MEANING VS. FORM: Does It Matter How We Say Something?

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

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Don Wilkins_02
DR. DON WILkINS: B.A. UC Irvine, M.Div. Talbot Seminary, Th.M. Talbot Seminary, M.A. UCLA, Ph.D. UCLA. He has worked with The Lockman Foundation (TLF) as a senior translator since 1992 on the NASB.

In his online talk about Bible translation philosophy for the NIV, Mark Strauss raises the question of what the Spanish “¿Cómo se llama?” means (see www.thenivbible.com/bible-translation-philosophies/ at about the 10: 12-time mark). Before waiting for an answer from one of the pastors in attendance, he continues, “What’s your name–WRONG!!” Not that someone is named Mr. Wrong, of course, but Strauss points out that “What’s your name?” is not a very good literal translation. He then goes on to say that the literal (i.e. the actual Spanish) is “How yourself call?” which can be smoothed out to “How do you call yourself?” I’ll add that we could say the same thing about the French “Comment vous appelez-vous?” and probably the corresponding question in a number of other languages.

Strauss got my attention when he said that “How do you call yourself?” is an “NASB” translation, “…or an ESV, whichever you don’t like.” I suppose this means I’m entitled not to like the NIV since I do like the NASB. Actually, I have nothing against the NIV–as a commentary, that is, not so much as a translation. For the record, though, “How do you call yourself” never occurs in the NASB because it never occurs in the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic of the Bible.

Strauss offers “What’s your name?” as an idiomatic translation of the Spanish question that he admits has completely “messed up” the form of the question while retaining the meaning. I would agree with him that “What’s your name?” is an idiomatic translation–in a loose sense of the word “translation.” You can actually go online and find a free translation app that will give you “What is your name?” as the equivalent of the Spanish question. But this is a little like watching a movie on TV with subtitles and seeing a line of text when an angry speaker in the movie has obviously said more. You just know that it didn’t all come out as “I really think you should floss more often.”

Strauss maintains that “What’s your name?” is what “¿Cómo se llama?” means, or to be precise, that the English wording destroys the form of the original question but retains the meaning. A little earlier in the talk, he makes it clear that he doesn’t like the literal translation, so I assume that he feels the meaning is lost in that kind of translation. In fact, it turns out that not one word of “What is your name?” corresponds to the actual Spanish. So are we supposed to conclude that the literal “How do you call yourself?” is meaningless or impossible to understand? I’m pretty sure that very young who are learning Spanish as their first language are not told by their parents and teachers that “¿Cómo se llama?” means “What’s your name?” Otherwise, I can picture a Spanish class for these children in which the teacher says, “Now if you want to ask what someone’s name is, here’s how you have to say it in our language: ‘How do you call yourself?’ Too bad we can’t just say, ‘What’s your name?'”

4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

I don’t think “How do you call yourself” is really beyond comprehension for those of us who actually want to know how the Spanish-speaking population inquiries about a name. If it were, then people who want to learn to speak Spanish–or any other language–as a second language would have a hopeless task because we all know that you have to learn to think in the language. Aside from doing that just because we should, there simply isn’t time to translate when you are trying to carry on a conversation. And “How do you call yourself” is never going to translate into “What’s your name?” One is not an “idiomatic translation” of the other; they are two different questions seeking the same information as an answer. Each is an idiom because it is the traditional way of asking for that information in the language

So what Mark Strauss calls an “idiomatic translation,” I call an “idiom exchange,” i.e. replacing one idiom in a language with another one in a different language. Idiom exchanges basically are a technique that translators use when the literal wording of the original is awkward or difficult to understand in the target language. There is the old saying about something being lost in translation; something always is in an idiom exchange, unless the idioms happen to exactly correspond, which is almost never. One fairly good case of correspondence is “named him,” basically equaling the phrase “called his name” in ancient Hebrew. As usual, these are not an exact match, but they are arguably close enough to use “named” as a substitute without losing anything significant.

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But idioms can be very tricky, and the form can and often is crucial in one way or another (which is an idiom itself). Let’s consider a couple of English examples: “The glass is half full or half empty; he’s a half empty kind of guy.” That would probably make no sense to a first-century Greek, at least without some explanation, starting with what a “glass” is. I could reword it as, “The same glass can be viewed positively as half full or half empty, etc.” That would not do nearly as much damage to the form of the original as Strauss’s “What’s your name?” but I doubt that it would explain why we even bring a glass into our description of the person, and it would completely ruin the idiom, which depends on brevity for much of its punch. The form of the idiom also establishes the all-important context. What context? It’s not just a glass, but the glass. And exactly what glass is that? Well, of course, it’s the hypothetical glass that we always think of when we use this idiom. Try it with “a” glass and see how well that works.

