51. To Sprinkle or Not to Sprinkle: Translating Metaphors

Many years before I was involved in Bible translation, I happened to be in the public library and I picked up a copy of The Three Muskateers.  A different copy of the same book was also lying on the shelf.  I opened the second copy and was astounded to find that even though it was the same book, same author and same story, it was written in a completely different way.  It took me a couple of minutes to realize that each book was a translation from the original French, but by a different translator.  I studied both of the translations a little more closely and finally chose the book that was written in a style more suited to my taste.

I cannot remember specifically why I found one translation more suitable than the other.  But I suspect that the writer of the book I chose had excellent writing skills in English and was able to present the essence of Dumas’s novel in a way that resonated with the intended audience of English readers.  The rejected copy was most likely more faithful to the original French style of writing and so failed to communicate in a manner that drew the reader into the story.  Instead the number of unfamiliar phrases and metaphors translated word for word from the French distracted the readers from the plot rather than drawing them in.

In retrospect, I believe that several lessons I later learned about the Bible, communication, translation and the need for different versions of the Bible have their root in that experience.  The comfortable, free-flowing translation I preferred, while being faithful to the original message of the author, provided the meaning of the novel in a way that was natural, exciting and impacting.  The more stilted translation would have been more accurate in exploring some of the French idiomatic styles of writing and maintaining the literal expressions from which intricate nuances and plays on words could be discerned. But it would not have been such a pleasant read, nor would the author’s original intent have been achieved of engaging the reader with the story.

We are currently working on the Old Testament translation into the Sindhi language of Pakistan.  The NT was translated some years ago.  Some colleagues recently expressed concern with the translation of one verse that illustrates the above dilemma that the translator faces.  They are preparing stories of the Old Testament following the Chronological Bible Storying method, emphasizing stories about sacrifice and blood, an aspect very relevant to a Muslim context.  This includes the practice of ritually cleaning utensils, sacrifices, the mercy seat, etc., by the sprinkling of blood.  In dealing with New Testament stories, they wish to demonstrate how this concept of cleansing becomes relevant to the cross of Christ.  Imagine their frustration to find that Hebrews 10:22 was translated into the Sindhi without the concept of “sprinkling”. While the RSV has “with our hearts sprinkled clean from a guilty conscience,” the Sindhi translation has the equivalent of “our conscience has become pure from sins.”

The writer to the Hebrews used the concept of sprinkling in a metaphorical fashion because the background understanding of the Jewish readers would allow them to recognize the reference to the practice of making an object ceremonially pure through sprinkling blood. Since the Sindhi translation uses a “meaning based” translation philosophy which utilizes the “common language” of the receptor culture (similar to the copy of The Three Muskateers I chose above), only metaphors which are common to the receptor culture are used.  Having hearts “sprinkled clean” is not an idiom used in Sindhi nor would the average Sindhi reader understand the connection.

Moreover, because the reference to “sprinkling” is actually peripheral to the meaning of the verse (the cleansing is a spiritual process and does not include a literal use of blood), the main focus of the verse is communicated without necessitating a reference to the ceremonial act.  For example, “he applied for the job three times, but struck out,” does not require an explicit reference to baseball for those who are familiar with the idiom. The word “failed” can be substituted for “struck out” without loss of meaning. In the same way, the Sindhi translation, without a reference to “sprinkling” is an adequate translation of the Hebrews phrase.  Nonetheless, as with all translations, some aspects are always lost.  In this case the metaphorical reference to the ceremonial cleansing ritual of the Old Testament is sacrificed for clarity and naturalness.  Even as I chose the translation of the Three Muskateers that provided the most comfortable way for me to understand the novel, so many Sindhis are able to access the meaning of the Bible through this translation in a way that fits with their idiomatic style.  For those who will become more serious students of the word, other versions and Bible helps will enable them to dig deeper to understand the riches of the peripheral references.

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development