Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rethinking translation

What are we to believe about translation? Can it be accurate or is it inherently undermining the original? Is, in fact, the original even accurate? Was there even an original? Some people say that reading a translation is like kissing your beloved through a sheet. Can the beloved be known in another tongue?

And what about our methods? Even a sense of accuracy is undermined by this post. According to his blog header, Kurk Gayle has 'much recovery yet to do' in changing his readers reading of taxonomies and motivations for reading. As I write this, Joel Hoffman adds another key question here: "Should a translation reflect our improved understanding?"

There is a lot of background and training in translation around. And a lot of argument among those who are trained. Even translating English to English can be a real problem (Deck yourself! as noted in my post from several days ago translated from the olde English 'deck thyself, my soul, with gladness'.)

A recurring theme in various blogs is discussion on functional equivalence, dynamic equivalence and cognitive equivalence, all intended forms of accuracy in translation. I doubt that any of these does full justice for the original drawing out of the language first chosen for the story, pericope, phrase or poetry. But neither does any commentary on or in any language. Language by itself is not sufficient. To put it plainly - language requires a hearer. All words - and especially those in the Bible are open to various cognitions. No amount of precision - language based, linguistic, grammatical, pragmatic, syntagmatic, syntactic, or communicative - can come to a final and unique and all-encompassing conclusion about 'the meaning', whether original or translated.

But I recall some other adjectives used for translations - 'decent' or 'satisfactory'. Decent will not do as a modifier. Testing its negative leaves me with unnecessary connotations. But satisfactory - that is a perfect word, reflecting the completeness that comes from engagement with the One behind the text, and also the cost of that completeness in blood. A satisfactory translation translates us from the realm of darkness into the realm of likeness, from the formality of God to the Beloved of the Song. And our tongues are loosed. And to give this poignancy, the word אלהים for God  (elohim) produces ha'eyalim האילים by simply moving one letter (and adding a yod!) - but there is a 'sounds like' relationship. In the Song, we are taught likeness, itself more costly than might be anticipated. And God finds a way in (three times) even when not mentioned.

So are we stuck with a canonical pointer? What should we do? Love the pointer? Yes - and marvel how it was even possible to suggest that there is One to whom it points. Should only one who is completed translate? This is an impossible judgment (for the human). Even the creating word that is the Potter allows itself to be subject to the will of the pots.

This week's commentary (or last week's or the week's before last) ends with this thought:

God's Torah requires human involvement in order to achieve its meaning—it is incomplete without the participation of humankind.
I would say not 'humankind' but any human that will respond. I would not say 'meaning' as if it could be extracted without the Measurer or the measured. Then it is not Torah that is completed, but the measured human who responds.

As I said too quickly in an earlier post that this one replaces: It's just you and me, kid. And we've got work to do.


J. K. Gayle said...

To put it plainly - language requires a hearer.

Thank you for your thoughts and for working on re-thinking! Bob, I'm grateful also for the link, and your encouragement to me to perhaps say a bit more and a bit more plainly. What I hear you saying is There's no one single trained expert's way to think about translation.

Bob MacDonald said...

One side of the implication is that there is no single way. An other side is that many translations can be satisfactory and sufficient to the purposes of God. And still another facet is that we need much more play. While deadly seriousness is important, it is not ultimate. Play is equally important. Your blog has helped me to think about the seriousness of logic and taxonomy in a playful way - even if Aristotle was sometimes only deadly serious. So the fear that readers have of the inaccurate is not the ultimate either. One can enter a relationship in fear and ignorance. If the hearer is in error, will it not be corrected by the 'other side'? It may a lifetime or even take generations, but to anyone who hears, what is true in all its joy, parable, myth, and delight will be made known.

Hmmm - generations? But I want it for me! Fear not, little flock...