Translation and Paraphrase

Translation and Paraphrase June 21, 2019

Translation is a bugbear of mine. In many types of literature, I don’t worry too much if translators play a little fast and loose with the original, but in sacred texts, where the author’s intent matters so much, that does bother me. This point came to mind when reading a recent post by the fine classicist, Mary Beard. It made me think of a word that I would like to see more widely used, namely, “paraphrase.”

Beard was specifically addressing Pope Francis’s recent pronouncement on the Lord’s Prayer, which he wants to conclude, in English “do not let us fall into temptation,” instead of “lead us not into temptation.” As the Pope says about “lead us not,”

It is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation. I am the one who falls. It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. . .It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.

You can comment at length about the theology here, but the opening words about “not a good translation” are, um, utterly unacceptable, and worse words do come to mind. As Beard shows, the Greek is absolutely clear about the “lead us not” part, although we can argue about exactly what we are not to be led to. Some translate peirasmos as temptation, or as The Temptation; some prefer “the Time of Testing,” likely capitalized thus. In the next line, it is highly probable that we are asking to be delivered not from evil, but from the Evil One. (Watch those capitals). The two lines are strongly apocalyptic in character. Those are all matters of legitimate debate, about which informed people can disagree.

What they cannot disagree about is that statement from Pope Francis. Sorry, the Greek really does say “Lead us not into.” It does not say “let us not fall into:” that is not a permissible reading, it is flat wrong. It is not a translation. It is as illegitimate a rendering as, say, “Lord, deliver us from a bad hair day.”

As Beard concludes,

“Not a good translation” indeed! Doesn’t say what I want it to, more like. Or can someone put me right?

She is exactly right. The fact that Francis even thinks he is dealing with “translation” here is alarming.

Similar comments occur when I read some “translations” of Biblical texts, which just are not indeed translations. A translation is an attempt to render something from another language as accurately as possible. Of course that does not mean a strictly verbatim word for word rendering, but it does mean a real effort to reproduce the original, as far as that is possible given the different rules and nuances of English. That is a translation.

Translations very enormously in quality, and sometimes it is very difficult to catch the flavor of the original. As I have noted on this blog in the past, “The problem is that, the more you read the text in the Greek original, you realize just how much you are missing in even the very best translations by the world’s greatest scholars. You miss all sorts of nuances and cross-references, subtle recollections and pointers, echoes and resonances. As the (Latin) saying has it, omnis traductor traditor: every translator is a traitor.” But we can at least try. Whatever we may think of any classic Bible version, like the King James, it is sincerely trying to offer a translation.

But there is something altogether different, which is a paraphrase, conveniently defined as an attempt to “express the meaning of the writer or speaker … using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity.” The problem here is that as Francis illustrates, this immediately slides into expressing what I personally believe is (or should be) the meaning of the text. It then becomes my work, not the original.

If there are words or concepts you find inconvenient or embarrassing, then render them as accurately as you can, and include an explanatory or apologetic footnote. Don’t glide over them or ignore them. If, for example, the original text is gender specific, and you render it as gender neutral, that is a paraphrase, not a translation – and likewise vice versa, if you change gender neutral to gender specific. I have seen various “new Bible translations” that are clearly paraphrases: it does matter, and it’s false advertising.

When you read an English version of any Biblical text, it often pays to ask just what we have in front of us. Is it a translation, or is it a paraphrase? The two are quite different animals.





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