Another idiom I’ll mention is “Six of one, half a dozen of the other.” If for some reason I could not use the glass idiom above and had to replace it with another (i.e. an idiom exchange), this one would look like a great choice. “Six of one” roughly corresponds to half full given that “dozen” is the high mark; i.e. not just one, two, or five, but six–halfway to twelve. “Half a dozen” corresponds to half empty (depending on how you look at it of course): I have only half of the full number. So if I did not know better, I would not hesitate to choose this idiom. Only through experience–or in the case of ancient idioms, research–could I learn that this idiom actually means there’s no difference in content, only in formal description. Then another thing I find out from the form, which just happens somehow to contextualize the idiom, is that the idiom is typically applied to undesirable choices between which one is forced to choose.

In Bible translation, we can get the form of an idiom right, and the form undoubtedly was important to the original speakers. I like to think that any serious Bible student is going to want to know the idiom in its original form, both for accuracy in translation and for his or her own research on the idiom, to milk it for all it can reveal about the context. So I will retain as much of the form as possible. When an idiom exchange appears to be the only reasonable option, I will do that, while providing information about the literal (or formal) translation where it is practical.

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

My favorite idiom exchange is anything good for “What to me and to you?” This is a very difficult idiom in both Hebrew and Greek that seems to have no really good equivalent in English. The literal translation is too awkward to use as-is, and in older editions of the NASB the preferred idioms were “What have I to do with you?” and “What do I have to do with you?” These may have been palatable at a time when ordinary English was more sophisticated than it generally is now, but even I find them unacceptable in today’s common English.

What, then, do we do with a difficult idiom like this? I want to supply readers with as much of the original form as possible. That is partly accomplished by providing the reader with a sensible translation that reflects the form. The translation will also have to represent what is going on in the context. In addition to all that, I will supply a translator’s note giving the reader the literal wording unless it is problematic or unnecessary for some reason. I don’t want the reader to be working through a filtered translation of the original when she or he could instead be researching and gaining the real knowledge of what the biblical speaker or writer actually said.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

I’ll wrap this up with an example of the “What to” idiom exchange. It occurs in the dialog between Jesus and the man who was tormented by a legion of demons. In Mark 5:7 the leader of the demons literally asks, “What to me and to you, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The idiom chosen for exchange in the NIV is, “What do you want with me?” Strauss would probably concede that the form of the original has been severely compromised: “what,” “you,” and “me” were all retained, but “do you want with” is the translators’ invention. It hints at protest and probably fear, and there are several ways we could look at it, emphasizing different words to get different implications. As is consistent with NIV policy, there is no indication of what the literal Greek actually says; we are only given a cross-reference with a parallel version of the idiom. So in the absence of having access to the Greek, we could spend significant time and effort analyzing the meaning of “what do you want with” here, and the best outcome would be that we would reverse-engineer what went on in the translators’ minds.

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

For the same idiom in the same verse, the NASB has “What business do we have with each other…?” Originally the NASB translation was, “What do I have to do with you?” and I think the current version is a considerable improvement. It reflects the form of the original more closely than might appear. “Business” was added to convert the original to an English idiom, but “What to you and to me” basically indicates something that the two people share at the moment. Elsewhere “What do we have in common?” could be a good choice, but here we know that this is a hostile encounter, so something else is needed, indicating protest. The NIV idiom indicated this as well, but their verbal “want with” does not reflect the form of the Greek. The demon, in addition to his protest, is trying to persuade Jesus that they do not have mutual dealings at this point in time, and I think we can get a taste of that in the literal “What to me and to you,” however awkward it is in English. As a translator, I want to help the reader get the right idea by choosing the best possible idiom to represent the original. But for readers who want to do an intensive word study of the original, I want to supply them with a note on the literal wording as well.

I hope this has been interesting. In the coming weeks I plan to discuss the new “singular they” as a grammatical workaround to avoid gender exclusion, the real or supposed justification of “one and only” for the old “only-begotten” translation as applied to Jesus, and the problem of God’s changing his mind as translated from the original.

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