Ambiguity As a Translation Value (Redux)

A year and a half ago, I shared a post on this blog called “Ambiguity As a Translation Value.” I received some very helpful feedback, namely that the questions I was asking about ambiguity were important and warrant more thought and discussion. When the call for papers came from the 2017 Bible Translation Conference coordinators, I submitted an abstract with the same title, and it was accepted. I have been hard at work developing these ideas for the last several months, (thus explaining why my blog has been so quiet of late!), and I presented the paper at the conference last month in Dallas. I am now ready to share it here as well. You can click the link below to read the paper. I’ve also copied the abstract here.



Clarity is one of the most esteemed qualities of a good translation, but is it always a value translators should aim for? This paper explores the challenges of translating ambiguous texts, and through the lens of Skopos theory considers the question of when translations may legitimately be ambiguous.

Language is routinely unclear. It often underrepresents an author’s intended meaning, opening the door for more than one understanding. A historical, cultural and linguistic distance between author and exegete only exacerbates this problem. For instance, when Paul says in 1 Cor. 11:10, “A wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels,” there is considerable uncertainty about how the angels fit into his argument. Furthermore, authors often intentionally avoid a precise and single meaning, especially when using poetic or figurative language. Translators often find themselves unsure of how to translate clearly in these situations, and many wonder whether clarity should be abandoned altogether in favor of ambiguity.In this paper I use the concepts of function, loyalty, and adequacy to posit three functions that may legitimize ambiguity in a translation. Using examples from the English Standard Version which intentionally employs ambiguity to achieve its purpose, I demonstrate the importance of defining the function or functions of a translation, and the precision required when ambiguity is used. These conclusions have strong implications for meaning-based translation practices as well as our overall view of clarity and its status as a core translation value.

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