEV was translated for those with lower reading abilities. The Amplified bible would be classified the same due to its intention as a study tool (or something). The Conservative Bible Project and The Woman’s Bible are non-general-purpose because of the agendas they push.

So there are some examples. Can you help me find a clearer definition of “general-purpose”? Do you disagree with any of my classifications? And if a translation is supposed to be general-purpose, and is marketed as such, are there aspects of translation that actually betray that purpose? As an example, although I have previously always considered the NASB to be a general-purpose translation, I’m now wondering if its great focus on morphosyntactic equivalence really means that it should really be classified as (and marketed as) a Bible for the purpose of study only… what do you think?