Eugene Nida on ‘Personal Problems’ in Translation

From The Theory and Practice of Translation (Leiden: Brill, 1969), pp. 99-104.

Personal Problems in Transfer

    Since the transfer must take place in someone’s brain (machines are a long way from effecting adequate transfers), it is inevitable that certain personal problems are likely to distort the process. Unless one is completely objective in his handling of the message, it is easy for misconceptions about the nature of language, the task of the translator, and the ultimate purpose of the translation to skew the results.

    The personal problems which confront the average translator are not, of course, the result of any conscious bias against his task or the content of the message. Rather, they are largely unconscious predispositions about translation procedures which tend to color his work and ultimately impair the effectiveness of much that he may honestly be attempting to do. Perhaps some of the more important problems may be stated in terms of the relationships of the translator to the subject matter, the receptor language, the nature of communication, and the procedures which he should use. It should be pointed out that these various personal problems may in some cases be more prevalent among national than among foreign translators, or vice versa.

Too much knowledge of the subject matter

    When it is emphasized repeatedly in books and articles on translation that the translator must be complete master of the subject matter, it may seem inconceivable that too much knowledge of the subject matter can be a deterrent to effective translation. In fact, it is actually not the excess of knowledge but the incapacity for imagination which hampers translators at this point. They know so much about the subject that they unconsciously assume the readers will also know what they do, with the result that they frequently translate over the heads of their audience.

    Unfortunately most highly trained persons in any field of study tend to discuss the technical phases of their discipline only with their peers. They find it difficult, therefore, to put themselves in the position of people who simply have no knowledge of the technical phases. Since the [p. 100] theologian knows precisely what a verse means, even when it is translated awkwardly, it is no problem to him. If the study of theology tended to stimulate a person’s imagination, perhaps he would be more capable of dealing with new and creative situations, but for the most part theological studies concentrate on proving the given truth, rather than on dealing with multiple hypotheses. Accordingly, neither in the area of communication to the uninitiated nor in the handling of the subject matter is there much emphasis upon the creative and imaginative aspects of communicating Christian truth. It is perhaps for these reasons that theologically trained persons have special problems in learning how to translate for a level other than the one on which they habitually operate. In other words, this problem relates more to the amount of specialized training the translator has had than to whether he is a national or a foreigner.

Taking translationese for granted

    Under the impact of the wholesale translation of textbooks and other semiliterary materials, a kind of translationese has arisen in many parts of the world. This form of language is often accepted, especially by educated nationals, as the only possible medium for communicating materials which have first been expressed in a foreign language. Since scholars have often had to read a good deal of such material, they come to accept it more and more as a kind of literary standard, not realizing that this banal and artificial form of language fails utterly to do justice to the rich resources of the receptor language.

    For the theologically trained national the influence of translationese is likely to be especially strong, for he has probably done most of his advanced study in a foreign language and has read a majority of texts in translation. Being a Christian, he has often felt obliged to repudiate at least in practice if not in theory, some of the literary developments in his own language. Hence, not being familiar with or expert in the literary use of his own tongue, he falls a ready victim to translationese.

    All this is quite understandable, for in some situations the Christian church itself has often taken a hard line against indigenous literature. Moreover, there have been relatively few instances in which Christian colleges and training schools have emphasized the development of creative writing for a general audience. Since most of the encouragement for written communication has been either to a relatively “ingrown” community or has been primarily “propagandistic” or “evangelistic” (depending upon one’s viewpoint), little strenuous effort has been put forth to develop outstanding writers and stylists within the Christian community.

Insecurity about one’s own language

    Without realizing it, some persons have a deep sense of insecurity about their own language. This may express itself in two, almost opposite, tendencies. In the first place, some national writers feel obliged to imitate the forms of other languages which they regard as having more prestige. Hence they borrow wholesale, not only words, idioms, and stylistic [p. 101] devices, but even grammatical forms, for they conclude that these prestigious languages must be right.

    In the second place, insecurity in a national about his own language can express itself in an exaggerated confidence, which says: But if English can say it that way, so can we, for our language is not inferior to any. Basically, this is only a superiority reaction to basic insecurity, and the results are as disastrous as those which arise from an inferiority attitude.

A desire to preserve the mystery of language

    Some persons, both national and foreign, genuinely fear that if the Scriptures are made fully clear, something of the mystery of religion will be lost. In a sense this is true, if one conceives of “mystery” in a strictly non-Biblical sense, but in the Bible “mystery” identifies something which was not formerly known but which has now been revealed to the initiated. There is a vast difference between (1) the mystery of the Christian faith e.g., the incarnation, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world, and the will of God in history, and (2) the confusion which results from people not understanding what is perfectly clear in the Scriptures themselves, i.e., in the original writings. To substitute a sort of false mystery (based on unintelligibility of translation) for the true mystery of Christian faith is a total debasing of religion, and may be merely an excuse for ignorance.

    At the same time one reason for not wanting to remove something of the “mystery of words” is derived from the fact that in some instances Christian scholars have a certain professionalism about their task and feel that to make the Bible too clear would be to eliminate their distinctive function as chief expositors and explainers of the message. In fact, when one committee was asked to adopt some translations which were in perfectly clear, understandable language, the reactions of its members were, “But if all the laymen can understand the Bible, what will the preachers have to do?”

Wrong Theological Presuppositions

    Some Christians, both national and foreign, tend to adopt a view of the Scriptures which is more in keeping with the tenets of Islam than with the Biblical view of revelation, for they regard the Bible as being essentially a dictated document, rather than one in which the distinct stylistic features and viewpoints of the individual writers are preserved. This in no way minimizes the doctrine of inspiration, but it does mean that one must look at the words of the Bible as instruments by which the message is communicated and not as ends in themselves. It is essentially for this reason that we can emphasize the basic principle that contextual consistency is more important than verbal consistency, and that in order to preserve the content it is necessary to make changes in form.

