Bible Translation: August 2006 Archives

Interpretive Translation

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A lot of people complain loudly and frequently about what they call "interpretive translation". Most of these people are criticizing what is commonly called dynamic translation, which includes translations that tend to translate the sense of an expression as opposed to favoring the formal properties of the sentence. Either favoring can obscure the other, and good translators will know how to find the right balance to express the original meaning best. But the complainers don't understand the complexities of translation very well, or they would realize that sometimes capturing the sense of the original means sacrificing the ability to capture its form. Thus translations such as the NIV, TNIV, or NLT will come under their wrath, and they will favor translations such as the ESV, NASB, or NKJV.

One deep irony of this is that lots of interpretive translation goes on in those translations that people are, following the ESV translators, now calling "essentially literal". Wayne Leman points out one example. A lot of these translations that are supposed to avoid interpretive translation do exactly that all the time in ways that their supporters consider the right way to translate those passages. Wayne's example is in capitalizing words like 'son' or 'man' when the translators interpret them to be referring messianically to Jesus. But this is indeed an interpretation, even if the interpretation is based on other scriptural passages that quote it and apply it to Jesus.

Someone wanting to translate this way might defend it on the grounds that interpretations based on other parts of the Bible are infallible and thus can serve as the good kind of interpretation. After all, if Hebrews or Acts quotes Psalm 2 about Jesus, then can't we be 100% sure that it's simply talking about Jesus? If we believe the Bible to be infallible in its quotations, then this kind of interpretation is God's own interpretation, and thus it's true. Whats right about this is that someone who takes the Bible to be infallible should see the Bible's quotation of itself as infallible, i.e. it couldn't be an error in quotation. What's wrong about this argument, however, is that our interpretation of what the quotation is doing might be wrong. If Acts 13 applies Psalm 2 to Jesus, that doesn't mean its original referent is Jesus. It might be referring to the Davidic line in general in most of what it says, with Jesus representing the ideal Davidic king and thus fitting into its reference but not encompassing the entirety of its reference. Those who capitalize the pronouns about Jesus or the word 'son' are thus engaging in the bad kind of interpretive translation in this case, because it might actually give the wrong result.

I'm way behind on my Language Log reading, but I just noticed Wayne Leman blogging about this Mark Liberman post about an instance of the singular 'they' in the KJV. I know there are manby older instances, but this is the KJV.

This isn't new to me (see here), but one counterargument in the comments on Wayne's post is worth responding to. The anonymous commenter argues that it couldn't be a singular 'they' but must instead be some roundabout form (particular to this example and not usable in other singular 'they' examples from the same period), and the only real argument for this is that the verb seems to be plural. It's 'have', not the singular 'has' that would be expected if you had a singular subject.

There's one major problem with this. Singular 'they' (in the newer dialects of English that have it as a regular feature nowadays) does not take a 'has' but a 'have'. It's a singular 'have' as well. The following sentence clearly has a singular subject and verb in the second clause: "Someone took my pencil, and they have it on their person." So why couldn't we read 'have' in the KJV as singular, just as it is in today's English?

I've been busy enough lately that I've lost touch with several blogs I've been trying to maintain connections with, and one of the things I've let slip is checking for Rick Mansfield's Bible translation reviews. He's now done the REB and the NJB, two translations I've spent a lot less time in.

I have little to say about these reviews, since I don't know either translation very well, but I did notice something interesting in the comments on the second piece, which arose from the NJB's use of 'Yahweh' to transliterate God's name in Hebrew rather than the standard English translation policy of using 'the LORD' for that name. Since orthodox Jews can't use such a translation because of that, it led to a discussion of the practice some Jewish people have of writing out 'G-d' so they don't use God's name. Apparently that very practice is viewed as sacrilege by many orthodox Jews, despite its opposite intent. This makes sense, though, because 'God' is not the name of God to an orthodox Jew. The tetragrammaton is, i.e. what would be transliterated as 'YHWH'. The fact that 'God' is used in English as a name for God is irrelevant, since it's not the name God revealed himself as having. Thus orthodox Jews see this practice of leaving out the vowel in 'God' as sacrilege, because it raises the status of this English word to the level of the Hebrew name that God used to reveal himself. That's an interesting irony.

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