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When Translating Grammar Changes the Meaning

Joel Hoffman of the God Didn’t Say That blog has an interesting post up about a Bible translation challenge that seems counter-intuitive at first glance: sometimes directly translating the grammar of an original text actually corrupts the meaning in subtle ways.

By way of example, Hoffman notes the quirks of translating French word order into English:

[Consider the French phrases] un homme ancien and un ancien homme. The first one can’t be “a man ancient” — that’s not English — so the obvious choice is “an ancient man.” And it turns out that that’s the right translation.

But what about un ancien homme? Based on what we just saw — “an ancient man” is, after all, grammatical in English — it would seem obvious that the translation should just be “an ancient man.” But that’s wrong, because un ancien homme means “a former man,” that is, someone who used to be a man. (It’s a potentially odd concept. Another illustration comes from chateau [“castle”]. The French un chateau ancien means “an ancient castle,” but un ancien chateau means “a former castle,” for example, a restaurant or museum that that used to be a castle.)

What’s going on is this: Adjectives in French sometimes change meaning depending on whether they appear before or after the noun. The naive strategy of looking only at the words and their order has led us astray. Even the first French example above, with un pauvre homme and un homme pauvre, is problematic. Both French phrases translate to “a poor man” in English, but with different meanings: the first one means “a pitiful man” while the second means “a not-rich man.”

Simply knowing a dictionary definition of ancien in this instance wasn’t enough to translate these seemingly simple phrases correctly, since its meaning depends on word order in a way that doesn’t happen in English. If you’ve ever translated from one language to another, you know that it’s a natural impulse to preserve word order as much as possible—but in cases like this, doing so actually does the original text a disservice. Just one more issue that Bible translators must consider in producing the modern-language Bibles we read—and another reason to appreciate the hard work they do.

Filed under Translations