Can Dostoevsky’s Translator Weigh in on Bible Translation?

Mirra Ginsburg translated Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, including a three page meditation “On the Translation.” I would love to transcribe the entirety of these three pages, but won’t take the time to do so. This paragraph (p. xxviii) gets at the heart of what I want to emphasize–I put the final sentence in bold for emphasis:

“As always, however, translation is a struggle with impossibility, and there are losses that must be accepted as inevitable. Thus, the Russian ‘deyateli,’ which is rendered here as ‘men of action.’ The literal meaning of the word is ‘doer,’ and in Russian it is used to denote a ‘leading figure’ active in a given field–politics, the arts, science–with the field usually specified. To the Russian reader it is entirely clear that Dostoevsky’s (or his character’s, for it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the author’s voice from the narrator’s) mockery of the obtuse, limited ‘doers’ or ‘men of action’ (field unspecified) is aimed primarily at the liberals, the ‘public citizens,’ the ‘do-gooders’ of his time. This, alas, disappears in translation, unless the translator arrogates to himself the entirely inadmissable right to interpolate.

See also Earle Ellis’s objections to dynamic equivalence translation philosophy:

To my mind the ‘dynamic equivalence’ approach to biblical translation has serious deficiencies.

(1) It rejects the verbal aspect of biblical inspiration.

(2) It gives to the translator the role that rightly belongs to the preacher, commentator and Christian reader.

(3) It assumes that the present-day translator knows what contemporary words, idioms and paraphrases are equivalent to the prophets’ and apostles’ wording.

(4) It advocates conforming biblical language and concepts to the modern culture rather than conforming the modern culture to biblical language and concepts.

(5) It appears to discard the Protestant principle that Christian laity should have full access to the Word of God written without interposition of clergy or of paraphrastic veils.

Patrick Schreiner has posted the article where Ellis discusses these points: E. Earle Ellis, “Dynamic Equivalence Theory, Feminist Ideology and Three Recent Bible Translations,” Expository Times 115 (2003): 7–12.

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  1. Excellent! Both pieces are very insightful. Thanks for bringing them to our attention.

  2. I am almost to the point where I feel we shouldn’t have any English translations. Everyone seems to have a gripe about certain translations, and there is not one translation that doesn’t have someone or some group opposed to it. Maybe we should be like the Muslems and just keep the Word in the original languages and teach people to read them that way. Then we all would have just one Bible.

  3. Dr Hamilton, you often write against “dynamic equivalence.” It seems to me that most Bible translations use a mix of what might be called “literal” and what might be termed “dynamic equivalence.”

    In reading through the ESV in its entirety twice, I was struck by how often the translators have used interpretative rendering. The translators often point this out themselves, when they give a literal rendering in a footnote, rather than in the body of the text.

    Just today, Lionel Windsor pointed out one such place in an insightful comment on Romans 16:7

    I can’t read classical Greek (yet, he said optimistically). I have enjoyed reading bits of Homer in a variety of English translations. I think it would be my loss if I could only read him in a very literal version.

    I can read NT Greek (after a fashion) and also greatly appreciate being able to read a variety of English translations. If I could only read it in the KJV, NASB, RSV and the like, I think I would have missed so much of what is being said.

    I’m not a fan of The Message: I think it is too loose and too interpretative. But Peterson has done a marvellous job in his rendering of Micah 1:10-16. Giving us the meaning of those town names brings the passage to life.

    Paul came alive for me when I was given a copy of Living Letters (which was the first instalment of what has become the New Living Translation) for my 13th birthday. *

    We certainly also need tighter renderings of Paul, but I think I appreciate the trees more, having seen the wood.
    *When I was 13, I also read The Power of Positive Thinking. I found Peale appalling, but Paul appealing …

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