Saturday, June 4, 2016

Translating Proverbs In The New Testament

TWH: An article was published in The Bible Translator this past December titled "Translating New Testament Proverb-Like Sayings in the Style of Local Proverbs" (66:3, pp. 324–345). The author, Chris Pluger, is working with a translation theory known as Literary Functional-Equivalence, or LiFE for short. Here's the foundational principle behind the theory, from Ernst Wendland's Translating the Literature of Scripture (quoted by Pluger): "A major premise of this book is that an artistically fashioned source document calls for . . . [a translation which] preserve[s] a greater measure of the overall communicative value, including the artistic attractiveness and theological impact, of the Biblical text" (Wendlend, 308). One of the benefits of his discussions is he actually deals with the ways in which rhetorical studies of New Testament texts can make a difference in our study, translation, and, ultimately, interpretation of the New Testament. If you ask someone how rhetorical analysis makes a difference, I bet eight out of ten times, you'll get a blank stare or a stuttered response. It's just a step in the exegetical process that makes us uncomfortable. It's not one I feel all that comfortable with, to be perfectly honest. I have a lot of room to grow in this area of exegesis. Spotting literary devices isn't all that difficult. Fleshing out what difference it makes is where things gets shaky. Let me just give you a few observations/reflections from having read this article:

The New Testament authors used proverbial language and expressions. In fact, Jesus himself used them, probably on a fairly regular basis. He did so as much as any of us do, possibly more. I remember hearing a stat about how many times the average person touches his face during the day. It was like over a thousand times. I remember thinking to myself, "There's no way I touch my face that much during the day." Then you start paying attention to it, and you realize you definitely do it more than you thought (although I still don't think I'm anywhere near whatever that number was). Anyways, I think the use of proverbs in our speech is probably the same kind of thing. We don't even realize that we are speaking proverbial throughout the day, but we do so more than we think. And we could probably argue that teachers use proverbs even more than the "average" person. Jesus was definitely a teacher (the best if you ask me).

The second proverb found in the list of New Testament proverbs is none other than Luke 6:40. This is a pretty important New Testament text, especially for me. I wrote my dissertation at Southeastern on this verse. We'll come back to this one in just a moment.

Some of what I see going on here is contextualization, not necessarily translation. Sure the two are not entirely distinct. Translations are made for audiences, and who that audience is ought to have some bearing (how much depends on who you ask) on the type of translation produced. What makes this translation theory interesting is they are (1) identifying known proverbs in a receptor language, sort of creating a proverb register, then (2) identifying proverbs with marked rhetorical affinities, and then (3) patterning the New Testament translation off of the most fitting receptor language proverb, which basically serves as a pattern. Why do that? The quick answer is it helps the receptor audience identify when a proverb is being used. It's a trigger. I appreciate them providing the Greek text. Beginning in section 3 of the article, the author starts presenting translations styled after Nsenga proverbs, prepared by him and two members of the Nsenga Bible Translation Project. I don't read Nsenga, but the author does a fine job helping me see the parallels between the languages.

Alright, so all of this got me thinking about Luke 6:40. Is my translation really the best I can do? "An apprentice is not above his teacher; but, after he is fully trained, every apprentice will be like the teacher." Or something like that. You know, the most basic thing you can do in translation is do the thesaurus approach. When you do this, you're basically just asking if individual lexemes are really the best words to communicate what the author intended. But translation isn't just a collection of lexical issues. It's more than just wrestling with words, and which ones we want to put in the "slots" that feel like they've been fixed by translation consensus. Here's what I came up with. Luke 6:40 is a likeness proverb. There are similar proverbs, e.g., "A slave is not above/greater than his master." Same pattern. But what makes Luke 6:40 a likeness proverb is part b of Luke 6:40: "after he is fully trained, every apprentice will like his teacher." But when I think about the English language, the most famous likeness proverbs come in the form of statements without the verb (i.e., with ellipsis), e.g., "like father, like son." Luke 6:40a, though, begins with a declaration of how unlike A is from B in one particular regard, in that case, authority/superiority. Despite how one is greater than the other, the lesser can become like the other. In fact, Jesus says this is certain. Students become like their teachers. Every single one of them. Good, bad, whether they want to or not, etc. Training is more about becoming like a person than it is about doing what that person does, although that is part of it.

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