John R. Himes is a veteran missionary to Japan and currently involved in a new translation of the Greek New Testament into Japanese
Is Translation Possible?
By John R. Himes
We sometimes hear it said, “Translation is really impossible. You can’t completely get meaning from one language to another.” Is this true, or a sort of linguistic myth? My money is on the myth and here’s why.
First of all, let’s track down the sources of the myth. There are apparently two original sources of the idea that translation is impossible: a linguist (and his disciple) and a philosopher. The linguist was Edward Sapir (1884-1939), one of the pioneers of scientific linguistics in the early 20th century, whose disciple Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) embroidered and expanded Sapir’s teachings into what came to be called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also called the principle of linguistic relativity. The philosopher was Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), influential in the areas of existentialism and logical positivism.
Let’s consider the linguist first. Sapir didn’t write a whole lot, but his influence far outweighs his output. He is best known for his 1921 book Language, with the subtitle, “An Introduction to the Study of Speech,” in which he referred to Benedetto Croce saying, “Croce is therefore perfectly right in saying that a work of literary art can never be translated” (Edward Sapir, Language, 2004 reprint. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004, 183). Notice that Sapir was speaking of literature in particular, but his disciple Whorf apparently expanded his teaching to include all translation. Whorf’s hypothesis was that language shapes thought, rather than the other way around. Therefore, translation is impossible because one cannot truly break free of his language and culture. An interesting application of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is in 1984, the famous novel of the future in which George Orwell has the oppressive government invent Newspeak, a language used to indoctrinate and imprison the people.
Now, if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true, and language affects thought rather than the other way around, then true translation is truly impossible. Culture through language becomes the arbiter of truth, and universal truth or revelation from God is a non starter. Kwame Anthony Appiah put it this way: “If that (the SWH) were true, it would affect what thoughts you could intend to express also. If what language you speak determines what thoughts or intentions you can have, translation, thus conceived, will always be impossible” (“Thick Translation,” in The Translation Studies Reader, 2nd ed., ed. by Lawrence Venuti. New York and London: Routledge, 2004, 392)
However, this hypothesis was formulated in the early days of the discipline of modern linguistics. It is largely debunked nowadays, according to Daniel Chandler: “Whilst few linguists would accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its ‘strong’, extreme or deterministic form, many now accept a ‘weak’, more moderate, or limited Whorfianism, namely that the ways in which we see the world may be influenced by the kind of language we use” (Daniel Chandler, The Act of Writing, Aberystwyth: University of Wales, 1995, 18)
In particular, the concept of a universal grammar posited by Noam Chomsky and others has effectively opposed Sapir-Whorf’s linguistic relativity. Discussing German translation scholar Wolfram Wilss, Edwin Gentzler explains: “Wilss reacts against the Sapir/Whorf school of thought, which denies the a priori existence of universal categories of thought and whose followers have a skeptical view of the possibility that two languages might share a common core of experience. To dismiss this line of reasoning, Wilss cites first Chomsky and then Eric H. Lenneberg, whose The Biological Foundations of Language (1967) posited biological universals in language. Wilss suggests that the Chomsky/Lenneberg view of language universals ‘proceeds from the hypothesis, undisputed to date, that there are semantic and syntactic universals, including universal pragmatics; this holds true in many if not all natural languages’ (Wilss, 1982: 39)” (Edwin Gentzler Contemporary Translation Theories, Revised 2nd ed. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2001, 64).
The other primary source for the belief that translation is impossible was Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is harder to track down anything definitive about Wittgenstein’s view of translation than it is for Sapir. Professor Mark Farnham of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary supplied me with the following Wittgenstein quote which shows his view of language as relativistic: “For a large class of cases—though—not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, paragraph 43. Much thanks to Prof. Farnham). A relativistic view of language makes real translation impossible.
Furthermore, the rejection of metaphysics as meaningless by the logical positivists such as Wittgenstein was makes it a philosophy virtually impossible for a Christian to accept (Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith. London: Tyndale Press, 1969, 168-176). Therefore Wittgenstein’s view that translation is impossible is also unacceptable due to its dependence on logical positivism. Also, from a practical point of view, one is forced to wonder if “linguistic analysis” (what logical positivism developed into) as done by non-linguist philosophers is even partly valid!
Unfortunately, unlike Sapir-Whorf, the influence of Wittgenstein continues in the polysystem theory of Israeli translation studies scholar Gideon Toury. “Borrowing from Ludwig Wittgenstein the concept of family of resemblances, Toury now views ‘original’ texts as containing clusters of properties, meanings, possibilities. All translations privilege certain properties/meanings at the expense of others, and the concept of a ‘correct’ translation ceases to be a real possibility” (Gentzler, op cit, 126-127).
So, are they right? For our purposes, is Bible translation even possible? Let’s consider that from the Scriptures themselves. First of all, remember that the Bible is inspired by God to present His truth to us. As Christ Himself said, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17, KJV). It stands to reason from a theological standpoint that truth from the omniscient God is universal, and thus ought to be communicable in any language. Compare this thought to what Sapir said about the possibility of translating scientific truth: “A scientific truth is impersonal, in its essence it is untinctured by the particular linguistic medium in which it finds expression. It can as readily deliver its message in Chinese as in English” (Sapir, op. cit., 184). Truth is translatable!
Again, consider the issue of translation within the Bible itself. Remember that the writers, as moved by the Holy Spirit, included various words and even sentences, complete with their translation. Notable examples include the cry of Christ on the cross, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani” (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34), and “Talitha kumi” (Mark 5:41). Therefore it is obvious that in God’s eyes translation is completely possible.
We can go further and say that the translation of the Bible is desirable because it is the will of God. We can base this on the Great Commission, particularly the version in Matthew 28:18-20. If we are to make disciples out of the nations and teach new disciples all that Jesus taught, we must have translators who will make available the Bible in every language. May their tribe increase!