Translations that have helped shape languages
CorrespondentPublished April 17, 2011
The Italian phrase Traduttore, Traditore (translator, traitor) sums up some of the pitfalls of translation I have discussed in previous columns.
Incompetent, malicious or overzealous translators can mutilate a writer’s work by twisting, subtracting or adding to what a writer has said.
But translations also have affected and shaped entire languages such as English and German.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the spread of literacy (primarily among men), the invention of the printing press, and a diffuse pan-Germanic and anti-papal movement in Northern Europe led to the magnificent translations of the Bible by Martin Luther in Germany and William Tyndale (and others) in England.
In both cases, the dialects Luther and Tyndale chose for their translations became the standard form of their respective languages, and many expressions passed into the common speech.
For example, Tyndale gave us such terms as “scapegoat,” “by the skin of their teeth” and “eat, drink and be merry.”
It is said that he is the second most widely quoted writer in the English language, exceeded only by Shakespeare.
In Southern Europe, the situation was quite different. For two reasons, there was no urgency to translate the Bible.
First, even though there was considerable anti-clerical friction, little of it was anti-papal and almost never anti-Catholic.
Second, whereas the traditional Latin of the Church was truly foreign to the Germanic-speaking people of Northern Europe-English, German, Dutch, Scandinavian, etc. — to the neo-Latin or Romance-speaking people of Southern Europe Latin was fairly intelligible because their languages were derived from it.
As one writer put it, if not transparent, Latin was “translucent” to French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese speakers.
There was no rush or reason to translate what they already understood to a certain degree.
Much late, the Bible was translated into the Romance languages but without any noticeable linguistic impact.
Harold Raley is a linguist, professor and writer who lives in Friendswood. He can be reached at haroldraley(at)sbcglobal.net.