Philosophy of Translation

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This by no means is intended to be an exhaustive treatment of translation theory, but rather a thumb-nail sketch of the attitudes which govern our work. Our philosophy of translation is circumscribed in large measure by one presupposition and one hard fact of life. 

The Presupposition 

The original Biblical writers did not - with a few possible exceptions - intend to be obscure or ambiguous in their writing. They fully expected their readers to understand exactly what they meant. They expected them to be familiar with the idioms they employed and to make proper inferences where information was omitted. Put another way, we work on the assumption that they did not expect their readers to scratch their heads in puzzlement when they read these documents. 

Before the Hard fact of life, an observation ...

It is undeniable that we in the 21 century are far removed from the times and cultures in which the Biblical authors wrote, so it is sometimes difficult to understand the idioms, make inferences the author expected us to make, and resolve apparent ambiguities which have arisen over the centuries. We do scratch our heads in puzzlement. Nevertheless, with some dedicated effort even the lay-person in the West can go a long way in resolving these problems and understanding what the author meant. 

The "dedicated layperson" in the "West" - he understands Scripture because he has been raised in a literate society where from early childhood people are trying to make sense out of everything from the label on their prescription medicine bottles to the billboards along the highway. Every conversation he participates in from the barbershop to the courtroom employs a whole series of rules of inference which even the high-school dropout has internalized in some rudimentary fashion. Moreover, he has studied world geography and watched CNN, so that the fact that other people (e.g. Bible people) are different and that he might have to mentally step out of his own culture to understand them is not all that strange. Thus, with "some dedicated effort" he brings these faculties to bear on Holy Scripture and he makes much sense out of it - and just as importantly, knows when it doesn't make sense.

The hard fact of life is ...

Through no fault of their own, the average  Kwong millet farmer is largely bereft of these faculties of literacy, logic and cultural awareness. 

We know that the forgoing sounds patronizing, and certainly not politically correct. But that's precisely why we call it a "hard fact of life." It is hard, and we write it with tears in our eyes. This is not to say they are incapable of appropriating these kinds of logic and inferential abilities, but the sad fact is that during the crucial early years of childhood development, their culture deprives them of those stimuli which would put them on the path to such an intellectual development. It is a hard fact that we can not afford to ignore or paper over with platitudes.

What that means...

This means that, to use the earthy metaphor of one our pastors back in the States, we end up "chewing their food for them" when we translate the Bible - that is,  discerning  (with the considerable help of commentators and other people far smarter than us) what we believe the original author's intended meaning was, and then conveying  this meaning to Kwong readers as explicitly as possible in our translation. We attempt to resolve the ambiguities, make the inferences, and circumvent any possible misunderstandings of the cultural variety. (We hope on this web site to post some of the more interesting conundrums we unravel.) 

The upshot of this is that the translation we are producing sounds more like one of the modern versions or paraphrases - more like the Living Bible than, say, the NASB or RSV. Making such a  colloquial translation is a very steep price to pay. There is much beauty in the literal text, and much to recommend it to those who have the intellectual capacity to process it.  But the hard fact is, your average Kwong millet farmer is not blessed with those capacities. 

A legitimate question to ask though, is what happens when in the years to come (and even now, as far as that goes) when there are Kwong folk who can process ambiguity and make inferences and do all the other mental tasks that go into reading a more literal translation? Another factor comes into play at this point, namely, that anyone who gets that far in the Chadian system will most certainly also be fluent in French - a language for which there is a wealth of translations in varying degrees of literalness, as well as commentaries and other helps. 

 

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Last modified: May 17, 2011