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Translation Talk

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 06, 2005

My recent column The Trouble with Translations drew a record amount of feedback. No fewer than 47 visitors and supporters chimed in. Let's look at the points they raised.

Referenced Article: The Trouble with Translactions

Happily, the vast majority agreed with the importance of linguistic stability in Scriptural and liturgical translations. However, several writers took exception to my statement that stability trumps accuracy. Their view is that we must make the translation right before we stabilize it.

How to balance stability with the need for correction is, of course, the nub of the problem. I suspect that most readers recognized that I was using something of a rhetorical trick in elevating stability to so high a level. In any given era, there will be a few specific passages which need correction at the expense of stability. Unfortunately, what we have in our day is a sort of wholesale instability.

But the problem is really somewhat deeper than the advocates of "getting it right" suppose. It is very difficult to get a translation right, because there are so many different reasons to choose this or that rendering of a particular passage. There are even different (and sometimes opposing) theories of what constitutes good translation, theories which address a multitude of real problems. For example, a word-to-word literal translation will inevitably lose all the idiomatic meanings of the original. Or again, the original might have multiple layers of meaning, not all of which can be captured in a single expression in the target language. Or again, the original may be poetic, and the translator may be torn between preserving the literal meaning and capturing the poetic "feel" through a little linguistic license.

Still, as other readers rightly pointed out, there is a certain tendentiousness to modern translations, in that the translators' decisions seem invariably to reduce the sense of the sacred, eliminate emotion, flatten the intricate textures of meaning and style, and sacrifice literary grace. This makes "getting it right" in the general sense very important, but we still have to wonder whether our culture is so impoverished as to be incapable of achieving this noble task.

Several other readers magnified this doubt by noting that the choice of available translations is almost invariably divided between archaic language and modern banality. Quite apart from the agendas of any of the individual translators, there is a huge question of culture here.

On a more technical matter, I am indebted to Manfred Caranci for correcting an error in my column. Mr. Caranci reports that the original 1946 Protestant RSV translated the famous passage I cited as "Hail, O favored one", but the compilers of the 1959 RSV Catholic Edition changed it back to "Hail full of grace".

Finally, I have a closing tip for those who may at times encounter a murky verse in their favorite translations but who cannot check it against the original language. Keep several different translations on hand and examine how the various translators render the confusing passage. Even if some of the translations are clinkers, chances are you will increase your understanding of the text.

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