To conceal or reveal?: self-censorship and explicitation in the ancient bible versions
Mangum, Douglas Todd
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This study explores Biblical Hebrew figures of speech and their translations in the ancient Bible versions in Greek (the Septuagint), Syriac (the Peshitta), and Aramaic (the Targums). The research is grounded in the methodologies of Translation Studies and linguistics — with Translation Studies providing the theoretical basis for describing translation and linguistics providing the theoretical basis for analysing figures of speech and their construal by ancient translators. The research question is: how did ancient Bible translators respond to Biblical Hebrew figures of speech, especially when those figures of speech were used for mitigating taboo topics like blasphemy or bodily functions? Since figurative language requires the translator to make a decision about what the figure of speech was meant to communicate, it was hypothesised that the translators’ strategies related to figures of speech might provide insights into their decision-making process. Figures of speech that are used to conceal taboo topics are euphemisms, so the primary focus of analysis was on Biblical Hebrew euphemisms and their translation. While the sociocultural importance of taboo subjects increases the likelihood of the translator’s intervention in suppressing content (self-censorship), this study also addressed figures of speech from neutral, or non-taboo, subject areas in order to establish a standard of comparison for how the versions handled the implicit meaning of figurative language when the stakes were not as high as with a sensitive topic. The opaque meaning of figurative expressions also provides an opportunity for a translator to intervene to make the meaning explicit to the audience (explicitation). The major finding of the study is that while literal translation is the predominant approach to translating figures of speech in all the ancient versions, the versions also used figurative language to translate figures of speech from their source text far more than was expected based on the hypothesis that the ancient versions are highly literal and rarely engage in substitution of one figure of speech for another. This assumption that the versions did not make significant use of idiomatic or figurative substitution was not supported by the evidence analysed in this study. The significant number of blended (literal and figurative) renderings and figurative renderings indicates at least some translators of the ancient versions possessed a more sophisticated understanding of translation and were capable of varying their strategies to bring the text closer to the natural language of their audiences, even if their default mode was to translate literally. Further, it was found that figurative language in the area of euphemism carried over between languages at a greater degree than anticipated. A translation that appeared to be strictly literal because it used a word from the same semantic, conceptual domain as the source could in fact be figurative because the target language had developed the same figure of speech through the same processes of semantic extension (i.e., metaphor or metonymy). Overall, it was shown that the ancient translators were capable of more interpretive renderings that reoriented Biblical Hebrew idiomatic phrases toward the expectations of the audience of the translation. With taboo topics, there can be a wide range of acceptability norms. The varying strategies used in the ancient versions with euphemistic figures of speech likely reflect an awareness of what was acceptable to the target audience.