Beyond Words

Naturally, it’s Better

Part 3: Naturalness

Have you ever purchased a new product and found the instructions to be a little humorous? I have a very specialized charger for repowering all kinds of batteries. The imported product came with the following warning: “Do not attempt to disassemble the battery pack arbitrarily.” I chuckled and thought to myself, Look guys, I promise, if I take this thing apart I’ll make sure I have a good reason to do so!

Funny English instructions are usually the result of poor translation work that happens because English is not the dominant language for the product manufacturers. And it’s not just English that suffers. Problems happen all the time when people underestimate the challenges of moving between any two languages, especially when they lack proficiency in one of them.

In this series on the qualities of good Bible translation, I’ve covered accuracy and clarity. This time I want to talk about naturalness. The English instructions that came with my battery charger are both accurate and clear. I have been able to read through the entire manual and successfully use the product. My laughter (and sometimes confusion) when reading it, however, can be attributed to its lack of naturalness in my particular dialect of English. A translation that is natural expresses things in a way that people typically express them in the target language. Accuracy addresses the question, “Is all the information there?” Clarity addresses the question, “Is this understandable?” Naturalness addresses the question, “Is this the way people say things?”

Naturalness is the most difficult part of learning a new language. It’s also the easiest thing for novice translators to mess up, because they tend to translate word-for-word. The following are a just a few of the things that we need to watch for.

A translation that is natural . . .  speaks to people in the way that they themselves speak. God doesn’t sound foreign.

First, idioms can rarely be translated word-for-word. In Romans 12:20, Paul echoes the Hebrew idiom found in Proverbs 25:22, “heap burning coals on his head. ”I can only assume his Greek audience understood it well. But more than 2,000 years later, the Hebrew idiom lives on in most of our English Bibles. I strongly doubt that many people today, especially those with no church background, would understand it. On the other side of the coin, sometimes something that is not idiomatic can be translated far better by introducing an idiom. In Mark 13:33, Jesus tells us to “be watchful,” and this comes out beautifully in my Swahili Bible as equivalent to “be eyes”—a vivid and far more natural Swahili expression to communicate being on your guard.

Second, some words just seem to go together. In linguistic study we call it collocation. For example, “keep” and “commandments” work well together. All throughout Scripture we are exhorted to “keep the commandments,” but commandments are not something that can be “kept” in every language. It’s just not natural to say it that way. In many languages it is far more natural to say “obey” rather than “keep.”

Third, it’s not uncommon to discover that languages assign a natural ordering of certain words. Consider English phrases like “up and down,” “ladies and gentlemen,” “over and out” or “bread and butter.” It’s oddly hilarious to a native English speaker if you reverse them and say “down and up,” “gentlemen and ladies,” “out and over” or “butter and bread”! And yet in other languages, it would be totally natural to say them that way. Or, perhaps the order may not matter at all.

Making a translation natural means paying attention to these and many other small aspects of language structure. Getting it wrong can be disastrous in Bible translation. Imagine someone reacting to God’s Word in the same way you might react to those poorly translated instructions—laughing, confused or even angered. 

A translation that is natural is not stilted. It speaks to people in the way that they themselves speak. Most importantly, God doesn’t sound foreign. 

Danny Foster is president of the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL), a partner of Wycliffe Canada that trains personnel to serve in language projects, including Bible translation. CanIL operates at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., and Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Ont.

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