Accurate translation

April 11, 2011 by No Comments

What makes an accurate translation? Even if we say that an accurate translation conveys the full meaning of the original, without adding anything or taking anything away, that still leaves some fuzzy edges. Meaning can be conveyed in different ways, especially when we consider poetic language where the form of the expressions used is a significant factor in the communication. In poetry for example, maintaining the rhyme and rhythm of the original text in a translation is often only possible at the expense of reduced correspondence in the exact meaning of the words used. It is a balancing act. For the Bible translator, priority must usually be given to conveying the full meaning of the message clearly, sometimes at the expense of maintaining formal characteristics of the original text. It is however especially satisfying when it does prove possible to carry over in translation some of the “poetry” of the original without distorting the meaning.

While what we consider “rhyme” in English is not (as far as I know) found in Biblical Hebrew writings, there are examples of assonance–words which sound similar, or use the same selection of letters/sounds in a different combination, what we would tend to call a “play on words”. I came across an example when I was checking the Kasem translation of Isaiah recently.

In Isaiah 5:1–7 God’s people are likened to a vineyard which he has prepared and tended with special care. Yet when he looks for the expected good grapes, bitter wild grapes are all he finds. Isaiah sums up God’s disappointment as follows:

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Isaiah 5:7b (NIV)

In terms of the meaning of the words, this is an accurate translation, but it fails to convey the poetic balance of the Hebrew:

He waited for justice [mishpat]
but behold bloodshed [mishpakh]!
For righteousness [tsedaqah]
but behold outcry [tsa’qah]!

In fact the word translated “bloodshed” occurs only here in the Old Testament and is of uncertain meaning (bloodshed/disobedience/dishonesty). It was clearly chosen for its wordplay value, rather than its precise meaning. The dramatic form of the two parallel statements and the play on words helps to communicate the broken expectations which God had for his people in the light of all the care he had lavished on them. So is a translation which fails to capture this poetic form fully accurate? Can a translation ever be fully accurate, given the nature of language? It seems that it isn’t always possible to capture all the elements of meaning in a translation. But sometimes it does work out to a certain extent, much to the satisfaction of the translators. In Kasem it is possible to say:

When he looked for goodness [nɔn-ŋonne],
murder [nɔn-gom] only he found there.
When he looked for truth [chega] to be at work,
it was destruction [chɔgem] he found.

The last line does not include the idea of cries of distress, but focuses on the iniquity or bad treatment which gives rise to those cries. This seems a price worth paying in order to keep the play on words: chega/chɔgem.

Translation is a delicate balancing act, stretching and rewarding!

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