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Translating Poetry

Translating Poetry

On March 24, 2016, blog entry marked 11:40 AM, Dave Black talks about translating poetry and links to his essay on the topic from a Festschrift, available via Google Docs.

Reading Dave’s comments about translating poetry reminded me of one of my favorite translations of poetry from any language to any other, Max Knight’s translations of Christian Morgenstern’s German poetry. You can find samples here. I particularly like Der Lattenzaun/The Picket Fence, but Die Trichter/The Funnels, which Knight translates twice, provides another good example.

Translation is a creative activity. When the material is very technical, the room available for creative activity, or better the necessity for it, may be lower, but it’s still there. Communication is not easy, no matter what one is trying to communicate, and when one is trying to communicate many things (and often a good writer is doing just that), the translation becomes more difficult.

In the case of Bible translation, we multiply these problems because we are trying to translate a variety of literary genres across a gap of history and culture, which, in addition, either have or have acquired theological meanings that may relate to times before or after their composition. There’s a great deal of freight in the text and hanging onto it for dear life lest it be lost along the way.

Into this perilous swamp comes the translator, trying to jump from one foothold to another, always hoping the foothold is not the back of a sunbathing alligator. (Try translating that murky metaphor for comprehension by a desert-dwelling tribe. I dare you!)

But I don’t see the difficulty of translation as a major problem for Christianity. The major problem I see is that we are afraid of the creativity of translation. We should, embrace it, enjoy it, learn from it, and live it.

Now that I think about it, we’re afraid of the creativity of communicating, discussing, and embodying the message in our own language.

As I read a passage like the first chapter of Ezekiel I see a prophet’s creativity challenged. Ezekiel struggles for words. (I wrote a bit about this earlier on the Energion Discussion Network.) One commentator “cleaned up” Ezekiel’s prose and made it rational and orderly, discarding a large portion of the chapter in the process.

But Ezekiel the prophet is trying to be a translator for us, translating his experience of, his vision of God into terms that can communicate with us. It isn’t easy for Ezekiel. It isn’t easy for me. I don’t think it’s easy for any translator.

I want the translator to be a good linguist, but I also want him to be able to feel and experience along with Ezekiel and then creatively transfer this vision of God to me as an English reader. Will I get precisely what Ezekiel got? No. Not a chance. But I can get a glimpse of God’s glory as Ezekiel did, as I hope the translator did, and as I hope is conveyed through a good, creative translation.

Poetry especially deserves this sort of creativity. And we shouldn’t fear it. People often act as if any sort of creativity in Bible translation means the message is being lost. But that is our modern desire for a compendium of facts about God.

I came out of my MA program in seminary with a compendium of facts and I promptly left the church. I came back struggling with texts I found hard to comprehend, hard to translate, and even harder to live.

The struggle is greater than the catalog. Every. Single. Time.

But the facts conveyed by a vision like Ezekiel 1 or a powerful, intricately structured poem such as Psalm 104 are actually relatively few. The glory conveyed is beyond comprehension. I’ll go for not one creative translation (even my own), but for many. I want to try to comprehend the “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and there’s no way I’ll do that with just the facts.

God could have provided us with a systematic theology, carefully tagged with paragraph and subparagraph numbers, footnoted with additional explanations, structured so as to miss nothing. God didn’t do that. I think God did it intentionally.

That’s why I’m less critical than others of Bible translators, less willing to say they got it wrong. It’s not that I think they are without error. It’s just that I have such great respect for their willingness to get in there and try.

I think it would be wonderful if we all encouraged them and gave them the freedom to creatively pass to us the message they experience.

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18, NRSV)

Or perhaps:

… And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. (2 Cor. 3:16-18, The Message)

Or perhaps …

It’s not by our efforts to get it all right that we remove the veil and see clearly. It’s by turning to the Lord. The Lord is the one who can make us see clearly in spiritual things, because the Lord is Spirit. So when we look in this way, we can contemplate the Lord’s glory and that is what will transform us from glory to glory. (1 Cor 3:16-18, my paraphrase, applying it now, good until the next time I read it)

Thomas Hudgins Looks at Literal in Translation

Thomas Hudgins Looks at Literal in Translation

The term “literal,” when used regarding translation, can drive translators quite mad, I think. But it is a commonly used word in the pews and the hallways of churches. “We don’t take things that literally around here,” is something I hear regularly in United Methodist churches. Which leaves the question of just how do we take it, if we bother to take it at all, quite unanswered.

Thomas Hudgins, in his post Thinking about What’s Literal says, “This whole concept of ‘literal’ is really misleading.”

Go read his post and discover what concept of “literal” he’s talking about and why he thinks it’s misleading.

