Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sins and Errors of Language and Translation thinking

to be honest, I suspect most non-Christian Western people think little about issues of language and translation. They don't have as much invested in the question, unless they (a) have an interest in linguistics or literature, (b) are polyglots, (c) are adherents to another religion with sacred scriptures in another language.

Anyway, the more I study, the more I hopelessly wish they were a perfect translation of the Scriptures. But there isn't, and there can't and won't be. And so I'm more and more committed to a profound mastery of the languages. Commendable, I think, and so I commend the same in others. Nevertheless, I'm also more and more aware of just plain wrong or stupid or unhelpful thinking about language and language knowledge. So, this entry is me summing up some of them:

Errors about language born from a Western monoglot culture

Errors of the monoglots
1) Original languages don't matter.
There are some, honestly, who are just oblivious to the fact that there *are* any issues around different languages, meaning, translation. They live in pure blissful ignorance, which is a real shame.

2) Original languages matter, but our translations are pretty good, so no need to worry
To be honest, I'm happiest to see a regular, ordinary Christian have this kind of attitude. Because, clearly, translations work - people read the Bible in English, understand God's message, repent, put their trust in Jesus, and it's all beautiful. This is because, despite all the logic, translation works, and there are some decent translations. They all make me angry, but at their heart, they work.

3) Original languages matter, but our translations are *really* good, so let's read a few different translations, argue about the English words, and base doctrine on English grammar.
Now, these people get me angry. They get me angry because (a) they think that a set of translations will give them a better perspective to get at the 'real meaning'. No, they'll give you a set of perspectives which may or may not give you better perception. This isn't a balance game. They get me angry too because (b) they place a weight of interpretation on things that won't support them. Few English translations can bear the weight of a grammatical argument based on their translation. Some translations, I admit, I will use their grammar to bear a point I consider established on the original grammar. But I would hate to base a point of teaching on the English.

4) Original languages matter, and so our knowledge of the scriptures is severely deficient.
To be honest, few monoglots hold this position. It would drive them to despair. Or, better yet, to study languages! But, well some people do think this. I'm sure of it. And it's wrong.

Then we get to the 'recently initiated'. Those who have studied some Greek or Hebrew, maybe a year or two, through a grammar-heavy method. Their errors get me very angry.

5) The sin of a little knowledge
It's pretty clear that 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing', but this doesn't seem to occur to the recently initiated. Their newfound understanding of grammar and vocabulary-glosses sends them off translating texts and looking up lexicons and making over-confident and arrogant conclusions since they feel they have mastered the language

6) The sin of better translation
Any time you hear or read 'more literally....' followed by a gloss, I cringe. Neophytes tend to think they can produce better translations based, usually, on a more wooden English-weird-sounding Greek-word-following, etymologically-bound rendering of the text. Sometimes they are right. Usually, they're not.

7) The sin of my-grammar-wins
Neophytes often apply grammar poorly but technically correct. For example, they will argue that there is no reason why a word here can't be modified by the adjective 14 clauses later (okay, I exaggerate slightly). Vaguely possible, but not really. Why? Well, really this sin comes about because neophytes are initiates into a magical-grammar system, and are poor readers of Greek or Hebrew, and have no sense of how a Greek/Hebrew speaker would read a clause, and worse-yet, it doesn't occur to them that that is even a problem or question.

8) The sin of the Code
Lastly, I'll list this one, the tendency to reduce language to a set of equations. Grammar forms the rules of the mathematics, vocabulary functions like algebra, and you can plug in the right elements and do a few transformations, and out comes the 'meaning', or 'the english'. Argh, language isn't like that!

Wanderings of the professors:
I'll be fair, highly educated-in-languages types vary wildly, but some of them are still prone to some errors, and I'm going to whinge about those here:

9) Original languages or nothing
Some people with a well developed ability in the languages come to the position where anything less than devotion and mastery to the languages is not good enough, going to lead you into error, and in fact how can you claim to read the text at all? They've forgotten that translation is possible! (See point 2!). Translation does become a seemingly impossible task, as you realise how fraught it is with compromise, betrayal, and danger, but despite all this we still do it and it still works - meaning gets carried across. I think this sin is a kind of hubris, and to be avoided.

10) The sin of arcane hyper-grammar
This is my pet hate. If you start down the 'dark path' of making the most important and integral aspect of your language study the analysis of grammatical minutiae, and do not learn to read with fluency and without translation into your mother-tongue, then you'll eventually reach this sith-like position. I'm not (and never) saying that grammatical minutiae and taxonomy (Wallace!) don't matter, or can't help, but if this is the sole way your knowledge works, you've failed to grasp that Greek and Hebrew were dynamic means of communication of real people, and that people don't speak in syntactical structures. No one, except Greek students doomed to composition (by which they understand translation) exercises, ever thinks, 'I'll need to use the Genitive of Material here!'. No, they simply use the Genitive. It's only grammarians who overthink language like this, and there comes a point you need to stop.

11) The sin of despair
One can also arrive at a point where, because of one's attainments rather than one's ignorance, one despairs about the knowledge of language. Whether it's because of translation, or the circularity of lexical formulation, or the lack of appropriate data, there are all sorts of ways to get to a point where it seems original languages have failed you. Don't despair! Real communication, despite all the barriers, happens nonetheless.

12) The sin of contempt
You know, just because you have 15 PhDs in Hellenistic Literature and ANE Languages, doesn't mean that when someone else, including those pesky neophytes, says 'the Greek means X,Y,Z' that they're wrong. They could, possibly, be right! There are no monopolies on the mastery of the languages, and inexperience doesn't equal wrongness.


Laura said...

THIS is an outstanding post.

I definitely appreciate my small study of Greek (only a year), and have found it invaluable in my devotional life -- even my paltry knowledge of Greek has increased my confidence in the cohesiveness and sensibility of God's word.

I was fortunate to have been an English major in college and to have had several professors who pounded it into our heads that neither etymology, nor the microscopic grammar we linguists adore, amount to definition. They taught us the proper uses of such information -- etymology as a subtext. Of course, I love to see how words have developed over the centuries, but as I just typed the word "information," I wasn't analyzing its comprehensive history any more than Paul was when he threw out that hapax in the middle of Galatians, or whatever. Have you ever read Doing Grammar? It's an introduction to English grammar that attempts to teach grammar intuitively, as we learn it. I found myself returning to those same concepts as I studied Greek.

I'm going to send this link to my seminary hermeneutics professor and thank him for immunizing me against a lot of these errors.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks Laura. I haven't read Doing Grammar? but if it stumbles upon my path I'll give it a read.

Luke Goddard said...

"8) The sin of the Code"

I definitely agree that despite grammatical rules language doesn't fit nicely into some formula that will translate between one language and another - just look at the inaccuracies of babelfish and other such formula-based (or dictionary-based) translators

The Pook said...

'Sin' number 9 is possibly one reason God didn't give us inerrant extant autographs.

The bible is not like the Koran - written in the rigid and untranslatable language of heaven. One of the wonders of God's grace and of the efficacy of His calling is that he is able to communicate, convict and engender faith in his fallen creatures by speaking his infallible and perfect Word using fallen and fallible human language with all its imprecisions, ambiguities and uncertainties, both at the speaking end and at the hearing end. Despite everything, what we have, even in translation, is the complete Word of God and it is effective for our salvation, and for "teaching, rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness." That the Word of God is translatable is what sets Christianity apart as a true world religion (though I dislike that word, you know what I mean), where Islam is really an Arabic religion grafted onto other cultures.