Word-for-Word Translation

Eddie at Kouya provides a handy glossary of Bible translation terms:

  • Meaning Based: “a translation which prioritizes the meaning rather than the form of the original language.”
  • Form Based: “a translation which prioritizes the form of the original language rather than the meaning.”
  • Literal Translation: “a form based translation”
  • Word for Word: “a form-based translation and I don’t know much about languages.”
  • Free Translation: “I don’t like this meaning based translation.”
  • Paraphrase: “I really don’t like this meaning based translation.”
  • Accurate: I like it.
  • The Most Accurate: means either
    • as an opinion (I believe this is the most accurate translation) “I really like it.”
    • as a statement of fact (this is the most accurate translation) “I know nothing about translation theory or languages.”
  • Dynamic Equivalence: “I read a blog post about translation once.”

I’ve demonstrated before that what you think is “word-for-word”, or even one that conforms to the grammatical structure of the source text (“formal”) is actually nothing like it, but let’s have another example.

From Anabasis by Xenophon we have this scene in a battle:

τὰ δ᾽ ἅρματα ἐφέροντο τὰ μὲν δι᾽ αὐτῶν τῶν πολεμίων, τὰ δὲ καὶ διὰ τῶν Ἑλλήνων κενὰ ἡνιόχων. οἱ δ᾽ ἐπεὶ προΐδοιεν, διίσταντο: ἔστι δ᾽ ὅστις καὶ κατελήφθη ὥσπερ ἐν ἱπποδρόμῳ ἐκπλαγείς: καὶ οὐδὲν μέντοι οὐδὲ τοῦτον παθεῖν ἔφασαν, οὐδ᾽ ἄλλος δὲ τῶν Ἑλλήνων ἐν ταύτῃ τῇ μάχῃ ἔπαθεν οὐδεὶς οὐδέν, πλὴν ἐπὶ τῷ εὐωνύμῳ τοξευθῆναί τις ἐλέγετο.

Word for word, this is:

The and/but chariots they-went/were-driven the on-the-one-hand through of-their-own of-the of-enemies, the on-the-other-hand also through of-the of-Greeks without of-drivers. Those and/but when they-might-see, they-stood-apart: he-is and/but who also was-seized like in in-hippodrome panicked: and/but nothing indeed but-not/neither this-one to-suffer they-said, but-not/neither another and/but of-the of-Greeks in in-this in-the in-battle suffered no-one nothing, except on on-the on-right-wing was-shot someone it-was-said.

To make this even minimally comprehensible in English you need to make a lot of changes:

And the chariots drove some through the enemies’ own lines and some through the Greeks’ without drivers. And whenever they saw, they stood aside, but there was one who indeed was caught like someone panicked in a hippodrome, but indeed they said that he suffered nothing, nor did anyone else among the Greeks in this battle suffer anything, except on the right wing one was shot, it was said.

We had to re-order words, add words, change tenses, get rid of double negatives, and otherwise munge things to get even this clumsy text. And yet there’s a lot we still don’t have: who is the “they” in the second sentence? It becomes clearer with the context, but it’s not good English to have a pronoun refer to a referent in a possessive construction. What’s a hippodrome? I didn’t know they had guns in the 4th century BC…

Here’s Carleton L. Brownson’s translation:

As for the enemy’s chariots, some of them plunged through the lines of their own troops, others, however, through the Greek lines, but without charioteers. And whenever the Greeks saw them coming, they would open a gap for their passage; one fellow, to be sure, was caught, like a befuddled man on a race-course, yet it was said that even he was not hurt in the least, nor, for that matter, did any other single man among the Greeks get any hurt whatever in this battle, save that some one on the left wing was reported to have been hit by an arrow.

My favourite Bible translation in English is the Revised English Bible.

1 thought on “Word-for-Word Translation”

  1. Yes. It is good to use non-biblical texts to illustrate translation since the syntax and idioms of the English language has been influenced significantly in the last five hundred years by biblical idioms translated in same style as Genesis LXX translated the Genesis MT. You cannot judge the viability of “word for word” or even formal equivalence using biblical examples. But the Anabasis cited here demonstrates the amount of transformation required to make a formal english version intelligible. I’ve been illustrating from Sophocles, Electra which requires more extreme measures to make it read in english. On the other hand, poetry does give you some slack, the rules for syntax loosen up.

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