He who hears the shema drinks the shekar!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Lost in Translation(s)??

Alan Jacobs has an interesting review (2005) of Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary that touches on a key issue related to modern Bible translations that has long bothered me.

Typically, the debates in evangelical translation philosophy get reduced to a continuum between (1) 'literal where possible' (e.g. the NASB) on one end and (2) 'loose paraphrase' (e.g. the Living Bible or The Message) on the other, with (3) the other 'dynamic equivalence' translations falling somewhere in between.

Because option (1) is recognizably difficult whenever you translate from any language into another, option (2) has become the
status quo for most evangelicals and option (3) continues to gain momentum in a lot of circles. But have the new translations really produced a better text? Jacobs argues (echoing Alter) that a big part of the problem in all three of these options (particularly 2 and 3!) is that they frequently fail to do justice to the literary form of the original text in their translation philosophy.

Of course, not all of the literary features of either Greek or Hebrew will easily translate into English (and hence the reason why Option 1 relies on a sometimes-overly-wooden approach to translation). However, Jacobs argues that translators too quickly 'give in' to this translational divide by 'smoothing out' those literary features of the original languages. How? By devoting far too much attention towards producing something readable
in English, and failing to really wrestle with the original. And in so doing, the literary artifice of the original text gets 'lost in translation'!

Alter explains:

The assumption of most modern translators has been that this sort of [Hebrew verbal] syntax will be either unintelligible or at least alienating to the modern readers, and so should be entire rearranged as modern English. There are two basic problems with this procedure. First, it ignores the fact that parataxis [two or more syntactic units connected without use of a conjunction] is the essential literary vehicle of biblical narrative: it is the way the ancient Hebrew writers saw the world, linked events in it, artfully ordered it, and narrated it, and one gets a very different world if their syntax is jettisoned. Second, rejection of biblical parataxis presupposes a very simplistic notion of what constitutes modern literary English (Preface, pg. xxiv).

Jacobs' review highlights just a few of the numerous examples brought out by Alter in the historical-prose sections of the Old Testament, where English translations routinely 'over-interpret' or 'over-stylize' the text in places where the text is
deliberately ambiguous or deliberately (and at times, monotonously!) repetitive. Why does this happen? I suspect because our definitions of Biblical perspicuity, while necessary to our theological commitments, don't have enough literary elasticity to account for things like ambiguity (or monotony) in a text. Even the Westminster Confession admits that "all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves" (1.7), but I wonder how many committed to the Westminster Standards would be equally willing to say that certain texts (particularly OT historical texts) are purposely ambiguous due to their literary style?!?!? I suspect that sounds far too radical a proposal for many, if not most.

Alter (on a few occasions) calls this ironing out of textual ambiguity the "the heresy of explanation"...and just about all of the modern translations fall into this 'heresy' at some point or another. What does Alter propose as a necessary corrective?

"A suitable English version should avoid at all costs the modern abomination of elegant synonymous variation, for the literary prose of the Bible turns everywhere on significant repetition, not variation. Similarly the translation of terms on the basis of immediate context -- except when it becomes grotesque to do otherwise -- is to be resisted....Finally, the mesmerizing effect of these ancient stories will scarcely be conveyed if they are not rendered in cadenced English prose that at least in some ways corresponds to the powerful cadences of the Hebrew (xxxii).

Alter is likely guilty of overstating his case here -- do we really want to say that these modern translations 'scarcely' convey the Biblical narrative's intent? Nevertheless, I think the basic criticism is valid and worth pondering in lieu of the translations that roll out on an almost-yearly basis. The roughly 50 page introduction should be read by anyone doing work in the Hebrew Old Testament translation, whether as Hebrew scholar or a pastor.

I'd be curious to if there is a "Robert Alter counterpart" writing in the area of Greek narrative style. Steve Baugh made an off-the-cuff comment to me about 4 or 5 years ago, that (if I remember right!) he was learning to appreciate more and more how Greek narrative style was far more informed by Hebrew narrative style than many of the standard Greek grammarians will ever admit to (particularly as it relates to Septuagint renderings of the Hebrew text) ....but I can't say that I've seen much research explored in this area.

Many reading this blog already will be familiar with Alter's classic texts on Hebrew narrative and poetry; these are 'must reads' (with discernment, of course), if you are working through any of those portions of the OT.
If you are preaching through the Pentateuch, The Five Books of Moses is a treasure chest of translational nuggets! I haven't had a chance to review his most recent work on translating the Psalms, but I can only imagine it will prove an excellent resource.