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University of Sarajevo
NAIVE TRANSLATION EQUIVALENT
In an article published in 1983 I introduced the notion of Naïve Translation Equivalent and suggested that it could be a useful tool in discovering and preventing errors in translation and foreign language production. Both because of the nature of the journal in which it was to be published and because of my own still tentative ideas about the notion, I wrote the article in an offhand manner and sprinkled it with numerous colloquialisms. Still, the article was well received and some readers sent me congratulatory letters, one of which was published in Forum.
Since that time many of my colleagues in Bosnia and some in the United States have used the notion of Naïve Translation Equivalent in teaching a foreign language or in (teaching) translation, and have found it very useful. One called it a revolutionary tool for improving the quality of translation.
The idea of the naïve translation equivalent was born out of my questions related to so-called "literal" translation. We all say that literal translation is bad. But why is it bad? One feature of literal translation is that it is a word-for-word translation. Although such translation may be acceptable in many cases (cf. That house is big = Cette maison est grande), in an overwhelming number of cases it is not. But what about other features of literal translation? I think that an important aspect of literal translation, perhaps more important than word-for-word translation, is the use of the most frequent foreign-language translation equivalent of a native-language word or structure in contexts in which that word or structure has a different translation equivalent. I have called incorrect words or structures in the target language, produced by such naïve and erroneous translation, Naïve Translation Equivalents (NTE).
I am convinced that most adults produce sentences in a foreign language, either in speaking it or translating into it, by tacit translation of semantically corresponding sentences of their native language. Also, unless they are linguistically sophisticated, most people tend to translate native-language texts into another language as if each word in their language had one meaning or function. If a linguistically naïve English-speaking learner of French learns that English jump is French sauter and joy is joie, s/he is likely to express jump for joy in French as *sauter pour joie rather than the proper sauter de joie, because pour is by far the most frequent translation equivalent of for, because for simply “means” ‘pour’. By using pour, the most frequent French translation of for, in a context in which it cannot be used, the English-speaking learner of French (or translator into French) has produced a wrong, naïve translation equivalent. At least half the errors made by my students at the English Department of the University of Sarajevo, where I taught for nearly four decades, were naïve translation equivalents. Frequently occurring naïve translation equivalents were mistranslations of the Bosnian preposition za as English for because although za has about twenty translation equivalents in English (if we count phrases in which it is used), for is by far the most frequent one. A short time ago the International University of Sarajevo was preparing to launch my last book and, talking to me on the phone, their secretary, a native speaker of Bosnian, said: *I know for your book corresponding to Bosnian Znam za vašu knjigu. Obviously, the error was caused by the use of the most frequent translation equivalent of za in a context in which it requires a different translation equivalent (in this case about). Another common error is the wrong use of for in phrases like *the road for Sarajevo instead of the proper the road to Sarajevo, caused by the use of the most frequent English translation equivalent of the Bosnian preposition za in a context in which za does not correspond to for.
There are also grammatical errors that can be ascribed to the use of naïve translation equivalents. One such error, which I have observed on several occasions, is the wrong use of adverbs in complements of predicate verbs denoting a human perception. Instead of saying This smells nice Bosnian learners of English will often say *This smells nicely because Bosnian perception verbs take adverbs in their complements, not adjectives, like English perception verbs. What is interesting is that errors of this kind are made by Bosnians with hardly any conscious knowledge of the grammar of their language. We must conclude from this that tacit knowledge of the grammar of one's native language is an important (tacit) factor in the process of learning foreign languages.
When speakers of a language are frequently exposed to a naïve translation equivalent, they may in time accept the particular "wrong" word or structure as normal and proper. This happened to the complement of Bosnian Hvala 'Thank you'. Until about thirty years ago, the complement of this word was a prepositional phrase introduced by the preposition na, which most frequently translates as on in English. However, for the last three decades or so, young people, influenced by the use of for in the prepositional phrase functioning as complement of Thank you, started using the most frequent Bosnian translation equivalent of for, i,e, za, in place of na. Thus, instead of the "classical" Hvala na (vašoj) pomoći 'Thank you for your help', young people increasingly say Hvala za (vašu) pomoć, although the structure with za would have been unthinkable some fifty years ago.
