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Wednesday, 26 August 2015
Banana Trees

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything,
David Bellos, Penguin, 2011, page 178-179

After relating how an early Bible translator - Albert Cornelius Ruyl - came to translate the Gospel of Matthew from Dutch into Malay in the seventeenth century, David Bellos picks up one particular point: Ruyl altered and adapted Malay as he went along. Where there was no word in Malay, Ruyl simply added words from Arabic, Portuguese and even Sanskrit! Bellos gives an amusing example.

Where the Dutch version of Matthew talks of a fig tree, Ruyl's version has pisang - which means a banana tree in Malay. The substitution was justified by the fact that there were no figs on Sumatra.

Bellos then explains why that is significant:

What really marks it as special is that it signals a new ideology in the age-old business of translating down. R?uyl initiated the principle of cultural substitution that Eugene Nida would theorise and promote three centuries.

In previous translation styles, when a receiving language didn't have a word, the source language word was used, adapted to its new language home. Now instead, the receiving language did not get a new word for a new thing. It got a substitute thing, with its existing word.

Posted By Jonathan, 8:00am Comment Comments: 0