Good and Bad Translation

Good and Bad Translation

Simon Cozens discusses good and bad translations (HT: Kouya) and concludes:

So when it comes to Bible translations, I don’t really care, relatively speaking, about the methodology behind the translation. I don’t necessarily care if it’s literal or dynamic or whatever. The more important question is, is it a good translation or a bad translation? I wonder which the authors would have wanted.

Any time I teach classes in church about Bible translations I include the note that the dynamic/formal debate is not a part of general translation discussion other than when Bible translation is at issue. When translating a sign, as Simon does in his post (I know no Japanese, so no comment on accuracy!), there are pretty clear objectives that define what a good translation is.

And that’s the problem with Bible translation. We don’t have a clear objective. Well, to be more accurate we each have a fairly clear set of objectives, but we don’t agree on them. Some people want something that is clearly understandable in the target language. Others want to transfer idioms and cultural ideas from one time and culture to another. Others are concerned that the specific words are dictated by God, and thus believe that we must come as close as possible to reflecting even the wording of the source text. Yet others are concerned with literary issues and want to have the register of the source text reflected in translation. Hebrews should thus be translated at a higher reading level and with greater rhetorical skill than Mark, for example. (I might argue about literary skill, but those are terms I have heard in this discussion.)

Without objectives, it is impossible to call a translation “good” or “bad.”

Let me illustrate. Supposing I make a translation (or partial translation) of a text to help a new Greek or Hebrew student study. This translation would reflect as closely as possible the wording and syntax of the source text. I sometimes do this to provide a fill-in-the-blanks type of exercise in introducing students to new texts, such as using an LXX text with a New Testament Greek student. (I don’t teach in seminary. I’m always either tutoring a single student or teaching a small class at a church.)

Contrast this with a translation of a text I might provide my grandchildren as I teach. In the latter case I’m going to be translating register, culture, and language. Is either translation a bad translation? Is it good? I think a translation is only good or bad in a particular context of usage.

Nonetheless, Bible translators, and more importantly those who debate about translation, would do well to pay attention to what Simon is saying. Maybe we could learn a bit about our particular context and come to understand one of the major things that differentiates one translation from another … objectives.

Thoughts on Translating Psalm 22

Thoughts on Translating Psalm 22

First, two warnings. I’m not going to go into detail on the numerous translation difficulties in Psalm 22 and this post results from a book currently in the final stages of release from my company, Energion Publications. So if you want to avoid the potential commercial side, skip this one. On the other hand, that’s the book cover to the left!

The book is a collection of responses to the Psalms written by various members of my home church (First UMC, Pensacola). One of my contributions was a translation, and I chose Psalm 22 because of the numerous translation issues.

This process underlined for me the number of different possibilities there are in translation. We accept pretty readily that a piece of literature has particular circumstances and purposes for which it is written. It has a setting. It has a background. This could be said of any act of communication, but especially of something written.

Similarly a translation has a purpose, or perhaps multiple purposes. In this case, my translation was to fit into a collection of reflections. The ideal would be that it be in some way a reflection of what the Psalm has meant to me. Would that be a translation? In my opinion, yes.

But my personal bias would suggest I make every effort to reproduce the original form of the Hebrew text and reflect the forms of Hebrew poetry in my translation. I suppose that would have been an acceptable approach—it would have reflected me as well as the historical text.

But then I also thought about the uses of the Psalms in Christian worship. While I’m translating a Hebrew Psalm, I’m doing so in the context of a collection created by and for a Christian congregation. This may not be used in the liturgy of the church, but it might well reflect the church at worship.

Thus I made a choice to allow the LXX and the Vulgate to have a greater than normal impact on my final translation, and while I reflected the sparseness of some of the Hebrew expressions, my effort was much more intended to make it easy for the modern reader to understand. At the same time I intentionally did not take all the foreignness and roughness out of it. Some of it sounds abrupt.

Readers of the New Testament will find the passages the church has traditionally read christologically translated in fairly traditional terms. They’ll find a few mildly obscure passages still obscure. I felt a certain freedom in this regard since I can be certain that nobody will be using this particular translation as their standard, authoritative translation of the passage.

I would again note that I find any claim that all translations must aim at just one thing to be unjustified. There is room for a variety of translation approaches and even the translation of a variety of texts. If my translation reflects the LXX in places, I remember that the LXX was the Bible of much of the early Christian community.

What do I think of my own translation? That’s hard to say. It was an effort of several days and I could have spent a good deal more time on it than I did. In fact, it’s hard for me to decide that I’m done with such a translation. I guarantee that if I went over it at this moment I’d wind up making changes.