Sometimes an error deriving from a naïve translation equivalent gradually becomes generally accepted, but only in the particular collocation(s) in which it was originally used. Bosnia-Herzegovina was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire for forty years (from 1878 to 1918) and many public institutions established by the Austrian authorities were given German names. They built a museum in Sarajevo and called it Landesmuseum; they also founded the National Bank, which they called Landesbank. Now the German noun Land has several common meanings ('land', 'country', 'state') and some less common ones, including 'province, region' (Germany itself is made up of 16 Länder). The latter meaning is more commonly found in Austrian German than in Hochdeutsch (e.g. das Land Tirol). Nevertheless, Land is used most frequently in the sense of 'country, state'. This sense of Land corresponds to Bosnian zemlja 'country' or država 'state'. The anonymous translator of Land into Bosnian decided to translate it as zemlja, thus using, as might be expected from a linguistically naïve person, the Bosnian naive translation equivalent of Land. But in the two German compounds quoted above Land is used attributively and, at that time, attributes in Bosnian had to have the form of adjectives (we now have many noun + noun compounds, no doubt under the influence of English and German). So the translator used the adjective zemaljski derived from the noun zemlja, and called the two institutions Zemaljski muzej and Zemaljska banka. In fact, the adjective zemaljski is hardly ever used as an independent word, appearing mostly in the compounds ovozemaljski 'of this world' and vanzemaljski 'extraterrestrial'. Still, native speakers of Bosnian associated zemaljski with zemlja in the sense of 'country, state', although Bosnia-Herzegovina was not a country at the time but a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thus, a naïve translation equivalent has changed the names of a number of institutions in Sarajevo, but nobody has ever objected to the change, probably because the names, through long use, have largely lost their descriptive character and are treated as proper names.
It is interesting that the adjective zemaljski was officially used once more to refer to Bosnia-Herzegovina as a country, but not as a direct translation equivalent. During World War II, in 1943, the representatives of different parts of Bosnia gathered in the town of Mrkonjić Grad to draw up a declaration about the future of Bosnia. The gathering was called Zemaljsko antifašističko vijeće narodnog oslobođenja Bosne i Hercegovine 'The Zemaljski Anti-Fascist Council of People's Liberation of Bosnia and Herzegovina'. I deliberately left Zemaljski in the original because of its vague meaning suggesting that the country is a "land," which aspires to statehood in a future federal Yugoslavia.
Every language must have words which were originally naïve translation equivalents of words of another language. I have a strong suspicion that English neighbour in the Biblical commandment Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself is one such word. The Bosnian equivalent of this commandment is Ljubi bližnjega svoga. The adjective bližnji, corresponding to English neighbour as used in the commandment, means 'one who is close to you', so that the commandment can be translated as 'Love those who are close to you'. (Christian theologians in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia usually say that this admonition commands us to love all fellow humans.) It would be a distortion of the Biblical commandment to interpret neighbor in the English version in the sense which this word has in modern English. In nearly all languages I have examined the English noun neighbour as used in the commandment Love thy neighbour corresponds to words largely synonymous with Bosnian bližnjeg. In fact, because of the great degree of formal similarity among Slavic languages, the words occurring in place of bližnjeg are cognates of this Bosnian adjective. In all German translations of the Bible neighbour corresponds to Nächsten (not Nachbar!), which in the context of this particular commandment means ‘next of kin’ and, metaphorically, anybody close to us; other Germanic languages have cognates of Nächsten. The following are words corresponding to neighbour in Romance languages: Latin proximum, French prochain, Spanish prójimo, Portuguese próximo, Italian prossimo; they all refer to those who are close to us, and can be interpreted as all of humanity. There are two interesting translation equivalents of Love thy neigbour: the Weymouth translation of the New Testament has Thou shalt love thy fellow man as thou lovest thyselfI, thus correcting the naïve translation equivalent which produced neighbour, and a Turkish translation which has komşunu, an exact equivalent of neighbour no doubt resulting from an English original.
The Bible was translated into English many times and from different languages. (In the authorized King James version of the Bible, the New Testament was translated from Greek, the Old Testament from Hebrew, while the Apocrypha were translated from Greek and Latin.) It is well-nigh impossible to find out which translator came up with a naïve translation equivalent but it is perfectly logical to suppose that the commandment had a word in a source language that referred both to immediate neighbors and to other living beings who are biologically close to us, i.e. human beings. The "naïve" English translator chose to render the meaning of immediate neighborliness rather than the broader sense implying all of mankind.
I will finish this article by repeating the definition of Naïve Translation Equivalent given above: A naïve translation equivalent is produced by the use of the most frequent foreign-language translation equivalent of a native-language word or structure in contexts in which that word or structure has a different translation equivalent.