A Word in Edgewise

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Word for word and/or thought for thought translations

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WordsI’m often asked whether The Voice is a word-for-word translation or a thought-for-thought translation.  That phraseology has become a standard way of delineating the more formal from the less formal translations.  I wrote about this more thoroughly in a  book called The Story of The Voice.  It was released in spring 2013 by Thomas Nelson.

The categories are themselves problematic. To state the question as an either-or implies that there is a strict dichotomy between a word and a thought.  It assumes there is little to nothing in common between them.  In fact that is not true in the slightest.  When you think about it, every word is a thought expressed. People can keep a thought to themselves; but when they speak, they have expressed something they have thought.  We’ve all laughed at someone who speaks before they think because what comes out is nonsense. For those who know only one language the point is hard to illustrate but consider what it means to translate one word into another.

Take the Spanish word más.  What does it mean?  Well, you get a Spanish-English dictionary (assuming your target language is English) and look up más.  What do you find? You find the English word “more.”  So más means “more.”  Well, not exactly. Más means what English-speaking people mean when they say “more.”  That is quite a different thing.  Spanish people don’t think “more” and say más.  They think más and say más. “More” might be equivalent to más in meaning, but a Spanish-speaking person doesn’t hear más and think ”more.”  Are you confused?

How about this?  Have you ever searched for the right word to express a thought?  As people get older sometimes they have trouble coming up with the right word.  It could be a word they know well, a word they’ve said thousands of times, but for some reason at that moment they can’t come up with it. You’ve heard people say “it was on the tip of my tongue.”  What was on the tip of their tongue?  The right word to express what they were thinking.  It is very frustrating for people to have thoughts they can’t express clearly.

We’ve all had the experience of thinking only to discover we are “talking to ourselves.” We try not to do that out loud too much or people might think we have lost it.  In fact in some languages the word for “think” means essentially to talk to yourself.  Leaving aside for a moment that some people are more visual thinkers than others, thoughts do arise from our conscious minds and are expressed in words.

My point is that there is no strict dichotomy between a word and a thought.  Every word is a thought expressed. Those who distinguish strictly between a word-for-word translation and a thought-for thought translation exaggerate the difference and are trying to privilege one over the other.  Generally, the word-for-word translations are considered superior to the thought-for-thought.  But every translation team has to wrestle with words, their meanings, and the thoughts behind them. Unlike Islam, the Christian tradition has never held that God’s Word is inspired only in a specific language. Though we urge ministry students to read the Scriptures in their original languages (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic), we do not regard these texts as somehow more inspired than Luther’s German Bible or King James’ English Bible or any other translation.  God can and does speak through the words of the Scriptures whether they are in Mandarin, Dutch, Swahili or English.

So when people ask the question: “is The Voice a word-for-word translation or a thought-for-thought translation?” Say, “yes.”

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1 Comment

  1. Galaxian says:

    I think this article raises large issues. Are the thoughts of long-dead people even fully accessible to us, when our world, our understanding of that world, and how we organize our knowledge into semantic categories is so much changed? We’re limited to what’s attested and can’t quiz a native speaker if we’re not sure. I suspect the bible has a much better text record than, say, Hittite diplomatic correspondence found in an 18th Dynasty Egyptian town–the bible is continuously documented from then to now, with commentary and with outside written materials to consult about the languages.

    But churches rely on scripture to pronounce on moral issues that are hard to pin down in modern English, much less in something like classical Hebrew. The way events unfold jars the modern ear. In NIV English the story of Jacob and Esau is perplexing. First, Esau is forced to choose between death by hunger and trading his birthright to Jacob for some food, stating (Gen. 25:34) that “so Esau despised his birthright.” Was despising prior to or consequent to the sale? Readers who assume Esau preferred keeping Jacob’s patriarchal authority are confused–it’s not even clear Esau ever had an heir and he doesn’t marry Judith until age 40 at Gen. 26:34. Although the sale’s timing is not given explicitly, most readers will assume it happened before the marriage. If so, then no unwillingness to die in order to preserve an inheritance figures in.

    Then in Gen. 27 Isaac’s wife Rebekah engineers transfer of birthright to Jacob by a deception Jacob participates in. It seems this must also be after the sale, or one is led to wonder if these are two independent stories, with Genesis not having the structure of a continuous narrative as modern audiences expect.

    Either way, the moral standards expressed are very different from those of the modern West, which would condemn Jacob’s behavior. But God finally sides with Jacob over his father-in-law anyway by Gen 31:5. Does God approve of deception then? It doesn’t seem that the bible supports this, instead only that God preferred Jacob to the father-in-law in a compensation dispute. Yet the physical ritual of transferring birthright in Gen. 27 clearly takes precedence over any adverse moral considerations in the matter. God chooses not to intervene and overrule Jacob in Isaac’s tent.

    I trust that bible scholars have translated correctly. As Jacob and Esau are brothers who would normally share food, one either suspects that some material facts are omitted or lost from the text, or that Hebrew stories are not like the modern ones where the righteousness person succeeds. At least the Hebrews appear more realistic than we are, in some ways. The only alternative is that asking your family for assistance contravened core values in that society, regardless of how dire the need. The question for me is how biblical principles should be adapted to today’s world, given that no one is likely to revert to doing business in biblical-era ways, and observing that we don’t even really know in detail how those peoples viewed basic right and wrong as instructed by their god. There is a message from God to us, but not conveniently in par value notation.

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