Translators navigate a constant tension between form and meaning. English Bibles, for example, may keep the word order of the original writing in one passage (maintaining the form), but in other passages change words around so it is easier to understand (clarifying the meaning). Is there a right way to make decisions about form versus meaning in every situation?
Unfortunately, translation is not that simple, and it seldom works to pick one method and apply it across the board. But reminding ourselves of the purpose of translation does give some guidance.
Translation is intended to communicate. Why do we translate? Isn’t it to communicate a message to an audience that speaks another language? God’s message is intended for everyone, so our burden is to communicate His message in a way that is clearly understood. For this to happen. . .
Translation must convey the meaning. If the correct meaning does not come through, have we really communicated? On the other hand, if the goal is only to get the idea across, can translators say it however sounds best to them with no regard to the original wording? Bible translators seek to be faithful to the original form, while carefully acknowledging that in order to convey the meaning. . .
Translation involves interpretation. How would a translator render “Elucidate signification” in another language? He would have to interpret the statement first! In fact, as we read the Bible—or even this article—we are interpreting. We want to know what the author meant.
For translators, this means working to understand what a term or passage is saying before trying to express it in another language. Those reading the translation will view it, at least to some extent, through the eyes of the translation team. For this reason, translating the Bible is a serious task for which we seek the help of God’s Spirit.
"Dost thou then know what thou dost read?"
English translator Robert Young believed a translation should include a word for every word in the original, usually in the same order. How well does his translation communicate?
And the Spirit said to Philip, `Go near, and be joined to this chariot;' and Philip having run near, heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, `Dost thou then know what thou dost read?' and he said, `Why, how am I able, if some one may not guide me?' he called Philip also, having come up, to sit with him. And the contents of the Writing that he was reading was this: `As a sheep unto slaughter he was led, and as a lamb before his shearer dumb, so he doth not open his mouth; in his humiliation his judgment was taken away, and his generation -- who shall declare? because taken from the earth is his life.'
—Acts 8:29-33, Young’s Literal Translation
Translation means changing the form. If we haven’t changed the form, we haven’t translated. The most obvious form that must change is the language in which it is written. Are there principles that help us honor the form as we translate the message of God’s Word? Watch for a winter blog post addressing that question.
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