Idioms are difficult to translate. In A simple idiomatic translation exercise (part 1), I raised the question of how to translate two idioms from two different languages, and I asked people to take guesses. Several people were right. The best translation is “To make a mountain out of a mole hill.”
However, that wasn’t what I was after. “Crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery!”
The exercise gives us insight into ourselves and helps us understand some things a translator (and an exegete) needs to be conscious of.
- With many foreign idioms, one cannot “make sense” of them. Take Énêhpoése ma’eno for example (Hi Wayne ) What’s a turtle have to do with fog? Literally rendered in English, the foreign idiom reads, “The turtle is shrouded.” In cases such as these, the reader cannot obtain the correct meaning. The Cheyenne simply means, “It’s foggy.” And that English expression would be the right translation.
But, I picked the foreign idioms I did because I thought you could intuit the meaning (even from two different languages!). In the examples, the meaning garnered from the literal English turned out to be semantically close to the desired accuracy. Literally rendering Sääsest elevanti tegema as “To make an elephant out of a gnat” gets the reader relatively close. If the reader recognizes that they are reading an idiomatic expression—that is, they know the above expression isn’t some kind of recipe for elephants with gnats as the main ingredient—then it’s possible they can intuit the correct meaning.
You showed me your ability to achieve accuracy since you were able to take a guess at the appropriate English idiom and get the meaning right.
- However, it was a guess. That means that you had to analyze the literal rendering—you couldn’t just read it. So, the comprehension of the text was a two step process for you, and not simply the normal, one step, reading effort. In this example you did this analysis quite quickly; however, it was still two steps, not one.
What that means is the literal rendering was not natural for you. Not being natural may simply mean you need more exposure to the specific linguistic construction. It might simply mean you’re “out of the loop” as it were. It might be that the idiom, “To make an elephant out of a gnat,” is used by a majority of English speakers but not by you with your ideolect. So then, if that were the case, it would be just a matter of you learning an expression common to the larger audience to which you are a part.
However, the expression is not natural in English. So, the vast majority of the audience would have had to analyze it, break it into smaller pieces, assess the relative merits of the different possibilities, filter out the ridiculous, and, finally, make a semantic decision. I know this is true since the comments evidenced a discussion around the meaning even though it was an idiomatic expression. If the discussion would have really got going, the comments would have overwhelmingly shown that the expression is not natural English. People would have torn it apart, wanted context (one commenter brought this out explicitly), offered alternatives, and much more I’m not thinking of. We would have heard people say, “Well, to me this means…” and offered a explanation that anyone “in the know” would have known was completely wrong.
This is simply what happens when a reader is confronted with an unnatural expression. And it is esspecially true when a reader is reading a text they deem of very high worth–like a Bible.
I should also point out here that an idiomatic expression triggers a single semantic concept. That is, the meaning of an idiom “snaps” into place for someone familiar with the idiom, even though the idiom uses many words. Many idioms, in fact, cannot be analyzed as a sum of parts so as to retrieve the single concept. Frequently, one can analyze the history of the idiom, or possibly intuit how someone can get from the pieces to the whole, but it’s still analysis. This is undoubtedly what many of you did to get from the foreign idiom to an accurate English one.
The problem is, it’s this analysis into the details which leads the exegete away from the meaning of the whole.
This kind of analysis is a natural process (and it really is a valuable one!). However, the use of it is strong evidence that the translation uses unnatural English.
So, on the one hand, you could get the accurate meaning. And, yet, on the other, it took you more effort than needed.
A frequent modus operandi for Bible translators is to go with the literal unless the literal obtains inaccurate meaning. But, the above example contradicts such a method. The best choice, in spite of the fact that accurate meaning CAN be obtained by the literal, is a non-literal translation.
The best choice is the one that obtains accurate meaning with the least processing effort.
 Notice the slight humor in this is a natural result of your NOT thinking of an interpretation which, nonetheless, is syntactically and grammatically possible. I’ll talk about this more in another post.