The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. (Psalm 12:6)

The 1611 Bible was never the ‘modern version’ of its day. The authorized Version possesses its own unique English. It gave to English far more than it ever took from it. Thinking to be up-to-date, an eighteenth century translator is said to have rendered Luke 15:11 “A certain man had two sons” (AV) as “A gentleman of splendid family opulent fortune had two sons.” What about James 3:6 speaking of the tongue, “and it is set on fire of hell” (AV)? Another translator in the same century renders it as “tipped with infernal sulphur it sets the whole train of life in a blaze”. Had the AV been a ‘modern’ translation couched in the language of its day, it would now sound ridiculous. We do not need a Bible written in modern language but one that is as clear as it can be, easily understood, timeless, and in a language that is appropriate to its purpose and content. It must also faithfully reproduce in English that which God inspired.

Roman Jakobson, who migrated to Prague from Moscow in 1920, to become a leading theoretician of Czech structuralism already begins with the assumptionthat no complete equivalence is possible in translation.

To the modern linguist it makes no sense to say that the thought of one person can be replicated in the mind of another through the medium of language.

In accord with structuralist thinking, as the link between a word or series of words in both languages is said to be an arbitrary one, the associations and connotations being irreconcilably different, they will be non-transferable between the two languages and possess no full equivalence. Translation can only be creative transposition, as that with which it must start and that which it produces are significations functioning each within their own given culture. Jakobson says that there can only be an adequate interpretation of another language and no precise equivalence. It is difficult to see how in these circumstances there can be any coincidence between two languages sufficient to speak of translation in any conventional sense.

Were all this true, an inspired Bible would have little meaning and a precise translation of it would be impossible. Translation cannot then have anything to do with an exchange of like for like, this is impossible. Linguists speak only of ‘equivalence’. Having accepted structuralist presuppositions with respect to language and translation, Nida is faced with the enigma of equivalence in translation. Nida first formulated the classification ‘formal’ and ‘dynamic’ equivalence in translation. The term ‘equivalence’ of any kind with respect to Bible translation is entirely inappropriate. Following structuralist views of language, it suggests that the translation is something similar but not quite the same. A merely equivalent meaning, formal or dynamic, is not an identical one. It accommodates the notion that the reproduction of the thoughts of one person in the mind of another in another language through translation is not a credible purpose. It reiterates the remarks of the poet and writer, Hilaire Belloc, in his book on translation, “there are, properly speaking, no such things as identical equivalents”. This would mean that not only is access to the pure Word of God denied to all but those reading Hebrew and Greek, but ultimately even between those communicating in the same language. This means that no two readers will read even the originals in the same way, nor will they be able to communicate to each other the precise meaning of what they have read. Something that is an equivalent is not the same as its counterpart, therefore even the term ‘formal equivalence’ should not, strictly speaking, be applied to the authorized Version. In accepting this distinction, we legitimise Nida’s methodology.

Formal equivalence is said to be based on the principle of equivalent form, poetry to poetry, sentence to sentence, concept to concept and to preserve as much as possible the grammatical form of the original. Even then, it cannot be thought of as being in any sense precise. Dynamic equivalence aims at an equivalent effect. The effect that the original source language text had upon its readers should be the equivalent in the target language. The words, and therefore the meaning, may be quite different in the two languages. What is sought is the same effect rather than the same meaning. Nida himself gives the example in J. B. Phillips rendering of Romans 16:16 where Paul’s ‘holy kiss’ is translated as ‘a hearty handshake all round.’ This whole distinction between formal and dynamic equivalence suggests a tension between form and content that does not in fact exist. Dynamic equivalence amounts to the creation of a new and different text.

Bible readers, it is claimed, can only respond to what they read when in a version written in their own language and within their own cultural context. In order to be a response in truth, such a response can only be expressed behaviourally as a deed, that is, in the act of reading itself. The concern of bible translators cannot be a formal matching of the message from one culture to another, but with the dynamic relationship of the various readers to the messages within their own respective languages and cultures. The reader in one language should be able to respond within his own culture to the message in the same manner as the reader does in an entirely different language or culture. The question for the translator must be not is it intelligible, but is it meaningful. This opens the door to almost limitless freedom in translation. Nida suggests that the expression in Scripture “white as snow” could equally be translated “white as egret feathers”. In fact, where snow is unknown it could be substituted by anything very white!

