Translation Studies for Biblical Scholars

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As I discussed in my last two posts, we need more critical hermeneutical reflection on the nature of biblical translation both in the church and in the academy. I thought I would post a few summer reading recommendations.

Background

I became interested in the field of "Translation Studies" because of my teaching of undergraduates who have no knowledge of biblical languages. In order to help students glimpse the complexity of the biblical text, I often display multiple translations of the same text for comparison/contrast. To put these versions into context, I began to incorporate readings about the history and nature of biblical translations.

When I started reading in this area, I was mostly aware of the difference between formal equivalence" (or "literal") versions and "dynamic equivalence" versions. I assigned Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss's How to Choose a Translation for All It's Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions, which introduces Eugene Nida and the formal/dynamic equivalence debate. To represent the dynamic side, I assigned Joel Hoffman's And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning.

Seeking balance, I also assigned Leland Ryken's Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach. As I read that book closely for class, I realized how flawed the "literal" or "word-for-word" approach to translation is. Not "flawed," I suppose, as much as impossible. Why, then would scholars make such a claim, and why would people be persuaded by them? So, I started reading about the theoretical underpinnings of "equivalence" theory, and seeing where the debate about translation outside biblical studies is headed.

I am still working my way through standard works in the field, and discerning the complex relationships among Translation Theory, "professional" biblical translation, and biblical scholarship. That said, here are a few things that I have found helpful. I would welcome suggestions from readers and colleagues, which I will add to this list.

Translation Theory

  • The first thing I would read is Susan Bassnett's recent survey, Translation in the New Critical Idiom series from Routledge. This is a quick read, only 200 pages or so, and birds-eye view of the discipline. The chapters on "Translating Across Time," "The Visibility of the Translator," and "Boundaries of Translation" would be very helpful for biblical scholars looking for some orientation to how Translation Studies scholars think about historical difference, "foreignizing," and the role of creativity and art in the translation process. Bassnett is also the author of Translation Studies, which is newly in its 4th edition.

  • For getting a sense of the larger discipline, I also recommend Jeremy Munday's Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications; and Anthony Pyms' Exploring Translation Theories.

  • Next, I would look through Lawrence Venuti's revised Translation Studies Reader, and pay particular attention to the selections from Jerome, Schleiermacher, Walter Benjamin, Roman Jakobson, Eugene Nida, Gideon Toury, Antoine Berman, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Venuti himself.

  • In my view, the most important issue that biblical translators must address is that of ideology and power. By paying more attention to this aspect of translation, we can move past tired arguments about "equivalence" of various types. One excellent resource is Semeia Studies 69, Ideology, Culture, and Translation, edited by Scott Elliott and Roland Boer. I would also recommend The Social Sciences and Biblical Translation, edited by Dietmar Neufeld.

  • In Translation Studies, three books that I would recommend on the relationships among culture, power, and translation are Andre Lefevere and Susan Bassnett's edited collection Translation, History, & Culture, Mona Baker's Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account, and Sherry Simon's Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission.

These are starting-points of conversation among several disiplines, including Translation Studies, Cultural Studies, Biblical Languages, Linguistics, Theology, Church History, Poetic and Narrative Criticism, etc. The range of issues and problems shows how difficult—and interesting—this conversation will be. Most of all, it is potentially transformative for how we think about the Bible as experienced by real people in history and culture.