Eddie and Sue Arthur

Which is wrong, the English or the French?

Anyone who follows the subject of Bible Translation on web searches or Twitter cannot help but notice the amount of heat (and a little light) which is generated on the subject of literal or word for word translations. One book, which was published recently and which is getting a lot of favourable reviews says: “translators must decide what English word or phrase most closely corresponds to a given word of the original text” (read a good review here). In other words, translation is all about rendering the words of the original text into words or phrases in the new language. Even John Piper got in on this question arguing that he wants a Bible that has all of the words. On the surface, this sort of thing sounds very persuasive and it is used as an argument to suggest that some Bible translations are not as good as others.

The problem is that translation is not simply about finding ways to move words from one language to another. I recently gave a simple illustration to a friend on Facebook to illustrate this.

  • In English we say “I sit down”.
  • In Fench: “Je m’assois”.

Both of these mean essentially the same thing. However, in a literal translation, the French means ‘I myself sit’. The French doesn’t have the word ‘down’ at all, and equally the English doesn’t have ‘myself’. You simply cannot translate one phrase into the other by translating the words. In just this simple phrase translation involves adding one word and removing another, whether you go from English to French of vice-versa. So if translation is about getting the words right, which is correct, the English or French?

Joel Hoffman has a similar exercise derived from a headline in Le Monde.

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5 Comments on “Which is wrong, the English or the French?

  1. Eddie, Good example!
    Just on principle, though, English has to be right.

    I think in some dialects of American English you can say “Sit yourself down” but usually it is in a longer construction and always sounds kind of “folksy”.
    “Sit yourself down for a spell”.
    “Sit yourself down and listen to this”.

    Or we could just go with “the Message” translation of your phrase: “Take a load off”.

  2. I admit to my extreme prejudice against anyone who advocates for only one English translation. Worst of all are the KJV-only advocates.

  3. Or, I suppose, youcould say “I seat myself”… sounds more natural in the past tense/3rd person – “he seated himself and looked up attentively”.

    The “down” is puzzling…after all, I lie horizontally, not down.

  4. “I sit myself”, or “I sit down” – practically means the same thing. To me, translation is, an explanation of that phrase from one language to another. For as long as the message was delivered to its closest meaning from the original text, I think, it is acceptable. I agree with one of the comments I read, for as long as the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is being preached closest to its context, no matter how it was translated, it is still acceptable.

    • I have to disagree. ‘I sit myself’ is not English. You may be able to work out what it means, but it is still ungrammatical. If a translation of the Bible is badly done, it leaves the possibility of miscommunicating the message and giving the impression that God does not speak clearly – both are unacceptable.

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