Ignorance of the nature of translation

    Another personal problem is simple ignorance of what translation is all about. Because the average person naively thinks that language is words, the common tacit assumption results that translation involves replacing a [p. 102] word in language A with a word in language B. And the more “conscientious” this sort of translator is, the more acute the problem. In other words, the traditional focus of attention in translation was on the word. It was later recognized that this was not a sufficiently large unit, and therefore the focus shifted to the sentence. But again, expert translators and linguists have been able to demonstrate that the individual sentence in turn is not enough. The focus should be on the paragraph, and to some extent on the total discourse. Otherwise, one tends to overlook the transitional phenomena, the connections between sentences, and the ways in which languages structure the discourse in distinctive ways. One of the particularly unfortunate ways of translating the Bible is to proceed verse by verse, for the verse divisions are often quite arbitrary units. Of course, one cannot at one and the same time bear in mind all the components of a paragraph, but every part of the paragraph should be translated with the structure of the whole being carefully considered, since all must fit together to form a unit.

Personnel Involved in Transfer

    Transfer must be done by people, and very often by a group of people, usually organized as some kind of committee. Of course, there are some situations in which one individual, unusually gifted in a knowledge of the original languages and skilled in the style of the receptor language, can undertake the task of Bible translating alone. But such one-man translations are increasingly less possible. This means that the actual transfer must take place in a cooperative undertaking, involving primarily two types of situations: (1) cooperation between an expatriate foreigner (the missionary) and the national translator, and (2) cooperation between national translators.

Cooperation between expatriate and national translators

    In most instances in which expatriates and national translators collaborate to undertake translation work, it is the expatriate who is the specialist in the source language (Greek, Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, etc.) and the national who is the expert in the receptor language. If these men are to function effectively, however, they must both have a knowledge of both source and receptor languages. If the national translator does not have a knowledge of the source language, he is essentially not a translator, but an informant, or translation helper. The techniques for dealing with this type of situation are not considered in this book, for there are a number of very special problems and difficulties which require highly specialized methods and techniques.

    When expatriate and national translators collaborate as a team, it is most important that the problems of translation be discussed not in the source language but in the receptor language. That is to say, the basic difficulties must be raised at the post-transfer point, before the restructuring has been undertaken. If, on the contrary, people attempt to discuss the problems in the source language, there are too many possibilities [p. 103] of slips and distortions taking place when the material has to be transferred into the receptor language.

Cooperation between national translators

    The basic structure of committees to undertake the work of translation is discussed in the appendix, but at this point it is important to note the distinctive roles of the “scholar” and the “stylist,” for they represent two basic functions which cannot always be easily differentiated. In the past, the tendency has been to have a scholar do the translating and then to ask a stylist, very late in the proceedings, to fix up whatever seemed unduly rough and awkward. But it is very difficult to achieve a good style by reworking a draft which is all but completed. It is preferable to have the stylist involved as early as possible in the enterprise. How early he can be of help depends upon whether or not he has any command of the source language.

    Ideally, the stylist has some grasp of the source language but is not a scholar in it. If he does have such an understanding, he can be the primary translator, working from the source text and producing a first draft which is aimed at an appropriate style. In such a situation, the scholar can contribute in a vital way at two points: (1) He can provide the stylist-translator with an analysis of the source text into the quasi-kernel structure in the source language at all points where the surface structure is difficult, ambiguous, or otherwise problematic. This gives the stylist crucial guidance in understanding the message, preparatory to transferring it into the receptor language, which he can then do either instinctively on the basis of his native ability, or as the result of training. (2) When the stylist has completed a draft translation, the scholar can then go over it with great care, making sure that it is accurate and bringing to the attention of the stylist errors of various kinds. Experience has shown that it is much easier to achieve the proper combination of accuracy and adequate style in this manner than in the more traditional approach in which the scholar translated and the stylist corrected. 1

    If, on the other hand, the stylist has no knowledge of the source language, the scholar must perforce make the transfer from the quasi-kernel level achieved by his analysis (point X in the diagram, Figure 6, page 33) to an analogous level in the receptor language (point Y in the diagram), in which all statements are as simple as possible and everything as explicit and as unambiguous as possible. The stylist picks up the job at this point and restructures it into a draft of the finished translation, calling the scholar’s attention to residual problems of meaning or of awkwardness. In this approach, it is vital that the scholar not produce a draft that appears to be finished, for this psychologically inhibits the freedom of the stylist to restructure the text into a really acceptable style.

    In either case, it is usually essential that at various points in the collaborative effort of scholars and stylists, someone act as a kind of “go-between” to help each understand the distinctive contributions of the other. This is one of the vital functions of Bible Society Translation Consultants.

    [p. 104] It is also important, whichever approach is used, to submit the final draft to a stylist who is not a Christian, or at least who is not familiar with the Bible. This may or may not be the same as the one who does the restructuring. But if the stylist is already too familiar with the Bible, he may too easily accept certain terms or expressions merely because they are traditional, without realizing that they may be rare or awkward.

1. A similar statement is made in Nida's later book, From One Language to Another (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986), p. 192. "In the case of stylist-scholar teams, the usual process of translating should be reversed. Rather than having a scholar prepare a somewhat literal translation which is then revised by a stylist, it is the stylist who should prepare the first draft, but only on the basis of extensive preliminary discussions with the biblical scholar. Only later is the text gone over carefully by the scholar and various options discussed."

figure 6