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Whose Mockingbird? A Parable for [DE] Translators of the Bible

September 19, 2011

“Or is dynamic equivalence a theory for Bible translations only? Perhaps [Eugene] Nida felt that Catullus would be read by more sophisticated readers, while the Bible should be accessible to everyone?”

asks Theophrastus.

“On the other hand, what can we do to provide a corresponding audio (+/- visual) frame of reference for non-readers?”

asks Ernst R. Wendland, linguist, Bible translator, consultant, professor, prolific author, and developer of Eugene Nida’s Dynamic Equivalence theory.

The questions come following an earlier post.  They remind me of questions which prompted a post at another blog a good while ago, a post re-published below.  Would Nida want a DE translation for a novel?  What if that novel was as popular as the Bible?  What if the novel had a message that, in the view of the DE translator, transcended the language(s) and the culture(s) of the original?  Would footnotes help the readers of the translation?  Would a corresponding audio frame help non-readers?  In fact, if the novel were To Kill A Mockingbird, then we can ask such questions.  Last summer, when driving across the USA, my family and I listened to the audiobook narrated by Sissy Spacek.  It allowed for much, for more, I’d say, than did the film and the play and the Broadway musical adaptations of the book.  Nevertheless, I’m not quite sure even such a wonderful audio transposition fully gets the literary value of Harper Lee’s novel.  A reader as listener can’t ponder very long the rich meanings of rare words and of cultural allusions in the book.

Why did Lee use the word corncribs, for example, to give some sort of warrant for the strong claim by one of her central characters that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”?  Is the name Ann Taylor for the dog of the key judge in the work so insignificant?  Is “Ann Taylor” so forgotten as to be unnecessary to “the message” of the book, so that this name must be reworked by the DE translator into the heart language and culture of say, Indonesia, as a typical name?  In bahasa Indonesia this may be a good English name for a human, but does it work as the name for a dog (such as Bejo, Belang, Buntek, or Gepeng)?

These were some of my questions.  Here’s that post:


Whose Mockingbird? A Parable for Bible Translators


Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird has been translated into more than forty different languages. It may serve as a parable for Bible translators.

How? Let’s look at three ways. Then we’ll consider three excerpts from one translation.

First, the story of this book is a parable for Bible translators perhaps because it’s nearly equal to the Bible in its popularity. There’s a must-read sacredness to it for many. It’s nearly as popular as the Bible for many readers in the USA and more popular than the Bible for several more readers in the UK. Claudia D. Johnson cites the following:

Using 5000 respondents, the researchers [of the U.S. Book-of-the-Month-Club and the U.S. Library of Congress’s Center for the Book in 1991] found that one of the three books “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (it was second only to the Bible).

And Michelle Pauli reports:

The Pulitzer prize-winning classic has topped a World Book Day poll conducted by the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) [of the U.K. in 2006], in which librarians around the country were asked the question, “Which book should every adult read before they die?”…. To Kill a Mockingbird heads… the librarians’ list: it is followed by the Bible.

Thus, the book is read in forty some different languages worldwide, and is in English translation considered nearly as worthy to read as the Bible in America and thought even more worthy, by most librarians polled, in Britain.

Second, the book is maybe a parable for Bible translators because its language is like the Bible’s. It’s full of Bible metaphors and biblish and biblicisms already. Like the Bible, To Kill A Mockingbird references the language of and passages in the Bible.

(For example, I just read again last night, “Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead.” There’s no explanation given for what this means, or where it comes from, just as when Luke 9:60 seems to give a quote from Matthew 8:22, perhaps from another source text even, then there’s no explanation for this riddle. And a few pages earlier there was this: “As a rule, a recess meant a general exodus, but today people weren’t moving. Even the Idlers who had failed to shame younger men from their seats had remained along the walls.” Did you catch those references? What’s an exodus and what’re the Idlers with a capital I? And why failed and why shame and how ironic and funny is it when one has failed to shame? to remain? the walls? Are these suggestions of the Hebrew Bible, some Aramaic, the Greek, late legal Latin?)

What I’m getting at in the parentheses above (in the question of biblical references) brings us to the third way To Kill A Mockingbird is a parable perhaps for Bible translators.

Third, then, to translate this novel is to position oneself outside its culture, and isn’t that important, as a parable, for Bible translators? Let me explain, and try to illustrate, this third point. The culture of To Kill A Mockingbird, as much as it speaks to EveryMan and to anybody, makes all readers today outsiders. Beyond “the South” in the United States just a few decades after the Civil War, it is very much a speaking out of the specific culture and subcultures of a little Alabama town. Most British librarians find this specific novel more important to read than the Bible, despite the fact that the book’s English is very not English at all. Nonetheless, the book is full of biblish like the difficult-to-read old English Bibles. Moreover, even American readers, those not from the South and even those from as south as South Alabama, are now some fifty years past this old English. Furthermore still, those reading the book in languages other than English of any kind are also not only linguistic but also cultural outsiders.

