The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Aug 7, 2011

Transforming for Translators (guest essay by missionary John R. Himes)

For a translator of the New Testament, the ideal target language would be one that has identical grammar to koine Greek. Old Church Slavonic (O. C. S.) came close to that ideal. According to Horace G. Lunt, “The surface structures of O. C. S. and Greek coincide in nearly all major features. The form-classes are generally the same: verbs (conjugated for several tenses, with person-number desinences), substantives (nouns and adjectives, including participles, declined for case and number), pronouns (personal, demonstrative, interrogative, relative; declined for gender, case and number), numerals (declined), prepositions, adverbs, a variety of conjunctions, and particles…. So close were the two languages that a reasonable translation could often be achieved by a word-for-word rendering” (“Limitations of Old Church Slavonic in Representing Greek,” in The Early Versions of the New Testament, by Bruce Metzger, p. 432).

We can imagine the 9th century translators of the OCS New Testament sailing through passages that give fits to a 21st century translator into Chinese. Few translators have the good fortune to translate into a language as similar to the original language as OCS is to koine Greek. Target languages range from grammatically similar to Greek (but not identical) Indo-European languages such as Latin, to languages with no similarity at all to the Biblical original languages such as Chinese, Japanese and other Asian languages, or tribal languages in Indonesia, New Guinea or South America.

How does a translator get his syntax from his original to his target language in dissimilar languages? A good answer is in something called transformations, which has been systematized into a branch of linguistics called transformational (or generative) grammar (TG). Diane Bornstein, in her excellent textbook, defines a transformation this way: “A grammatical process that operates on a given string with a given constituent structure and converts it into a new string with a new derived constituent structure” (An Introduction to Transformational Grammar, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984, p. 247).

Remember that homework assignment in bonehead English that required you to take a simple declarative sentence and make various kinds of sentences out of it? For example, from “I have a book” (a “kernel” sentence in TG) you might make a question: “Do I have a book?” Or a negative statement: “I don’t have a book.” Or a future statement: “I will have a book.” And so forth. Those are transformations. A translator does this in two languages, either consciously or unconsciously. If he does it consciously he has either studied transformational grammar, naturally developed the concept in his own thinking, or is talented enough in languages that he makes the transformation unconsciously. (To further define and delineate this branch of linguistics is beyond the scope of this short paper. For an early but good basic discussion, see Chapter 12 in the classic textbook by H. A. Gleason, An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1955, 1961.)

TG is generally said to have been conceived by linguist Noam Chomsky. Strangely, Chomsky apparently did not believe his invention was appropriate for translation work. According to Edwin Gentzler, “Noam Chomsky’s theory of syntax and generative grammar was not, nor was it intended to be, a theory of translation. In fact, Chomsky cautioned against its appropriation in such a fashion” (Contemporary Translation Theories. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2001, p. 46).

Oddly enough, Gentzler says on the very next page, “Transformational grammarians work in various languages and continually point out structural similarities across languages” (p. 47). So it would be strange indeed if TG was not useful for translation work. It seems to this writer to be a given that the more a translator knows about linguistics and its various theories of grammar the better at translating they will be. After all, the translator must deal with grammar in not one, but two languages! Along that line, two Bible translation scholars with very different views of what translation should be have used TG in their theories.

Eugene Nida was the first to develop a means of using TG for translation. In his pioneering treatment of the subject, he writes, “The most effective means by which we may deal with these problems of diverse meaningful relationships between structurally similar types of expressions is to employ a generative type of grammar which makes full use of transformations” (Toward a Science of Translating. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1964, p. 60). He then goes on to discuss how that can be done.

Nida was commendably a pioneer in this area. But some writers have criticized Nida’s usage of transformational grammar on the basis of his lack of a principle to properly handle the deep structure of a sentence in two languages. Deep structure, in transformational grammar thinking, is “The underlying form of a sentence, which structures its meaning” (Bornstein, p. 239). According to Susan Bassnet, “Even in his simplified theory, Nida does not tell us how the deep structure transfer occurs” (Translation Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1980, 1991, 2002, p. 57).

In the view of James Price, Nida’s lack of this principle leads to paraphrasing. “It is quite clear that paraphrase is unavoidable with dynamic equivalence theory. Glassman wrote, ‘It is, in fact, impossible to analyze, transfer and restructure without paraphrasing, at the level of the underlying kernel structures; and that, in turn, shows up at the final level of the surface structure.’ (Quoting Eugene Glassman, The Translation Debate, p.66—JRH.) This is primarily true because of the subjectivity involved in the transfer step. The failure to employ transfer rules, but rather to depend on the translator’s subjective judgment, makes it almost certain that the information transferred to the receptor language will lack complete equivalence with the information of the source message. Thus the theory fails to accomplish equivalence; it is instead scientific paraphrase” (James Price, Complete Equivalence in Bible Translation. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub., 1987, p. 17).

Price himself utilizes transformational grammar somewhat differently in his theory of optimal equivalence, which he identifies as the method used in both the NKJV and the HCSV. In his magnum opus, A Theory For Biblical Translation: An Optimal Equivalence Model (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), Price develops a complete transformational grammar of the Hebrew language with the intent that it be used for Bible translation. The difference between his method and Nida’s is that Price, opting for a more  literal method, advocates a strict correspondence between the syntactical structures of the source language and the target language. Price wrote, “In transformational grammar the rules of transfer that govern the relationship of the kernels should be derived from the back transformations, with strict observance to the sequence in which they operate. This assures maximum transfer of equivalent information, and minimum subjectivity” (Complete Equivalence in Bible Translation, 24-25. Note: Dr. Price has told this writer that “complete equivalence,” the term used in this book, was not his choice, but was chosen by the publisher. His preferred term for his literal method is optimal equivalence.)

I have a caveat here. The translator should know that both Nida’s method and Price’s TG for Hebrew are very complex, and developing a complete transformational grammar in either the source or target language is a huge task. Using TG in either method means the translator’s task is made more difficult. (Nida teaches the process in Chapter Four of Toward a Science of Translating. See also Chapter Three, “Grammatical Analysis” in The Theory and Practice of Translation, by Nida with Charles Taber. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1982.) The average translator who has not researched TG, or prefers not to do a complete TG of the source or target languages, will develop his own mental TG of the target language, and do transfers and transformations intuitively, an easier task.

Transformational grammar is cutting edge stuff for the Bible translator! Those who are naturally very gifted in language may be able to do transformations in the two languages mentally as they translate, with good results. The rest of us are wise to study TG and then develop a consistent approach, which will then help cross the language barrier with a syntax equivalent to that of the original Greek and Hebrew.

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