Saturday, September 10, 2011

Old school translation humor?

The recent passing of Eugene Nida has gone more or less unremarked on in linguistics blogs, at least those that I follow. It has been huge news among missionary types, judging from a quick Google search. This reflects his career, I suppose, but he actually did do real work in linguistics — the image is the cover of a book he published with the University of Michigan Press.

While there's a lot of importance to be said about missionary linguistics and probably about his role in it, I'm not going to deal with that now. I have far less significant stuff in mind.

The NYT did a long obit on Nida (here). They  laid out his contribution to translation as being in his “dynamic equivalence” or “functional equivalence” approach, that is, the effort to provide idiomatic translations rather than literal, word-by-word ones. I don't know the history of translation at all, but he certainly wasn't the first to do this by any stretch. But again, my purpose is a lower one.

The obit ends with this note:
Translated back into English, some of the Bible passages produced using Mr. Nida’s method yield a resonant poetry. As The New York Times reported in a 1955 article about his work, “‘I am sorrowful’ gets a variety of translations for tribes within a small area of central Africa: ‘My eye is black,’ ‘My heart is rotten,’ ‘My stomach is heavy’ or ‘My liver is sick.’” 
Is this a print instance of what some now call 'BabelFish humor'? Or a sophisticated statement about metaphor and language change (since it's within a small region)? I'm going with colonialist-era exoticization of languages/cultures readers don't have any clue about.

1 comment:

John said...

The death of Eugene Nida might have gone unnoticed on the blogs but Auntie Beeb managed to pick it up.
In 'Last Word', a weekly radio programme celebrating the lives of the great, the good and the not very good at all, the BBC honoured his life with a short piece you can listen to here:
His biographer Philip Stine and his translator Ioane Teao from Tokelau in the South Pacific also feature in the prog.