Getting Away from Dynamic Translation

I’ve written about translation method before, consistently advocating a functional approach to translation rather than a formal one, but my thinking on the subject continues to develop. What follows here comes out of a discussion I had with Vlad in the comments of his post, “Translation Philosophy: The Issue of Literacy” and then also some comments in post by Henry Neufeld called, “Trashing Bible Translations is Trivial.” Both of these comes from excellent bloggers whose thoughts on translation I value highly and always enjoy reading.

I should first say that I definitely prefer term FUNCTIONAL over DYNAMIC. For one, the word functional actually has a much more technical connotations than dynamic (at least for me as a linguist, or a wanna-be-linguist). Dynamic simply implies some sort of nice flow in the target language. Functional, for me, implies the transfer of functional meanings from the source language to the target language, whether they be pragmatic functions or semantic functions. This, I think, is much closer what Nida had in mind when he first developed his theory and method for translation (even though he originally use Dynamic). Nida envisioned cross-linguistic translation, where the functional information of a the source language was transferred and represented in the target language, at least that is the impression I get when I read his The Theory and Practice of Translation.

What I pulled from Henry’s post was the very obvious fact that no translation is perfect. Every single one makes mistakes and its quite easy to draw attention to those mistakes. David Ker, some time ago, also made this same point quite well in his post a while back, “The Scam is Revealed.”

But it was only after I had articulated my thoughts about translation method in dialog with Vlad that it really hit me. If our translations are always imperfect, why should basis our claims over which translation method is better based upon inconsistent translations? Should we not be examining the method itself? Does Formal translation as a methodology stand up to scrutiny.

Formal methodology seems assumes that there is enough consistency across language and the way they structure their syntax that this should be partially represented in translation – syntactic transliteration as Wayne Leman has called it. The method itself also assumes a ridiculous assumption that its possible to have word-for-word correspondence. But when it comes to language in general, if there is one aspect of a language’s grammar less consistent than syntax, it is the lexicon of words in a language. Unless the languages are extremely closely related, such a task is typically useless.

But the main flaw that people generally have with Functional translation is that it looks suspiciously like paraphrase rather than translation. This is not a methodological criticism. As a method, Functional translation says, languages are different, but that they all have the potential for conveying the same meanings. What these meanings look like, whether they are at a word level, phrase level, clause level, or paragraph level depends on the grammar of the target language, not on the source language. And what people often don’t realize about this is that by no means are formal properties excluded from the application of functional methodology. That’s because as long as meaning isn’t violated and the language of the target translation is still natural, formal properties are allowed to be maintained.

The fact is that in the places where more formal translations tend to fail most keenly is in the translation of idioms and metaphors. And always, one of two things happen:

  1. Either they being unintelligible without a commentary (cf. Psalm 1.1 in the ESV or NASB – or just read the 1901 ASV just about anywhere)
  2. Or they fail to be maintain their formal character.

In the latter case, for those individual verses, they actually shift into a Functional method for translation – translating meaning rather than form. Dr. Decker’s review of the ESV* is a perfect example of this phenomena. In many ways, the ESV is more like an inconsistent Functional translation than it is a Formal one.

*The 60 page full review is worth it if you have time, though the 23 pager is also quite good.

9 thoughts on “Getting Away from Dynamic Translation

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  1. I haven’t read the reviews, for which reason I ought to keep my fingers off the keyboard — but I have a conviction which, to me at least, seems relevant. It is that some authors formulate thought more adequately, more intelligibly, more persuasively, more “felicitously” than others. This is true of the Biblical authors no less than of the translators. Some Biblical texts are so poorly (relatively speaking) formulated that a serious translator feels obliged to render them more felicitously than they were formulated by the original author. Regardless how one understands the meaning of inspiration, I personally think that felicitous translation is a feat far rarer than felicitous original composition. Even at its least successful, translation is an art, not a technological device. Babelfish may give you a rough notion of the original, but I wouldn’t care to read a Babelfish translation of a masterpiece written in any sophisticated human language.

  2. “In many ways, the ESV is more like an inconsistent Functional translation than it is a Formal one.”

    I think this is spot on. Though, I usually tell people that it is an inconsistent Formal translation- and it may seem like an issue of semantics- I think this is how I’ll explain it from now on.

  3. On translation, have you seen Kevin G. Smith’s dissertation on Bible translation and relevance theory? He wrote it at Stellenbosch (great place to visit, BTW) with Johann Thom and Christo van der Merwe supervising.

    It is available as PDF:

    While I’ll leave relevance theory for others to discuss (seems far too open-ended for me), the dissertation is good because he provides *two* versions of Titus. One ‘literal’, with notes explaining things; the other ‘dynamic’ with far fewer notes. He’s also got a Louw-style semantic structure analysis of the whole book of Titus.

    As I recall (it’s been probably four years since I’ve read it) he has to define the distinctives both translation styles; that portion may be helpful as this seemingly age-old question is examined.

    Hope it helps.

  4. Thanks, Rick, I’ll take a look at it. I have not read about Relevance theory in any sort of detail, so it would be interesting to dig into it a bit.

  5. Rico, I’ve been to Stellenbosch. And relevance is great for messing up our neat categories for translations. Helps you think about the unintended consequences of clarity and stuff like that.

    I still don’t understand your insistence that formal translation means a mechanistic word-for-word interlinear. Who works that way? This is a pretty good example of what I consider the impulse to over-taxonomize, delineating precisely were there is no precision. If this is what it means to examine the method then, sure, formal equivalence fails. But I don’t see linguistic abstraction here, just a straw-man, and I don’t think it pushes the discussion any farther.
    The imperfection of translations does make it difficult to evaluate methodology based on the product, but the test of a theory comes from its application, as Randall Buth reminded us on bgreek. Ultimately we have to ask, how well does it work? It’s entirely reasonable to work backwards as well as forwards, asking ourselves what each attempt achieved and lost, and from which we think the reader will have most to gain. What I’ve found so far is that it is that last question of what one values in a translation that is the determiner of “failed” or “successful”, not an a priori evaluation of method.
    That said, I’m more than happy to let the linguists at their work. This reminds me of a funny passage in Steven Pinker’s Language Instinct where he calls Chomsky a “pencil-and-paper theoretician who wouldn’t know Jabba the Hut from the Cookie Monster” (an allusion to a particular psycho-linguistic experiment).

  7. “I still don’t understand your insistence that formal translation means a mechanistic word-for-word interlinear. Who works that way?”

    Vlad, that was my point. Nobody works this way.

  8. I’m sorry, Vlad, clear explanation is not my strength.

    The ESV & NASB are formal translation at Psalm 1.1 specifically. And when I say they fail, I mean that a native speaker on their first read of the passage, wouldn’t understand what “stand in the way” means. If you have to explain it, it doesn’t work.

    This is why I conclude with, “In many ways, the ESV is more like an inconsistent Functional translation than it is a Formal one.”

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