Theories of the Translation Process -- By: Bruce M. Metzger

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 150:598 (Apr 1993)
Article: Theories of the Translation Process
Author: Bruce M. Metzger


Theories of the Translation Process

Bruce M. Metzger

[Bruce M. Metzger is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.]

[This is article two in the four-part series, “Translating the Bible: An Ongoing Task,” delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, February 4–7, 1992.]

If, according to the traditional rendering of Proverbs 13:15, “The way of the transgressor is hard,” the way of the translator is scarcely less hard. Not only does the work of translation demand the utmost in concentrated effort, but the result will seldom please everyone, least of all the conscientious translator. Since not all the nuances in a text can be conveyed into another language, the translator must choose which ones are to be rendered and which are not. For this reason the cynic speaks of translation as “the art of making the right sacrifice,” and the Italians have put the matter succinctly in a proverb, “The translator is a traitor” (traduttore, traditore). In short, except on a purely practical level, translation is never entirely successful. There is always what Ortega y Gasset called the misery and the splendor of the translation process.1

The work of translating the Bible presents special difficulties. Since the Scriptures are a source of both information and inspiration, Bible translations must be accurate as well as felicitous. They must be suitable for rapid scanning as well as for detailed study, and suitable for ceremonial reading aloud to large and small audiences. Ideally, they should be intelligible and even inviting to readers of all ages, of all degrees of education, and of almost all levels of intelligence. Such an ideal is, of course, virtually impossible to attain.

The problem is compounded by the diversity of theories of the translation process. Should the translation be literalistic or free and paraphrastic? At what level of English style should it be pitched? Is it right to introduce into the rendering cultural explanations, and if so, how frequently? In the printed format of the Bible, should pronouns that refer to Deity be capitalized? Is it advisable to print the words of Christ in red ink? All these are legitimate questions that need to be considered by Bible translators.

Perhaps it is well to note the graceful phrasing of metaphors for the translation process that the King James translators addressed to the reader near the beginning of the preface to their version (a preface that unfortunately is...

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