Monday, April 13, 2015

On The Translation Of New Testament Texts (Part 1)

AP: The study of language has the goal of providing the student with sufficient information to have direct access to the Greek texts; this immediate contact with them should be the principle means–though not the only means–of learning about the culture, the thought and the broad lines on which the complex civilization that generated the NT rests. On the other hand, the Greek texts also constitute the point of departure and the goal of study. Point of departure, because the beginning of linguistic study should be conducted on the basis of the texts, with an inductive methodology, which will then be systematized in the various theoretical frameworks; goal, because in the translation of the text (comprehension and rendering into English) the linguistic knowledge acquired should be applied and the text should find its verification.

The verb "translate" comes from the Latin transferre, and in its etymology means, "transport, transfer, carry something from one place to another." But this verb is used almost exclusively in the figurative sense with the meaning, "transfer a writing or treatise from one language or idiom into another," moving from the original language, the "source language" to another, the "target language" or "destination language." But, while transferring something from one place to another the thing transported should not theoretically be subject to any alteration, in translating a message from one language to another, this necessarily experiences transformation of various kinds. What is generally transferred is the meaning, though not always to its full extent, but it proves impossible to translate the linguistic form and its phonetic and grammatical and syntactic aspects. This is the basis of the Italian proverb: traduttore, traditore ("translators, traitors"). It is sufficient, in fact, to translate this proverb into a non-romance language, like German: Der Übersetzer ist ein Verräter, to prove what was said above: the translation preserves the meaning (translator = traitor) but there is a loss on the phonological plane (the rhyme) and on the grammatical plane. In Italian (the English equivalent is not quite as telling) there are two words, subject and predicate, whose alliteration produces rhyme (traduttore, traditore), and simply juxtaposed, without a verb operating between them. The proverb proves lively, expressive. In German, conversely, two words are used that are less similar phonetically (Übersetzer–Verräter), linked by a copulative verb that makes the phrase heavier. The phonetics, syntax, and pragmatic effect are different.

But if this difficulty is particular to any translation, so much greater is that posed by the translation of texts that are culturally and temporally distant from our modern world. Naturally, there is no reason to detain ourselves with the problem of principle dealt with frequently in the past, namely, the possibility or impossibility of translation. As G. Mounin aptly puts it, "all theories of the impossibility of translating were transmitted at times in which culture was reserved for a limited circle of privileged publication which had the necessary time at their disposal to learn the original languages" (Les belles infidèles, cited by J. C. Margot, Traduire sans trahir). In our day, in which intercultural relations belong to daily life and in which we are accustomed to mass communication media, no one even questions this possibility, since translation is our daily bread and in human relations at all levels (commercial, technical, political, artistic, or literary; in other times translation was almost exclusively carried out in the latter field). With E. Renan, we may assert almost as an axiom of the modern world that "an untranslated work is only half published" (cited by E. Cary, La traduction dans le monde moderne [Geneva: 1956], 7).

The problem faced today does not centre on the possibility or otherwise of translation per se, but on how to translate–a task which proves more difficult to the extent that the object of translation is a text which is far removed in time from the translator and belongs to a different culture. Such is the case of translation of the Greek texts, classical and biblical.

In the past two centuries the number of translations of the Bible into different languages, as well as translations of the Bible into the same language, by country, has increased considerably. While, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Bible had only been translated, in part or as a whole, into 71 languages (beginning with the Greek of the LXX), by the end of 1977 it had reached a total of 1631 languages (266 for the complete Bible, 420 for the New Testament only, and 945 for one book, at least, of the biblical corpus). Not to speak of the revisions that have frequently been made of the various translations, due to the discovery of new Hebrew or Greek manuscripts, the evolution of the target language (some expressions encountered in past versions are old and out of date), and other factors, such as better translation techniques, advances in the definition of biblical terms, changes motivated by research, better linguistic information, and better appreciation of cultural roots.


*The above is taken from the first appendix in Antonio Piñero and Jesús Peláez, The Study of the New Testament: A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. David E. Orton and Paul Ellingworth, Tools for Biblical Studies 3 (Leiden: Deo, 2003), 515-517.

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