Lost to translation

Listening to sermons, I occasionally ponder how a particular telling phrase might be rendered in any number of interesting tongues that come across my attention: what is “You brood of vipers!” in Trøndsk or Middle Welsh or Old English? But it has been rendered in all of these, by native speakers. The problem is translation by non-speakers, which is most Biblical translations.

(In the King James Version, the best of translations and closest to the original, it is ‘O generation of vipers!’, which has a subtlety of meaning that needs understanding of the subtle tones within it.)

Think of those intent, Methodist missionaries on faraway Pacific islands, rendering the living words of God into languages of which they had but a beginner’s understanding. More of a challenge: they were translating words for those languages of a stone age culture which had no such words. How do you divide the sheep from the goats for a people who have neither beast, or describe the chariots of the Assyrians resplendent in gold to those without horses or wheels or metal?

Their influence remains, embedded in those languages they took on. Think of Hiram Bingham labouring away to translate the bible into Gilbertese, using (so legend says) a typewriter missing the ‘s’ key so that Gilbertese to this day uses “ti” instead.

The translator becomes the moulder of the language, and not just in emergent cultures. Once there were innumerable German dialects, but in the last four hundred years a single standard: that which was written by Martin Luther. English changed over five hundred years so radically that a paragraph written in the days of King Edgar was incomprehensible in the days of Henry VIII, but then the Prayer Book, the Bible and Shakespeare pinned it down so that our language has barely changed since Queen Elizabeth’s time. The Bible translators chose the words we use. It is just as well that they were poets in their choices.

This is a lot of trust to be reposed in one translator, curbing forever the speech of nations.

How would a mechanically working translator who has come lately to a language translate “γεννηματα εχιδνων”; “O generation of vipers”? Perhaps more easily than some concepts, as family relations are universal amongst mankind. In more complex concepts, he has the temptation to impose his own words, or may be stuck and use the wrong meaning, like the unthinking algorithms of Google Translate.

In the ordinary too, the translator can sap the life out of a language. The most beautiful spoken language, it is said, is Welsh, and Welsh is a living tongue I hear on the streets of the villages below the mountains, but for most it is the language put on road signs that are translated mechanically, into a version of Welsh words and phrases chosen by a committee to represent bureaucratic needs. Can this Committee-Welsh, with set words and phrases and inflexible grammar rules, ever be considered a living language?  Too easily it can become  tomb.

See also


Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short