a foreignising translation of genesis 1, part I

Debates over types of translation of the Bible are typically dominated by discussions of the relative merits of either “literal” (or formal equivalent) translation verses dynamic equivalent wherein the primary goal is the transfer of meaning from the source to the target. While there is a place for both types of translation, I personally think that literal translations have a rather limited place, serving best those with some grasp of the underlying languages and the way they operate, but without the fluency to be able to rely on them alone. Otherwise they can be used in conjunction with a good dynamic equivalent translation in order to highlight possible intertextual links, linguistic parallels, or formal features of the original text. For those unfamiliar with the original languages, however, I would not recommend using a “literal” translation alone because it can obscure as much as it reveals.

These are, however, not the only two options. With the growing awareness of the distance between modern western readers of the Bible and the original context of the text’s composition comes a growing awareness of the manner in which most translations of either type allow the reader to domesticate the text by permitting the reader to impose upon the text their own cultural ideals and norms simply because the translations employ concepts sufficiently vague to allow them such freedom. The problem has been highlighted by Lawrence Venuti, who wrote,

By producing the illusion of transparency, a fluent translation masquerades as true semantic equivalence when it in fact inscribes the foreign text with a partial interpretation, partial to English-language values, reducing if not simply excluding the very difference that translation is called on to convey.1

Now it might be tempting to think that a formal equivalence translation overcomes the problem by reflecting more closely the structure of the original together with a more wooden approach resulting in a text which doesn’t sit comfortably as contemporary English. Unfortunately that is not the case, for although a FE translation can highlight the fact that the text is unlike “normal” English literature, in practice they rarely highlight the nature of the foreignness of the original text. Indeed, I suspect it is easier to produce a foreignising translation of a biblical text in what appears to be good contemporary English than it is in the less natural English which results from FE methodologies, simply because it is possible to highlight the semantic difference more precisely when the meaning can be more directly conveyed to the reader.

Now of all the texts in the Bible to which a foreignising translation may usefully be applied, it is perhaps the cosmological passages which stand to gain the most, for there are some of the greatest differences in worldview between the modern and ancient audience, and there, too, do we find that modern readers are most readily both willing and able to impose their own perspective upon the text with the resultant domestication of the text and loss of its original significance. My foreignising translation aims to use contemporary English grammar and syntax, but preserve or highlight alien aspects of the text in such a way that the reader cannot easily ignore the differences but is forced to see them.

With that background, my translation shall appear in the next post!

1. Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 1995) 21.

7 responses to “a foreignising translation of genesis 1, part I”

  1. John Hobbins

    Thanks for this, Martin. I’m looking forward to this. Have you seen my attempt?

    I link here:


  2. martin

    Hi John. Do you mean this? If so, yes, I do recall (I even wrote a comment). I have to admit that I’m not concentrating too much on formal features in my attempt which is why I think there is value in referring to translations produced from the differing methodologies.

    I shall post my first draft in the next couple of days and hope that feedback from anyone reading will help refine it far beyond my own feeble efforts!

  3. John Hobbins

    That post is what I had in mind, and another one I link to which touches on macrostructural parallelisms across Gen 1 and 2.

    I look forward to your series.

  4. David Ker

    Martin, I’ve mentioned your series at BBB: http://betterbibles.com/2009/01/02/turning-a-lion-into-a-kitty-cat/ and there is some good discussion starting there.

  5. steve smith

    At last! Thank you Martin for articulating the issue so well. Having struggled to teach myself biblical Hebrew over many years, I do feel incredibly disappointed with the various English translations, from the most “literal” to the most “dynamically equivalent”, with which I am familiar. There is so much about Hebrew (and for that matter Greek) which simply does not translate adequately, and if we are serious about the bible as somehow being/ containing the word of God, then there should at least be some translations that aim to preserve as much of the original linguistic richness (and oddness, to an English reader!) as possible. I am particularly perplexed by the ignoring of translators of the repetition of individual words within a passage in the Hebrew (and Greek!) which is clearly used to create fixed thematic axes around which the rest of the passage revolves (first brought to my attention by Eugene Peterson’s comments about “shalach” (=sent ) in the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 12). I have come across literally hundreds of examples of this, every one a jewel, and it drives me mad that this is so consistently ignored! We are taught that good English style avoids repetition, precisely because it stands out; Hebrew in contrast embraces it, for the same reason!

    Anyway, thanks for what you have written so far, Martin; I look forward to reading more.

  6. Suzanne

    Good stuff. Come and see what Kurk and I have been writing about.

  7. “is a word-for-word translation unbiblical?” — part 1 | “shields-up”

    […] translation better, or is a “dynamic equivalent” translation better? Or perhaps even a foreignising translation! What is generally lacking, however, is an examination of whether a particular translation […]

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