Translating Foreign Languages

September 1, 2020 — 14 Comments

How many languages can you translate into English? If the answer is >0, I envy you. I’ve studied four,* and passed all the tests, but have an actual aptitude in none.

If I were thus gifted, I would be transferring some of the world’s literary wealth into my native tongue—and vice versa.

One of my granddaughters is currently fascinated by language. She wants to speak a dozen or more, and has begun some study in Spanish and Japanese. However, I attribute most of her dream to a young teenager’s excitement at having the entire world before them. In time, we all learn that finite concerns, such as time, finances and obligations, erode our options.

I’ve written about translation before, most extensively in “C.S. Lewis’ School of Translation.”⁑

This week, while writing an article about a Lutheran approach to ministry with the newly bereaved, I came across an entertaining reference to translation, in the letters of Martin Luther. Luther, of course, was the Reformation leader who, among other things, strongly believed the Bible should be accessible to lay people in their own language.

Translating the Holy Scriptures

Martin Luther was a scholar. Yet, even scholars lack expertise in all subjects. Thus, when translating the Bible into German, he welcomed the cooperation of others. This was particularly wise, since the so-called “Luther Bible” was the first German translation from the original languages rather than the Latin Vulgate. Unsurprisingly, the New Testament was published first. The longer Jewish Scriptures required more time.

The following letter was written in 1524 to Luther’s friend George Spalatin, another German theologian. Luther playfully explains how faithfulness to the original Hebrew text has delayed the publication of the final portion of the Bible.  

All is well with us. We have so much trouble in translating Job, on account of the grandeur of his sublime style, that he seems to be much more impatient of our efforts to turn him into German than he was of the consolation of his friends.

Either he always wishes to sit on his dunghill, or else he is jealous of the translator who would share with him the credit of writing his book. This keeps the third part of the Bible from being printed.

This casual identification with Job, one of God’s most faithful followers, appeals to me. The older I become, the greater is my sense of connection with the “cloud of witnesses,” the saints who have gone before us. In fact, I am also growing progressively more eager to fellowship with the angels. Though different from humanity in countless ways, we share the wonder of being beloved creatures of God.

In The Four Loves, Lewis writes that “friendship . . . This love, free from instinct, free from all duties but those which love has freely assumed, almost wholly free from jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed, is eminently spiritual. It is the sort of love one can imagine between angels.” In my mind, phileo is also the sort of love we will one day experience between angels and humans.

C.S. Lewis’ Work with the Hebrew Language

Lewis did not read Hebrew. That shortcoming is certainly quite forgivable, given the numerous arenas in which his talents excelled. In his Reflections on the Psalms, he acknowledges his limitation. At the same time, he notes that we have many accessible resources by those acquainted with the ancient language.

I have worked in the main from the translation which Anglicans find in their Prayer Book; that of Coverdale. Even of the old translators he is by no means the most accurate; and of course a sound modern scholar has more Hebrew in his little finger than poor Coverdale had in his whole body. But in beauty, in poetry, he, and St. Jerome, the great Latin translator, are beyond all whom I know. I have usually checked, and sometimes corrected, his version from that of Dr. Moffatt.

In his explanation, Lewis notes the value in referring to several authoritative sources. This is especially wise when words are rare or unclear in their usage. Even people fluent in various languages would be negligent to ignore such resources where there is a question regarding significant interpretations.

In the meantime, Luther’s reminder of Job’s “grandeur of his sublime style,” along with the book’s remarkable message, has me preparing to read that book once again. In translation, of course.


* Spanish in junior high, Latin in high school, classical Greek in college, and Hebrew in seminary. As the Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” I am quite impressed by the fact that many of Mere Inkling’s readers from outside the States are at least bilingual.

⁑ If you’re interested in the subject, you might want to also (re)visit “C.S. Lewis as a Translator.”

14 responses to Translating Foreign Languages

  1. 

    In answer to your first question I could translate French and Spanish reasonably well and have a stab at Italian and German. Like your granddaughter I am fascinated by languages and can’t come across one without wanting to learn it. I have smatterings of Hindi and Punjabi and I’m learning Ancient Greek and translating useful sentences such as ‘the students are reading the philosophy book.’
    I enjoyed Martin Luther’s comment about Job’s resistance to being translated. It seems entirely in keeping with Job’s character!

    • 

      Sarada, have you ever considered translating anything from those languages into English? I’m sure there are many things that have yet to be made accessible to English-speaking audiences.

      Choose some subject that interests you, and look to see what remains untranslated. I remember, have been a collector of Constantinian coinage as a young adult, I was very frustrated that there there was no translation of the introductory portions of the (then) authoritative text, Numismatique Constantinienne by Jules Maurice.

