How a Translator Chooses Words

Discussion in 'Bible Versions/Translations' started by John of Japan, Jan 6, 2011.

  1. John of Japan

    John of Japan
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    Eugene Nida tells the story: “A carefully written letter from a devout lover of the Bible was received at the Bible House. In substance it read: “I would be so glad to help in the translating of the Bible, and so if you would send me a dictionary and a grammar of some of these primitive languages, I would be happy to dedicate my spare time to the translation of the New Testament” (God’s Word in Man’s Language, New York: Harper and Roe, 1952, p. 56). :laugh:

    The semantics (word meanings) of translation alone, not to mention syntax (sentence structure) is a far more complex subject than that. In this thread I'd like to share how I get a word into Japanese from Greek. Of course this being the BB, anyone is welcome to question my methods, or simply ask questions.

    Let me say at the start that Japanese is a well-known language with many helps available to me. So I don't start with no grammar or dictionary like a missionary doing a tribal translation does. I have the utmost respect for such people, and their job is a lot tougher than mine.
     
  2. Rippon

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    "I don't start with no grammar..." LOL.
     
  3. John of Japan

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    First of all, I'll discuss the process of producing the first draft. Most words I choose in Japanese for the first draft come from my own experience in the Japanese language. I am constantly listening to the Japanese and how they talk to each other and use words (personal contact, evangelism, store clerks, TV, radio, books, etc.), learning new words and usages, etc. The missionary who stagnates, content with his knowledge of the language, is not the one who should be translating.

    The easiest words are the commonest: church, disciple, apostle, etc. These words are all well established in the Japanese language by common usage in the churches. I simply note the Greek word, choose the right Japanese word, and go on. There are some exceptions to this, such as the word for "son" in reference to Christ. Believe it or not, since we decided to use a different word from the traditional rendering due to Japanese keigo (respect language) and other factors, this was a very difficult word to translate. More about that later.

    Now let's think about words that are not already so well established in meaning. Here are my considerations:

    (1) Style. We are aiming for a somewhat literary style, though not classical Japanese, so I don't want to use words that are too colloquial. For example, in English you would not normally use "Hey" for what the KJV has as "behold." Virtually all English translations aim for a higher literary level.

    I once witnessed to a Buddhist salesman who came to our door. He complained that the Japanese Bible translations had no dignity! So we do want a certain dignity in our treatment of the Word of God, while not wanting to make it hard to understand.

    (2) Norms. In secular translation theory, the norms of a society determine what words are appropriate in certain settings. So we avoid words that are crude or have possible Buddhist or Shinto connotations. Example: for the word "meditation" I would never use the Japanese word zazen ([FONT= ]座禅[/FONT]), since it is the word used by the Zen Buddhists for their brand of meditation.

    I don't want people thinking of Buddhist concepts when they read the word of God. We had a lady come to our church in Yokohama from a liberal church. When we visited her in her home and talked about Heaven, suddenly she said, "Oh, you're talking about the Heaven of the Bible, not the Buddhist version!" She had actually been baptized in the liberal church and gone there for 20 years, but wasn't saved. Praise the Lord, we were able to win her to Christ.

    (3) Readability. I want to use words that are easily understandable by the average reader. In fact, I aim at the understanding of about a 15 or 16 year old. Sometimes this is impossible, though, since the average 15 year old Japanese doesn't think at all about the spiritual concepts of salvation, etc.

    More next time on how I approach a Greek word I don't know.​
     
  4. John of Japan

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    Har, har. Have your fun. :eek: Of course I mean "without a written grammar."
     
  5. Salty

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    Wouldn't it be easier just to teach all the Japanese, the English Language :smilewinkgrin:
     
  6. John of Japan

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    Of course you're being facetious! :smilewinkgrin:

    Actually, all Japanese have to take 6 years of English in jr. high and high school--but it's all grammar and rules, with little conversation.
     
  7. BobinKy

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    Can you tell us more about these two forms of Japanese language? (And other forms if they exist.)

    In English, style and readability seem to work against each other--until the reader reaches a certain level of reading comprehension, at which point style improves comprehension. Is this true in Japanese as well?

    Should a translation attempt to distinguish Christian concepts from norms in the culture that come from nonChristian sources?

