Mounce on Translating

Bill Mounce answers a question about the ESV handling of Romans 2:27, 29 in Conflicting Translation Procedures on the Koinonia blog (you can also find it at Bill and Bob’s Blog). The ESV, in these verses, chose to use different English words to translate the same Greek word. He defends this choice by highlighting the following list of procedures to keep in mind when making translation decisions:

1. Concordance. As much as possible, use the same English word for the same Greek word so the user can follow the author’s train of thought, as long as doing so does not misrepresent the semantic range of the Greek word.

2. One for one. Prefer a single word translation for one Greek word.

3. Less interpretive. While all translations are interpretive, the ESV prefers the less interpretive. “Written code” is more interpretive; “letter” is less.

4. Euphony. The single word “letter” provides a nice poetic balance to the single word “Spirit” in 2 Cor 3:6. (The NIV/TNIV do the same.)

5. Must make some sense. But wait! There’s more! (Sounds like a Greek infomercial.) Why does the ESV use “written code” in Rom 2:27. Because saying “you who have the written letter and circumcision” makes no sense. Now granted, the ESV is content to make its readers work a little to understand the text, just as Paul was content to make his readers work a little to understand the text. But “letter” just sounds weird.

6. Open to misunderstanding. The ESV is especially sensitive to this problem, a problem all formal translations share. If the ESV read, “you who have the letter and circumcision but break the law,” would people unfamiliar with Paul’s theology think of an actual letter?

What would you prioritize in translating a text (Hebrew or Greek)? Would you add anything to his list?

4 thoughts on “Mounce on Translating

  1. Bob MacDonald

    1. concordance – to start with an eirenic comment – yes. But the reason for concordance is in the sound not necessarily in the meaning. When the whole gospel can be reduced to one word: hear, then the sound is important. It is not the train of thought. The training will happen when the hearer has to do some work. What is a ‘train of thought’? Translate that one into Greek for Paul while composing Romans. “Paul, dear, we simply cannot follow your 55 step argument. Ten is simply too many sections. God forbid we should be dependent on your intellect for salvation! If you will, there are just too many animals in your (camel) train.”
    2. one for one – surely this one should be number 1. But there is no way that this can be done with conjugated verbs. It is even funnier when you think of enclitic languages like Hebrew. The DNA of English is all unrolled.
    3. Less is definitely more. Mounce’s post on Are ants people is a good example. Of course ants are a people. Even Google translate knows that: les fourmis sont un peuple.
    4. Euphony – much more than euphony is required. Dramatic reenactment. Similar sounds. Wordplay.
    5. ‘must make some sense’ is a non-starter. Make sense is too much an abstraction. The pornographers get it quicker than the pious. And at least in the Hebrew Bible, there are plenty of places where the transmitted copy seems to be fully enigmatic to all of us. (I have not tried much translation from Greek – too modern for me).
    6. open to misunderstanding. Is it implied that we have already understood or could understand? It must be open to misunderstanding so that our God has something to correct in us as we draw out the words from our texts.

    7. Dig. We must dig and reconstruct through language and history what we can around the text that we have. I think John’s argument for reconstruction here is a post today is a sound one.

  2. Karyn Post author

    Looks like some others have pointed out this post by Mounce too.

    John Hobbins takes the list and smooths it out a little to make it more broadly applicable here.

    John mentions that he heard about the post from Jim Getz, here.

    (I had seen it on the Koinonia blog earlier this morning in my Google Reader… we must have all been on the same brain wave!)

  3. Kirk Lowery

    I’ve not followed the ins and outs of translation theory for a few years, so this comment may be tangential to the main conversation:

    I was one of the translators for the Holman Christian Standard version (1 Kings). I of course ran across many of these same problems. (Translating the building of the Temple was a nightmare!) One of the frustrations was the business of one-to-one correspondence at every level: lexical, morphological and syntactic.

    I’ve always wondered why translations don’t take more advantage of margin- and footnotes. If the goal is translating the message correctly, even a very literal translation is going to be a distance from the original. Often, I could not find a one-to-one correspondence. Sometimes English simply had no equivalent that was not very paraphrastic. It wasn’t that the Hebrew was always unclear or ambiguous. To the contrary. But for English, one had to “unscramble” the words.

    So why not choose the “best” English equivalent even if it is grammatically distant? And then use notes to explain the problem or issue to the reader. The major translations do this rarely, at least, to my satisfaction.

    In this one respect, the most advanced English translation today I know of is the Net Bible.

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