the invisibility of English
Bible translator Yancy Smith (and a dear friend of mine, who I first met in the classroom and then again online) has posted his published academic essay, “The Mystery and Mirage of Equivalence: Bible Translation Theory and the Practice of Christian Mission.”
It is written in English. It is not written in Mossi nor in Dyula or Jula or Dioula or Bobo or Samo or Marka or Fula or Gourmanché or Bissa.
And yet early on in his article, Dr. Smith includes the following from John Morton:
God wanted to possess the earth so much that he sent his only son so that whoever was deceived by him would not perish but would become a wandering ghost forever.
— John 3:16 (First draft, local translator, Ziga translation, Burkina Faso)
Morton has written the above in English. He has not written or even quoted in Mossi or in Dyula or in Jula or in Dioula or in Bobo or in Samo or in Marka or in Fula or in Gourmanché or in Bissa.
Neither Smith nor Morton give the language of the translator. Morton only specifies that the person is “a local translator” who “did [this translating] with John 3:16” with absolutely “no theological education” and while distantly “working from a trade language—not the original Greek” as but a “new believer” who “didn’t have the opportunity to work alongside trained Bible translators.” And Morton also adds:
We don’t mean to knock his work. He wanted to translate God’s word, which is a great endeavor. He just didn’t have the training.
And Morton gives the fact that he himself has made this “Strange Bible Translation” or “Ziga first draft” into something “translated back into English.”
Notice that English user Morton is writing to English readers (presumably including those English users who are
1. the most theologically educated and are
2. those who work directly from the original Greek as both those who are
3. the most mature believers and also those who are
4. the best trained Bible translators).
Morton is having with his English readers, a “Fun Look” in English only. He and they do not intend to “knock” the “work” of this Other, who is Not.
Smith uses this “back into English” translated John 3:16 to talk about “translation” as Eugene Nida conceived of it. “Equivalence” is a critical term for him, for Smith, that is.
He brilliantly asks questions, in English, like this to assert what “we know,” which is, rather, what, in English, we don’t know by any means or other language:
Perhaps both the Creole and French translations are “equivalent” to the Greek text; however, neither translation is equivalent to the other. If the original text is equivalent to two translations not equivalent to themselves, the notion of equivalence becomes problematic. This is true even if we accept a careful caveat about “equivalence”: that perfect equivalence is impossible. What we really have is polyvalence with a certain correspondence. Is the text’s ambiguity the point? Would an ambiguous translation of the passage, then, be an equivalent translation? We have no way of knowing.
He troubles, or critically thinks through, Charles Kraft’s and Eugene Nida’s English understandings of “equivalence”:
Both Kraft’s and Nida’s practical ideas about audience-oriented translation have been robust and proven in the field. Yet, the theory of equivalence is a stone of stumbling. One suspects that Nida’s introduction of “equivalence” was a tactical move against literalists. Equivalence claims authority over against literal translations. Since that time, so-called literalists matched dynamic equivalence with a formal “equivalence” of their own.
One of my favorite English sentences of Smith is the one in which he starts to get outside of English by using our loan word “meta-phor” and another one “math-e-matics”:
Nida himself did not believe perfect equivalence was achievable. Rather, he recommended “the closest natural equivalence” or “functional equivalence.” The first indicates that equivalence must always remain approximate—more or less equivalent. The second phrase suggests that equivalence might depend upon the assumed purpose the equivalence is to achieve. In either case, borrowing the word equivalence from mathematics as a metaphor for translation has the effect of creating the expectation of a more dependable kind of outcome than translation can achieve.
When I say “our” loan words, I’m talking about us as English speakers, writers, listeners, and readers of English. We also borrow into English the word “translation.” We act like this is a stable and grounded word. We neglect how it was used in Latin. We, using English, don’t much think about how Chinese conceive of what we in English call translation. We don’t think about, in English, how women might differently conceive of this English. And I’m thinking, in English, of what Lydia He Liu might think in English or in Chinese, yes, and in Chinese:
What’s Your Translation Metaphor?, David Frank once asked, in English.
Why not speak less of translation and more of interlation? What is the difference in English between international and transnational? Between transexual and intersexual? Between translingual and interlingual? I think we have these English words and coinages or possible neologisms.
But we rarely think in some Burkino Faso language without actually “translating” it “back” first and always and only into English. As if English is invisible. As if English is our necessary air on which we depend for life.
“And Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet,” Steven Kellman once observed for us, “switched languages, from Fulani to English, under duress, after being abducted from West Africa and sold to a Boston merchant at about the age of seven.” Kellman, of course, and we too, of course, and that man from Boston, of course, all speak English. Kellman writes, in English, of translingualism. What are the implications?
And what if Phillis Wheatley, or this untrained new believer translating John 3:16, could read Smith’s article in Fulani?