Camouflage Equivalence

Anyone who has taken advanced language or exegesis classes has probably heard of the difference between "formal equivalence" and "dynamic equivalence" in biblical translation. The term "dynamic equivalence" comes from one of the last generation's giants of biblical translation, Eugene Nida, in opposition to the idea that translation must proceed in a word-for-word fashion, finding "literal" renderings of each term in the source Hebrew and Greek text. Nida argued that translations should work on the level of phrases and sentences, and seek to translate the meaning rather than the words.

This is a helpful heuristic, though if you look at the chart of translations in Fee and Strauss's How to Choose a Translation for All It's Worth, you notice that modern versions exist on a spectrum rather than in two clear translation camps. In fact, the issues are much more complicated than most readers of the Bible might imagine. I'm working on a paper that I will give at (coincidentally) the Nida Institute in June that explores these issues.

Today I was reading in Douglas Robinson's excellent book from 2011, Translation and the Problem of Sway, and in his discussion of Ruth's engagement with Boaz, Robinson coins a marvelous phrase: "camouflage equivalence," translations that seek to obscure rather than reveal the meaning of the original. He defines the term as "rearranging the semantic elements of the original... in a plausible way that disguises their dynamic meaning" (p. 6). Surely biblical translators would not deliberately seek to "camouflage" the text's plain meaning?

Yes, indeed they would. The most obvious examples of this are in passages with a sexual connotation, such as Ruth's evening with Boaz. The text says in Ruth 3:4 that Naomi tells Ruth to "uncover" Boaz's "feet." It is well known to translators and scholars (and to my students) that "feet" is often a euphemism for "genitals." Ruth's move is a daring act of vulnerability and initiative. The text does not necessarily imply that they have sexual relations, but we do learn that she has to sneak out of the barn in the morning.

Translations have traditionally use the literal translation, "uncover his feet." As far as I know, no translation says, "uncover his penis and lie down, and he will tell you what to do," though that is the plainest meaning of the text. The closest is the NET Bible, which says "uncover his legs." Robinson suggests "uncover his middle leg." (Ew. -bb)

Enter "camouflage equivalence." The TEV says "lift the covers and lie down at his feet," and the Message says "lie at his feet to let him know that you are available to him for marriage," with a bit of editorializing interpretation. These translations do not render the literal phrase, "uncover his feet," but neither do they create a "dynamic equivalence." By creating a plausible and smooth translation that is essentially incorrect, the translators have camouflaged the original meaning of the text.

Does it bother you that translators would obscure the plain meaning of a passage because of social norms related to sexual language? As Robinson says, "social taboos are norms for the groups that are subject to those taboos, and distortive biases for those who are not" (p. 7). What do you think?