Some Thoughts Concerning The Use And Value Of Translations

Some Thoughts Concerning The Use And Value Of Translations December 16, 2022

Wally Gobetz: New York Public Library Main Building: McGraw Rotunda – The Story of the Recorded Word -The Medieval Scribe / flickr

Translations serve an important purpose. They help people engage texts which are written in a language they cannot read. But this comes with a caveat. All translations are adaptations of the original text. All translators have to interpret the original text in order to render it into a new language. In doing so, no matter how careful they are, they modify the text. Possible meanings or interpretations are excluded as a result of translation, even as new meanings or interpretations might develop thanks to the way the text is rendered. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to render the style of the text, with all its rhetorical flourishes, idioms, and word-play into another language, and so much of what the author wanted their readers to appreciate will be lost. As such, even the best translations must be understood as only providing insight into the original, but must never be confused as making a perfect representation of it.

Those who want to give an exhaustive scholarly analysis of a particular text should be able to read it in its original form. Not everyone, however, is interested in the minutiae which a scholar needs to deal with, and so not everyone needs to read the original text in order to gain something from it.  But if they can’t, they certainly have to rely upon the translator, hoping that their translation properly presents the text in its new form. They must accept that because of this, there is a disconnect between them and the original author, and so they might miss many details which can be had or understood by reading the original text. They must accept that their interpretation of the text, therefore, filtered through the interpretation of the translator, making their understanding of the original text derivative in nature.

If someone is interested in the ideas expounded in a text, then a good translation will help them understand what the original author wanted their audience to know. But even then, all translations mediate the ideas. The translator, no matter how good they are, has to interpret the text, and if they misunderstand the author, their translation will reflect that misunderstanding. It is also possible that a translator will improve the pattern of thought found in the original text. What might be difficult to say in one language might be easier in another. Or, of course, what is clear in the original text might be difficult, if impossible, to make clear in translation, making what is rendered in a translation much more ambiguous and vague than what is found in the original text.

It is possible that the idea presented in the original develops as a result of translation, either because things become clearer due to translation, or because, when they become vague, they become much more questionable and people can and then begin to deconstruct the thought in the text and slowly develop something new thanks to that deconstruction. It can, however, also serve to corrupt ideas, and squash their proper development, as a bad translation can lead people to become uninterested in the notions being presented in a given text. Thus, translations not only can serve in the development of ideas, it can also serve in hampering that development as well.  This is especially true when dealing with texts filled with technical jargon or abstract thought, which is why, again, if someone is interested in a detailed analysis of a text, they should be able to engage it in is original form.

I quote from translated texts in many of my writings. Sometimes, I can and do look back at the original, but sometimes I cannot and I have to rely upon the translator. I know the problems involved in doing so, but I also know that I have learned much from the translations I have read, and I want to engage the text, even in its translated form, in my writings. Generally speaking, I try to deal with issues which seem to connect to what the original author intended, however, because it is a translation, I know it is important to always list the translator and the edition of the text I am using in my references, so that people can examine the context of the quote, in its translated form as well as in its original form, for themselves.

In some ways, I view both the original author and the translator as the author of the text when dealing with a work in translation due to the way the translator affects the text, sometimes purposefully (as can be seen in translations made to serve a particular bias). But sometimes, despite the poor translation, there is a beauty in the new text, rendering it something credible in its own right, so long as people understand the problems relating to how it interpreted the original text.  This is why, for example, when dealing with Scripture, I know some texts can be beautiful in English while nonetheless giving a bad rendition of the original text, and still use them because of the beauty involved in the translation (this, after all, is what is to be hard with the King James Bible). Others, I avoid, because the translation scheme is extraordinarily bad, the text is misleading, and it has few, if any aesthetic qualities which make me interested in it  (such as the New International Version).  This problem is a problem found in the way religious texts from all different traditions can be translated; if the translator is biased against the religion in question, their translation will affect their translation, giving the worst possible light to the text. Of course, even if a person is not so hostile to the religion in question, their biases can still lead them to misread the text and offer a bad translation, which is what happened with many Buddhist texts in the late 19th and early 20th century, where they were taken to represent a form of nihilism, despite the way Buddhism considers nihilism to be one of the deadly philosophical (and spiritual) errors.

Once again, what is important for us to realize, is that when dealing with a translation, one must be cautious and understand the limitations placed upon even the best of translations. Obviously, we need them, as we can’t learn every language in the world. Translations can even be useful for scholars who can work with and read texts in their original form, for they still offer insight as to possible interpretations of difficult passages, and also, for those who can only read the text very slowly, engaging it in a translated form first will help them know what exactly they will want to study and examine in more detail in the text itself. Translations can be useful, and quoted in writings, and, indeed, because they can help someone form new thoughts which do not entirely come out of the original text, but comes from the merger of the original author with the translator’s interpretation of the text, those who are more interested in ideas, and not the source of those ideas, have no problem using translations to inspire such thoughts. Thus, theological development can be seen emerging as a result of translations (perhaps, after all, this is what happened in the early medieval era, when Latin speaking Christians, using the translations they had, were able to perceive notions through the texts which their Greek speaking brethren did not, and possibly could not think, in their own language, such as the concept of the filioque). And so, while translations must not be confused for being something they are not, they have value, and indeed, can be used, even in scholarly works, so long as the scholar recognizes the distinction between the original and the translation. This is especially true if the scholarly work can be said to be a constructive work, where a particular scholarly study is used to help inspire and promote some sort of ideological development, such as a theologian engaging the development of theological doctrine.  Similarly, quoting texts from an authorized translation, instead of quoting them from their original form, can help those who are incapable of engaging the original text, for it will offer them a text they can read as well as offer them where they can read the whole work from which a quoted text comes from, to learn from it and see the context in which the quote was originally found. This is one of the reasons why, in my writings, I consistently quote from translations, even if I can engage the original text, because most of my readers will not be able to read the original and so referencing it will not  do them much good. But the other reason is, as has been said above, I recognize the way translations have influenced my reading of the text, that my thoughts come from the combined work of the original author and a given translator, and as such, I feel this is an important way to make sure I give the translator their due respect for what they have contributed, especially in the development of my own ideas.



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