by Jacob Cerone
Getting Acquainted with the Subject
Translation German is no easy task. It requires extensive knowledge, not just of the source and target languages, but also of the topic under discussion in the text at hand. Without proficiency in the target language—usually the translator’s mother tongue—comical translations can result.
Without proficiency in the source language, there is no hope of understanding the text unless the translator blindly relies on technology such as Google Translate, which would make translating German difficult and comes with its own set of problems.
But even when one has a command of both languages, comprehension of the material and familiarity with the subject matter is essential to providing readable, accurate translations.
For instance, in the process of learning German for my doctoral studies in Germany, I’ve had several native German conversation partners graciously give of their time to help me improve my German. During our sessions, we discuss a range of topics from childcare to grocery shopping, from economics to politics. Sometimes I brought along complex theological passages that I had attempted on my own but struggled to translate earlier in the week. My conversation partners were often quite helpful. But just as often, despite being native speakers, they had less of an idea about the meaning of certain clauses, sentences, or paragraphs I was struggling to grasp because these passages belonged both to a higher register and to a field of study they were generally unfamiliar with. The problem was not their poor English or my good German; the simple fact is that more than a decade of reading primary and secondary sources related to biblical studies builds an encyclopedia of knowledge about these subjects that is indispensable for translating German works written on biblical studies.
And yet, despite having a good foundation from which to work, I have been asked to help with translating German texts on topics related to biblical studies that I am entirely unfamiliar with. In these situations, I have found that nothing will help my understanding of the German source text better than reading the primary and secondary source materials with which it interacts. And this is where having a broad and extensive Logos library has been an essential tool in my “translator’s toolkit” over the past two years.
Eros as Chastity
On translating German texts, one of the first I was ever asked to work on for publication was an essay by Katharina Bracht entitled, “Eros als Keuschheit: Transformation eines Mythos im Symposium des Methodius von Olympus,” now published under the title “Eros as Chastity: Transformation of a Myth in the Symposium of Methodius of Olympus,” in Methodius of Olympus: State of the Art and New Perspectives. (Nerd sidenot: The Greek texts of Methodius’ works are available for the Logos platform as volume 18 in the Patrologia Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, vols. 1–18.) Although I did not know anything about who Methodius was, the significance of ancient symposiums, nor the relationship between eros and chastity, I was pleased to discover that a search of his name in the Factbook returned an entry from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, which informed me that he was a likely a bishop of Lycia, died around 311, and wrote his Symposium after the manner of Plato’s own Symposium.
Since Plato’s Symposium is a part of the free Perseus Classics collection and Methodius’ Symposium is within the Early Church Fathers series, a mainstay in Logos base packages, I had both works in my library.
With these texts at hand, I had the ability to regularly check my translations of Bracht’s article against her citations of the primary sources. This was especially helpful when I arrived at her summary of Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium 206–210. There, Diotima expounds on the beauty that exists at different levels both in the physical and spiritual realms, progressing from erotic desire for a specific body to love of all beautiful bodies, to the love of the soul, and ultimately to the recognition of beauty within all branches of knowledge. Without these primary sources at hand, I would have been without a ballast as I navigated the treacherous waters of philosophical discourse.
Chronological Schema in the Damascus Document
To provide a more concrete example, one of the projects I’m currently working on involves the translation of essays related to the Dead Sea Scrolls. In one of these essays, Jörg Frey discusses the contents of the Damascus Document. There, he notes that this text provides a review of Israel’s history along with theological reflections. Subsequently, Frey expands on this, writing:
Dabei wird die Gemeinde nach einem Zeitschema (390 Jahre nach *Nabuchodonosor, 20 Jahre des Tastens, Auftreten des Lehrers der Gerechtigkeit) in die Geschichte nach dem Exil eingeordnet.
The general meaning of the text is clear. The Damascus Document has a chronological schema of Israel’s history and within that history, the community is located after the exile: 390 years after Nebuchadnezzar and an additional 20 years before the appearance of the Teacher of Righteousness. What was not clear to me, however, was the meaning of the phrase “20 Jahre des Tastens,” specifically the word “Tastens.” All my dictionaries—and even Google Translate—told me that “Tasten” means “grope.” But the resulting translation “20 years of groping” struck me as odd. So, to my copy of Martínez and Tigchelaar’s The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition I went. There, at CD–A Col. i:9–10, I found the following text:
But they were like blind persons and like those who grope for a path over twenty years.
While it is perhaps true that I should have trusted my dictionaries, the difference in English between “20 years of groping” and “20 years of groping for a path” are potentially significant. Since I was able to consult my English edition of the Scrolls, I was able to confidently supply the modifier “for a path/for their way” and avoid a potentially embarrassing translation.
Conclusion on Translating German with Logos
The instances where I’ve used Logos as a means of familiarizing myself with primary and secondary sources covering a broad spectrum could be multiplied. Some of the work I have done for the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception has prompted me to become acquainted with Mark the Magician (a second century Valentinian-Gnostic teacher who wrote about the aeons), Simeon’s Todesgebet in Luke, artistic depictions of biblical events, and more. And I have found that the broad selections in Logos Base Packages and in the Logos offerings in general have provided me with the necessary tools to broaden and deepen my own knowledge, which has aided me in my task as a translator.
No, one does not need Logos to accomplish this. Access to a good library will suffice. But the convenience of having these texts in my library and the ability to quickly pull them up has been a significant time saver and enabled me to work smarter, not harder.
In my next post, I will show you how you can use Logos 8 to help define theological German vocabulary for which you cannot find definitions otherwise.