Friday, April 24, 2015

On The Translation Of New Testament Texts (Part 5)

TWH: There is no single translation of the New Testament. Translation by its very nature involves interpretation. Of course, the amount of interpretation made by a translator can be little or great. Paraphrastic translations involve a greater amount of interpretation, while an intentionally ambiguous translation (what others might call a literal or word-for-word translation) tries to reduce the amount of interpretation. There are so many things going on when we translate, all sorts of dynamics that are necessary to consider. Let's think about language proficiency for a second. There are two questions we have to ask:
1. How proficient in the original language is the translator?
2. How proficient in the receptor language is the translator?  
David Alan Black includes the descriptions of proficiency employed by the Foreign Service Institute of the United States Department of State in his book Using New Testament Greek in Ministry (Baker: 1993; 27-28).  There are four "reading" levels. I want to include Black's descriptions here, taken directly from his book, so you can see what we are talking about:
"R-1 (Elementary Proficiency). At the first level, a person can read only the simplest prose containing the most common words and grammatical constructions. Chances are the student will not be able to read material much more difficult than the translation assignments in an elementary textbook. Heavy reliance on a dictionary is normal."
"R-2 (Limited Working Proficiency). At the second stage, a person can read uncomplicated but authentic prose that contains many common words and basic sentence patterns. Anything more difficult would mean frequent reliance on a dictionary. To achieve this level of proficiency, a student needs more grammar, more vocabulary, and greater effort than for R-1."
"R-3 (Professional Proficiency). At the third level, a person can grasp the essentials of standard but uncomplicated prose without a dictionary. If you are aiming at this level, you should make sure that you familiarize yourself with the special vocabulary used in the New Testament. It is also a good idea to invest in a quality Greek lexicon at this time."
"R-4 (Full Proficiency). At the final stage, a person can read anything in the foreign language without a dictionary. In order to attain this level of proficiency, one must read as much in the language as possible. A very large vocabulary is the key that unlocks the door to this level. As a rule, very few people–Greek teachers included–attain such a high level. But it is a goal to be aspired to if one is ambitious enough." 
Martha Herzog includes the Institute for Language Research's description of a Level 4 reader:
"[T]he Level 4 reader understands 'the full ramifications of texts as they are situated in the wider cultural, political, or social environment' and 'the intent of writers' use of nuance and subtlety' and can 'follow unpredictable turns of thought readily." (Martha Herzog, Translation Excellence, ed. Marilyn Gaddis Rose [ATA Scholarly Monograph Series I; Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing, 2008], 63).
Okay, so now that we have seen this grid, we can think a little more about the translation of the New Testament texts. Proficiency is not mastery. Mastery is not proficiency. The great thing about seeing this grid is it helps us understand that proficiency is scaled. And translation can occur at any of the levels above. I would argue that translation has the potential to be better and more accurate as one's level of proficiency scales higher in both languages, original and receptor. The key expression in that sentence is "has the potential." Accuracy is not guaranteed by higher proficiency in one or both languages.

We also need to make a point that reading proficiency is not the only sort of proficiency that one must consider. Someone could potentially have a knowledge of grammar and syntax that exceeds his or her reading proficiency. That's possible. Since reading proficiency is so heavily tied to the acquisition of vocabulary, a person could excel in the area of syntax and remain somewhat dependent on a dictionary as they encounter unfamiliar words. What do I mean by that? By this, I mean someone could recognize the implications of different features in a language (e.g., tense, voice, mood, aspect, case, etc.), know how to think through the syntactical possibilities, and, through the use of different tools, be able to work through a text and produce a useful translation. Of course, this still necessitates an advanced proficiency in the receptor language.

Of the two languages–original and receptor–which one is most important for translation? This is one question that I don't really see discussed, probably because it is so obvious. But I've been told I have a firm grasp of the obvious before, so I'll go ahead and say it here. You really need to know the receptor language. It's critical. The danger one faces with a lower proficiency in the original language is misunderstanding the original intent. The danger one faces with a lower proficiency in the receptor language is miscommunicating, or not even being able to communicate, the original intent. At the end of the day, a person really needs a higher level of proficiency in the receptor language in order for translation to take place. In other words, what difference would it make if someone had a high proficiency in Greek, little to no proficiency in Mandarin, and then attempted a translation into that language? It wouldn't make any sense. Translation is not the exchange of lexical forms from one language to another. It is much more complex than that. But someone could produce a useful translation, through the use of different tools when studying the original language, even if they had a lower proficiency in the original language so long as they still had a higher proficiency in the receptor language.


  1. Hi, Thomas. Very recently, a couple of days ago or so, D.Antonio posted in his blog a very interesting discussion on John 1:1 translation.

    I think it could be a good example to illustrate your series and mainly your statement "Translation is not the exchange of lexical forms from one language to another", which could be summarized as "literal is not synonimous with accurate".


    1. J.P., thanks for that. I'm sure it'll work into one of our upcoming posts. Great idea. Hope you're doing well. I'll be over in Spain in July. Can't wait. TWH