The moral of the parable is this: There is no shame in this outsiderness for readers or for translators. There is no effort to rid the book of its biblicisms or to upgrade it to natural English or to downgrade it to common English or to make it readable at any particular grade level. Part of the reasoning for leaving the English of the book alone may be that the book is largely written through the eyes of children who should, one might assume, speak a more common or less unnatural English. However, it turns out that a little rural girl speaks. She speaks, and thinks, in pretty sophisticated ways with quite challenging language. And there are high and low registers for her, and for several of the other characters.

So a translator is an outsider, and there’s no shame in that and no effort to make readers feel like they are reading something written just for and only to them. The story itself is a parable. And the book is safe enough already for readers. And the translator might find her own voice in it, safely. Harper Lee confronts sexism and racism and classism, and her readers borrow the eyes of a child, the ears of the child, her voices. There is injustice, and she speaks out. There is rape, some alleged rape, and she hears of it. There is a father who fails in the end, and she sees him through to the final page. I’m not giving too much away. Did I tell you she was a little girl? Most of us readers are not Miss “Scout” Jean Louise Finch from a small town called Maycomb where only men are lawyers and judges and jurors and only white men of a certain kind. None of us talks like her. Nor do we expect her to talk like us.

Now, let’s get to the illustration from a translation. It’s an Indonesian language translation. We’ll just look at three passages from the book.

(One reason I’m reading the Indonesian translation is because for four years I studied this language on Java, in Jakarta. My formal teacher was Ibu Noto, but even my English literature class teacher was a Muslim too, and so was my English writing class teacher. I’m mentioning the religion of my language teachers for four years because to them the Qur’an is much more important than the Bible. And to them To Kill A Mockingbird is also much more important than the Bible. As I read the Indonesian translation of To Kill A Mockingbird, I imagine how Mrs. Noto, and Mr. Williams [an Islam convert], and Mrs. Dali might translate it. They live on an island of prebumi, bumiputra, pure-raced natives. They live in a post-colonial nation state, where the Indonesian alphabet has been purified from its old Dutch influences, where the Chinese written language is outlawed. They live, as Muslims, in the world’s largest nation of people of Islam. They know social and legal injustices, but they are outsiders to the book and to its language. The actual translator is Ibu Femmy Syahrani,

and here are some brief reviews of her work.)

Now, let’s look at those passages. Let’s look at the three places in her book where author Harper Lee used, respectively, the English words corncribs and translation and metaphors. These are words she only uses once in this the only novel she ever wrote. Then let’s see how Indonesian translator Femmy Syahrani renders the three passages and words.

corncribs : gudang jagung

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Mockingbird menyanyikan musik untuk kita nikmati, hanya itulah yang mereka lakukan. Mereka tidak memakan tanaman di kebun orang, tidak bersarang di gudang jagung, mereka tidak melakukan apa pun, kecuali menyanyi dengan tulus untuk kita. Karena itulah, membunuh mockingbird itu dosa.”

Notice here how corncribs are something not a big part of Harper Lee’s book. How many English readers today anywhere know what they are, or were? The Oxford English Dictionary lexicographers note that this is peculiarly “U.S.” English, with two definitions: “a. A crib or manger for corn. b. A ventilated building or granary, for storing Indian corn in the ear or cob.” Is this English “natural” or “common”? Should it be? Femmy Syahrani has “gudang jagung,” which is common and natural Indonesian for a “corn warehouse” or “corn storage building.”

The Indonesian translator does something else here. She leaves in transliterated Indonesian words the English name of the mockingbird. When it’s plural in English, she does not add the plural suffix in her Indonesian version because Indonesian grammar makes clear this is a generic plural, “each mockingbird / all mockingbirds.” What is gained is italicized attention to the importance of this titular and key word. What is lost is the mimicry of mockingbirds, how they translate the songs of other birds, how readers are drawn to the fact that the black man wrongly accused of raping a white man’s daughter is like a mockingbird, is killed sinfully, like a mockingbird. “Dosa” is the Indonesian word for sin, a common word in majority Islam and in minority Christianity in Indonesia. The translator forgoes the embodied metaphor of “sing their hearts out” and loses much by using natural non-metaphorical Indonesian instead: “menyanyi dengan tulus” which means they “sing with sincerity.”

translation : menjelaskan

Jem and I were accustomed to our father’s last-will-and-testament diction, and we were at all times free to interrupt Atticus for a translation when it was beyond our understanding.

Aku dan Jem sudah terbiasa dengan diksi ayah kami yang lebih cocok diterapkan pada surat wasiat, dan kami bebas menyela Atticus kapan pun untuk memintanya menjelaskan kata-kata itu kalau ucapannya tak kami mengerti.

