Linguistic Functions in Translation

Since when I first posted this, it was connected to another (related) post. For that reason, I thought it would be good to provide the same discussion in a more independent format.

In general, the public has been poorly served by publishers and scholars with regard to how the process of translation, how translation is done, and how language and meaning works. I attribute this to embarrassingly naive books on translation like those of Ryken, but also the preface writers for both “Literal” translations as well as Functional translations. The author of the explanation of the translation model for the NLT is just as at fault for conveying poor information about translation as anyone.

Now, moving on to the more constructive statements that I have for discussing translation methodology. What follows consists of a bit of history, a bit of linguistics, and a bit of commentary on translation practice & method. Let me begin by trying to explain why Nida used the terms he did and what was supposed to be meant by them. The key term here is the Functional in Functional Equivalence.

The only reason Nida changed the term Dynamic to Functional was exactly that people interpreted technical terminology with non-technical meaning. That is, when we talk about Function in linguistics & translation, we are talking about Linguistic Function.

Here are some kinds of Linguistic Functions (this is far from exhaustive and doesn’t even begin to deal with figurative language):

  1. Grammatical Functions – Subject, Object, Oblique, Complement, & Adjunct (Predicate could also potentially be placed here).
  2. Semantic Functions – Agent, Patient, Theme, Recipient, etc.
  3. Pragmatic Functions – Topic, Focus, Background Information, & Foreground Information.
  4. Communicative Functions – Illocutionary & Perlocutionary Speech Acts.

All languages relate these various functions to each other in various ways (though some languages do not have grammatical functions in the traditional sense) to express meaning. And each language differs in how they are used by its speakers. But with that said, all four of these are consistently found in the grammar of every language in one way or another. Different languages will formalize them in different ways in their grammar (e.g. Greek Subjects are marked by morphology while English Subjects are marked by word order and Greek Focus constituents are marked by word order while English Focus constituents are marked by prosodic/phonological stress).

The act of translation involves translating these various functions of language. This is going to look different depending on your framework for translation.

A so-called “literal” or “essentially literal” approach to translation focuses chiefly on #1, Grammatical Functions: whereby the translators assign an English equivalent to each grammatical function and part-of-speech. Indeed, translation for the “literal” translator isn’t so much word-for-word as much as simply aligning subjects, object, etc. of the source language with their respective counterpart in the receptor language. The “as free as necessary” part of typical “literal” translation comes in when merely translating grammatical function clashes with translating other kinds of functional information — and it’s not that “literal” translations just  ignore the other linguistic function so much as they simply leave them to the intuition of the translator.

And that’s why I am generally critical of such methods. The intuitions of the translator aren’t necessarily reliable and were other functions studied and examined in their own right, we could rely more on the grammar of the source & receptor languages more than we do upon translator intuition. Translators do not have native speaker intuition for Ancient Hebrew and Greek. They never will. Some might come close, but those scholars are extremely few and far between. The scholars alive today who have come close to such intuition could probably be counted on both hands and it is debatable weather you would run out of fingers.

But this is also that I’m only critical of the method. I do not claim that translations that rely on the intuitions and developed skills of the translator are bad. Good translation have been produced from this approach for centuries and centuries. But this is dependent upon the translators not the method — and it tends to be more inconsistent than a translation that has both method and skilled translators. Here, the NASB is a striking example, which is often painfully “literal,” but every once in a while is surprisingly periphrastic — truly).

When we come to so-called Dynamic Equivalence/Functional Equivalence, the goal of the method is more encompassing than merely grammatical functions. Unfortunately, historically, two things happened. First of all, many people who misunderstood Nida had absolutely no interest in translating grammatical functions. Secondly, the earliest translations attempting to implement the methodology tended to only look at communicative functions. Historically, this was very much a reactionary move on the part of the translators where the pendulum went too far in the other direction. This essentially functioned as bad press for the methodology, since it looked way too much like paraphrase than a rigorous translation method. The term Dynamic which was often interpreted in a literary sense rather than a technical term didn’t help. And that’s exactly why Nida, in the 80’s, switched to Functional for the name.

But also, today, there are few different frameworks in which translation is done, Functional Equivalence being one of them. Another one is Relevance Theory, which I won’t get into here. They’re not the same thing, but they do hold a few things in common: 1) they both work on accurately representing the above functions I’ve described and 2), they stand in contrast to the typical “literal” translation. But probably more important is the fact that they both seek to translate meaning as expressed by various functions of language. And for that reason, I’m typically comfortable with referring to both under the umbrella term Meaning Based Translation.

But there is another reason that Meaning Based Translation is my preferred term. That’s because while both Functional Equivalence and Relevance Theory have extremely similar goals in translation, neither is a perfect model (though they both have many more strengths methodologically than the “literal” approach). My own approach to translation is (though my current experiences with translation has been on my own rather than on a language project) rather eclectic taking what I view as the strengths from a variety of contemporary models that focus on accurately representing language in a more holistic sense (i.e. my list of Functions above).

Rich Rhodes, professor of linguistics and contributor to the Better Bibles Blog has written a closely related post: I Want a 4G Translation.