Dynamic Equivalent Translation – Revisited

Today, too many bible translators have failed to recognize the distinctions between acceptable modern literary translation practices and acceptable bible translation practices. While there are similarities in how translation is approached, the differing nature of these texts does require us to approach these texts differently. I would like to explore some of those differences here.

Modern literary translation

I am in near complete agreement with concepts presented in Edith Grossman’s book “Why Translation Matters;” in this book she captures many of the real challenges of modern (non-biblical) literary translation. However, I could not disagree more strongly with the bible translator who suggested that this book was a good guide for bible translation. To better understand the differences, it would be helpful to see a real life example of a dynamic equivalent translation. While not an example from her book, one of my very favorite examples of this method of translation is the translation of musical “My Fair Lady” in Hebrew; the translations are masterful! Here is an example:

“The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain” becomes “ברד ירד בדרום ספרד הערב” (barad yarad bederom spharad haerev)

The literal translation might leave one scratching their head i.e. it is “Hail fell in the south of Spain this evening.” However, this translation captures the rhyme and rhythm of the original very well in Hebrew. While the literal meaning of the text is almost lost, the emotion and feel of the original is captured very well. Here is a video that of this scene from My fair Lady (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IX7gBxAOMU) for those interested in understanding how this sounds in Hebrew.

In her book, Edith Grossman expresses the freedom translators have to make these kinds of literary choices when she says, “I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves — forgive me, I mean ourselves — as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so.” And I believe she is right, a good literary translator will make many of these kinds of authorial decisions. In many aspects, they really do become as much an author as they are a translator.

Biblical Translation

That being said, I think a translation methodology for the bible that relies on the same kind of reader-response theories is a huge mistake in much the same way that a translation of a modern legal document that relied on reader-response theories would be a huge mistake. While it is reasonable for the translator of “My fair lady” to decide what meaning is important in the original and what meaning may be abandoned in order to elicit the correct emotional response, neither the translator of a legal document nor the translator of the bible are free to make these kinds of choices because accurately communicating the literal details of these types of texts is as important as communicating the emotional feel of the text. Additionally, in bible translation, we also need to remember that it is the author who was inspired by God to write Scripture and not the translator. A translator of Scripture should not feel free to abandon meaning in order to elicit a desired response like the translator of a modern literary work is free to do.  There are boundaries that must be applied to bible translation that are not appropriate for the translation of most other literary works.

While I think all bible translators would all agree that every translator is required engage in some amount of interpretation when translating the text, I believe that too many modern bible translators have become almost commentators of the text and are no longer just translating the text. The job of the bible translator is to get out of the way as much as possible and allow the text to speak for itself and, to the extent that it is possible, we should avoid interjecting our opinions and interpretations into the text. While the response of the reader to the text is important, it is a mistake to assume that a translation alone should always be able to elicit the right response; sometimes the right response comes only after a teacher explains the text. Unfortunately many modern translators have mistakenly assumed the role of pastor, teacher, and translator. A significant part of the MIT (Muslim Idiom translation) issue today is caused, in my opinion, by translators who have crossed boundaries that bible translators should have never crossed.

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