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.