Translators are not authors, free to write whatever they want in the way they want. They must translate the existing text with integrity.
With form and meaning in constant tension, what helps translators stay faithful to the form of the original text? These four points correspond to the points about communication and meaning in the previous blog post, "Translation that Communicates (Why Meaning Matters)".
Translation is intended to communicate, but how clearly? Not everything in the Bible needs to be clear at the first reading. What isn’t immediately obvious can be revealed as people pray, study, and discuss what God meant.
Translation must convey the meaning, but how explicitly? Many things contribute to our understanding of Bible passages: teaching received at home or at church, footnotes in our Bibles, and dictionaries that explain Bible-time customs. The translated Bible text cannot provide all this information; translators also need to teach and provide study resources.
Translation involves interpretation, but how much? Translators convey God’s message, not their own. Not what they think God means, and not necessarily what readers can easily understand, but simply what God said.
Should the Bible sound like it happened in our time?
Clarence Jordan said, “We need the good news to come to us not only in our own tongue but in our own time. We want to be participants, not merely spectators.” Before agreeing with him, consider an English passage Jordan produced. Is this true translation?
Now a messenger of the Lord said to Phil, "Get ready and go south along the road that goes from Atlanta to LaGrange." (It's open country
through there.) So he got ready and went. At the same time there was a high-up official of Tuskegee—the treasurer, in fact—who had gone to a
convention in Atlanta. He was going home and sitting on the bus reading from Isaiah. So the spirit said to Phil, "Flag that bus!" So he flagged it and got on and saw the man reading from Isaiah. Phil asked him, "Does what you're reading make sense?" The man replied "How can I make heads or tails of it when there's no one to explain it to me?"
—Acts 8:26-31, The Cotton Patch Gospel
Translation means changing the form, but which aspects? Languages aren’t the same. Sentences probably fit together differently. Figures of speech might make no sense and have to be changed.
So how do translators avoid straying too far from the form of the original text? The questions above, easy to forget in the pressure to communicate meaning, serve as reminders that help translators stay true.