Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Give and Take of Translating the Sacred Text

There is a fine post on the Bible Exchange touching upon the necessity of multiple translations when approaching the sacred text.

The necessity to not anchor oneself to anyone one translation often seems obscured in the polemics of dynamic versus formal equivalence, let alone inclusive language. 

Anyone with a background in the ancient languages will readily admit that translation is always a matter of give and take. An "optimal" translation is often more a matter of aesthetic or at times psychological preference than a concrete text. There is always a matter of putting oneself at the mercy of the translator and his or her judgment calls.

A dynamic translation will often sacrifice literal translations of specific terms or paraphrase sections for the sake of linguistic clarity. Literal translations will conversely be forced to either supplement the translation or simply ignore the subtle connotations of the text that cannot be rendered clear by one-to-one translation.

So, does this make the case for everyone learning the original languages? To some degree. Having a working knowledge of the original text frees one from dependency on another translator. This said, one will find oneself making the same judgments between an otherwise dynamic or otherwise literal translation of the text.


  1. I so agree with all that you say here. I have some facility with Latin and I’ve studied Greek (which I think I prefer). I like to make the effort of translating different works for myself – not just because of the intellectual challenge in doing so, but because of this very desire to feel I am getting closer to the author and the undiluted power of his or her words. I think you’re right to identify the importance of both dynamic and formal equivalence: they serve different goods. When I first translate something, I render the text in very literal terms and as close to the original syntax as I can without it being too monstrous; this helps me understand a little more the thinking structure of the original language. Once I’ve done that, then I might have a go at translating my cruder translation into a more natural vernacular. Of course I never pretend my versions are anything but the fruits of a personal interest. I find that many official and expert translations have much to commend them although associations and memories can often make one more special than another (e.g. I really like the Grail translation of the Psalms, and the Jerusalem Bible translation for the rest, because of memories – early childhood familiarity, later community experiences.)

    1. The emotional resonance of a language is crucial. I suppose that is the one warning with the ancient languages - if it doesn't have emotional resonance, it will always be somewhat cold and mechanical.

      The original text can give us some perspective on the major translations - hopefully enough to know that there is no perfect translation and that every rendition of the ancient text into the vernacular is a product of negotiating definition and connotation from one language to another.