Paul Helm of Helm’s Deep tries to take a philosophers approach to a discussion of dynamic equivalence in translation, and does not do a good job.
My primary complaint is that, in apparently trying to clarify definitions of different translation procedures he fails to define the term he uses most, cognitive equivalence, while seeming to oppose a very vague notion of dynamic equivalence in translation. He then proceeds to use the term “paraphrase” in an undefined manner as well.
He points out, for example, that the term “dynamic equivalence” is somewhat metaphorical, because it comes from the world of physical mechanics. Then he proceeds to misapply the metaphor and claim that it is incoherent. Perhaps it is incoherent in the way he uses it, but I have yet to encounter an actual Bible translator who uses it in that fashion.
For example, he states:
… And what I claim is that there is no such thing as ‘dynamic equivalence’ achievable other than cognitive equivalence, and certainly it is not achievable through paraphrase, however ingenious and skilled the paraphraser may be.
But what can the word “paraphrase” mean in this case? Does it mean reordering the English words one uses after one constructs a word by word glossing of the text, in the way one might do in a first year Greek or Hebrew class? That would be paraphrasing within one language. One has to guess here, and perhaps the most coherent guess is that he means deviating from the word order of the original in some way, though that hardly makes sense in the context of translating.
He blames this on the difference between a precisely measurable physical effect and the impact of words or phrases on the human mind:
… The impacton the human mind of single words, phrases, and complete sentences, is obviously not physically mechanical, but it comes through the meaning or the perceived meaning, of the words. And so we should stick to the original words, translating or transliterating them as best we can.
My question here is just which translator fails to note this difference between a physical activity and the way in which meaning works? At the same time I must note that it is not necessarily the words themselves that produce “the meaning or the perceived meaning.” In fact, from one language to another the very definition of the word “word” can become somewhat confusing.
When translated word by word, a sentence might have a completely different meaning even when one has gotten some sort of equivalence for each individual word. That very lack of precision which Helm claims prevents dynamic equivalent translation bedevils literal translation. Two words in two different contexts are rarely, if ever, cognitively equivalent. (For “cognitive” I’m using definition #2 from Dictionary.com.) But much less are they dynamically equivalent.
Take, for example, the controversial statement made by Jesus to his mother in John 2:4 — loosely transliterated ti emoi kai soi. I could translate this word for word as “what to me and to you” but even then would I be satisfying Dr. Helm’s goal? After all, I have already departed from word-for-word translation.
You may say that I’m using a reductio ad absurdam, but I want to use that as a challenge to advocates of strictly literal translation to discover just where the boundary is. Just where does literal translation become absurd? My own boundary would be when the target audience of the translation finds it excessively difficult to discover the meaning. I would leave out the word “excessively” except that I wish to leave room for the translation of concepts that are difficult.
But in John 2:4 we have an idiom which was not intended to be obscure to Jesus’ audience, nor was it intended as obscure to John’s audience. So in what way is it appropriate to leave it obscure to a modern audience?
Yet in an earlier paragraph Dr. Helm says:
… If the result of translation which aims at keeping to the original as faithfully as can be results in some puzzlement and ignorance when the text is read, so be it. …
It seems to me that Dr. Helm views cognitive equivalence as possible, and then having made that assumption discovers that dynamic equivalence is more difficult and thus shouldn’t be attempted. In his further explanation of that approach it appears to me that he is looking for single word equivalences in most cases, thus he says:
… What if there’s no word for ‘righteousness’ or ‘atonement’ or ‘resurrection’? Maybe the best translation strategy in such circumstances is the transliteration of the word with the addition of a marginal note, which is the practice of the Study Bibles of today, and of the Geneva Bible of the Puritans.
But on what basis does he believe cognitive equivalence requires one word to fill in for certain Greek or Hebrew words, such as those that might be translated ‘righteousness’ or ‘atonement’ or ‘resurrection.’ One senses that perhaps he has not struggled with the number of different words in the source languages that might be translated with those terms, and the number of other words with which they must be translated. On what basis one cognitive equivalence require a one to one correspondence? But unless I read him wrong, to write a multiple-word explanation of “righteousness” in a translation would automatically be out of bounds.
I would suggest instead that if I use “being in a right relationship with God” for “righteousness” in some contexts, I could properly be criticized for using an incorrect phrase as equivalent, but not for using a phrase rather than a word. And that would appear to be some “paraphrasing.” As one who reads the text in its original languages, I sense this sort of “paraphrasing,” if it can be called that, as soon as translation begins. A translator uses different words by virtue of the fact that he renders his translation in a different language.
But my greater concern here is with the separation of cognitive equivalence from other forms of equivalence. Separating the intellectual meaning from emotional and volitional is, in my view, not only impossible, but undesirable. I like to tell my Bible study classes that we come to the Bible looking for information while God comes to the Bible looking for conversation. That generalization is untrue, just like every other generalization, including this one! But it does point to some truth.
The very nature of the literature itself belies the notion that cognitive equivalence is adequate. Is cognitive equivalence even of any value in poetry? How much of the Biblical text is not intended to evoke something at the volitional level?
Dr. Helm says near the beginning of his piece that he is avoiding the theological questions. But those questions that must be answered if one is to develop a theory of how one translates “God’s word.” If it is, in fact, the word of God, theology must be involved somewhere.
I do not intend here a defense of all translations that are labeled “dynamic equivalent” nor necessarily of the term itself, though I do like it. (‘Functional equivalence’ is preferred by many translators.) There are some “dynamic” translations that are simply “dynamically inaccurate.” Dynamic equivalence is not about allowing oneself to say whatever one wants. Rather, it is about looking at the text as more than a sequence of words and trying to communicate the meaning of the text as accurately as possible to the target audience.
There are certainly cases in which one must leave the readers to go immerse themselves in the concepts of the Bible–they are different. But there are many cases when such an approach is simply a theological elitism that assumes that because a particular term has been used once, it must be used for all time. Let the ignorant beware!