Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Downside (?!) of Literal Translation

Probably most readers of this blog know the inter-nicene debates that have driven Bible translation over the past 125 years or so (since the Revised Version came out in 1881). The defenders of a more "literal equivalence" or "word-for-word" translation have attacked those who have sought a more "dynamic equivalence" in moving from the original Hebrew or Greek to English.

But perhaps you (and certainly I) have never thought about how these debates play out with the classical Greek and Latin texts as represented by the 500 or so texts in the Loeb Classical Library. This article in the New York Times from 2000 explains some of the, a-hem, updating of the translations and this example from the Loeb Classical Library page makes it all the more, ahh, explicit.

Now my real interest here is to get at the larger issues of translation--I would suspect that most evangelicals would be shocked to read the "glories" of Greece and Rome in such bawdy baldness (and especially those who point to the classical period as foundational for young people's education). And yet, what the Loeb is doing seems to me to be the proper application of a more "literal" approach to translation--translating the vulgar slang of one culture into the vulgar slang of another (Robert Fagles does much the same in his translations of Homer).

On the other hand, it is always a bit shocking to read the "f-bomb" in any piece of literature, especially classical ltierature. And it makes you wonder whether there was a good reason why these texts have held interest only for a small number of classics scholars. Perhaps the Victorian paraphraistic approach was okay here--to communicate dynamically may have avoided offense that could come from the homoeroticism of the ancient texts while still communicating what needed to be said.

And so, perhaps the literal equivilence approach is winning the day, both in biblical and classical translation. Yet, I wonder if such "R-rated" translations might tell us more than we needed to know about the ancient times. In the end, maybe the Loeb Classics should have a "parents-advisory" label; if it works for Eminem, maybe it should work for Aristophanes.


Will K said...

Gilding any age of time, any people, or any culture which is available to us through translating their texts is always inappropriate. If taking preference over a dynamic equivalent and choosing, instead, a literal equivalent shows us the full range of post-lapsarian humanity--to our good. If we, in choosing cleaned-up dynamics in every instance, are not aware of the very real, skewing impact it is having on our perception of any culture, text group, etc., then we are inviting ourselves to be deceived. We, in my opinion, ought not think that literal equivalence gives us--automatically--more truth about the text and those behind it. I believe we must 1) be faithful to the text (incl. its author and purpose for writing) and 2) be faithful to the reader (incl. his ability and purpose for reading).

Is there only one right way: literal or dynamic? The more one thinks about the question, the more impossible and ridiculous it becomes to answer, "yes and it is....."

Thanks, Dr. Lucas; this was a thought-provoking post by you.

Will K

Dennis A Bratcher said...

I think you meant "internecine."