Some reflections on translation styles, provoked by a passage in the NRSV

Yesterday I was reviewing the translation of Methodius of Olympus, De cibis.  Believing that the NRSV was the modern standard academic translation, and remembering the original RSV with some affection, I recommended the use of that for biblical quotations.

But perhaps I was too hasty.  For I noticed the following passage, from Numbers 19:18, in the body of the text:

… then a clean person shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the furnishings, on the persons who were there, and on whoever touched the bone, the slain, the corpse, or the grave.

Now this is, in fact, the language of the KJV – initially I wondered if it was some hideous neologism like “chairperson”!   But this naturally made me look at other translations.  The NIV had the infinitely more pleasant:

Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there. He must also sprinkle anyone who has touched a human bone or a grave or anyone who has been killed or anyone who has died a natural death.

The CEV, a paraphrase, runs:

Before you can be made clean, someone who is clean must take some of the ashes from the burnt cow and stir them into a pot of spring water. That same person must dip a hyssop branch in the water and ashes, then sprinkle it on the tent and everything in it, including everyone who was inside. If you have touched a human bone, a grave, or a dead body, you must be sprinkled with that water.

Which is very readable, but not quite close enough for me.

Which of the other two would we prefer to read?  The NIV.  Which is closer to the original?  Probably the NRSV, in that “Person” probably indicates the critical, career-determining distinction – in a modern US university, anyway – between ‘man’ = homo (i.e. species) and ‘man’ = vir (i.e. masculine).  But … we come here to the question of what a translation is for.

We all know that there are “translations” which are essentially “cribs”.  They are designed for people who want to work with the original language text, but don’t possess enough vocabulary even to read the words with ease.  It  goes without saying that they have no understanding of idiom or use in the original language.  Such people are not interested in what the author has to say but rather in some smaller matter – in passing an exam, or something of the kind.

There are also paraphrases, which sacrifice much pretence of following the original to assure readability.  These have their place: I have never forgotten how the Shepherd of Hermas came alive in an abridged paraphrase published by some Quakers.  If the object of a translation is to allow the author’s thought to be heard today, then a good paraphrase has claims to be heard.

Somewhere between this is the true translation.  The maker of this will not hesitate to paraphrase, where otherwise the sense would be lost in a series of choked, non-English constructions.  This was put well by T.R. Glover, in the introduction to his 1930 Loeb translation of Tertullian’s Apologeticum:

Lastly, I have to make my own apology in sending out Tertullian’s. I have long felt that a translation should reproduce on the mind of the new reader, in the new language, as far as may be, the emotional, intellectual and spiritual effect (perhaps reaction would be the more precise word) that the original produced, and was intended to produce, on the readers in the original speech. Hence the distressing impossibility of rendering Virgil or Horace, or (they say) Heine. Certain authors, like Homer and Cervantes, seem able to stand immense loss or reduction in translation.

But I think my ideal will be accepted as the right one — an extremely exacting one. But Latin is not English, and I have had, in years of reading and teaching, too abundant evidence that a literal translation produces nothing of the effect we agree to be desirable. The structure of a Latin sentence is alien to English since Dryden, or since Bunyan. We put down our sentences in a different way and build our paragraphs on another plan. Again and again I find a literal translation of a sentence or paragraph (it may be the same thing) of Tertullian produces no effect on the mind beyond sheer paralysis ; it means nothing.

But Tertullian did mean something. So I have boldly abandoned his qui‘s and quoniam‘s and ut‘s, and tried to make an English thing of his Apology. The scholar who may consult this work for a particular passage can make his own way through the Latin construction ; and I hope I may modestly say that I could sometimes have done so too. But I am translating not a passage but a book, and I aim at giving the reader who wishes to read the whole, as opposed to a paragraph, the thread and fibre and texture of the whole, and something of the spirit of it. Tertullian, using a convention as old as Isocrates, writes his book as if it were a speech. In places it is highly rhetorical. A literal translation would be hopelessly unrhetorical.

So I have broken up his sentences, and made my own, and tried to give the whole with as much as I can recapture of his oratory or rhetoric or whatever it is (in America it might be called “punch”), with the full force possible — biting, stinging, gripping stuff, — turning the reader into a listener and arguing at him. The grammar is different, the structure different, I know — but I hope there is something of the same passion, and for the same cause.

No-one who reads this blog can really disagree with these words, for it was the reading of Glover’s translation that drew a young Oxford undergraduate to think of Tertullian as someone worth reading; to obtain his own copy, and, later, to start a website called the Tertullian Project, and later still this very blog!

The NRSV, then, is clearly on the “crib” side of the argument.  The NIV stands with Glover.  I think the NIV is in the right here.