March 15, 2006

'Third Language' Idioms and the Goal of Translation

Wayne Leman is blogging on translation of Luke 1:34. He notes here that the ESV departs from strictly literal translation here and is more accurate as a result. What I find interesting in his note is that the idiom in the Greek of this verse is imported from Hebrew. Call this the use of a 'third language' idiom (Hebrew being a third language in addition to the source language - Greek - and the target language - English). In translations, should we treat third language idioms differently than source language idioms? I think that there is good reason to suppose that we should, for the same reasons I have argued previously that we should transliterate third language words, but this will depend on the details of our understanding of the purpose of translation.

Let me simply formulate my understanding of the purpose of translation, and if someone wants to dispute it I will defend it later. I take it that the purpose of translation is to reproduce as nearly as possible the total experience of native speakers of the original language for speakers of another language. Now there are many different aspects to the total experience of reading a text, and in practice a translator must often choose between them, because linguistic differences are such that reproducing one aspect more closely puts us farther away from another. The relative importance of the various aspects will depend on (a) the genre of the original work, and (b) the purpose and target audience of the translation. Now, what does this have to do with third language idioms?

The target audience of Luke is Greek and for the most part doesn't speak Hebrew. We can thus expect that to most of the target audience the use of this idiom sounded unnatural. According to LSJ this euphemism is used in three other Greek sources, one of which is Plutarch's Life of Galba, which is roughly contemporary. So it is safe to say that the idiom was well understood to Greek speakers, but was not part of their natural speech.

Can we reproduce this in English? Well, for those familiar with 'Bible English,' the literal translation "I do not know a man" does just this, but it would be unfortunate if those unfamiliar with "Bible English" didn't understand our translation. The HCSB's "I have not been intimate with a man," which one of the commentators brought up, has a similar effect on me, at least. It sounds slightly strange, and perhaps excessively modest, but is clearly understandable. The ESV's translation probably souds more natural to English speakers than the original did to Greek speakers.

Of course, because we are in the genre of history and what we are translating is a Bible which will be used for making doctrinal derivations, clarity/factual accuracy is the trump suit, and the proper feel is icing on the cake. (Please pardon my mixed metaphors - and be sure to use them to confuse your audience when writing in French so we can debate how to translate your third language idioms into German!) Treating third language idioms the same as source language idioms does not undermine the clarity/factual accuracy of a translation, but it does produce a substantially different total experience for the reader of the translation than the reader of the original, and this might be important in, for instance, translating poetry.

Posted by Kenny at March 15, 2006 12:19 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Adam Knew His Wife
Excerpt: The ESV Bible Blog discusses the literal rendering of the term for knowledge in sexual contexts. Some contemporary translations treat this as a mere euphemism for the physical act of sex. Since we don't use the word 'know' in English in this way, he ar...
Weblog: Parableman
Tracked: March 17, 2006 10:40 PM

Post a comment

Return to