My wish is that we could judge translations in terms of their aims and how well they accomplish them rather than against some ideal plan that all translations must follow. I like Clear Accurate and Natural, and generally commend that approach for people’s reading and worship Bibles. I like a close reflection of the forms and culture of the source for serious study.

Approach must match occasion and purpose. Or am I allowed to use the word “must”? 🙂

The Best Bible Version is the One You Read

The Best Bible Version is the One You Read

Across the front cover of my book What’s in a Version? I placed the slogan that forms the title of this post. You might think it’s a strange thing to put on the cover of a book. I’ve used it in class as well. I’ve received more criticism for that one line than for anything else in the book.

I’m in the process of revising the book (though it’s still available), but that one line is something that will not change. Yes, it’s a one-liner, and thus subject to a variety of interpretations. No, I don’t believe that anything that might masquerade as a translation actually is a translation. But there are very few things that I would say masquerade as translations, and there are many people who want to prescribe the Bible you should read.

There are some facts regarding reading a piece of ancient literature. First, I didn’t live in the first century, when the New Testament was being written. I’m at least at one remove, because no matter how much I study Greek, I will never truly understand it in the same context and world as Paul did. Second, if you’re reading in translation, you’re not reading the original. This leads to my third point: Something is always lost in translation.

But that means that something is always present in translation as well. The question is just what you’re looking for. For example, I prefer the more formal style of the Revised English Bible. I even like its Anglicisms. I spent much of my teens in a former British colony (Guyana), and I was born in Canada. Those things are comfortable for me and they give me a familiar feel.

Should I therefore recommend that everyone read the REB? Hardly! For others, features that make it work for me may be a hindrance to understanding. Then there’s the question of just what it is that I want to understand, or more importantly that you want to understand.

What seems to escape so many people who prescribe what a translation must and must not do is that it matters not what is there if the reader doesn’t understand. Admonitions to “get a dictionary” are both pointless, and in my opinion, arrogant. This kind of talk suggests to people that if they would just put in enough work, they’d be able to understand–well–what the talker believes they should want to understand. Maybe I’d prefer the clarity of the CEV of Jeremiah 22:29 to a translation that conveys the epizeuxis. It’s possible that I couldn’t care less about an epizeuxis. In point of fact, I care about the epizeuxis largely so that I can convey it’s meaning in another fashion. At the same time, I do not regard my particular aim as normative. If you want to convey the epizeuxis, by all means do so. It’s not better or worse, it just is what it is.

This lack of concern for the readers–though I’m sure it’s advocates think they are advocates for the spiritual and intellectual well-being of their hearers or readers–is what I like to call the problem of the one-ended telephone cord.

So I frequently frustrate inquirers who want me to recommend a Bible version. I always ask what they want to do with it, and to a great extent I want to know who they are before I will even attempt an answer, and then I’m going to leave it quite open-ended–what do you want? what do you read?

Oh, and credit where credit is due. I was finally tipped to the point of writing this by a post from Kurk at Aristotle’s Feminist Subject, which is well worth reading. I’d also like to reference my Bible Translation Selection Tool, which tries to list Bibles in priority order according to preferences expressed by the user. I’ve been told both that this is much too complicated and also that it can’t be personalized enough, but thus far I haven’t had time to fix either problem, nor do I know that I could fix them both at once.


Michael Patton on the Best Bible Version

Michael Patton on the Best Bible Version

I’m glad to see this, though I do disagree with a few points.

First, I don’t agree that using a formal equivalence translation means you are closer to the original. You are closer in some ways–reflecting the words and structure of the original language–yet you are often further in other ways, including reflecting the thought.

Second “word for word” is not the best way to describe formal equivalence. I prefer “form for form” but even that misses it just a bit. In formal equivalence translators attempt to approach the words and structure of the source language as much as is possible in the receptor language.

Third, I would not use “sentence for sentence” as a description of dynamic (or functional) equivalence. It’s somewhat difficult to define the term “word” in a way that is transferable between languages. Similarly, sentences may change. Even in formal equivalence, one Greek sentence might be translated by multiple English sentences, for example. I would say “thought for thought” would be closer to the truth.

Nonetheless, I think this is generally a helpful and balanced presentation.


Some Basic Linguistics

Some Basic Linguistics

One of the great problems I find in teaching biblical languages, or in explaining Bible translation to lay audiences, is that people don’t understand meaning very well. They assume that words have fixed, narrow ranges of meaning, and that if you search carefully, you can find a word or phrase to precisely represent that word in the target language.

Most of them have some idea that this might not be right, but that hasn’t seeped through to their practice. A few questions usually suffices to get the process started.

