Dynamic equivalence in translation

I finally found time to have a look at Jim Getz’s Biblical Studies Carnival XLII, which contains links to some interesting posts and also has a Hitchhiker’s theme, so is doubly awesome. On it, I found links to AKMA’s series on exegesis.  The first post made me to think  about the whole issue of translation, how biblical scholars approach it, and why we approach it that way.

As I type, the SheepWorld glasses case that my daughter brought back for me from her student exchange to Germany is sitting on my desk. It says “ohne Mama is alles doof” and it has cartoon pictures of a range of things that are “doof” without Mama.  Now LEO, my favourite on-line German dictionary, tells me that doof can mean: daft; ditzy(Amer.); dopey; dumb; foolish; gormless (Brit.); or silly. The two big paper dictionaries we own say similar things and my daughter’s school German text-book translates it as “dumb”, so she is hesistant about adopting my contemporary Australian translation: “Without Mum, everything’s lame”, despite the facts that this is so much closer to the way she normally speaks than “everything’s dumb” and she only ever calls me Mama when she’s speaking German. I would argue that my translation gives your average Aussie a better feel for the intent of the words, even though the dictionary doesn’t give “lame” as an option for “doof” – clearly an example of dynamic equivalence. Dare I suggest that it also  displays a more sophisticated grasp of the relationship between the two languages?

Recently, I read a blog post where  someone was lamenting the fact that Bible translations are often wooden and unpleasant to read, unlike a good translation of some of the classic authors of antiquity. My response was “well, yes, but it doesn’t matter if they lose something in the translation – no-one is going to start a war over the way Pliny is interpreted.” All this has set me wondering about my own approach to translating Scripture and to translating Thomas and whether they’re different.

I know that when I translate both the Christian canon and Gospel of Thomas, I lean much further towards formal equivalence than I do when translating the words on glasses cases, mugs and T-shirts. The genres are, of course, entirely different and my translation goals are different, too. The text on glasses cases, mugs and T-shirts is generally only trying to convey one idea, although sometimes you simply can’t get it across in translation. Even my monolingual husband can hear that “Ich habe zehn Zehen, aber du kannst sie nicht sehen” loses something in the English  “I have ten toes but you can’t see them.” And I’m sure this is not nearly as amusing if you haven’t been part of the community of my daughter’s year at school where “I have toes” is the standard response when someone doesn’t want to answer a question.  As in: “Have you started that assignment yet?” “Um…I have toes?” Or a random comment to break an awkward silence. Or… but I guess you just had to be there. 🙂

It wasn’t until I started studying theology that I had any real sense that the writers of the Bible deliberately used various sorts of word play, including double and triple meanings, to convey ideas that we simply can’t get across in English translation without clumsy circumlocutions or footnotes.  It’s quite possible that they also used “in jokes” that we’re simply not aware of because we’re not part of the community out of which the text arose. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be funny bits in the Bible, which, after all is “inspired by God” and therefore “holy”, whatever you might understand by those terms.

So, what I am trying to do when I translate the texts I work with? When I work with the Canon for teaching and preaching purposes, I want a gender-inclusive text because I believe that we have sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus/God intended us to have a gender-inclusive community. I get cross when people insist on translating anthropos as “men”, thus taking an inclusive Greek word and making it into an exclusive English one. OTOH, I tend to lean towards “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did no master it” for John 1: 5 because, despite its masculine overtones,  “master” is the only English word I know that picks up the sense of the Greek katelaben – both understood and overcome are possible translations and I think this is intentional.  (I need to add that this is not an original thought – Prof Nigel Watson suggested it when he was teaching John’s gospel at the United Faculty of Theology – my theological alma mater). My other solution is to say “the darkness neither understood nor overcame it.” Here, I am using dynamic equivalence to get the idea behind the word across, whilst maintaining the inclusivity of the text. And, of course, I am making a judgement call in saying that I think that the author of John’s gospel was deliberately using a word that conveyed both those meanings.

When I started work on my PhD, I had as a working title “The parables of the Realm in the Gospel of Thomas and their parallels in the canonical Synoptic Gospels”. This arose out of my commitment to inclusive language translations and one of the academics who attended my preliminary presentation seminar suggested that this wasn’t a good enough reason to drop the word “kingdom”. I now talk about the “parables of the Reign in the Gospel of Thomas” because in Thomas it is quite clear that although the term MeNTERO (from eReRO – king) is used, the emphasis is clearly on the act of reigning rather than on the sphere in which the reigning is taking place. The fact that it also satisfies my desire for inclusivity is a definite bonus. 🙂 It does mean, however, that I often have to say reign/kingdom because people tend not to make the link between reign and kingdom as readily as they do between realm and kingdom.

The problem, of course, with dynamic equivalence is that it sometimes makes it more difficult to get behind the translation to the original text, so if I am wrong in my assumptions about what the author was trying to convey, my reader has less chance of working out for her- or himself what the author (or God?) really intended. I am leading him or her up my personal theological garden path, which may get them into trouble. But then, unless my reader has a fairly good facility in the original language of the text, s/he is quite capable of making wrong assumptions anyway. I can’t remember any specific example off the top of my head, but I have a number of times listened to a preacher interpreting a piece of Scripture based on English synonyms, syntax or idiom and thought “but you can’t do that in Greek”.

I am far less worried about the possibility of making wrong assumptions about the mind of God in my research than in my preaching. I think this is partly because, as I said above, people are not going to start a war or make life-changing judgements about themselves or others on the basis of what I say in my thesis/dissertation. I don’t have that kind of authority in the sphere of academia. They are probably not going to start a war on the basis of my preaching, either, but could easily make wrong judgement calls. The fact that I am ordained means that people will often pay more attention to me than they do to lay people. It is also partly because just about everyone who is going to read the results of my research has a sufficiently high level of biblical and linguistic sophistication to understand the limitations of what I am saying whereas most of those who listen to my preaching don’t.

AKMA expresses dissatisfaction that his students tend to express their exegetical views as questions of the “could it be this?” type, rather than as assertions, and I understand both why he wants this and why the students don’t feel confident to do it. The more I work in the field, however, the more I am inclined to make assertions such as “on the balance of probability, it seems that X is true because Y” rather than “as you can see, X is clearly true.” And I guess that part of this is trying to steer the middle road between dynamic and formal equivalence in my translation. 🙂