Linguistic Functions in Translation

Since when I first posted this, it was tagged onto another (related) post, I thought it would be good to provide the same discussion in a more independent format.

In general, the public has been dumbed down how the process of translation, how translation is done, and how language and meaning works. I attribute this to embarrassingly naive books on translation like those of Ryken, but also the preface writers for both “Literal” translations as well as Functional translations. The author of the explanation of the translation model for the NLT is just as at fault for conveying poor information about translation as anyone.

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 its speakers. But with that said, all four of these are consistently found in the grammar of every language in one way or another. Different languages will formalize them in different ways in their grammar (e.g. Greek Subjects are marked by morphology while English Subjects are marked by word order and Greek Focus constituents are marked by word order while English Focus constituents are marked by prosodic/phonological stress).

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. Translators do not have native speaker intuition for Ancient Hebrew & Hellenistic Greek. They never will. Some might come close, but those scholars are extremely few and far between. The scholars alive today who have come close to such intuition could probably be counted on both hands and you’d run out of fingers.

But this is 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).

[UPDATE] Rich Rhodes at the Better Bibles Blog has written a closely related post: I Want a 4G Translation.

19 thoughts on “Linguistic Functions in Translation

  1. While the objective (that of clarifying what altogether useful/helpful translation should do) is certainly desirable, I have to be skeptical about whether this process can, at best, be transformed from an art into a “scientifically-grounded” technology.

    1. Personally, I don’t think “art” or “science” are helpful words for translation. Painting is an art. Engineering is a “scientifically” grounded discipline. I’d be more inclined to draw the parallel with something like architecture where the answer to the “Which is it?” question is typically closer to “Yes” than anything else. But I’m also inclined to agree with Steve below as well.

      1. “And each language differs in how they are used by it’s speakers.” Sorry, it’s a pet peeve of mine. It’s is a contraction of ‘it is’. Its shows possession.

        1. It’s is a contraction of ‘it is’. Its shows possession.

          I know. Its [<– sorry] just not something that really matters to me. They're pronounce the same and probably won't be distinguished at all in another decade. The different between them is already marked by syntax, thus making the orthographic distinction unnecessary and redundant. I'm trying to speed up the process. We've survived orally without having them distinguished phonetically for some time.

        2. In that case, I would think its better just to omit the apostrophes on all instances of the word, rather than to add apostrophes in occurences where it historically doesnt belong. Just my opinion. (Notice my own usage in this reply!)

  2. Carl, I think that you have a good point. This is a humanity, not a science. I think Mike would view these as principles rather than rules. Even in a science-based discipline like engineering you come to a point where principles conflict and you go with your best judgment. I expect that translation has a lot to do with understanding the data to be translated and then weighing them against what can be most naturally captured in the target language. I expect there are many times where it will not all make the cut because of language mismatches. Then the translator is left to make a values judgment and “play through” or add a note like the NET.

  3. Mike, I agree with T.C. The post is informative.

    You suggest that the best approach for methods of translation is any one that will “seek to translate meaning as expressed by various functions of language.” Would you agree that this is fairly platonic? In other words, what the best approach must assume is there is “meaning” underlying “expressions” of “functions”? Are you saying that language (i.e., as sets of “functions”) references ideal meaning? In Chomskyan terms, there’s ideal Competence underlying Performance. (I doubt you’d go as far as De Saussure with the Langue / Parole split, but do you see what I’m asking?) Yes, I know that Chomsky was hardly a semanticist (a la the pragmaticisms of Sperber and Wilson or Grice) — but aren’t you presuming a split in language between what’s “meaning” and what is not (i.e., what is “function”)? I’m really not asking so much rhetorically as I am informationally. That may surprise you. But I’m trying to understand what you’re intending to say here about language, and consequently then about translation.

    1. I’m speaking rather loosely on purpose because my audience isn’t entirely made up by people like you or Steve, or Rich Rhodes, so what I say shouldn’t be taken as anything technical or firm about how I understand language, meaning, etc.

      This is complicated more because the “functions” that I describe above aren’t all at the same level. Trying to say this succinctly, I view language primarily as a communicative system. I do not treat certain parts of language as autonomous (e.g. syntax a la Chomsky) from the rest of language (e.g. semantics or pragmatics).

      Beyond that, I’m not sure how to answer the question. The post really wasn’t intending to deal with this issue. The central point was to show to the layperson that the act of translation/transfer of meaning is significantly more complex than someone like Leland Ryken (The Word of God in English) would have them think.

      So in that, the main thing that I wanted/intended to suggest to my readers wasn’t so much what I view as the best approach to translation (though I mention it, perhaps foolishly tacked on the end). Rather to say it is safer in translation to begin with a model of how language works (whether Nida, Gutt, or Sperber & Wilson) rather than just to go with the traditional lack of method/framework that we have historically seen in past translations.

      Does that clear things up at all? I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like the more I write the less I’m understandable.

  4. “I view language primarily as a communicative system. I do not treat certain parts of language as autonomous (e.g. syntax a la Chomsky) from the rest of language (e.g. semantics or pragmatics)…. The central point was to show to the layperson that the act of translation/transfer of meaning is significantly more complex than someone like Leland Ryken (The Word of God in English) would have them think.”

    Mike, That is clear and helps a lot! Thanks.

    (Wondering now what you think of Willis Barnstone’s ideas of translation as a continuum: on the one hand, there’s “translation” that would gloss the original [i.e., an interlinear or something like the Jesus Seminar’s gospels]; on the other extreme, there’s “translation” that would imitate freely [i.e., “John Dominic Crossan’s adroit transformations of Yeshua’s sayings into minimalist poems.”]. But then Barnstone sees “translation” that’s the “middle ground” between glossing and free imitation: he says Tyndale used this, and claims it’s his approach as well [i.e., the “purpose is to hear the source author more clearly than the translator author” and to “autonomous restatement” and to make “the literal literary.]” These are quotations from Barnstone’s latest “restored” New Testament.)

  5. One thing seems clear to me, even from the blog post and the responses thus far, which are really more or less in agreement: there’s not going to be any real consensus on what translation ought to be in any near future. The questions will continue to evoke wide-ranging differing views.

  6. Rethoric is greatly different from practice. U can spend the whole life of yours discussing this matters, but u’ll end up the same, u won’t change anything fo real, because my friend, “ translation” is common sense , volatile and culture above all.

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