    ...Bob
     
    #7 BobinKy, Jan 6, 2011
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  8. annsni

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    John - Thank you for your recent posts here on BB regarding your work and helping us to understand the difficulty of doing what you're doing. It's awesome to get into the mind of a translator to learn how they do what they do. Thank you so much!
     
  9. Ruiz

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    I agree that this is a great post. Translation is a difficult job in that you usually have to bridge a number of languages along with knowing nuances of words that are not always in the technical definition of a word (as you pointed out with the word "meditation"). This is truly a difficult task.

    Thanks for the fruitful discussion.
     
  10. John of Japan

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    Thanks for the comments, Ann and Ruiz. I trust the whole thread will be educational.:wavey:
     
  11. John of Japan

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    Keigo (respect language) is one reason Japanese is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. (Only Spanish has anything similar among European languages.) Other reasons include the kanji (1000s of Chinese characters) and the two syllable alphabets. I thank God for my language school, which at the time (and probably nowadays) was the top one in Japan, and how well it taught the keigo.

    The Japanese will tell you that America is a horizontal society (all equal), but due to Confucianism Japan is a vertical society, with various strata of importance. So I use slightly different grammar and sometimes very different vocabulary in talking to someone below me in society and someone equal and someone above. For example, for the English word "is," I'll say da to a kid, desu to an equal, and de gozaimasu to a superior. What I say to the Emperor would be even another form.

    Where the keigo makes translation difficult is in the area of how to refer to Christ, God the Father, etc. When are the Pharisees respectful to Christ and when are they rude? What level of language should we use when referring to Christ in a neutral situation? These are all matters our committee and editors have hashed over, and still don't always agree on.

    Classical Japanese was always the written form of the language until after WW2. Almost nothing was written in colloquial Japanese. The classical form of the language is very different from the spoken form, so that a classical document is very difficult to read for a modern Japanese. It has different vocabulary and different grammar--almost a different dialect, except that it is not spoken.

    As for other forms of the language, there are various regional dialects. However, Tokyo standard Japanese is understood by all, so that's what we translate in.
    Yes, I think this is true. What makes it difficult is that literary Japanese is probably more different from colloquial Japanese than English has it.
    This is a difficult question. I think the answer must be that we approach this on a case by case basis in Japanese. So for example, we can use the normal Japanese word for love for the Greek agape, but "justification" takes a whole phrase in Japanese Bibles.

    The main thing we have to watch out for in this area is religious terms. We don't want to use any words with Buddhist or Shinto connotations, so occasionally the translator has to use loan words or even invent new phrases.
     
    #11 John of Japan, Jan 6, 2011
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  12. John of Japan

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    The most important factor when determining meaning in a language is the contemporary usage of a word. An interesting example is that in 1611 British English “mansion” meant simply a dwelling place, but in 21st century America it means a rich person’s large house. Interestingly enough, there is a loan word from English in Japanese, manshon, which means a nice apartment. We live in a manshon!

    So, in determining a meaning I’m not sure of in either Greek or Japanese, I must research how that word is used in 1st century Palestine for Greek, or in 21st century Japan for Japanese. This can be a complex process, so I’ll save it for another post. But it is exactly the process the editor of your English dictionary used in writing the definitions. According to H. A. Gleason, “One of the most monumental undertakings in the field of language study was the New English Dictionary. For this, several million quotations from an exceedingly wide range of English literature were assembled by over 1300 readers, most of them volunteers” (An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics, rev. ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, p. 456).

    In this area, let’s consider the most famous example in Asian Bible translating. The word chosen to be used for God in the original Chinese Bible was Shen (). However, the translators should have considered contemporary usage more. Shen is usually just a word for a spirit of some kind. However, in Chinese history the original religion was the monotheistic worship of Shang Di, meaning “High Lord.” (上帝, Shang Ti in the old Wade-Giles Romanization). The early translators blew it, and went with Shen.

    When we were in Hong Kong on a martial arts ministry trip in 2001, the pastor took us to a Lutheran seminary that overlooks the New Territories. A huge cross looks out over the valley as a witness. As we sat in the unique circular chapel of the seminary, the pastor talked to me about the Chinese Bible. In China today you must choose when you buy whether you want a “Shen Bible” or a “Shang Di Bible.” In the Chinese Union Version, they print both!

