Too many choices in translating a text

I am often frustrated when I begin to translate a portion of scripture.  I know I am not alone with this frustration.  Those who work with the other languages are forced to make difficult decisions, especially regarding metaphors.   Do we translate a passage literally, and handicap the readers of our translation in understanding the likely intent of the passage?  Or do we destroy the metaphor and provide a less beautiful (and less accurate conceptualized[?]) reading?   Susan Groom summarizes this problem well with the following quote:

“The accuracy and level of semantic information: a word’s semantic range is dependent on its own language, therefore word a in language A will not have the same semantic range as word b in language B. . . . In cases of metaphor and idiom a literal translation preserves the metaphor, whilst a free translation renders the significance of the metaphor but in doing so destroys the metaphor itself. It restricts the reader’s interpretation.”

Susan Anne Groom, Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew (Carlisle, Cumbria; Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster Press, 2003), 79.



3 comments to Too many choices in translating a text

  • Hi My experience is to translate it as is.Following the catholic model of taking the literal sense first.Then comparing the underlining meaning with related texts of that period and then what the church has to say about the particuar text.This will of course involve the patriarchs of the church.Then I would put in my personal input and related input from modern day conservative views and present it.

  • Adam Couturier

    Thanks for commenting Sabath.

    There is always a loss of meaning when a text is translated into another language. The problem is not literal verses non-literal, but it is a literary problem. Do we explain the metaphor that is tethered to an ancient culture (and destroy the literary creativity) or do we leave the metaphor in place knowing that the reader will likely miss the wonderful nuance embedded in its language. Regardless of our choices, I believe something will always be missing….or lost in translation.

    Does that make sense?

  • Adam,

    Christo’s answer is to 1) identify your audience, 2) determine whether or not a scholarly translation is appropriate for them, 3) if it is, leave metaphors and the like alone (unintelligible without a BH background knowledge), then 4) footnote the hell out of it!

    If a scholarly translation is not appropriate for your audience, unfortuntaley you have to simplify. Give and take.


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