How do we define Bible faithfulness?
Many conservatives tend to define faithfulness as applied to Bible translation to the degree of literality of a certain version – ‘the more literal, the more faithful’, they say. I beg to differ.
First, I am convinced that a ‘literal’ translation of the Bible is not possible. And, if it was possible, it would be incomprehensible. The main reason is the nature of language. In my opinion, this is the point where structuralists are wrong. They tend to understand language mechanically and unfolding a text would be like an engineer taking an engine apart. That is, I suggest, what the Romanian Beni Faragau tends to do in his approach of the Bible. If this view of the nature of human language would be right, computer scientists would have been able long ago to provide us with automated translation. I have a good friend who is working as an expert for over 25 years in this field and I know very well from him what a nightmare automated translation still is for specialists until this day. And, by the way, precisely because of that, he tends to be even more critical than I am about Beni’s method.
Language is a mystery, like the human being. We may dissect it and study it, but it will always be something that eludes us. Another friend of mine, who is a top specialist in Biblical linguistics, tells me that languages are discontinuous realities. There is no such thing as a perfect translation. We can only approximate. That is what made Italians say ‘traduttore, tradittore’ (the translator is always a traitor). Besides, spoken languages (by opposition to ‘dead’ ones, like classic Hebrew, Greek or Latin) are alive and continuously changing. That is why we need to retranslate, again and again, at least every 20 to 50 years, the classic texts, including the Bible. Therefore, what was a ‘good’ translation 100 years ago or more may be quite incomprehensible today (from this point of view, in spite of its many weaknesses, the 90 years old Romanian Cornilescu translation is a remarkable accomplishment in its present degree of comprehensibility; the relatively simple vocabulary for which the translator opted – generally a weakness in such a complex text, may have been in fact providential in this sense). The lack of understanding of this basic linguistic reality makes the fundamentalist KJV ‘sect’ look so ridiculous. The humorous saying ‘if it was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it is good enough to me’, sums it all up beautifully.
Literalists concentrate most of their energy on finding the exact word correspondence and reproducing as close as possible the syntax of the original text. Now, finding the best correspondence in terms of vocabulary is important, especially on weightier theological terms, but reproducing syntax from one language to another makes absolutely no sense. Besides, the real crux of the matter is not the ‘word for word’ equivalent, but the ‘idea for idea’ rendering. This is what Bible translation specialists call ‘dynamic equivalent’. That is, I suggest, the best approach. Without it, we risk, as the saying goes, ‘to miss the forest for the trees’.
Such an endeavour is, however, hugely complex. That is why the best contemporary translations are done by committees, not individual persons. A Bible translation project like the one that was undergone by the late Bartolomeu Anania (even if he used, without the proper credit, the work of Dumitru Fecioru) is a real oddity in present days.
By saying all this I do not want in any way to throw the whole area of Bible translation in complete relativism. There are, of course, objective rules and standards for good translations. People like Eugene Nida, for instance, have dedicated their entire lives to this matter. Thus, there are, of course, good and bad translations, but, in my estimation, that has nothing to do with the degree of literality of those translations.
I would like to suggest that there are legitimate kinds of translations for various purposes. A Bible translation for study has to be as precise as possible, even at the expense of easy readability. Besides, if it meant for ecclesial use, it requires a certain degree of sobriety and nobility of language. At the other end of the spectrum, a Bible translation for devotional purposes may sacrifice to a certain degree exactness to readability. It may, as well use more colloquial and up-to-date language, in order to facilitate comprehension. And we may find many legitimate variations between these two reference points.
It will continue…