Good and Bad Translation

Simon Cozens discusses good and bad translations (HT: Kouya) and concludes:

So when it comes to Bible translations, I don’t really care, relatively speaking, about the methodology behind the translation. I don’t necessarily care if it’s literal or dynamic or whatever. The more important question is, is it a good translation or a bad translation? I wonder which the authors would have wanted.

Any time I teach classes in church about Bible translations I include the note that the dynamic/formal debate is not a part of general translation discussion other than when Bible translation is at issue. When translating a sign, as Simon does in his post (I know no Japanese, so no comment on accuracy!), there are pretty clear objectives that define what a good translation is.

And that’s the problem with Bible translation. We don’t have a clear objective. Well, to be more accurate we each have a fairly clear set of objectives, but we don’t agree on them. Some people want something that is clearly understandable in the target language. Others want to transfer idioms and cultural ideas from one time and culture to another. Others are concerned that the specific words are dictated by God, and thus believe that we must come as close as possible to reflecting even the wording of the source text. Yet others are concerned with literary issues and want to have the register of the source text reflected in translation. Hebrews should thus be translated at a higher reading level and with greater rhetorical skill than Mark, for example. (I might argue about literary skill, but those are terms I have heard in this discussion.)

Without objectives, it is impossible to call a translation “good” or “bad.”

Let me illustrate. Supposing I make a translation (or partial translation) of a text to help a new Greek or Hebrew student study. This translation would reflect as closely as possible the wording and syntax of the source text. I sometimes do this to provide a fill-in-the-blanks type of exercise in introducing students to new texts, such as using an LXX text with a New Testament Greek student. (I don’t teach in seminary. I’m always either tutoring a single student or teaching a small class at a church.)

Contrast this with a translation of a text I might provide my grandchildren as I teach. In the latter case I’m going to be translating register, culture, and language. Is either translation a bad translation? Is it good? I think a translation is only good or bad in a particular context of usage.

Nonetheless, Bible translators, and more importantly those who debate about translation, would do well to pay attention to what Simon is saying. Maybe we could learn a bit about our particular context and come to understand one of the major things that differentiates one translation from another … objectives.

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