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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

he is relieving himself: issues in translation

In the comments to my last post, Daniel McLain Hixon made the case for the ESV and other formal equivalence translations of the Bible. In general, I prefer formal equivalence too. I use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) for most of my Bible study, and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) for checks and balances. Where the two don't agree, it is usually pretty clear which has kept the original and which has rephrased it.

But while I prefer formal equivalent translations for study, I've found that dynamic equivalent translations are better for family Bible reading.

I still have the Good News Bible I got when I was a child, and I've found that its language is good at holding the attention of my 5-year-old son. I've also recently purchased a Contemporary English Version (CEV) to use for those places where the Good News translation seems to go too far astray.

So I can see the benefits of both styles of translation. Essentially, a formal equivalence translation is better for study, because it stays closer to the wording of the original, and a dynamic equivalence translation is easier to read aloud, and easier to understand -- especially for younger listeners.

And yet, it's not really as simple as that. Sometimes, as in idiomatic expressions, the meaning of the original is not conveyed by the words. In such a case, a word-for-word translation will give readers a less accurate understanding of the original.

Let's look at 1 Kings 18:27. Elijah is taunting 450 prophets of Baal who are trying to get their god to light a fire on the altar they have built.

Here's the NRSV:

At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened."

And the NASB:

It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, "Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened."

That second option, rendered "he has wandered away" in the NRSV or "he is occupied" in the NASB is, I'm told, a euphemism, similar in meaning to the modern English euphemism "he is reliving himself."

The dynamic-equivalent translations don't leave room for doubt. Here's the CEV:

At noon, Elijah began making fun of them. "Pray louder!" he said. "Baal must be a god. Maybe he's day-dreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he's asleep, and you have to wake him up."

The New Living Translation replaces the Hebrew euphemism with an English one:

About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”

As does the Good News Translation:

At noon Elijah started making fun of them: "Pray louder! He is a god! Maybe he is day-dreaming or relieving himself, or perhaps he's gone off on a trip! Or maybe he's sleeping, and you've got to wake him up!"

But which is the better way to translate this phrase? Although I usually prefer a strict word-for-word translation, I think it is better to translate Hebrew or Greek euphemisms into similar euphemisms in English. That gives the reader the best sense of the way the original readers would have understood the passage.

And here's a surprise! Evidently the translators of the ESV have the same opinion. (I'm going to have to take a closer look at this translation.)

Here's how the ESV renders this verse:

And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.

It's not always easy to translate idioms. Sometimes there is not an equivalent euphemism. Sometimes we may not know the connotations of the original phrase. But this is one area where, if possible, I think it is preferable to depart from a strict word-for-word translation.

What do you all think?

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At 8/09/2008 6:43 AM, Blogger truevyne said...

So interesting. I don't get to carried away with translation. If I get the general idea,that's good enough for me mostly. Sometimes, though, learning more about particular words brings me to a deeper place.

At 8/27/2008 11:15 AM, Blogger Art said...

In a perfect world, we would have a very literal translation that would use functional translations of idiomatic expressions. But what I've always wondered is how many idiomatic expression do the scholars miss even when trying to translate functionally? We could be missing out on some fairly important shades of meaning...


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