Accuracy requires a single standard
I remember seeing an ad for a new translation of the Bible claiming to be the “most accurate translation” available today. Although a good marketing tactic, it is less than honest because accuracy in Bible translation is relative to the underlying philosophy and goals of the translation. Such a claim is similar to shooting an arrow and then painting a bulls-eye around it. Each version needs to be evaluated for faithfulness to the source text according to its stated purpose. For example, to translate “Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD” (Gen 10:9), may be “accurate” for a formal translation that seeks to reflect the Hebrew idiom, but it would be “inaccurate” for a receptor focused, meaning based translation. In contrast, to translate “Nimrod, the mightiest hunter in the world,” may be “accurate” for a meaning based translation but would be “inaccurate” for a formal translation. Both styles of translation are legitimate, but they cannot be contrasted on the basis of “accuracy”. Rather they reveal different aspects of the original text.1
Form verses Function
The Bible translation in the Sindhi language of Pakistan with which I am involved seeks to be a receptor oriented, meaning based translation, also referred to as “dynamic” or “functional” equivalence2. The goal is to provide a translation that a Sindhi with a minimum of grade six education can read and understand within a non-Christian cultural context. This is accomplished by ensuring that the function of the text to communicate a message is represented in an equivalent manner in the Sindhi language. Our goal is that the meaning, the impact, the emotion, and the purpose of the passage intended by the author is comprehended by the average Sindhi reader. To accomplish this we replace the forms and structures of the original text with equivalent Sindhi forms and structures.
The problem with formal translations that attempt to maintain the metaphors, structures and grammatical distinctives of the original text is that the result can be obscure, awkward and misleading. In contrast, a weakness in meaning based translations is that they often sacrifice the flavor of the original culture for the sake of clarity and naturalness in the receptor language. In the example of Nimrod provided above, the meaning based translation has lost the underlying Hebrew assumption of God’s omnipresence as a frame of reference, for the sake of clarity in a more secular worldview. Our Sindhi translation manages to provide for that element to a limited extent with the translation “Nimrod was the greatest hunter in all of God’s creation.”
All translations gain and lose some aspects of the original and translators must constantly make choices concerning the implicit and explicit information available within the original text. Formal and meaning based translations simply lose and maintain different aspects according to their distinct translation goals. Both styles of translation are important depending on the audience and the purpose. For readings in a church service or for devotional reading it would be better to use a meaning based translation because the goal is immediate understanding and engagement with the message. However, for a Bible study both styles can be helpful resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of the text.
Meaning based contrasted with Formal in Amos 5:5
During my last visit to Pakistan we worked on Amos 5:5. The RSV (a formal translation) has:
But do not seek Bethel,
And do not enter into Gilgal
Or cross over to Beersheba;
For Gilgal shall surely go into exile,
And Bethel shall come to nought.
In contrast our Sindhi translation has:
Do not go to Bethel, Gilgal or Beersheba
Yes, Do not at all become followers after their worship places
Because surely their inhabitants will be taken into exile
And their cities destroyed.
The RSV follows the pattern of the Hebrew in
Poetry (chiastic structure for the city names – ABCBA, as well as using parallel lines),
Grammar (a variety of verbs to express one thought: “seek, enter, cross over”),
Connotation (cities rather than people going into exile), and
Idiom (the phrase, “Bethel shall come to nought” is a play on the Hebrew word “Bethel” meaning “God’s house” and the word “nought” referring to a deserted ruin, therefore has the impact of “going to the devil”, or being wiped out3. Unfortunately this idiom mistranslates in English and has the force of “not successful”).
The RSV is a good resource for those doing Bible study and seeking to understand the Hebrew context, worldview and poetic depth. However several misunderstandings are possible to the casual reader: Does the variety of verbs mean that the cities are to be treated differently? What is the problem with these cities that they should not be entered into (there is implicit information here that is not stated)? Why is there no punishment for Beersheba?
However, if the goal is immediate comprehension of the message, the meaning based Sindhi translation is much clearer because
- It clarifies that the cities are treated the same (the parallel structure of the Hebrew poetry means that the verbs “seek” “enter” and “cross-over” are intended to have the same force).
- It clarifies the point that these are places of worship and that is why they are displeasing to God.
- It clarifies that the “exile” and “destruction” refers to the people of all three cities and not describing separate punishments for each city with Beersheba free from punishment.
- It picks up on the emotion of the passage through emphatic words (“not at all”, “surely”) Mimicking the poetic form of the Hebrew would not have communicated the intensity of the emotion for the Sindhi reader.
The poetic structure of the Hebrew is lost in the Sindhi translation. But what has been gained is a natural and clear representation of the meaning. Translation is about gains and losses. A meaning based translation maximizes the gains in the area of clarity and understanding for the receptor audience to the detriment of form. A good formal translation maximizes gains by reflecting the forms of the source language, but at the expense of clarity. Just like a good tool box will have a number of different screwdrivers to deal with a variety of contexts, so both formal and meaning based translations play a role to help us discover the meaning of God’s word.
- (1) See also Cross-Cultural Impact numbers 4 and 25 for other articles on translation issues.
- (2) “Dynamic Equivalence” is the old name for “functional equivalence”. The term “dynamic” had a number of problems associated with it and it was decided that “functional” better expressed the translation process.
- (3) p. 103.Waard, J. and Smalley, W. 1979. A Translator’s handbook on the Book of Amos. New York: UBS.