Saturday, 27 December 2008

On dinosaurs, hens and translations

I suppose I could be seasonal and entitle this blog ‘three French hens…’ as in that most cryptic of Christmas songs, the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. The general background is that I have sitting on my desk two fat volumes: the NLT Study Bible (thanks, Tyndale) and the ESV Study Bible (I bought this one myself). At some point I will talk about their respective merits but not today: simply note that I have been reading both and have therefore been exposed in an inescapable way to the curiosities and difficulties of Bible translation.

The more specific background is that I was reading the French newspaper La Monde on my iPhone last week (as one does) and there was an interesting article on some new dinosaur discovery which suggested that far from being vicious carnivores they may have been papas-poules. (‘Des dinosaures d’avantage papas poules que les mammifères’). ‘Papas-poules’ makes no sense whatsoever in English; it is almost literally translated as ‘Father Hens’. With it being Christmas and me having nothing else to do but write a book or two I did a little bit of reading around. What emerged was that the French and English clearly had very different ideas about what hens represent so that translating almost anything to do with poultry is extraordinarily complex. (And possibly dangerous; I am still unclear whether to call a woman a poule is to show affection, infer that she is a prostitute, or both.)

In English, the hen may mean either the domestic fowl as a genus, or the female of the species in particular. (I'm not going to discuss the male for fear that the diminutive of cockerel may trigger your adult-site-warning software.) The young are generally known for cowardice: as in ‘you chicken!’ however female hens are allowed a certain protective bravery. Yet mysteriously only 20 miles away across the Channel the species morphs. Thoroughly aggressive and very macho French football teams happily display the chicken as a logo; indeed it is even an approved symbol for the French state. Let me quote from the website Gallic Rooster:

History of Le Coq
The Gallic Rooster (Coq Gaulois), or cockerel, is the French national emblem, as symbolic as the stylised French Lily. From the very roots of French history, the Latin word Gallus means both ‘rooster’ and ‘inhabitant of Gaul’. The French rooster emblem adorned the French flag during the revolution. With the success of the Revolution in 1848, the rooster was made part of the seal of the Republic. In 1899, it was embossed on a more widespread device, the French 20 franc gold coins. The Coq Gaulois has often been the symbol on French stamps over the years, although now (in 2006) the generic French stamp depicts a stylised ‘Marianne’.

Anyway, it seems to be the consensus that the only real way of translating papa-poule is by using something like ‘devoted father’ or ‘doting father’ but by doing so you lose all the imagery that was present.

It is faced with something like this that you realise the real difficulty of translation: if we can't easily translate hen-speak from French to English how on earth can we do anything serious? I have no doubt that there are those people who would argue on such a basis that translating the Word of God is impossible. (Islam, of course, gets round it by saying that the Qur'an is untranslatable and you must learn seventh-century Arabic. At the risk of courting controversy I refer them to the three letters Alif, Lam, Mim, which occur widely as a heading to the suras and point out that no one knows what they mean.) The Christian answer lies a) in God’s sovereign superintendence of all things so that he controls even translations and b) the Holy Spirit who can speak through even a poor translation. But I refer you to textbooks on theology to work that one through further.

Anyway whatever Bible translation you use, have a happy and blessed New Year. And be careful when you talk about chickens to the French.