      Yes, that Luther quote does seem consistent with Job’s character.

      • 

        Nice idea Rob but actually I find translation a very frustrating exercise as you can never really find the ‘mot juste’ in another language. And btw it’s Sarada

      • 

        Best to avoid things we find frustrating (when we can). Yes, that is the unique challenge of translating. Too often people settle–in whatever work they’re currently doing–for “good enough.” Sorry about the name “typo.” I think I was typing while distracted by one of my grandkids who was here for piano lessons. My wife teaches them, and four are here at one time, so it’s wise for me to avoid activities that require concentration while I’m simultaneously enjoying their presence. Pretty name though… which means?

  2. 

    Some are fascinated by linguistics, entomology, and language as some adore algebra, geometry, and statistics. Both interests broaden the individual’s world and understanding…sort of – if you leave out “understanding people”….civilization, maybe, but real live people?
    Translation is very tricky. ( I read French but if you ask me a question in French and I’m not paying strict attention, I will answer in Spanish which my dad insisted I start learning/speaking before Kindergarten as he said we lived in an international city and so close to the border. Then there was a much more friendly and easy flow back and forth in TX)
    With translations, the slightest details can change so much. Appreciate your nod to checking with authoritative sources …instead of bending words to suit a desired interpretation.
    I don’t know where you got that cartoon – but it’s hysterical – and so true across species.. Plan on showing that to everyone! HAHA

    • 

      What a curious reaction to hearing something in one language and answering in another. I guess your brain registers it’s not your first language, and then it defaults to your primary, secondary language… I bet they’ve done studies on that phenomenon.

      Oh yes, translating can be tricky. Especially with less common words, or I should say, words that possess different nuances depending on their context. That’s why translators usually restrict themselves to subject matter with which they possess some expertise. For example, the reference work I mentioned in my response to the previous comment, Numismatique Constantinienne, could best be translated by someone familiar with (1) Roman numismatics, and (2) the history of the Constantinian dynasty.

  3. 

    Do you have recommendations for people like me who chose a language course in high school to fulfill graduation requirements? I’m most interested in French and Spanish for speaking, and tackling Hebrew for a better understanding of Scripture.

    • 

      A great question, Perri. It would involve a number of factors. You’ve already touched on a couple. With an interest in the Scriptures, I would recommend either Hebrew or Greek, depending on which part of God’s word you’re most interested in studying in greater depth. I struggled much more with Hebrew, but I’ve had quite a few friends who say it was significantly easier for them to learn than Greek. (Of course, as I’ve acknowledged, I possess very little aptitude for languages.)

      Contemporary languages would be most useful if you intend to travel where they are spoken or… if you have a special interest in reading literature written in those tongues. For example, lots of theological programs strongly recommend (or require) German, since many influentials works are written in that language.

      Another factor would be whether you have family or friends with whom you might communicate better, knowing another language. For example, that is why my wife learned ASL (American Sign Language).

      A final consideration, depending on a person’s age (i.e. less a concern for someone in the fall season of life) and future plans, is the commercial value of a language. Here on the West Coast of the States, on the Pacific Rim, many companies are looking for people fluent in Japanese and Chinese. So, job opportunities would be a major consideration for some.

      In your specific case, as a high school student, my personal recommendation would be Latin. It really does establish a foundation for the study of other languages, and improves one’s knowledge of English. In my case, with a fascination for early Church, it was sort of a no-brainer.

  4. 

    I had a friend in college who was determined to learn 25 languages by twenty-five. At the time, she was studying Japanese. I’ve often wondered if I failed to grasp the one other language I studied because I felt ashamed that I could not converse in it as well as I do in English.

    • 

      Twenty-five at 25. Wow. A member of our college Bible study, Bruce Tanke, is the “most” bona fide genius I’ve ever known. Sadly, he passed away several years ago, and we never had contact during the intervening years.

      Bruce ended up with PhDs in Psychology and Linguistics… but back when my wife and I fellowshipped with him, he was only 23, had 4 master’s degrees, was nearing completion of his Linguistics PhD, and spoke 15 different languages, but could read and write 19. Unbelievable.

  5. 

    I studied French all through High School. About all I can do is recognize a few items off a French menu (LOL).

    • 

      Funny. I suspect that’s true of the majority of people who study languages but then never “live” in an environment where they use them regularly. That’s one reason Spanish has an advantage here in the States… you can actually watch television programming and newscasts every day. (Of course, you could do the same for other languages via the internet, but I think following live news reports, etc. would be more appealing.)

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