Monday, October 24, 2011

Bible Translation and Editorial Consistency

One of the fundamental difficulties in any translation work is for the translator to enable the reader to hear the “voice” of the original writer. A recent translator of The Three Musketeers commented to the effect that he found earlier translations of the work, particularly nineteenth-century translations, made the work much less accessible than it was in the original. He therefore strove in his translation to convey in English the style of the original French. In a book of such length as The Three Musketeers it is fairly easy over the course of the novel to convey something of Dumas’s style. In the Bible, it is a much more difficult task. For one thing, the translators are faced not with one book, but with sixty-six, and from as many as perhaps forty writers. Further, even the longest books of the Bible (Jeremiah, Genesis, and Psalms are longest by Hebrew word-count) are far shorter than even an average novel, let alone a novel such as The Three Musketeers. Even the three together would make only a very short novel (about 60,000 words total, about 120,000 in the KJV, which would make a decent-length novel). However, the three books have very different styles (in Hebrew). A proficient Hebrew reader would be able to tell within a few verses which of the three he was reading from if he was given an unidentified portion to read. But it can be difficult to make those stylistic differences apparent in English.

Formal equivalence translations have an advantage over functional equivalence translations at this point, because of the attempt to follow the Hebrew (or Greek) fairly closely, and to maintain consonance as much as possible, (Consonance is the practice of translating a given Hebrew/Greek word by the same English word when reasonably possible to do so.) Functional equivalence translations, on the other hand, tend to be simple-language translations, which limits, for example, the use of technical terminology, and tends to paraphrase or replace idioms in the original with “equivalent” English idioms.

A further problem for functional equivalence translations is that they tend to prefer short, choppy English sentences. In some places, that works. Hebrew narrative, for example, tends to consist of short clauses, sometimes no more than a word or two. The reader should understand, however, that it is possible to put a whole English sentence, albeit a simple one, in one word. The English sentence, “He offered it up as a burnt offering” is two words in Hebrew. However, when it comes to Paul’s letters, the functional equivalence translations lose the ability to represent Paul’s style. As is often observed Eph 1:3-14 is one sentence in Greek. The KJV turns that into three sentences. The NLT turns it into fourteen sentences in three paragraphs. The CEB also turned it into fourteen sentences, though they have retained the one paragraph. Certainly not a real representation of the sentence Paul wrote.

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