The Art of Translations

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Seppo Kanerva

By Seppo Kanerva, Trustee Emeritus, Finland

Current Situation

The Declaration of Trust Creating Urantia Foundation obligates the Foundation to translate The Urantia Book into many languages. Even if it were not an obligation, it would be a dictate of common sense that the best and greatest book, the latest revelation, must be translated into many languages. Hence, translations are a high priority on the Foundation’s to-do list. With the recent publication of four more translations, Urantia raamat (Estonian), Urantiaboken (Swedish), Az Urantia könyv (Hungarian), and Księga Urantii (Polish), the number of languages in which The Urantia Book has been printed rose to fifteen. These languages, in order of their publication, are: English, French, Finnish, Spanish, Dutch, Russian, Korean, Lithuanian, Italian, Portuguese, German, Estonian, Swedish, Hungarian, and Polish. Moreover, a Romanian translation is available in electronic format on CD. Many other translations are in progress including Arabic, Chinese, Farsi (Iranian), Greek, Indonesian, Japanese, and Urdu (Pakistani).

Over the years, the Foundation has worked with more than a hundred translators and assistant translators to help them accomplish their difficult, exacting, and years-long undertaking. Urantia Foundation has rarely recruited translators: we have learned that readers who love the book, who are qualified translators, and who volunteer to translate it, make better translators.

Translating ─ What Is It?

Every translation project has its unique characteristics. A common feature is that all translations are the efforts of one lone toiler assisted by other people. Amazingly, three translations resulted from the effort of one individual working without the knowledge of the Foundation. The pivotal role of one individual is a reality and a fact, even if we are instructed that teamwork is an important lesson to learn, and that, “few are the duties in the universe for the lone servant.” (312.1) 28:5.14. Translating The Urantia Book seems to be one of the few universe duties for a lone servant. Why? I think it is because translations are works of art, masterpieces of art, and true artists are few.

Every translator must meet the following criteria:

1. A translator must comprehend the English language – even better than the average native English speaker.

2. A translator must have read the English edition of The Urantia Book at least once, preferably more than once.

3. Every translator must translate the English text: a translation of a translation is not acceptable.

4. A translator must have a superior and exceptional mastery of his native language.

A good translator makes an extensive use of the linguistic resources of the target language much as the English text makes use of the linguistic resources of the English language. The English of The Urantia Book is true, good and beautiful. The text is often concise and difficult to grasp. It contains many previously unknown concepts, ideas, and words. A translation has to reflect all of this, making use of the linguistic devices of the target language and coming up with new words for the new concepts. Only an artist can accomplish this.

A translation must reach the fluency and beauty of the original text; a translation must not have the feel of being a translation. The reader must be under the impression that the translation he is reading is the original text. Moreover, translators must master the grammar, conventions, syntax, and rules of punctuation of the target language. Few native speakers of a given language master the grammar of their language. But some do, and if a translation comes with less than impeccable grammar, and if it is infested with incorrect punctuation, the work will be regarded as inferior and may cause potential readers to reject the greatest book on the planet. These are hard and exacting conditions!

A translator usually completes the first draft of a translation in four to five years. Subsequent revisions, corrections, and refinements easily take an equally long time. Urantia-kirja, the Finnish translation, took 25 years to complete. The book was translated three times: the last version, the one which was published, took eight years to complete. The Swedish Urantiaboken was an effort of 17 years, the Estonian Urantia raamat 16 years, and the Polish Księga Urantii 13 years. Even so, no translation is ever flawless; all translations are revised and corrected between printings.

The Trustees do not themselves judge whether a translation is ready for publication. They rely on the opinions of qualified people, experts in the target language.

Translators Translate Ideas, Not Words

If you do not speak a foreign language, and if you have never done any translating, you may think that translating is easy: A translator just mechanically transmutes the words of the source language to the words of the target language, and a translation is regarded as correct only if it is true to this pattern and principle. One may criticize a translation of The Urantia Book because it does not slavishly follow the English wording. A translator, however, translates ideas, not words. And the ways to translate an idea or concept are several. That is why it is difficult to accurately quote The Urantia Book; you remember the idea, but you cannot recall the exact words of its expression. For example, take the first sentence of the Foreword:

In the minds of the mortals of Urantia–that being the name of your world–there exists great confusion respecting. . .

This idea could be translated in several different ways:

The minds of the mortals of your world, called Urantia, are highly confused when it comes to. . .

Urantia is the name of your world; great confusion prevails in the minds of planetary mortals with regard to. . .

Great confusion prevails in the mortal minds of your world, Urantia, concerning. . .

It would not be difficult to rephrase and translate the sentence in a dozen alternative ways, none of which is the exclusively correct way.

Another reason why literal, word-by-word translations are unacceptable is the fact that languages differ greatly in grammar, syntax, rules, and conventions. The English language is not inflectional; modifiers of nouns and verbs are (except in rare occasions) separate words, like prepositions, articles, adverbs, etc. In inflectional languages, the modifiers are imbedded in the nouns and verbs as prefixes or suffixes.

Using the words of the target language, a translator translates the ideas and concepts of the original text into the same ideas and concepts of the target language; he never mechanically transmutes words. Only a translator/artist can figure this out and find the words and phrases that most fittingly express the ideas and concepts of the original, and only a translator/artist can do so in such a fluent and natural way that the reader does not know he is reading a translation.

Through their exacting work, translators render a great service to fellow speakers of their native languages. They perform their service humbly and anonymously. It is their way of disseminating the Urantia Revelation and its supernal teachings.

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