Translation, Paraphrase, and Transformation

I’ve been using a term about Bible translation, or rather, about a form of presenting the message of the Biblical text without taking the time to rigorously define it. That term is “transformation.” I want to throw out this post for some comments, and explain why I started using that term. Has it been used elsewhere in a similar way? Might there be a better term to use.

Here’s the problem, as I see it. Typically we use terms like literal (not a very good one), formal equivalence, functional equivlanece, or dynamic equivalence for various translation methods. Loosely hanging around somewhere in that semantic space is the term “paraphrase” which means “excessively loose” in popular speech, but “rephrased from a text in the same language” in more technical discussions. But paraphrasing looks like just another part of translation. I know that when I translate a passage for my own use, or because I want to post some text on my blog but don’t want to deal with copyright issue, I first translate more literally, then I paraphrase, and then I compare that paraphrase back to the text in the original language to make sure I didn’t miss something. I do that even when I’m producing a generally formally equivalent translation.

I don’t think “paraphrase” is likely to tamed very easily, because it doesn’t describe a type of translation, but rather a process. The characteristics that make people call The Message a paraphrase is not about how much paraphrasing took place. I doubt that Dr. Peterson did much more actual paraphrasing than the producers of the NLT or the REB, for example.

I said something similar about a revision as opposed to a fresh translation nearly a year ago. The question is what in the text produced defines a revision? Certainly a significant amount of phraseology would be identical or similar, but provided the revisers test all their work against the source languages, and are free to make any necessary changes, there is little practical difference.

The Living Bible was not translated from the original languages, and technically that makes it a paraphrase. But it is no wonder that people who have read the Living Bible and some of the excellent dynamic equivalence translations try to call both paraphrases. On the surface, they can look very similar. The key difference is not the amount of paraphrasing, but simply that the source text was not the original languages.

But generally people feel that The Message is further “out there” than dynamic equivalence translations. Considering that Eugene Peterson did work from the source languages, it’s worth asking why that is. And one need look no further than the word “salmon.” (No, not Salmon, the guys name, “salmon” the fish!)

Oh, look

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  1. Henry, I think the term you are searching for is transculturation. Missiologists use the term to refer to the communicating the gospel to people using the vocabulary and, to some extent, items of the target culture. I believe some have used the same term to refer to the use of local cultural terms (such as for names of deity) and items in Bible translation. An example of transculturation when the Bible was translated to German (and then other Germanic and Anglo-Saxon languages) would be the use of the name for the pagan deity, Gott. German translators could have borrowed a Greek (theos, which was itself a pagan term) or Latin (deus) term, but they chose to use a term already in the vernacular, Gott. Today English speakers inherit the result of that choice in English Bibles with the use of the word “God” rather than a borrowing from Greek or Latin.

    A seminal work was written on transculturation by a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in the 1970s. I’m having a senior moment right now trying to come up with his name and the name of the book. I have it in one of our boxes of books which has not yet been opened up after we moved a year ago. Got it: Charles Kraft (those synapses are amazing, misfiring sometimes, and then firing a bit later!!), book title: Christianity In Culture: A Study In Dynamic Biblical Theologizing In Cross-cultural Perspective, originally published in 1979. I found the book very stimulating.

    Building on Kraft’s ideas, Daniel Shaw, a later professor at Fuller seminary, and a former Bible translator, wrote the book titled Transculturation: The Cultural Factor in Translation and Other Communication Tasks, published in 1988.

    The Fuller seminary bookstore , saying it

    “… is to the cultural and non-verbal aspects of communication what translation is to verbal and literary forms. The application of anthropological principles to understanding source texts and receptor contexts allows foor a presentation of the message to people in very different times and places. In this way a translation not only talks right but acts right as well. Transculturation is a process of information transfer that takes the whole communication context (source, messenger, and receptor) into account and allows people to respond in a way that is natural and appropriate for them.”

    More recently Shaw co-authored Communicating Gods Word In A Complex World – Gods Truth or Hocus Pocus? with Charles E Van Engen. The seminary bookstore webpage say of this book that it “considers a variety of approaches regarding how to communicate the Gospel. The authors suggest that contemporary proclaimers of the Gospel can model their approaches after those of the writers of scripture, who reinterpreted and restated their received texts for their audiences. In this way, communication of the Gospel is impacted by the ways in which humans know God.”

    Some critics of dynamic equivalence suggest that translating by thought units rather than word-for-word is a form of transculturation, but I disagree. I prefer to reserve the term transculturation for the specific use of names for “different” cultural items from those found in the biblical texts. Your example of “salmon” in The Message is a good example of transculturation.

    Hmm, this comment is long enough that I think I’ll turn it into a post on the Better Bibles Blog, as well. Thanks for the opportunity. This is one of my favorite topics to think about for communication of biblical truth.

  2. Wayne, Thanks for the long reply, but I’m glad you’re going to go to BBB to continue. That is the type of discussion I had hoped for. I appreciate the references. You work more on “this end” of Bible translation by far than I do. I’m one of those much maligned folks who read Greek but don’t generally put it into terribly readable English! 🙂

    My remaining question, in those lazy times before I read some of the references, is whether “transculturation” covers the changes of form to which I referred. I see “salmon” as a good example of transculturation, but what about by altering Psalm 46 into a new form, or the translator who reworked Psalm 119 into an English acrostic (I can’t recall his name just now), or even the rewriting of a short Biblical/apocryphal story? That was why I chose “transformation” as the broader term.

    I’m thinking of creating another vector on my translation selection tool and I’m trying to think of what to name it.

    I’ll be watching, and certainly linking to whatever you post on BBB.

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