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Danilo Nogueira photoKelli Semolini photo We have a question: How should a Christian translator deal with wrong Biblical references in a work of fiction targeted at a Christian readership, since the Bible is The Word of God and target readers are likely to identify the mistakes?

The question—or something like it—was posted by our friend and colleague Betty Spíndola to a translators' forum sometime ago and we will try to find an answer to it and a few related issues here.

Because this is not the Poughkeepsie Journal of Theology and both authors are agnostics, we will tread very lightly on the matter of religion, but the fact that Betty—as so many translators—is a religious person and was referring to a book sacred to her cannot be overlooked.

The Translator's Responsibility

Our work is translating and that is what we are supposed to be accurate in. Accuracy of the information provided is the responsibility of the author, not ours. If the author says something stupid, that is none of our business.

However, many translators, possibly most, spend too much time trying to catch faults in the original. They do it for two possible reasons: for fear that they will be blamed by any inaccuracy found in the translation, no matter how it originated, and to show the world and themselves that they are more competent than the author. Sometimes we think those people are a bit ashamed of being "mere" translators. Pity, because doing a decent translation is quite a tall order.

There may be some strategic merit in the above approach, because it may us help win some popularity with clients and avoid undeserved criticism. On the other hand, since turnaround times are always so short, perhaps we should devote our time entirely to polishing up our work. It is a pity to hear a translator say "I could have done a better job if I had a couple more days' time," when more than a couple days' time were spent doing work that has nothing to do with translation.

In addition, you start pointing out mistakes in the original and the client will start demanding that you do this additional job also in the future. "How come you didn't notice this?" And there you will be doing the job of an editor for free. Translating is the best and deepest form of textual analysis and if you translate as carefully as you should, source text weaknesses will glare you in the face but wrong information may pass unnoticed.

Disagreements, Mistakes, etc.

John loves a certain musical style; Jane hates it. This is subjective, a mere difference of opinion, a disagreement. Either they have endless arguments about it or they agree to disagree and John uses earphones to listen to his favorite artists.

John says Paris is the capital of Germany. This is an objective statement, not an opinion. After a bit of arguing, Jane opens an atlas or Wikipedia and triumphantly shows John he is wrong. He has to concede she is right and that is it. Stating that Paris is the capital of Germany is a mistake.

Mistakes, in turn, may be slips, errors and willful misstatements. A slip is a mistake that escaped the writer or the editor; an error is an honest mistake born out of ignorance; a willful misstatement is made on purpose.

What to do?

If you run across a mere slip, just translate it right and be done with your job. Don't add a triumphant five-line translator's note every time you see principle where principal would be the right word. That does not show you're more intelligent, but that you're a huge pain in the ass.

If you find an error, you have to decide whether to correct it or not. If you correct it, someone will say it was just poetic license and you should have respected it; if you don't correct it, someone who never bothered to compare source and target will call it a mistranslation; if you add a translator's note, people will call you a show-off. The best thing to do is to sweep the mistake under some verbal rug.

Sometimes, however, the error has consequences and thus cannot simply be hidden somewhere: we have seen a harmless and delightful piece of nonsense written based on the assertion that ethics and aesthetics have a common Latin root, which simply is not true. We have good reason to believe the author simply believed words with similar sounds must have the same root and did not even know that he should check his etymologies. Fortunately, we did not have to translate it.

In such cases the best is to ask the client for instructions. "You have carte blanche to deal with this" is not a valid instruction. Someone at the client must revise and approve what you do. Don't forget to charge extra for handling the errors.

Willful misstatements are even worse. Willful misstatements always have consequences and are an important part of some fundamental inference made in the text, which makes them impossible to sweep under the rug or correct them in any way. Either you translate them or simply refuse to go on with the job.

Life is not that Simple

Unfortunately, it is far more complex than the above may suggest. It is often difficult to tell a disagreement from a mistake, principally when people have strong convictions regarding the issue.

Danilo learned this—and never misses the chance to tell the story—when a reviser rewrote a perfectly good paragraph into something quite different, on the grounds that the author of the book was a jackass who simply did not understand the issue. The reviser believed he was correcting a mistake, but we believe he was imposing his opinions on the defenseless author.

Years later the reviser wrote his own book presumably, expressed his own opinions, which is the right thing to do. But in revising someone else's work, he should have respected the author's point of view.

There is a limit to tolerance, however, and sometimes you really cannot stomach the text and must reject the assignment. The can't-stomach-don't-translate rule is not absolute, however. We would be glad to do a report on rape for the use of the police or judiciary, no matter how gory it was. And we would do it willingly.

But What if it is a Lie?

Talking about police and judiciary interpreters and translators, they teach us another important lesson, this time about lies. The translator is working on a deposition which contains several lies. Even if the translator knows for a fact that the witness is lying, the translation must reflect such lies as accurately as the translator can. The deposition is what the witness said, not what happened. So, it may be a lie that John Doe was pushed downstairs before he hit Jim Roe in the head with a length of pipe; but it is true that the witness, a certain Jack Moe said so.

Oh, Betty, but we did not Forget your Question!

Might be high time to give Betty a reply. As we see it, Betty, translators, regardless of their religion, are not required to identify wrong references. However, if they do find a wrong reference, they are expected to ask themselves a few questions before acting.

What sort of wrong reference? Just a slip? Does the text say offspring of vipers is John 8:7, whereas it is know for a fact that it is Mathew 23:33 (John 8:7 is He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her, just in case you do not know). If this is the case, just straighten up the reference and go ahead. If there are many of them, inform the publisher and say that someone should check all references. If the publisher says "why not you?" just put a price on it and go ahead.

Or is it something more serious such as claiming that the Bible says something it never said? In fact, unless the quotes are in Hebrew, Aramaic or Koine Greek, the author is using a translation. Are you sure the "wrong" reference is not just a "disagreement" on how a certain point should be translated? Bible translating is a tricky business and even Dr. Nida himself, idolized by so many, is demonized by quite a few. And we have heard there is a new Bible translation where Abraham himself is called "Abe". We must confess we found it a bit amusing.

Or is the author saying something that decidedly is not in the Bible? In that case, blow the whistle and contact the publisher, Bible in hand, if necessary. It is silly to hunt for errors and it is not your duty to find them. If you find a lesser error, you can use a bit of legerdemain to handle it, but if you find a serious one, it is your duty to blow the whistle.

The fact that the book is targeted at a Christian audience who is likely to know their Bible makes the situation of the translator a lot easier. No matter how the author clothes his misquotes, the readers are not likely to be fooled. Compare it, for example, with the case of the judiciary interpreter who is painfully translating a bunch of lies and feels relieved to notice that neither judge nor jury seem to believe a word of it.

An author who willingly provides wrong references or any other kind of false information is bearing false witness, and thus breaking one of the Ten Commandments (9th or 8th, depending on how you count them). The translator who reads "A" and translates it as "B" is, in his turn, committing the same sin and one error does not justify the other.

Published - July 2009

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