Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Translating Religious Texts

"One who wishes to translate from one language to another by rendering each word literally and adhering to the original order of words and sentences... will end up with a translation that is difficult and confusing. Instead, the translator should first try to grasp the sense of the subject and then explain the theme, according to his understanding, in the other language..." - Maimonides to his translator, Rabbi Shmuel ibn Tibbon

This is elementary to any translation attempt. But every translator faces the dilemma of how far is it permissible for him/her to go? Two conflicting aims play a part here: the aim of faithfully conveying the content of the original, and the aim of making it not only understood to their intended audience but also as attractive and as "natural" as possible in its target text version.

This dilemma is doubly acute when it comes to conveying the teachings of any "sacred texts" to an audience whose primary point of reference is western and secular, because the translator - or "adapter" - is attempting here to bridge two worlds which differ in far more than language and idiom; two worlds which differ in their very conception of intellectual discourse and articulation.

The modern Western mind recognizes no sacred ideas or inviolable axioms. "Taking yourself too seriously," being "dogmatic" and failing to offer a "balanced view" are rhetorical "sins". Nothing is for sure: the author has to keep it light, with a periodic wink at the audience that says, "Hey, guys, we're just throwing some ideas around." So called "sacred texts", on the other hand, unabashedly inform and instruct readers, being written as blueprints for existence, without any self-depreciating humor or moral ambivalence. They presume that the reader will take them seriously and regard the "truths" they convey with reverence.

So the translator - or is it "adaptor"? - has two options:

(1) They can limit their tampering with the original text or idea to its re-articulation in the new language, while preserving the source text's style and approach; or

(2) They can assume, to a certain extent, the tone of modern writing, by attempting to truly translate: "to grasp the sense of the subject and then explain the theme, according to their understanding, in the other language" not only in the dictionary sense of "language" but in the broader cultural-conceptual sense as well.

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