Language: 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 was sitting in the law school library one night a couple years ago, and a law student asked me if I could remind her the names of the Supreme Court justices. Bear in mind that this was before Roberts and Alito. The Supreme Court at the time had been the same people since something like 1993. This particular law student had probably been in junior high when President Clinton had appointed Justice Breyer. When she found out that I wasn't a law student, a law professor, or a lawyer but merely a philosopher, and yet I could name them off in like three seconds, she was feeling a little Bashful.

Speaking of which, have you heard about the latest poll purportedly showing that the seven dwarfs are more famous than the Supreme Court justices? I've seen it several times now, but most people aren't noticing what Mark Liberman at Language Log has picked up on (see the links within that post, since it doesn't say much itself). It's good reading in general to see how misleading polls can be, indeed how misleading they can be designed to be. Suffice it to say that there's little to be trusted about this poll. It has all the hallmarks of manipulative poll-spinning.

When I'm reading a philosophical work, and I have to put it down, I usually have to skim through the paragraph or two before I stopped to put myself back into the train of thought necessary to move on. I picked up my Cambridge Companion to Augustine to resume my reading of the chapter on his political thought, and I skimmed the paragraph I had just finished before I put it down. (Mind you that this was also in a darkening room at the end of the day without yet having the light turned on after several hours out in the sun.)

This is what my mind interpreted the author as saying: "Augustine intimates in one place that rubber bands count as societies." Something didn't sound right there. Augustine wouldn't even know what a rubber band is. So what was it that I had just misread? Oh, right. I'd even typed up notes on this earlier today. Somehow replacing 'rubber' with 'robber' didn't occur to me without having to go back and read it again to remember what it really said.

I wonder if this is partly because 'rubber band' functions as one word in my mind and not a compound of two things. It's not a band that's rubber. It functions as a unit. Also, the different kind of band plays some role here too. I was trying to figure out what other kind of band Augustine might be talking about, and nothing came to mind, because a robber band isn't another kind of the band in the sense that a rubber band is a band.

Here's a really stupid argument:

1. Term X can be used in a racist way.
2. Other uses of Term X are therefore racist.

It's got to be one of the poorest excuses to call someone a racist I've ever seen. Yet people insist on doing it to unsuspecting politicians or other public figures. It's for this reason that Governor Mitt Romney of Massachussetts has been bamboozled into apologizing for an action that is in no way wrong. Tony Snow has also been criticized for using the same expression in its original, non-racial sense. A tar baby is generally a sticky situation, and nothing about race is implied by this use of the term. It's origins come from an African folk tale, and its function in accounts of sticky situations has continued undisturbed by those who ignorantly coopted it for racist purposes. In the northeast, where Romney is governor, most people have probably never even heard of the racist use of the expression, and those who do encounter it might easily forget it as so far out of their vocabulary that it doesn't enter long-term memory.

Another example I've encountered (in this case only very recently) is "call a spade a spade", which simply means to identify something for what it is. Some racists in the South have apparently called black people spades as a derogatory term. Since I've never hung out with those people, it never would have occurred to me that someone would do so. Why should an uncommon use of a term in a localized region, a use I've never even heard of, make my use of a perfectly normal idiom somehow immoral? Those who treat such statements as racist seem to me to be linguistically unaware at best and incapable of moral reasoning at worst.



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