By contrast, the production of a faithful translation will take account of and reproduce as closely as possible the grammatical units, phrases, sentences, figures of speech, and paragraphs. There will be a consistency in the translation of words, particularly ‘key’ words. Unlike in the processes of Chomsky’s transformational grammar, the parts of speech will remain the same, noun for noun, verb for verb wherever possible. Idioms will be retained not exchanged. Many idiomatic expressions from the authorized Version have passed into everyday English. A dynamic translation changes all these things in the interest of obtaining an ‘equivalent response’. It will ‘naturalise’ terms such as ‘heart’ for the appropriate equivalent in the culture into which the translation is going. This may mean translating ‘heart’ as ‘liver’ or ‘kidneys’ perhaps!

Translation theorists will say that a dozen different translators will produce a dozen different translations given the same text. They will also say at the same time that there exists an ‘invariant core’ in every text. The presence of this core can be shown by what is called ‘semantic condensation’. There is a text of the Bible and a ‘metatext’, or core meaning within it. The variants, transformations, of this core do not affect the meaning but only influence the way in which it is expressed. The invariant core is that which all translations of a given text have in common. Only this is fixed, all else is variable, so there will be innumerable reading and translations none of which can said to be perfect, ideal, but nor can they said to be wrong. Each is valid to each individual and each context. There can be no single correct translation or interpretation. Many different translations of the text may emerge from this core, all of equal validity, none of which is ‘wrong’. Whilst a translation seeks to communicate, it is also truly autonomous.

Translation and interpretation ought to be seen as two separate disciplines. However, for a structuralist, every reading is an interpretation. The reader, and therefore also the translator as a reader and re-interpreter of the text, has been re-evaluated by modern linguists. Roland Barthes sees the reader as a producer rather than a consumer of the text. The reader will ‘translate’ or ‘decode’ the text according to a different set of systems than that of the original writer and so again any idea of one ‘correct’ reading is gone. According to this view, the reader is also a translator of sorts. A translation is only a further translation of that already made by the reader. There can be no ‘correct’ reading, so there can be no ‘correct’ translation.

Modern structuralism and post-structuralism have much in common with the ideas of eighteenth century European romanticism. The rejection of cold rationalism and the formal harmony of neo-classicism saw their replacement by the vitalist imagination and the contingency of nature, often linked with political revolutionary idealism. The Zeitgeist moved on, as in Faust, from the sterility of cold reason to the vibrancy of the creative imagination whereby the universe was to be created afresh. The English writer and poet, Coleridge (1772-1834), held imagination to be the supreme creative power. Translation was even then perceived as a creative enterprise. We see that ‘dynamic’ translations are not quite as modern as many would have us believe. There were two approaches to translation at the time: that which saw the translator as a creative genius in his own right, recreating for his own time the creative genius of the original; and second, there were those who still saw translation as a function ‘making known’ the text.

Whilst his comments refer specifically to the translation of poetry, Henry Wadsworth Wadsworth Longfellow (1807—81) gives us a perspective that can to some extent be applied to Bible translation.
“The only merit my book has is that it is exactly what Dante says, and not what the translator imagines he might have said if he had been an Englishman. In other words, while making it rhythmic, I have endeavoured to make it also as literal as a prose translation. … In translating Dante, something must be relinquished. Shall it be the beautiful rhyme that blossoms all along the line like a honeysuckle on the hedge? It must be, in order to retain something more precious than rhyme, namely, fidelity, truth, the life of the hedge itself. … The business of a translator is to report what the author says, not to explain what he means; that is the work of the commentator. What an author says and how he says it, that is the problem of the translator.”

The modern structuralist translator begins with the assumption that on a purely linguistic level a phrase in one language cannot be translated into any other. He says that that this is due to lack of equivalent cultural conventions existing between languages. All possible phrases available in the target language must be considered in relation to the context of their meaning in the source language. The significance of the phrase must be considered in its particular context. He must then replace in the target language the invariant element drawn from the source language. The determinative factor in this kind of translating is not the text being translated, in the case of Scripture the original texts, but the reader and his cultural environment. God would presumably not be translated as ‘Father’ in a culture where deity is female! This would be regarded as imposing a ‘value system’ of the Scriptures upon that of the prospective reader.

David W. Norris

Taken from David’s book THE BIG PICTURE: the authority & integrity of the authentic Word of God. See publications page.