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Alethea & Athena
Translation topics can appear anywhere! 
28th-Feb-2016 05:55 pm
While we were busy writing long detailed reports about our trip to Japan and then reviewing manga, we came across a thing on Facebook that I thought could make for some interesting discussion of translation, but since I was super busy, I didn't take time to do it. Until today! Tadah!

So there's this guy who wrote this thing called something like "Letters to a CES Director", where CES stands for...Church Educational System? Or something like that, but the point is it's directed at somebody who's supposed to know all the intellectual, academic type stuff that Latter-day Saints (and non-Latter-day Saints, if they're interested) get taught in the myriad church education programs that are offered by the church. The premise basically boils down to the fact that he has come across various facts that seem to contradict things that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claim to be true. In the interest of learning the whole truth for ourselves, we started to read his essay. But we only read two of his questions, because his essay was super long and, as I may have mentioned in the past several weeks, we've been very busy. We got to question two and we thought, "Okay, this guy clearly isn't looking for answers and I'm not sure he even really knows what he's talking about," so we stopped reading his essay and got back to work.

But anyway, both of the questions we read were about the Book of Mormon, which, according to LDS Church history, was translated by the power of God from golden plates that were hidden for centuries until they were revealed to Joseph Smith. Some people believe that the whole thing is a fabrication, concocted by Joseph Smith to lead the masses astray (and get rich, according to some theories, but if that was the plan it was a horrendously bad one). The guy who wrote the essay I'm talking about has found some evidence that he believes proves the fiction theory, but as translators, we think he's full of baloney. At any rate, I thought the questions could make for some interesting(?) discussion about translation in general, so I wanted to talk about it here!

His first question didn't strike me as being totally off the mark immediately, but thinking about it later, I realized that he seems to think there's such a thing as a one-to-one translation. I should point out that there are parts of the Book of Mormon that quote the Bible. Some people take this as evidence of plagiarism, and this guy's first argument is that the Book of Mormon's translation makes the same errors that appear in the King James version of the Bible--the edition that would have been most common in Joseph Smith's day. If the King James Bible made mistakes, and the Book of Mormon makes those same mistakes, obviously it was just a copy and couldn't possibly have been an inspired translation.

He makes a good point, but the problem is how he "knows" the KJV version was in error: more modern translations of the Bible translate it differently. In other words, the "more enlightened" translation, which is obviously more correct because it's new, I guess, uses different words, so the King James Version must be a mistake.

How is this wrong? Because, as I said, there's no such thing as a one-to-one translation. I can guarantee you the new translation of Fruits Basket is not going to match the TokyoPop one. That doesn't mean one or the other is more correct (though of course I would lean toward saying the TokyoPop version will probably be more correct, but as you know, I'm biased), just that the language that is used at certain times and in certain eras tends to be different. For example, the new Fruits Basket translation might have somebody saying "I can't even", but that wasn't a thing back when the first translation was done.

The essayist specifically mentions the use of words such as "unicorn", "satyr", and "dragon", and newer translations of the Bible don't use those words. So let's consider the word "kirin". It comes from a Chinese word for a specific kind of mythological creature--a kind that is not entirely unlike a giraffe. So when a Chinese person saw a giraffe for the first time, they would have said, "Hey, it's a kirin!" (Or actually, they would have used the Chinese word, but you get the point.) So now let's say you're translating a Chinese poem where you have no context, but they mention a kirin. Is it a unicorn, or is it a giraffe? Or let's say you've never seen a giraffe, so you go with unicorn. Or let's say you know unicorns don't exist, so they must be talking about a giraffe.

So the point is, frame of reference, and what the translator knows about are going to affect how he or she translates something, even if the translator is translating through inspiration. He may be inspired to know that it was talking about a giraffe, but he still didn't know what a giraffe was called, so he would have come up with a word from his own vocabulary. Alternatively, the animal might have been symbolic, so it didn't really matter what specific term was used as long as it created a clear enough idea in the readers' heads. Or maybe it really was a unicorn. (I confess, I don't have the Book of Mormon memorized, so I don't remember exactly where all the mentions of mythical creatures were, but I do remember one time it said some warriors "fought like dragons", in which case it really doesn't matter whether or not dragons really exist, because it's a simile.)

His second question had me so flabbergasted, I had to wonder if he was even serious at all. It was ridiculous enough to have me asking, "Wait, are you sure this is a real question?" If you have a King James Version of the Bible, you can check this for yourself, but if not, you can see it online here for a sample, chosen sort of at random (it's in the book of Isaiah). You'll notice that there are certain words in italics, and that means that those words weren't in the original non-English text of the Bible--they were added there by the translators to make it a readable English sentence.

What was the essayist's problem? Those same italicized words show up verbatim in the Book of Mormon when it's quoting the Bible, so clearly Joseph Smith was copying and not translating. And I was like, "Oh. My gosh." I became significantly less than charitable when I read that question, because he gave an example of his own, which I imagine he chose specifically because it had so many italicized words, and here's the thing: if you tried to read his sample without the italicized words, it would have made no sense whatsoever. So then I wanted to ask him, if you were writing that sentence in English, how would you make it legible?

Here's an example from Japanese manga of a similar situation. In the hypothetical King James Version of the translation would look like this (remember, italicized words represent words that weren't present in the source language): I love you.

In our translation of it, which we would have created without even looking at the KJV, and which many of you probably would have translated the exact same way because even though you're not fluent in Japanese you know this one, it would look like this: I love you.

The Japanese version (romanized for easy reading) would look like this: Suki da.

Most of our readers will know that "suki" means "like" or "love", and "da" is untranslatable in this context. You will also know that there is no word in that sentence meaning "I" or "you". Of course, it could be translated differently depending on the context, but the majority of the contexts you're going to find it in will lead to the above translation. And the point is, when a language is different from English, sometimes the words don't all match.

Here's another example that I think I got from a Japanese study aid. "Watashi wa sakana da." (This hypothetical scenario is that a flight attendant is asking a passenger which of the two meals offered they will be eating.) Translating it word for word would yield something like "I am the fish." That doesn't make sense. But if you know something about Japanese, you can translate it to the King James Version: "I will have the fish." And any other translator is likely to translate it the same way, or to something very similar (unless they don't know the context). That doesn't mean they're plagiarizing each other. It means they understand a language other than English, and they understand it in a very similar way.

So in short, none of this proves that the Book of Mormon is true. But I hope that it clearly demonstrates that the "contradictions" this guy claims to have found are not really contradictions at all.

Today I'm thankful for the intellectual stimulation of these questions, getting to watch the rest of the second season of Galavant, realizing that we definitely won't be working on this rush project on Friday, having cookies to look forward to, and it being time for dinner.
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