What is a translation, and how might it be bad?

A translation is a text with qualities of equivalence to a prior text in another language, such that the new text is taken as a substitute for the original. You may not realize it, but “equivalence” is a problematic concept in translation theory. I include it anyway in my definition of translation, because without some notion — some intention and perception — of equivalence, you wouldn’t call the new text a translation. My solution is to make it subjective. For something to be considered a translation, the translator and the audience for the translation have to recognize that the newly constructed text is somehow equivalent to the original text.

I’m not going to try to explain translation in objective, scientific terms, because all attempts I have seen to do so have been problematic and unsatisfying. Despite the problems, translation has been taking place as long as there has been a diversity of languages, and the fact of translation is not dependent on scientific explanation. As philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser said, “To explain why a man slipped on a banana peel, we do not need a general theory of slipping.”

You might call this explanation of translation anthropological or sociological, rather than linguistic or psychological. All definitions that I have seen that attempt to be psychological or linguistic have either recognized their own inadequacy, or else have just looked wrong to me. If this definition doesn’t jive with common sense, then as far as I am concerned it is wrong. It is based on people, and the central character is the translator, who has to be able to understand two languages. Of course the intended audience for the translation is crucial too. For the translation to accomplish its purpose, the audience has to accept it as a substitute for the original text.

Okay, now, given this definition of translation, what counts as a legitimate translation and what does not? For a translation to be good, it has to accomplish its purpose(s). Basically, that means that the translation has to be somehow equivalent, in the mind of the translator, to the source text, and the audience of the translation has to accept it as a substitute for the original. One could add the theological element in the case of Bible translation, namely that God is also one of the active participants in the process, and He gives His blessing on the resulting translation as a new expression of His message. But that part of the equation is least susceptible to analysis, except that you could say that the success of the translation and the happy reception of the translation among the target audience is a sign of God’s blessing on the translation as an expression of His own message.

What does it mean to say that a translation is bad? Notions of “good” and “bad” are a little naive in relation to translation, and I would rather talk in terms of a translation as being successful or unsuccessful, or to use terms that I like but are maybe a little more pretentious, felicitous or infelicitous. There are three ways a translation can get off track. First, the translator could misunderstand the source text. Secondly, the translator could produce a translation text that doesn’t communicate well because the translator isn’t in tune with the language of the intended audience. These are two types of mistranslations. A third thing that could go wrong is that the translator is dishonest, and presents the translated text as an equivalent of the source text when he or she knows it is not.

It should be obvious that if the translator misunderstands the language of the source text, a mistranslation will result. If we are talking about Bible translation, that is where exegesis and hermeneutics and a knowledge of the Biblical languages are important. Or, the translator may not be able to correctly anticipate how the audience of the translation will receive and understand the translation. There are lots and lots of examples, many humorous, where the translation doesn’t work because the translator doesn’t adequately understand the target language, or otherwise fails to anticipate how the audience will receive and understand the text. Here’s a recent example I like: According to the BBC, the Swansea Council wanted to make a bilingual road sign in both English and Welsh that read, “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” They sent this text by e-mail to a translation service, and when they got the response, they added the Welsh to the road sign, and what the Welsh part of it says, in back translation, is “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.” For other examples of humorous mistranslations, go to www.engrish.com.

Now in addition to mistranslations based on misunderstandings of either the source language or the target language, a third way a translation might be what we could call infelicitous is if the translator is either dishonest or cavalier in how the translation is presented as an equivalent of the source text. I don’t have specific examples to give, and we have to be careful about accusing people of dishonesty, but I am saying that it is something conceivable. And one reason I bring it up is to say that unless it can be demonstrated that the translator misunderstood the source text, or unintentionally communicated poorly to the target audience, or was dishonest, then I don’t think you can say that the translation is bad or wrong. This message has gotten too long, and I will have to continue this thought later, but there are some translations that are unfairly criticized as being out of the bounds of proper translation, when in fact there was no dishonesty and nothing unintential.

Have you read the Bible?

Most people would say, “Of course I’ve read the Bible.” Some might add something like, “I read it in a different version every year.” But this brings to mind the seminary professor who pointed to a copy of the Bible in English and said to his students, “This isn’t the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible.” How do you respond to that? Should we acknowledge, “Well, that’s what I really meant when I said I had read the Bible”?

I’m going to argue that when you have read the Bible in English, you have read the Bible, and it doesn’t have to be qualified. This raises questions, though, that linguists, theologians and philosophers might argue about. It raises questions about the nature of meaning, communication and identity. These are questions that I have been trying to come to grips with, and my first published paper on the subject should be coming out in 2009, for a technical audience. I am coming up with a definition of translation that I, at least, find satisfying, and the feedback I have gotten is that it works, more or less, for some others as well. This isn’t the place to wax too philosophical, but I will get back to the point by saying that, according to my view, when a book has been successfully translated, then the translation becomes a substitute for the original, for a new audience. So a translation of the Bible is the Bible.

I appreciate the insights expressed in the original preface of the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible:

“We do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession… containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the King’s speech, which he uttereth in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere…. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it.

I would agree with these very self-aware 17th Century translators that, even if a translation isn’t somehow “perfect,” if you’ve read the Bible in English, you have read the Bible. Similarly, if you have read, for example, War and Peace in English, you have read Tolstoy’s book, or if you have read For Whom the Bell Tolls in French, you have read For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Now, I have another point to make about this identity issue that I will get to in part two, and I will just give you a preview here: the message is to lighten up. In English, because there is such a large market, we are privileged to have all kinds of translations of the Bible, sometimes with different translation philosophies behind them. If the Bible in English is the Bible, then how do you make sense of the variety of expressions? Is only one right and all the others wrong? Or do all translations sharing a certain philosophy contend for being called “right” while another set is “wrong”? Or should every translation be considered imperfect, yet varying in degree of closeness to the (unobtainable) ideal?

In trying to answer these questions about variety and good vs. bad translation, in part two of this message I am going to bring in some theological factors that I believe are well-grounded and not speculative. The result may surprise you.