Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dynamic Equivalence: Another Penn'orth

Some who read the last Taking A Line, on ‘Dynamic Equivalence’, raised a number of points, and kindly left links on my piece. I’m grateful to them. I thought that I would have a go at commenting on these, or at least on some of them, if only to try to clarify some of the things that I was asserting.

First, I do not think that changing the nomenclature from ‘dynamic equivalence’ to ‘functional equivalence’ or some other kind, like ’receptive equivalence’ or ‘effective equivalence’ will help us very much. For functional equivalence, though perhaps less precise than ‘dynamic equivalence’, also has its home in physical and social situations. An artificial heart may be functionally equivalent to a real heart, a President functionally equivalent to a King; in some circumstances, a knife is functionally equivalent to a screwdriver, and so on. Each does the job of opening the can of paint equally well. But what is the test of functional equivalence in the apprehension of words and sentences? Sameness of behaviour? Perhaps sameness of verbal response to the same question? These won’t work, I think. If A responds to sentence S by doing some action, and B refers to sentence T, a different sentence, by doing the same action, by going to the same place, say, how do we know that they are doing the same thing for the same reason? So – dynamic equivalence? No. Functional equivalence? No as well. Cognitive equivalence? Hmm, more like it. Two sentences have the same meaning if they have the same truth conditions.

The following point was raised: that I don’t define cognitive equivalence. But I did provide a definition, or at least a fairly clear characterisation, as follows: two expressions are cognitively equivalent if they are true together and false together. (I know that there are philosophical issues lurking here, but for present purposes I believe that they can be safely ignored.) ‘Meaning’ is of course as slippery as an eel. But in the endeavour to translate a document which offers us the revealed truth of God, providing translations that preserve truth-conditions must be the first aim. The ongoing study of each language will help this, of course, even the identification of what may seem at first sight to be merely accidental accompaniments to the use of a word. So, emphasising cognitive equivalence is no excuse for philistinism.

Perhaps I should have added that cognitive equivalence embraces anything with cognitive content. Commands and questions, which strictly speaking do not have a truth value, have cognitive value, obviously. Is ‘Pass the salt’ cognitively equivalent to ‘Close the window’? Obviously not. Is ‘Is it raining?’ cognitively equivalent to ‘Is it snowing?’ Obviously not. Is ‘Close the window’ cognitively equivalent to ‘Fermez la fenêtre’? Yes it is, in that the thought expressed by the one is the same thought as that expressed by the other. They have the same propositional content, they express the same thought.

In this connection I do not think it is helpful to talk of emotional meaning as opposed to intellectual meaning. No doubt certain expressions are intended to produce particular emotional responses, but only by believing the sentence. Effects produced by alliteration, say, or repetition, or by an onset of indigestion as we read the text, will usually be non-cognitive. Though if we were sure that the repetition was for emphasis then it would be plausible to suppose that ‘Boil the water, boil the water’ was cognitively equivalent to ‘It is important to boil the water’ or to 'Boil the water' uttered in a partiuclar tone of voice or to 'You must boil the water'. Other than such cases of linguistic convention, the emotional, literary, personal and other accidental associations that a word or sentence may have are not part of its cognitive meaning, however valued they may be by those who utter the word or the sentence. Nevertheless, as I've already said, the language to be translated ought to be studied hard in order to decide whether or not some of its associations may be intrinsic to the expression in the way that linguistic conventions of a language may be, and so be part of its meaning, or not.

It is not a question of assuming that cognitive equivalence is possible. For as I explained, if cognitive equivalence is never achievable, then we cannot have, in the words of the synoptic gospels, a faithful account of the words of Jesus in the Aramaic, and all theological reflection and preaching and communicating the account of things found in the Bible would necessarily be a distortion of the original. And if the primary function of special revelation is to disclose the plight of man and the power of God, by telling us the truth about each, then we are only in possession of a distorted version of the truth. (There may be enough of the original conveyed in the Greek still to do the trick, of course. But that's not quite the point. Remember the man who was converted at the theatre by reading the words 'To the Pit'.) The further we move from cognitive equivalence in our translating, the further away we move from a satisfactory translation of the original.

It was also said that I did not define a paraphrase. What is a paraphrase? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says ‘An expression in other words of the sense of any passage or text: a free rendering or amplification of a passage’ . Two definitions for the price of one, there, it seems to me. According to the first, any good translation is a paraphrase. But a paraphrase is also ‘free’, containing ‘amplification’. It’s this second, the free, amplified sense, that needs watching . The exact line between literalness and paraphrase may be hard to draw, but there are clear examples of paraphrastic translations of the Bible, or parts of it: Good News for Modern Man, The Message, Letters to Young Churches, and so on. Some of them are very good. But a paraphrase is not a translation, that's all.

Any efforts that render a biblical text into colloquial and readily understandable prose by a free rendition, amplifying the sense of the original, is going to be more than a translation, even though such a thing may be a part of a very good sermon. The use of words in addition to those in the original is not necessarily to provide a paraphrase if it preserves the cognitive meaning of the original. That’s the test. To repeat, we shall not decide whether or not translations are accurate by word counts, but by endeavouring to answer the question: when the original language sentence T can be true, would the translated sentence L also be true? If it were false, would the translated sentence also be false? (The sentence ‘Fermez la fenêtre. s’il vous plait’ has more words in it than its cognitive equivalent ‘Close the window, please’, just as ‘John loves Janet’ has fewer words than the cognitive equivalent ‘Janet is loved by John’. What usually makes something a paraphrase, and not an expression of the meaning of the original, is the use of additional words drawn from colloquial, everyday speech, with the aim of achieving immediate comprehension; the downside is that there is a good chance that such immediate comprehension is usually a comprehension of ideas and expressions not present in the original.

What about words that, in the original, look unintelligible? Shall we not try to find a form of words that renders them intelligible? Of course. But by sticking as closely to the original as possible. May there not be passages in the original that are ambiguous? Yes. So we must find some device, such as producing the less preferred translation as a footnote, or providing a marginal note, for conveying and preserving that ambiguity. Are some things not hard to be understood? Yes, and so their translations ought to be hard to understand as well, and for the very same reasons.