Philosophy of Translation

Literal vs. Paraphrase

One of the first questions people ask about the Curmudgeon’s Bible is whether it is a “literal translation” or a “paraphrase”.  In my opinion this question is meaningless; there are only lesser and greater degrees of paraphrase.

Let’s see what a “literal”  translation would look like for a couple of verses from the New Testament (Revelation 22:18-19):

Μαρτυρῶ ἐγὼ παντὶ τῷ ἀκούοντι τοὺς λόγους τῆς προφητείας τοῦ βιβλίου τούτου: ἐάν τις ἐπιθῇ ἐπ’ αὐτά, ἐπιθήσει ὁ θεὸς ἐπ’ αὐτὸν τὰς πληγὰς τὰς γεγραμμένας ἐν τῷ βιβλίῳ τούτῳ: καὶ ἐάν τις ἀφέλῃ ἀπὸ τῶν λόγων τοῦ βιβλίου τῆς προφητείας ταύτης, ἀφελεῖ ὁ θεὸς τὸ μέρος αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ ξύλου τῆς ζωῆς καὶ ἐκ τῆς πόλεως τῆς ἁγίας, τῶν γεγραμμένων ἐν τῷ βιβλίῳ τούτῳ.

Witness I all the hearing the words the prophecy the book this: if any add to them, add the God to him the plagues the written in the book this; and if any delete from the words the book the prophecy this, delete the God the part his from the tree the life and from the city the holy, the written in the book this.

This is a direct, word-for-word translation from the original classical Greek. You can sort of make some sense out of it, but it’s not very clear, for a number of reasons. First, Greek often uses a different word order than English. Let’s try switching the order around a bit:

I witness all the hearing the words the prophecy the this book: if any add to them, God add to him the plagues the written in the this book; and if any delete from the words the prophecy the this book, God delete the his part from the life the tree and from the holy the city, the written in the this book.

Doesn’t make it much better, does it? A further problem is all the “the”s. It seems Greek likes using “the” in places where in English it would be redundant, like with names (“the God”, “the Gordon”) and adjectives (“the city the holy”). We can try removing redundant words:

I witness all hearing the words the prophecy this book: if any add to them, God add to him the plagues written in this book; and if any delete from the words the prophecy this book, God delete his part from the life tree and from the holy city, the written in this book.

Well, maybe a little better, but not a whole lot. We’ve come up against the major problem with translating Greek to English. Greek is a highly inflectional language, which means that it uses little bitty changes in individual words to convey what in English would require adding extra words. So let’s add some English words where no Greek words existed. For example, the words I’ve transated “the” in the passage, are actually inflected for cases that require English prepositions to fully transmit their meaning:

I witness to all those hearing the words of the prophecy in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues written in this book; and if anyone deletes from the words of the prophecy in this book, God will delete his part from the life tree and from the holy city, the ones written about in this book.

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’ve suddenly discovered the relationships between all the people and things, and the whole sentence is now correct, if awkward, English. Which version is a better translation? I don’t think you’ll find anyone on any side of the debate who would argue that removing and adding words isn’t essential to good translation.

This principle goes far beyond individual words, to the level of grammer, idioms, and discourse structure.  How can any translation be “literal” if it changes structure on even one of these levels?  Conversely, how can it be somehow suspect to change structure on any level?

The Curmudgeon’s Bible

My aim in writing the Curmudgeon’s Bible is to make you think about the things that ain’t necessarily so.  For that reason, I have followed several general principles:

  • I always try to show where I have added words to make the sense clearer by using brackets.
  • English translations commonly translate some obscure words or idioms, e.g. “Amen,” and leave others, e.g. the common Semitic pattern “son of X”, untranslated.  In the Curmedgeon’s Bible I have tried to do the reverse; I leave “Amen” alone, and translate “son of X” to “X-like”, e.g. “Human one” or “Divine one”.
  • Many of the terms which are translated into specifically religious terms in English actually have a wider range of meaning in the original.  I have therefore tried to use vocabulary in English that does not have religious connotations.
  • In general, where there is an exegetical choice, I tried to take the road less traveled, even if the result seemed nonsensical or unusual, taking the principle of “lectio difficilior” to ridiculous lengths.

 

2 Comments

  1. Is there any way to get a print copy (or a download which I could print out) to add to my collection of English Bibles and Testaments? I don’t have a Kindle, but wondered if a PDF or other download is a possibility. Thanks so much for any information you can give me.

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