For Harper Lee’s metaphorical use of the technical word translation, Femmy Syahrani decides on something presumably more natural, apparently more common, and ostensibly clearer: “menjelaskan.” The word means “clarification” as in a given explanation. There is no reason at all, however, why this translator couldn’t use the Indonesian verb for “translation.” Is she hiding, minimizing her voice here?

metaphors : metafora

The second thing happened to Judge Taylor. Judge Taylor was not a Sunday-night churchgoer; Mrs. Taylor was. Judge Taylor savored his Sunday night hour alone in his big house, and church-time found him holed up in his study reading the writings of Bob Taylor (no kin, but the judge would have been proud to claim it). One Sunday night, lost in fruity metaphors and florid diction, Judge Taylor’s attention was wrenched from the page by an irritating scratching noise. “Hush,” he said to Ann Taylor, his fat nondescript dog.

Hal kedua terjadi pada Hakim Taylor. Hakim Taylor tidak ke gereja pada Minggu malam; Mrs. Taylor yang hadir. Hakim Taylor menikmati waktu Minggu malam sendirian di rumahnya yang besar, dan pada waktu kebaktian dia bersembunyi di ruang kerjanya membaca tulisan Bob Taylor (bukan saudara, tetapi sang hakim tentu bangga andai bisa mengaku saudara). Pada suatu Minggu malam, tenggelam dalam metafora berbuah dan diksi berbunga, perhatian Hakim Taylor terenggut dari lembar kertas oleh suara garukan yang mengganggu. “Sst,” katanya kepada Ann Taylor, anjing kampungnya yang gemuk.

Harper Lee’s readers catch on the to fact that this Christian is also a Judge who neglects his churchgoing. Astute readers also get that instead of being a good Christian, this judge, he reads the works of his namesake, a politician and rhetorician, full of slick rhetoric in at least two senses, the works of one “Bob” Robert Love Taylor. Femmy Syahrani’s Indonesian readers are not likely to get any of that. What is offered them, nonetheless, is that Mrs. Taylor is an American, not an Indonesian Ibu Taylor. She goes to church.

The dog is named Ann Taylor. Again, the astute readers in English would get her namesake, the English poet for children. And it’s funny that she’s fat, but even more so that she’s a “nondescript dog” poking fun again at the poetry perhaps. The Indonesian readers have no idea that she’s anything but fat, and a dog with an English name, not a nondescript one, but a kampung dog, a common village dog. Is this the translator’s voice?

So we come to the phrase “lost in fruity metaphors and florid diction.” For the English reader, this cannot be a good thing. It’s the Judge’s own reward, or punishment, for staying home from church. “Fruity” is not sophisticated (and “metaphors” stand from the Greek root as something literary and rhetorical). For the Indonesian reader, there is an eloquence that seems either, well, eloquent or mocking of eloquence: “tenggelam dalam metafora berbuah dan diksi berbunga.” It goes something like, “drowning under metaphors fruitful and diction flowerful.” At least, there is an attempt, a good one, at mimicking the silliness here; and the Indonesian adds an alliteration with syntactic flair. (“Metafora” again retains the Greek root, in transliteration, without explanation; it’s surely literary and rhetorical even in Indonesian; it’s somehow a direct equivalent of Harper Lee’s English which is somehow a direct equivalent of some ancient Greek’s Greek.) The fun, of course, is the fruit and flora as buah dan bunga.

So What? What’s the punchline, the point, the moral of the fable?

Well, that’s quite enough for now. Besides I’m out of time again. There’s much to consider when translating central words like “Mockingbird” that have such metaphorical import to a story. There’s a lot to take in when thinking about an author’s lonely words, pregnant with meaning. There’s a good bit to ponder when making choices to render such critical phrases that point to the translator’s own processes. Parables take processing, so perhaps this is a fair one for that, even a fair one for Bible translators.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2011 9:58 pm

    Nancy Louise Rutherford is a former teacher at Belmont High School, a school in Los Angeles that serves a a 90% Hispanic student population and where a majority of students are English language learners.

    She found it necessary to create a web page explaining To Kill a Mockingbird for her (presumably) ESL student body. Something like a translation from vernacular English into ESL-English.

  2. September 20, 2011 5:04 pm

    When my Spanish is strong enough, I look forward to reading Matar un ruiseñor, translated by Baldomero Porta. I just wish somebody would make a Spanish language version of Rutherford’s wonderful website (based on the translation).

    Below are Porta’s translations of the passages noted in my post (my bold font for the phrase comparisons):


    “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

    “Los ruiseñor sólo se dedican a cantar para algrarnos. No estropean los frutos de los huertos, no anidan en los arcones del maíz, no hacen nada más que derramar su corazón, cantando para nuestro deleite. Por eso es pecado matar un ruiseñor.”


