The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses

By William L. Holladay | Go to book overview

17
What Makes
a Translation?

We pause now in our survey of theological issues raised by our use of the Psalms to make inquiry into a basic matter, that of the process of translation out of Hebrew into current languages—in our case, English. I mentioned briefly in chapter 14 the bewilderment many Christians experience when they are faced with the variety of translations of the Bible in our day. At several points in this work I have dealt with questions of translation of the Psalms, notably in chapters 6, 11, 12, 13, and 14; but there remain some basic issues to be faced.

Specifically, what, really, is a translation? This question is not as easy to answer as it seems. One may answer, of course, that a translation is saying the same thing in another language, so that, to use the terms current today, the expression in the receptor language is identical to that in the source language. But the problem is that, for anything more complex than la plume de via tante, what “the same thing” is becomes a fuzzy matter indeed.1

First of all, many of the most common expressions of a language cannot be translated literally: I can still remember the astonishment we felt in beginning French class when we learned that to say “How are you?” in French, we had to say Comment allez-vous?—literally, “How are you going?” And many years later I would be bemused when I learned that the same question in the vernacular Arabic of Iraq is sinü lawnak, contracted to šlōnak—literally, “What is your color?” In addition, the corresponding expression in the Hebrew Old Testament was šālôm lĕka or hăšālôm ‘attâ—literally, “Is it peace to you?” (2 Sam. 20:9; compare Gen. 43:28).

Then, when one becomes acquainted with another current language, one often finds that some simple expression has an important place in the culture of the people speaking that language, and one is hard put to locate the precise equivalent in one’s own language. Let me give a couple of examples.

In Dutch one hears the adjective gezellig a good deal: the human being is een gezellige dier, “a social animal”; een gezellige avond is “a pleasant evening”; conversation bij een gezellig glaasje is talk “over a cheerful glass”; een gezellig hoekje is “a cozy corner.” The word then covers notions of sociability, hospitality, comfort, and

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