Jack, Your Translation Has Too Many Words

My missionary friend frowned as he read my translation of the gospel of Luke, looked up and said, “Jack, your translation is good but it has too many words.”

I remembered that incident years later when I saw the movie Amadeus in which Emperor Joseph II criticized Mozart, “Your work is ingenious, but there are too many notes.”

My friend and I were translators in distantly related indigenous Brazilian languages. With effort we could somewhat read each other’s translation. I was a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators and he belonged to another mission organization. Our training in Bible translation principles had been quite different. We both, of course, insisted on accuracy, faithfully reflecting the content of the text from which we translated. But we used different standards for judging a passage to be well translated.

After translating a passage my translator friend would ask himself, “Can this verse be understood?” if the answer was yes, he would go on to translate the next verse.

I asked myself, “Can this verse be misunderstood?” If the answer was no, I would go on to the next verse, but if yes, I would retranslate it until the answer was no.

I learned this concept from CS Lewis who taught me much about writing for clarity, first by the example of his own works and then by the advice he gave to fellow writers.

“Readers do not start by knowing what you mean. Most will misunderstand if you give them the slightest chance. It is like driving sheep down the road; if there is any gate open to the left or the right, they will go into it.”

When I was translating, and now whenever I write, I keep asking, “Is there any open gate, a word, expression, or construction that would cause a reader to go astray?”

My friend’s mission organization had teams of missionaries living in all the villages for which he was translating, and, as he put it, “If there is any misunderstanding, they will explain and teach the readers.”

Jo and I knew there was no guarantee that there would be any missionaries in any of the Canela villages to “explain and teach the readers” so we determined that the Canela translation needed to stand on its own merits with all gates closed, even if it took more words to close them.

John 3:16 in Canela

And we did use many more words. Take, for instance, a basic gospel verse like John 3:16. In English the number of words range from 25 (KJV) to 31 (CEV) to 40 (MSG). The Cakchiquel translation has 62 words and the Canela translation we did has 66 words. Here’s why we had to use more words:

world=Canelas would take this as God loving the land on which they lived, the environment. And God does love His natural creation, but the focus is on “all the people who live on earth” (1 English word to 6 Canela words)

gave=Implied in this word is that God “sent him towards us into this world where we live”, (1 word to 9)

son=Since Canelas do not talk about themselves in the third person, we had to put this into the form “I who am his Son,” (1 word to 4)

believe=This term implies more than just mental assent but having a behavior changing effect. Therefore the form, “he empowers himself with” (1 word to 4)

perish=What is implied in this term is to “die and stay dead and exist forever far away from God” (1 word to 11)

everlasting life=Canela makes contrasts explicit, “In favorable comparison (to the previous situation) they return to life and live alongside God forever” (2 words to 12)

And that’s how 8 key words in English turned into 50 words in Canela.

Those 42 extra words are gate closers and absolutely essential to keep readers from straying from the path of truth.

Mozart’s compositions were criticized for having too many notes because they were dense and complex.

Our translation was criticized for having too many words because it was simple and clear. It was those extra words that made things clear and closed the gates of confusion.