I’m embedding a video from Wycliffe Bible Translators (UK), or rather audio with a slide show, that does a good job with the basic concepts. This one doesn’t go in depth. What it does is clear a lot of the ground and get some basic structures in place. (HT: Kouya Chronicle.)



Praying Without Ceasing and Hyperbole

Praying Without Ceasing and Hyperbole

Mike Sangrey has a post on translating 1 Thessalonians 5:17 at Better Bibles Blog where he suggests “Don’t stop praying!” would be more accurate than “Pray without ceasing,” which is what most of us are used to hearing. He arrives at this conclusion by looking at various uses of the Greek word in question (adialeiptws). Nonetheless the key argument seems to be that:

the words “without ceasing” carry the idea of “unending, continuous prayer” to the English mind.  I think such an action is impossible and others think so, too.

Just so! I think it’s impossible as well. But as the first commenter notes, this is likely a form of hyperbole. Now I’m quite comfortable with interpretive translations that try to adapt one idiom into another, or take a rhetorical device from the source language that is absent (or different) in the target language and replace it with another.

My concern in this case is that hyperbole is a perfectly good rhetorical device in English. We use it regularly. Sometimes our “holy filter” keeps us from seeing it in scripture, but that’s not because it’s absent from the language.

My question is this: If Paul was using hyperbole here, then what is wrong with hyperbole in an English translation? To be more precise, I could ask whether a Greek speaking reader might have heard the passage as “unending, continuous prayer,” realize he had encountered hyperbole, and apply it appropriately. If so, why not let an English speaking reader do the same?

If I might illustrate further, when Jesus says that if your right eye offends you, pluck it out (Matthew 5:29), is it not likely that we have just a small amount of hyperbole? If so, should I translate this verse into something non-hyperbolic, such as “it might be better to be blind than to have your eyes lead you into lust”? (I’m not proposing that as a good translation–just a pointer.)

I’m leaving comments open, but suggesting you comment at Mike’s post or on your own blog to keep the discussion linked.

Matthew 25:14-30 (The Talents)

Matthew 25:14-30 (The Talents)

14[The kingdom of heaven] is like a man going on a journey.  He calls his slaves and hands his property over to them.  15To one he gives five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each one according to his strength.  Then he goes on his journey.  As soon 16as he goes, the one who received five talents did business with them and gained another five.  17Likewise the one with two earned another two.  18But the one who received one went out, dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money.  19After a long time the lord of those slaves returned and settled accounts with them.  20The one who had received five talents brought another five talents, saying, “Lord, you handed five talents over to me.  Look, here I’ve gained five more.  21His lord said to him,
“Excellent, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little, I will put you in charge of much.  Enter into your lord’s joy.  22Then the one who had received two talents said, “Lord, you handed two talents over to me.  Look, I have gained another two talents.”  23His lord said to him, “Excellent, good and faithful servant.  You were faithful with a little, I’m going to put you in charge of much.  Enter into your lord’s joy.”  24But the one who had received one talent came and said, “Lord, I knew you, that you are a hard man, harvesting where you didn’t plant, and gathering where you didn’t scatter.  25I was afraid, and went out and his your talent in the ground.  Look, you have what is yours!” 26But the lord answered him, “Wicked and lazy servant!  You know that I harvest where I haven’t planted, and I gather where I haven’t scattered?  27You should have given my money to the bankers, and when I returned, I could have received my own money with interest.  28So take the talent away from him and give it to the one who has ten talents.  29For to everyone who has it shall be given, and it will overflow, and from the one who doesn’t have shall be taken away even what he has.  30And throw the useless slave out into the outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and grinding of teeth. — Matthew 25:14-30

The boundary between verses 15 and 16 is doubtful.  Di he immediately go on a journey, or did the servant go out and immediately begin doing business.  It’s not a matter of great theological important, of course, but it is interesting.  The very best manuscripts would suggest that “immediately” goes with the servant’s action, but there are a larger number of the immediately next tier of manuscripts that suggests the opposite.  For example, the original hand of Sinaiticus goes with the reading I have translated, but the second corrector changes it.  Vaticanus supports the text as I have it, but Alexandrinus is on the other side.

For verses 21 and 23, “enter your lord’s joy” CEV has “share in my happiness.”  I like that, but I’m not sure it’s correct.  I wonder if it may be “welcome to your lord’s pleasure” or something like that.  I may update this post later with a note on the matter.

Otherwise, the translation is not the major issue here, but rather the exegesis, which, I suspect, makes some folks uncomfortable.