    For an excellent treatment of the Shang Di religion, see Finding God in Ancient China, by Chan Kei Thong (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), who researched extensively to learn his true religious roots. This is not only a fascinating book, it has copious photos and illustrations, with the Chinese originals for many documents, so it is a beautiful book.
     
    #12 John of Japan, Jan 6, 2011
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  13. annsni

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    John, this is really interesting to me just for the information you're giving but my husband is also fascinated by it because he had a lot of dealings with the Japanese when he worked in the audio industry. He sold his business to Otari which is a Japanese company and he continued to work for them for a number of years, traveling to Japan numerous times. It was interesting to see the cultural differences and some things now make sense when you mention the different levels of respect. :)
     
  14. John of Japan

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    Glad it's a help. And I truly, truly understand your husband here. This can be a bewildering society. I've had many moments of frustration trying to figure out the respect culture.
     
  15. annsni

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    I remember Bob saying that they always wanted to know if someone was a "very famous person". It was weird to have that kind of question but now it kind of makes sense?? :)

    What was funny was that there was a gentleman who came to the US to work with my husband during the sale of the company. He was kind of a "plant" in my husband's business to learn about what they did and such. His name was Aki. He was a wonderful man - very sweet, very kind. He brought his wife, son and daughter with him since he would be here for 2 years. At first, it was hard for him to get into the American way of working - working hard while they were at the office but when it was time to go home, they left. He was so used to working until very late at night and coming in first thing in the morning but we wouldn't let him do that because it's just not the way to do it here. Well, after about 6 months, our family and Aki's family went skiing (we actually left on the day of the first World Trade Center bombing and we listened to that news the whole way up to the ski place) and we had a lot of time to talk to him. He said that he was so much happier here in America and while we might not be as productive as they are in Japan, he said that he was so happy to watch his daughter grow up. See, his son was 13 years old and all through his growing up, Aki worked so many hours that he only saw his son one day a week. His daughter was just about 2 years old (the same age as our oldest) and he was enjoying being home for dinner every night and being able to see her daily. Wow - that just really touched me. Aki ended up going back to Japan but soon left the company and went to work for Motorola - an American company - because he wanted to continue working the way he worked here. :)
     
  16. BobinKy

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    John...

    Thank you for the reply to my questions. Translating must be very difficult. Thank you for sharing.

    ...Bob
     
  17. John of Japan

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    Because of this vertical society, there is a huge strain of man-worship here. Famous people are almost god-like to them. I remember once criticizing a famous male singer for being a cross-dresser, and a teen girl who came to church was shocked. "But that's Tanaka San," she said, (not the singer's real name). Her attitude was that since the person was famous, anything they did was okay! It really hurts these folk when their idols fall. Last year a famous woman singer was arrested for barbituate use, and all stations carried the news as if an airplane had crashed and 100 died.


    I recently had a conversation with "Uncle Miya," my translation partner, in which he said they are all slaves here. Since they are all trying so hard to meet so many expectations from the society around them, there is a very high percentage of stress-related diseases. The propaganda is how peaceful Japan is--rock gardens, kabuki theater, Zen meditation (actually very stressful because the priest walks behind with a bamboo sword in case you nod off). But that's all hokum.

    When a Japanese goes to live in America, a sponge effect happens. Think of how you take a sponge out of a plastic package and dip it in water so that it expands. It will never again fit inside the package. That's what happened to Aki and his family.
     
  18. John of Japan

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    You're welcome. Ask all you want! :thumbs:
     
  19. John of Japan

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    To tell you how researching a Greek word works, I’ll give a fairly simple example. I was just adding corrections from two of my editors to Romans 7. Verse 5 is interesting in its use of the Greek paqhma (pathema). The normal usage of the word is for suffering, as in the suffering of Christ in 2 Cor. 1:5-7. The editors were telling me I got the Japanese wrong, so I checked my Friberg lexicon, then my BAGD. I then did a quick software search in the NT. The word occurs 16 times, and Rom. 7:5 is a rare plural usage that should be translated more as “passions.” I had completely missed this, so I changed my Japanese rendering.
     
  20. BobinKy

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    John...

    Thanks for recommending Finding God in Ancient China. I will put it on my reading list.

    ...Bob
     

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