The Signs of the Times
Translation of the bible and beyond
A colloquium held at Heythrop College 9th-10th September 2013
Can a translation really be faithful to the original? The question seems simple. But the answers given by experts are remarkably divergent. Some consider fidelity in translation ultimately to lie outside the realms of possibility. Others reject such pessimism, pronouncing translation to be necessarily possible. Yet others prefer to make the best of it, and get on with a messy job. But why do views diverge so radically? Why does the ordinary idea of ‘translation’ turn out to be so knotty?
The question is particularly acute with respect to bible translation, where perception of the text’s authority is often inseparable from notions of its divine origin and where expectations of a text’s transcendent truth must be reconciled with its historical particularity. Bible translators and theologians often view bible translation as essentially distinct from any other kind of translation. Is it?
At the Heythrop Colloquium on Translation, September 2013, we took bible translation as a point of departure, moving beyond into the breadth of translation studies. Translators, philosophers, theologians, linguists, historians and anthropologists gathered to look again at translation and how we might most usefully conceive it. The theorists deliberated with translators, those who daily dirty their fingers with the gritty business of translation. The result is a conversation that should illuminate anyone who has paused to think about the problems of translation.
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Language and the translatability of texts, a pragmatist perspective
Marthe Kerkwijk (Heythrop College, University of London)
In this paper I will make a pragmatist case in favour of the view that translation is, in principle, possible. I will critically evaluate Davidson's On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme, in which he argues that untranslatable language doesn't exist. I will argue that the fact that translation is often very difficult - for various reasons - does not imply that it is bound to fail or that we can't make judgements about how a good translation differs from a bad translation.
Dr Tony Carroll (Heythrop College, University of London)
The case of speaking a foreign language highlights interesting aspects relevant for understanding textual translation. The point at which one becomes fluent in a spoken foreign language is the moment that one stops translating. Translation occurs when one lacks fluency and requires interpretation in order to understand. Reading a text is somewhat like speaking a language that one is not fluent in. It involves the process of interpretation, which is the means by which one comes to understand the non-self-evidential meaning of the text. This paper will explore the issues involved in translation understood as a process of the interpretation of non-self-evidential meaning.
Translator as creator of a text
Dr Charlotte Naylor Davis (Heythrop College, University of London)
My paper will explore the idea of the translator as creator of a new text, and the problems involved with changing the nature / form of a text in translation.
Why translations fail: reflections on English translations of the Missale Romanum
Dr Nick King, SJ (Oxford University)
All translations fail, often because of the tension between the target language and the source language, and the inevitability of falling between those two stools. The paper, by one who has recently completed a translation of the Bible, will explore this point with regard to recent attempts at translation, notably biblical versions and the new English translation of the Missale Romanum. The paper will endeavour to avoid the eye-glazing impenetrabilities of translation theory, which never seems to advance the case very much.
Bible translation: style, historical context, and the ubiquitous presence of the King James Version
John Barton (Oxford University)
I will discuss some issues in translating the Bible, especially (a) whether the style should be uniform throughout, and (b) what is to be done about the cultural presence of the King James Version in the background of any fresh attempt to translate the Bible.
Edward Schillebeeckx and the meaning of scripture
Dr Martin Poulsom, SDB (Heythrop College, University of London)
One of the tasks of the systematic theologian is to translate the meaning of the Scriptures, and of other texts, such that their message can be heard in the actual situation of men and women living in the theologian’s own time and place. This paper will consider the hermeneutics that Edward Schillebeeckx develops to assist this process, noting the way that he draws the reader’s context into dialogue with the context of the text in order to understand its meaning. It will also ask whether a theological account of this process written in Dutch in 1967 can still speak meaningfully in English in 2013.
Computer based tools for Bible translators: Progress, pitfalls and implications for the future
Jon Riding (Oxford Brookes University & 7000++)
The last twenty years have seen increasing use of computer based systems to translate or to assist with translation. Within the Bible translation community the development of Machine Assisted Translation tools tailored to the Bible translator's task has transformed the work. I shall give a brief history of computer assistance for Bible translators and discuss the systems currently in use and the implications of their use when translating Scripture. The benefits and pitfalls of such systems will be discussed as will the scope for continuing development
The role of formal languages in computing and the relationship between humans and computer hardware
Joe Norton (Independent)
I will discuss translation between different computer languages, particularly between languages at different levels of abstraction from the physical computer hardware. I will present the differences between low-level and high-level computer programming languages, highlighting the role of formal languages in computing and their relationship between humans and computer hardware.
Capturing the Cultural: Translation as an exercise in cultural interpretation
Matthew Kimberley (University of London)
The common sense we apply in translation amounts ultimately to nothing more than a collection of cultural norms we use to negotiate meaning. These norms determine the shape of, and become codified in the dictionaries on which we depend to translate. Yet the dictoiaries in turn themselves determine the shape of the texts we produce. An experimental use of a classic Sanskrit-English dictionary for rendering into English a passage from a colonial Sanskrit vesrion of Genesis 1 shows how easily a benign circle can become vicious or even ridicous. Translation is possible and can be done well. But where certain classes of texts are concerned, most notably religious ones, and where significantly different cultures separate the source and target languages, the enterprise of translation can only be meaningfully achieved through great skill in the art, vast knowledge of the respective cultural contexts, and a frankly quite liberal attitude to how faithful a popularly accessible and comprehensible translation needs to be.
Lessons for modern translation theory from Aquila and other odd ancient predecessors
James K. Aitken (Cambridge University)
Aquila and the so-called “literalist” method of translation is one of the oddest in antiquity, having been called one of “pedantic literalness” or “a slave to the Hebrew letter.” This translation method has been attributed either to a simple teaching method of learning the source language, or to an extreme recognition of the failure of translation in its attempt to render every feature of the source text. This paper is a reassessment of this method, recognizing sensitivity to the target language as much as the source language, but one that goes beyond negotiation between source text and target text. It instead offers lessons in translation method, providing examples of multiple causation phenomena in translation and a different approach to the effectiveness of a translation.
Confessions of the perplexed. An historian's conerns about translation
Jonathan Norton (Heythrop College, University of London)
Translating historical texts involves the special difficulties faced by the historian. Ultimately the limits of our sources and our of methods for interrogating them constrain our efforts to translate ancient texts and even determine our ability to evaluate success. Translating traditional texts adds yet more difficulties. After all, since many historical texts have been transmitted over centuries, the canons to which each text belongs have already informed the working of our minds before we sit down to translate. But we hardly realise it. How do we translate, then, when we do not understand what an ancient Greek or Hebrew text means, on the one hand, while the tradition within which we receive the text passively interprets the text for us with ambient inevitability? Case studies from the New Testament and other Greco-Roman sources will pave the way to discussion.
When YHWH comes down: Translating Divine Descent in Exodus
Mark Scarlata (Cambridge University & St Mellitus College, London)
This paper will examine the translations of divine descent language in the book of Exodus. By looking at specific terms used in the Hebrew Bible for God's coming down to earth from heaven and making himself manifest, we shall discover how the ancient translators dealt with the difficult task of rendering anthropomorphic language attributed to the divine. We shall then determine whether the translations succeed in accurately rendering the original Hebrew and how this might speak to the theological intentions of the translators.
Watch presentation part 1 and part 2
The Heythrop Colloquium on Translation 2013 received substantial funding and support from the
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