Speaking from God – 2 Peter 1:16-21

Speaking from God – 2 Peter 1:16-21

This passage in 2 Peter is one of the most commonly cited in discussions of Biblical inspiration, along with 2 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 4:12 and Psalm 12:6. One of the interesting things that I notice about them all is that they are often used as though they obviously say something that, on closer examination, they don’t actually say.

In fact, they are quoted in support of just about every view of inspiration that there is, and frequently supporters of one view or another simply quote these passages and then look expectantly at you, expecting you to acknowledge that the text completely states their doctrine. But no single text does, and it would be difficult for one to do so by itself. Even more, however, we need to look at how prophecy functioned in practice in scripture when we want to work out the details, rather than looking for doctrinal statements and then assuming that it works according to our interpretation of those statements.

That general statement of method, of course, requires further discussion, and I do discuss the method extensively in my book When People Speak for God. Here, I simply want to look at this text from that point of view. The key question here is what does Peter (or the pseudonymous author of 2 Peter, if it was not written by the apostle himself) wish to convey? In other words, why is he talking about prophecy here? We can see rather immediately that his point is not to expound a doctrine of prophecy, but what is he doing?

As an aside, let me note that the authorship of 2 Peter would be problematic under the doctrine of inerrancy. I have left the possibility that this is a pseudonymous letter rather than written by the apostle himself, yet if one holds the doctrine of inerrancy, this very passage would be in error, since it relies on the notion of eyewitnesses, and specifically an eyewitness who was on the mount of transfiguration. No person other than Peter, amongst potential authors of the book, suits that text.

The key here is the reliability of the prophetic word in general, but more specifically about Jesus Christ. To restate this in a slightly less convoluted way, Peter is saying that he saw the prophecies about the coming Messiah fulfilled before his very eyes in Jesus. In particular, I believe, he’s invoking Exodus 24 and the image of Moses on the mountain as the type which met its antitype in the transfiguration. Because of this reliable connection, established by eyewitness testimony–that of the writer–the readers do well to pay attention to the prophetic word as it comes through those apostles and their successors.

There are two subtexts to this. First, scripture does not come by human will. Second, scripture is not the result of, or the property of individual speakers of interpreters. I think these are critical things for us to notice today. One of the things I emphasize in my method of Bible study is sharing, and sharing in turn simply means that you do your Bible study in community. There is, of course, always a tension between one’s individual opinions and the community, but as long as there is contact, there is an additional measure of safety. The individual who goes off in a corner and feels unable to, or is unwilling to express his views is in much graver danger of error.

To back this up a bit, here is my draft translation and notes. You will, of course, want to read other translations and compare. When one is expressing a particular interpretation of a passage, one is more vulnerable than usual to translating according to the interpretation. (Greek transliteration throughout is very loose as I’m not depending on grammatical details.)

16It was not by relying on cleverly contrived tales that we told you about the power and the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. We witnessed his majesty with our own eyes.

The key word in this passage is epoptes, referring to an eyewitness in this case. It occurs only here in the New Testament, though it does occur in the LXX a number of times. The term can also refer to an initiate (which might cover the apostle Paul) or to an overseer, though the latter two meanings do not fit the context here. Megaleiotes, used here for “majesty” can refer to things varying from grand to sublime or a combination thereof.

The combined idea is that those who preached the message had seen the real thing with their own eyes, being allowed to watch Jesus through his ministry.

17He received glory and honor from God the Father, and a voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved son. I’m well pleased with him.” 18And we heard this very voice coming from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.

That there was a voice is not quite the focus. That those who preached had heard the voice–that’s the key. They heard God affirm Jesus as His Son.

19Now we have a more secure prophetic word, and you would do well to attend to it as a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns, and the morning star rises in your hearts.

The security does not exist in isolation. It is intended to make the believers hold on until the appearance of Christ.

20Knowing this first, that no prophecy in scripture came as a matter for private understanding.

“Understanding” could be, and often is translated as “interpretation.” Between verses 20 and 21 scripture is clearly declared outside of realm of the individual and personal, and placed as part of a community operating in the will of God.

21For no prophecy came by human will, but carried forward by the Holy Spirit human beings spoke [a message] from God. — 2 Peter 1:16-21

People regularly use this passage to imply some form of verbal dictation, but the Greek simply says “spoke from God” and we must supply the object–what is being spoken. I would argue that the correct object is the message, the more sure word of Jesus come in the flesh and affirmed by God in fulfillment of scripture. This makes no comment on whether words are verbally dictated. A better place to discover the method at that level of detail is to look at actual scriptures. There we will find words that seem to be almost totally the creation of the writer, and also words that are the very words of God.

Thus people are apparently carried along by the Holy Spirit in many different ways, not just a single one.