The fourth issue in translation is using a dictionary. Nobody knows the full vocabulary of their first language, still less the full vocabulary of their second or third or… And that’s why we need dictionaries.
Archaeologists have turned up dictionaries in cuneiform relating two and sometimes three languages. These helped them recover the relationship between Sumerian and Akkadian, for one thing, and those languages died centuries ago.
What dictionary a translator chooses and how he uses it is crucial to the quality of the translation.
If the setting of your document is a highly technical physics paper, but you use a high-school level dictionary aimed at helping a learner master the most frequent words and idioms in spoken language, you will get wrong all the technical terms that most people don’t use in conversation. Been there, avoided that.
If the setting of your document is the 17th century, but you always choose the first entry in the dictionary as the translation of a word, you will wind up using some 21st century meanings inappropriate for the 17th century. You might translate John Milton’s “buxom air” as “bosomy air” giving an impression that he thought of “air” as some kind of sexy goddess.
If you have a document written in slang or other highly idiomatic language, and you use a standard dictionary that ignores slang, or you try to do a “literal” translation or word-for-word substition, you’ll wind up with garbage. Seen it.
And finally there are the people who ignore dictionary meanings in favor of traditional ones, which may be based on any of the mistakes I have discussed in the last few posts.
It’s not at all clear that a Greek-Hebrew dictionary existed when the Septuagint was done. Based on the results, it’s also not at all clear that the translators had access to anybody who understood Hebrew words or grammar other than superficially.
But what is clear so far in my research, is that the people who translated from Hebrew to Greek used Greek words in ways that don’t match how they were used in the Greek classics that have survived to our days, and don’t match how Greek words were used 300 years after Septuagint was done.
And they also don’t match the simple meanings or the legal connotations of the Hebrew words.
And that is the essence of a bad translation. But it's not the last of a translator's problems.
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