Helm on Translation Again

I commented on Paul Helm’s post about translation a while back — commented in the sense of writing a post about it; Dr. Helm’s blog doesn’t allow comments. He’s written a bit of a response post, which is worth reading.

I won’t get into the entire post, but I would like to provide some thoughts (and hopefully at the same time fulfill a request by a few readers to delineate my own more positive thoughts about translation). I won’t quote the post itself because I’d rather you go and read it (Again HERE).

Dr. Helm can correct me if I’m wrong (I had hoped that he’d leave a comment on my last post), but it appears to me that he is once again confusing terminology more than anything else. His preference for Cognitive Equivalence seems to have very little to do with language. And thus my previous protest continues to be relevant. His reasoning for a change in terminology has nothing to do with what the terminology means when used by translators and everything to do with his own personal interpretation of the terms. That is to say, Dr. Helm has not treated the terms within their linguistic (as in the field) context. They are linguistic terms with technical definitions. Thus rejecting functional equivalent because a knife can be used as a screw driver is irrelevant. Helm does not help this never ending conversation about translation by not understanding these terms the way they were intended to be understood. And for that reason, the relevance of Helm’s critique is dependent upon the relevance of authorial intention. Currently, he seems to be ignoring it for the sake of philosophical musings (i.e. him original post was written as his philosophical theology post for the month of September).

Now, moving on to the more constructive statements that I have for discussing translation methodology. What follows consists of a bit of history, a bit of linguistics, and a bit of commentary on translation practice & method.Let me begin by trying to explain why Nida used the terms he did and what was supposed to be meant by them. The key term here is the Functional in Functional Equivalence.

The only reason Nida changed the term Dynamic to Functional was exactly that people interpreted technical terminology with non-technical meaning. That is, when we talk about Function in linguistics & translation, we are talking about Linguistic Function.

Here are some kinds of Linguistic Functions (this is far from exhaustive and doesn’t even begin to deal with figurative language):

  1. Grammatical Functions – Subject, Object, Oblique, Complement, & Adjunct (Predicate could also potentially be placed here).
  2. Semantic Functions – Agent, Patient, Theme, Recipient, etc.
  3. Pragmatic Functions – Topic, Focus, Background Information, & Completive Information.
  4. Communicative Functions – Illocutionary & Perlocutionary Speech Acts.

All languages relate these various functions to each other in various ways (though some languages do not have grammatical functions in the traditional sense) to express meaning. And each language differs in how they are used by it’s speakers.

The act of translation involves translating these various functions of language. This is going to look different depending on your framework for translation.

A so-called “literal” or “essentially literal” approach to translation focuses chiefly on #1, Grammatical Functions. Indeed, translation for the “literal” translator isn’t so much word-for-word as much as simply aligning subjects, object, etc. of the source language with their respective counterpart in the receptor language. The “as free as necessary” part of typical “literal” translation comes in when merely translating grammatical function clashes with translating other kinds of functional information — and it’s not that “literal” translations just  ignore the other linguistic function so much as they simply leave them to the intuition of the translator.

And that’s why I’m generally critical of such methods. The intuitions of the translator aren’t necessarily reliable and were other functions studied and examined in their own right, we could rely more on the grammar of the source & receptor languages more than we do upon translator intuition. But it’s also that I’m only critical of the method. It is possible for a decent translation to come out. But this is dependent upon the translators not the method — and it tends to be more inconsistent than a translation that has both method and skilled translators (the NASB is a perfect example, which is typically annoyingly “literal,” but every once in a while is surprisingly paraphrastic — seriously).

When we come to so-called Dynamic Equivalence/Functional Equivalence, the goal of the method is more encompassing than merely grammatical functions. Unfortunately, historically, two things happened. First of all, many people who misunderstood Nida had absolutely no interest in translating grammatical functions. Secondly, the earliest translations attempting to implement the methodology tended to only look at communicative functions. Historically, this was very much a reactionary move on the part of the translators where the pendulum went too far in the other direction. This essentially functioned as bad press for the methodology, since it looked way too much like paraphrase than a rigorous translation method. The term Dynamic which was often interpreted in a literary sense rather than a technical term didn’t help. And that’s exactly why Nida, in the 80’s, switched to Functional for the name.

But also, today, there are few different frameworks in which translation is done, Functional Equivalence being one of them. Another one is Relevance Theory, which I won’t get into here. They’re not the same thing, but they do hold a few things in common: 1) they both work on accurately representing the above functions I’ve described and 2), they stand in contrast to the typical “literal” translation. But probably more important is the fact that they both seek to translate meaning as expressed by various functions of language. And for that reason, I’m typically comfortable with referring to both under the umbrella term Meaning Based Translation.

But there is another reason that Meaning Based Translation is my preferred term. That’s because while both Functional Equivalence and Relevance Theory have extremely similar goals in translation, neither is a perfect model (though they both have many more strengths methodologically than the “literal” approach). My own approach to translation is (though my current experiences with translation has been on my own rather than on a language project) rather eclectic taking what I view as the strengths from a variety of contemporary models that focus on accurately representing language in a more holistic sense (i.e. my list of Functions above).

10 thoughts on “Helm on Translation Again

  1. Thanks for offering some positive contributions of your own. Your outline of 4 exemplar categories of Linguistic Functions is particularly helpful, and the way you relate it to recent and contemporary translation approaches.

    Helm’s post reads poorly: even I can tell he hasn’t engaged the linguistics field properly, and his defence of ‘literal’ translation is unconvincing.

    1. Why yes I do!

      Now, I don’t use the NASB terribly regularly, so I’m sure there are many more, but a couple good ones are the NASB’s use of “undertaker” in Amos 6:10 and its use of “to the end” in Ephesians 1:12.

      I’ve found a few more over the years, but these are the two that readily come to mind. I need to start consistently documenting it.

  2. Mike,
    You’ve got the ‘n’ and the ‘g’ back-to-front in ‘cognitive’ in the second sentence, third paragraph.
    (I do it all the time, probably why I noticed it!)

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