Es geht um die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft

Since much of my time is spent grappling with issues of German translation, I have decided that it might be helpful to me to start a blog on this topic, with the hope that it might also prove useful to others who are seeking to read or translate German New Testament scholarship. It is difficult for me to predict the exact shape that it might take, but I suspect that this blog will focus on the translation of various German words, phrases, and sentences. And perhaps it will sometimes include sentences concerning which I am badly lost or stuck between multiple options. For this initial post, I want to comment briefly on the expression “Es geht um” and the translation of “Wissenschaft/wissenschaftlich“.

I often find it difficult to translate the phrase Es geht um, as in Es geht um die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft. Options that I have adopted include “The concern is with New Testament scholarship”, “It is a matter of New Testament scholarship”, and “What is at issue is New Testament scholarship”. Often, however, I adopt the translation “We are dealing with New Testament scholarship”, which is less close to the German wording but seems to read a bit better in many contexts. And sometimes I basically drop the idiom and simply translate: “This is New Testament scholarship” if other options seem too cumbersome or unnecessary.

In my view, the translation of “Wissenschaft/wissenschaft” is much more difficult. Most translators render Wissenschaft and wissenschaftlich with “scholarship” and “scholarly”. I think there is much to be said for this solution, since it conveys with reasonable accuracy the force of the German term and since it accords especially well with the target language. Hence, I have also adopted this solution in my forthcoming (2014) translation (with Brian Pounds) of Jens Schröter’s book Jesus of Nazareth: Jew from Galilee—Savior of the World, with the rationale that this translation probably works best for the broad audience that is intended. For my 2013 translation of Schröter’s book From Jesus to the New Testament, however, I chose to translate these terms as “science” and “scientific” for two reasons. First, I think that the translation “scholarship/scholarly” is less loaded or strong than the German term Wissenschaft, and secondly I think the common use of Wissenschaft for a wide range of disciples, such as Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, Geschichtswissenschaft, Literaturwissenschaft, Naturwissenschaften, etc. conveys a claim to a commonality or similarity among different disciplines that is worth retaining in a multidisciplinary work such as From Jesus to the New Testament. On the one hand, I can understand well that others may not agree with this decision, since the translation “science/scientific” is somewhat awkward and potentially misleading from the perspective of the target language. On the other hand, I think one of the most important principles of translation is that it is not usually a choice between a perfect translation and a bad translation but between multiple options that excel and fall short in different ways, and in my judgment the balance favored “science” over “scholarship” in this case. For further discussion of this point, see here.

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11 thoughts on “Es geht um die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft

    • I don’t think “the New Testament knowledge” works so well as a translation of “die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft”, but I like the suggestion that “es geht um” could sometimes be rendered with “It’s about” and will certainly keep that in mind as a possible translation for certain uses of this phrase! Thanks! Best, Wayne

  1. This is a great idea for a blog! As a fellow translator (but relatively new to it), I’ll certainly be back. To the points of this post then:

    I don’t think any of the German theologians I know would refer to their work as “science” or “scientific” when speaking in English, and to me the unintended connotations this adds in English outweigh whatever might be gained by pointing to the broader German usage in that way, unless it is clear that the author intends to position him- or herself as a scientist.

    I completely agree with you, though, on the difficulty of translating “es geht um…” as well as “es handelt sich um….” They turn up constantly and are always awkward to deal with. I’ll keep your suggestions in mind.

    • Incidentally, it just occurred to me that my use of “theologian” in that comment is guilty of exactly the same problem as your use of “science,” from the opposite side. German biblical scholars, it seems to me, much more commonly refer to themselves as “Theologe” than English-speaking biblical scholars would call themselves theologians. Hmm.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply Ken. I certainly feel the weight of all your objections. One interesting response would be to ask whether your statement about German scholars English speech patterns in relation to the terminology of “science” and “scientific” would also hold true for an earlier research phase when the German discourse was dictating more of the agenda and terms, i.e. when English speech patters were expected to conform to German speech patterns to a greater extent. I agree that the unintended connotations is a particularly problematic issue for the translation ‘science’/’scientific’. Still, I think more is lost than is usually recognized when the German (and French) pattern of using Wissenschaft for a wide range of academic pursuits is yielded to the English pattern of using “science” for the natural sciences and different terms for other disciplines. In the end, I think I will probably make a general shift in the direction of scholarship/scholarly in my future translations, while preserving the language of science/scientific in certain contexts, despite my reservations on this point. With regard to your subsequent comment, I think the same question arises, namely the extent to which one allows the source language to shape the target language or the target language the source language when one attempts to translate speech patterns into another language. Always a pleasure to meet another translator! Best, Wayne

  2. Pingback: Michael Bachmann on the New Perspective on Paul (Paulus Handbuch Series) | German for Neutestamentler

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