In the most recent installment of Mondays with Moisés, we read our Infallible Hero state, in what at first blush might seem like a throwaway comment, that since “the message communicates more clearly” in translations of modern literature which sound “as though they had originally been written in English” (with due allowance for the original context), “one can argue that they are more accurate than literal renderings would be.” Yet the careful reader will immediately note that his use of “one can argue” here practically demands some sort of qualification for this statement. One such qualification, it seems to me, relates to the use of so-called “insider language,” as I suggested in my recent rejoinder to the much-missed Lingamish. Another, as I argued many years ago in another such discussion, is the notion that a literarily sensitive translation “will not be complicated where the original is not, and by the same token, will not be simpler than the original.” Do such added qualifications find any support at all in the Silvanic canon, however? Fortunately for us, the material from the Youngblood Festschrift reworks, with somewhat different emphases, similar material from our Infallible Hero’s earlier publication, God, Language and Scripture. In addition to beautifully nuancing—and rounding out—an admittedly complex discussion, our text today affords us an excellent illustration of a fundamental principle of Moisifical Infallibility: to wit, that Moisés Silva is his own best interpreter.
“The task of producing a good translation is exceedingly arduous. Students of the biblical languages do not always have a good appreciation of what is involved. They have learned to produce ‘literal’ translations by consulting the lexicon and so the process seems rather straightforward. In fact, however, a successful translation requires (1) mastery of the source language—certainly a much more sophisticated knowledge than one can acquire over a period of four or five years; (2) superb interpretive skills and breadth of knowledge so as not to miss the nuances of the original; and (3) a very high aptitude for writing in the target language so as to express accurately both the cognitive and the affective elements of the message.
“Even when one has all that equipment, frustration lurks at every turn. If we capture with some precision the propositional content of a statement, we may give up the emotional nuances that form part of the total meaning. If we have a stroke of genius and come up with a turn of phrase that conveys powerfully the message of the original, we may realize that our rendering blurs somewhat its cognitive detail. Not surprisingly, some rabbis used to complain: ‘He who translates a verse literally is a liar, and he who paraphrases is a blasphemer!’ Italians are more concise: traduttore traditore, ‘translators are traitors.’ […]
“We must ever keep in mind that no one translation can possibly convey fully and unambiguously the meaning of the original. Different translators, and even different philosophies of translation, contribute to express various features of the original. […] Moreover, recent advances in linguistics place much emphasis on the context of speech. The admirable desire to produce translations that do not sound like translations and are thus clearer and more accessible to the modern reader must be accompanied by the reminder that the biblical stories took place in the Middle East rather than the Western world, in ancient times rather than in the twentieth century. To the extent that ‘readable’ translations indirectly encourage modern readers to forget such a setting, to that extent they also fail to capture part of the meaning of the text. Besides, one detects a definite tendency to make modern translations much simpler than the original Greek and Hebrew. If the Corinthians had some difficulty understanding Paul’s Greek, it is no disgrace when a modern English reader has to struggle through a long apostolic sentence.
“It is also misleading, however, to assume that a rendering that is formally equivalent to the original necessarily conveys the meaning more faithfully. If I translate the Spanish sentence Tengo frío en los pies literally, ‘I have cold in the feet,’ rather than idiomatically, ‘My feet are cold,’ English readers will probably understand the rendering, but they will gain absolutely nothing by its literalness—indeed, they could be misled to think that there is some special nuance they are missing! Literal translations are easier to produce, and the approach can degenerate into an excuse for not doing the hard exegetical and literary work of conveying faithfully the meaning of the ancient text to the modern reader.”
Moisés Silva, “God, Language and Scripture,” in Moisés Silva (ed.), Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation: Six Volumes in One (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 273, 275-6.