Using Translations in Translation

The Highly Esteemed John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry gave Kouya Chronicle a mention in a recent post (not without me dropping a gentle hint elsewhere). John writes:

Eddie prefers NLT to all other translations for his daily reading and I wouldn’t doubt that he makes considerable use of it when going about translating the Bible into African languages.

Now as regular readers of Kouya Chronicle know, I don’t do any translation anymore – my job is to help others to it – but John raises an interesting point anyway. How much should existing translations in another language be used when you are translating the Bible?

Ideally of course, Bible translation should spring directly from the best Greek and Hebrew texts available and most translators I know would use the original languages as much as possible. However, there are times when I would encourage translators to turn to an existing translation.

  1. When the translator doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew and no one else is going to do the translation. The sad reality is that some people groups around the world will never have the services of a Greek or Hebrew specialist to translate the Scriptures for them. There are more and more training schools around the world where local people can study to be translators, but even these subsidised programmes can be out of reach for some communities. Given the choice of a community having to read an English or French Bible that they can barely understand, or seeing a local person with some schooling translate out of French or English – I’d go for the translation. It will be imperfect, but it’s better than nothing and for many people nothing is the only other thing on offer for some people.
  2. For inspiration. Sometimes you can understand the original text, you know pretty well what it means, but you have no idea how to express it in the language you are working in. You can either bang you head against a wall for hours seeking for inspiration or glance at a good translation into another language to get some ideas.
  3. For comparison. Translation is an art as well as a science. Sometimes there are numerous ways in which you could express the original meaning in the new language. At this point, it is often worth looking at the translation that the target group are using at the moment. The Kouya church leaders used the French Louis Segonde version and they were not willing to accept a Kouya translation that was too far removed from the familiar sounding French. So, when we had a choice, we would often look at the Segonde and choose the alternative that sounded most like it. This wasn’t always to our liking, but better a translation that the church leaders would use and accept than a translation that kept us happy but didn’t get used in the church.

A Bible translator is a juggler; balancing the original languages, the constraints of the target language, his (or her) own feelings about how the translation should sound and the wishes of the target community. In the end, compromises have to be made.

I hasten to add that not all of my colleagues will agree with this post – perhaps they would be so kind as to disagree (politely) in the comments section!

4 thoughts on “Using Translations in Translation

  1. Remember the “RSV Check”? Translators often used the RSV to make sure that all the bits and pieces of the original were present in the translation. Our experience has been something you might call chaotic eclecticism. The Nyungwe translators start from the Chichewa Buku Loyera which is heavily influenced by the English Good News. After making an adaptation they check it against the more formal Chichewa Buku Lopatulika and the Portuguese Almeida. Once they’ve cleaned it up I start reading it in Nyungwe which I check mostly against NIV, BS Handbooks and dip into the Greek through BART when I’m especially interested. The original languages are not very helpful for a tertiary consultant like myself. If I were translating into my own mother tongue I would definitely use Greek only and in fact spend a long time trying to unlearn the rhythms and wordings of traditional English translations. I think JB Phillips did that. I suspect Peterson did not.

  2. I’m *totally* with you on this one, Eddie.

    I’m all for things that will speed up the translation. For me, it boils down to splitting hairs whether the translator goes back to Greek or uses a *good* translation in a language that he or she already knows well.

  3. Hmmmm. I’m not sure that I’m with you, though Paul.

    I would argue that it should be the normal expectation that translators should use the original languages. This is not about splitting hairs, it’s about accurately translating God’s word. A bad translation is better than no translation at all, but a good one is far better than a bad one. I may, one day, get round to a post on the speed of translation, but I don’t see any great benefit in speeding up translation. Getting things done quickly is a Western value, but I’m far from convinced that it is always a good thing.

  4. I’m happy with basing a translation on another translation with a couple of caveats.

    Firstly, the translation it is based on needs to be a formal equivalence one – I say this although in general I am not a supporter of such translations. I have seen the dangers when translators translate from dynamic translations, especially rather idiomatic ones. The slightly simplified dynamic version they are working for ends up being further simplified in translation and the rendering simply ends up leaving out half of the thought of a complex passage.

    Secondly, the translation needs to be checked against the original languages. This was basically my role in the translation project I worked on.

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