    “Jem and I were accustomed to our father’s last-will-and-testament diction, and we were at all times free to interrupt Atticus for a translation when it was beyond our understanding.”

    “Jem y yo estábamos habituados al lenguaje jurídico de mi padre, y teníamos permiso para interrumpirlo pidiéndole una aclaración si no entendíamos lo que nos decía.”


    “The second thing happened to Judge Taylor. Judge Taylor was not a Sunday-night churchgoer; Mrs. Taylor was. Judge Taylor savored his Sunday night hour alone in his big house, and church-time found him holed up in his study reading the writings of Bob Taylor (no kin, but the judge would have been proud to claim it). One Sunday night, lost in fruity metaphors and florid diction, Judge Taylor’s attention was wrenched from the page by an irritating scratching noise. “Hush,” he said to Ann Taylor, his fat nondescript dog.”

    “El segundo acontecimiento afectó al juez Taylor. Éste no solía asistir a la igleisa los domingos por la noche; su esposa sí. El juez disfrutaba del domingo por la noche quedándose solo en su espaciosa casa, y mientras la señora estaba en la iglesia él se encerraba en su estudio para leer los escritos Bob Taylor (que no era pariente suyo, aunque al juez le habría enorgullecido poder sostener lo contario). Una noche de domingo, un ruido molesto, irritante, de alguien que arañaba una ventana distrajo al juez Taylor de su lectura, plena de jugosas metáforas y floridas elocuciones.
    —Quieta — le dijo a Ann Taylor, su gorda y extravagante perra.”


    I like how Baldomero Porta uses ruiseñor for mockingbird, but find it curious how he excises the explicit mention of Atticus as the subject of the clause “teníamos permiso” and of Mrs. Taylor as the subject of the clause “su esposa sí.” Later, he does have “señora Taylor”; but I really like how Femmy Syahrani keeps her “Mrs.” Taylor (not Ibu Taylor) to emphasize the fact to Indonesian readers that this is an American Mrs. and not an Indonesian Ibu. And “jugosas metáforas y floridas elocuciones” for “fruity metaphors and florid diction” is not as playful as “metafora berbuah dan diksi berbunga.” Nor is “su gorda y extravagante perra” better than “anjing kampungnya yang gemuk” for “his fat nondescript dog.”


    (In the university level ESL programs that I work with, faculty members often will teach the English of a novel alongside a film adaptation. Auditory and kin-esthetic learners tend to track with the movie better. We’ve used To Kill A Mockingbird in the past, and when we do in the future, I’ll make sure to have everybody check our Ms. Rutherford’s web pages. Thanks.)

  3. April 1, 2012 8:03 pm

    I do not know if it will be good or not, but perhaps this documentary on Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird airing tomorrow will be of interest:

  4. April 2, 2012 4:52 pm

    The clip you link to here, on the novel more than the novelist, sure does give strong opinions about the book’s importance. Hope to catch the documentary, thanks!

  5. April 3, 2012 7:14 am

    The documentary is important to our conversation here for at least a couple of reasons.

    First, it shows how Harper Lee was making a statement about the racism in her own hometown, in her own state, in the USA, in the world. The film does a wonderful job of getting at what Lee intended through the voices of so many others, including her former neighbor and close friend and fellow writer Truman Capote and her sister, a lawyer like their father. We get how the characters in the author’s life resemble characters in her book. And, not to give too much away lest anyone intends to see the documentary after reading here, Harper Lee herself is like some of her characters. Could it be the one who said “Hey, Boo”? Might she be Boo herself?

    Second, the PBS documentary shows how relevant the novel is in our contemporary culture, how meaningful its language even in the 21st century! I’m exclaiming. Children reading the profound novel are interviewed. Yes, literary experts and social commenters and writers and historians are interviewed too. But children. There’s no need for an updating or a dumbing down of the language of To Kill a Mockingbird. What constitutes “natural English” is not really very natural here; the English of the book is not typical of all native speakers of English even if we broadly consider only native speakers of common “American English.” So the point of a dynamic equivalence in translation that would focus more on the common natural language than on Harper Lee’s language is the point of “cultural translation.” The parable here for Bible translators is that to use DE is to rob the text of not only the literary but also the social and cultural aspects of the original language. The parable illustrates that children and adults alike may not only understand but do also appreciate a sophistication that many DE Bible translators wrongly assume and presume such a wide audience cannot.

  6. April 3, 2012 1:51 pm

    I am afraid that I was too busy, and have not yet had a chance to watch the documentary.

    I do notice that it is available online here:

    I’m now rather looking forward to watching it, and using your notes as a initial guide to understanding it.

  7. May 16, 2012 11:06 pm

    FYI — Craig brought to my attention that in April, Harper Lee finally received the “Harper Lee Award”:

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