My translation philosophy

Translation of any language is very much like reading music. Instead of notes, you have letters. Instead of chords, you have words. Instead of phrases, you have clauses. Instead of periods, you have sentences. The parallels go all the way up. In music, there is meaning on each one of these levels. Therefore, there is meaning on each one of these levels in words as well. To a certain extent, therefore, I am unhappy with the debate between “word-for-word” and “dynamic equivalence.”

Just to refresh our memories (or lack thereof) about these two philosophies, word for word means that you try to find the best word in English for the given word in Hebrew or Greek (or whatever other language you are translating). Dynamic equivalence seeks to translate more idiomatically into English. They try to get the thought across. If that can be done while holding to word for word, they will do it. However, they are not above over-interpreting the text in order to make it clear. This is the fundamental problem with dynamic equivalence. It takes away the job of translating that the pastor must do, and instead does it themselves, often getting it wrong in the process. This is why I do not prefer the NIV translation.

However, there are several problems with word for word philosophy as well. Often, it does not wind up being good English. I think of several translations’ propensities to use “and” to translate the Hebrew “vav” and Greek “de” and “kai.” This is very, very poor. First of all, it is not good English to keep on starting sentences with a conjunction, _Finding Forrester_ notwithstanding (there’s a delightful scene in there about conjunctions). Secondly, the Hebrew “vav” means many, many different things, depending on context. It can mean “and,” but,” “thus,” “therefore,” “now,” and several other things. The only way to find out which meaning it has is to look at the flow of the language. I am not saying that we should ignore the word level, not at all. However, the flow of the text should determine which of the many meanings of “vav” is being used in a given place. In other words, translation cannot be done simply by using a lexicon and putting a one-to-one correspondence all the time. For instance, consider the word “lie.” How do you know whether that word means “tell a lie,” or “lie on the bed?” If you were translating that word into German, you would have to look at the context to see which meaning it had. For these reasons, I am not entirely happy with the ESV either, though it has gotten as close to the real thing as a word-for-word translation can get.

However, I would lean toward “word-for-word” more than dynamic equivalence at the moment. The reason for that is that the dynamic equivalence guys think that creativity in translation is the name of the game. They will make something sound different simply for the shock value that it would give to people. I do not agree with this. That philosophy makes the Bible extremely difficult to memorize, if everyone has vastly different sounding translations.

Actually, the best-articulated translation philosophy I have found out there is the preface to the Holman Christian Standard Bible. They opt for the “optimal equivalence,” a philosophy that exhaustively examines the text “at every level (word, phrase, clause, sentence, discourse) in the original language to determine its original meaning and intention.” Their practice is then to use literal whenever possible, but when clarity demands an idiomatic translation, they will go for that, and put the literal translation in the footnote. I have not read as much of this translation as I would like. However, it looks like an extremely promising step forward. It is roughly this translation philosophy that I am using for my Accent Translation, along with a few extra goodies to try to make the text more 3-dimensional.

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