Translation versus commentary

Douglas de Lacey has provided a particularly clear form of an argument which is
both inescapable and extremely dangerous.

>I'd like to suggest (just to stir the pot :-) that *all* translation
>is interpretation/commentary; and that we can best see that perhaps
>by avoiding the emotionally-charged area of *Bible* translation
>and turn to secular alternatives. Try translating "the cat sat on
>the mat" into French, and note down how many decisions you have
>make on the way; and how many possible interpretations of the phrase
>you rule out for the French reader. 

Pot well stirred.  The inescapable part of this is the impossibility of
providing an exact, word-for-word translation from any developed language into
any other.  The reasons have been thoroughly aired on this thread, so I shall
not repeat them.   The danger arises when this limitation is used as a reason
to excuse translators from making every attempt to render the intentions of
the original writer, rather than their own.  There is a very slippery slope
from the unexceptionable "we have to interpret" to the dangerous "we are free
to make our own interpretation".

Of course it is also true that all translators will bring their own prejudices
and expectations to the text, and cannot help doing so.  But they _can_ make a
sincere effort to help it, and not allow their own prejudices to subvert their
linguistic judgements.  The likelihood that they will often fail is no reason
for not trying.   Only in a few rare cases will anyone read a translation for
the sake of the translator: translators should not value their own wisdom more
highly than that of the original writer.

>Nor does learning Greek and Hebrew
>*solve* these problems in any way. It may make us more aware of
>possible ambiguities hidden by the translators' decisions; but
>it cannot resolve them. At worst it gives us a dangerous sense
>of false security: as though *my* guess at the meaning is
>incontrovertably bette than that of the group which produced
>the ... [add your own favourite translation here].
>As one who has done it to some of them, I believe that in general
>we teach undergrads and ordinands just enough Greek to be bad for them.

Learning Greek or Hebrew indeed does not resolve these problems, because they
are incapable of resolution.  The whole point is to become "more aware of
possible ambiguities", and therefore more alert to the possibility of being
misled by translators' decisions.  This is the best that can be achieved.  If
anyone gains a false sense of security from knowing some Greek, they have not
learnt it the right way: it ought to bring a much greater sense of the
insecurity of any translation.  Even so, not all sentences are equally
difficult to translate, especially between languages of the same family.  
Reverting to Dr de Lacey's example, someone who knew both French and English
would be most unlikely to be misled by any reasonable translation of "the cat
sat on the mat".

Least of all can I share Dr de Lacey's apparent wish that everyone should be
content to accept the wisdom of whatever group produced a particular
translation.   If one reads the New Testament in Greek, one may well
misunderstand it, but if one does understand it, what one has understood is the
New Testament. If one reads a translation and understands it perfectly, all
that one has understood is Dr X or Professor Y's - or a group of such
eminences' - impression of what the New Testament means.  (I cannot help
thinking of the New English Bible, produced by an unprecedented collaboration
of the "great and good" of English biblical scholarship - but with all the
fervour and fury smoothed out by their conscious greatness and goodness.)

Adrian  Machiraju,  
Bedford Library,                                UHYL005@VAX.RHBNC.AC.UK
Royal Holloway College,
University of London,                           Tel. +44-784-443327
Egham,  Surrey,  TW20 0EX,  U.K.                FAX  +44-784-437520