When working with translations of primary sources what steps can be taken to ensure that the translation is reliable/the most reliable/the scholarly standard? Are there any issues to watch out for when using primary sources that are not in your native language or are in a secondary language?
Dealing with primary sources is a central issue in history writing. Sources must be considered in the context and language of their provenance, to not do so is often to inject contemporary or personal perceptions into the work.
Bible history is a treasure trove of improper study and erroneous translation. Take the hebrew word “nephesh” for instance. The Hebrews meant this to be “soul” as in “there are five souls on that ship” rather than the Platonic conception of immortal soul or pneuma. Literally nephesh means “breath” and is often synonymous with blood; it is equivalent to the Greek concept of anima. Due this misunderstanding in language contemporary critics now believe that there is a concept of immortal soul in the Old Testament, while in reality this belief comes from a lack of linguistic understanding and the Old Testament posits a materialistic cosmology. Another example is the word “abomination.” What the Hebrews meant by this is a ritual wrong, a technical wrong, and little more – essentially a taboo. Eating certain types of fish is abomination for instance. However due to our contemporary understanding of what an “abomination” is, contemporary apologists understand that homosexuality is the greatest of sins. There are just two examples of hundreds which lead ancient writings such as the bible to being grossly mistranslated, misunderstood and woven into an incomplete and often erroneous history.
Not only must we consider the social context of words, but also must only accept translations which are done through a collaborative effort. First, renowned philologists must take part in the translation, for accuracy of translation is an essential facet of dealing with primary sources. Furthermore any historian worth his salt will at least provisionally attempt to understand the text in it’s original language. English translations of ancient texts are very troublesome, and translators often exercise license in their choice of words, not due to lack of professionalism but as this is the nature of their business. Therefore goodly attention must be paid by the historian to the source in its original language, even if it means independent study of the words and grammar. Etymology and philology were common allies to history up until the 1950s for this very reason, and became more obscure as colleges stopped requiring Latin and Greek instruction. Regardless, I would implore any good historian to at least have a basic understanding of the most influential and far reaching Indo-European languages.
When selecting a translation for research of any significant manner, checking peer-reviewed reviews of the translations is always a good idea, especially if the researcher is completely unfamiliar with the language or subjects in question.
Yet we must also consider the culture of the translator. For instance, it was common up until recent decades to translate ancient Greek in a formal, archaic English. This is all well and good, but rather arbitrary. Take the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius for instance, penned in common (Koine) Greek. The Meditations were written by Marcus Aurelius, for himself, and in private. There is no evidence to suggest the Meditations were ever meant for public viewing. Essentially Aurelius’ writing is a classic form known as hypomnema, a philosophical work journal or series of reminders and notes. Accordingly it is preposterous that the authoritative translations of Marcus until recently had a formal and Victorian tone, as with George Long. I personally feel that something like Gregory Hays’ contemporary translation which uses a more intimate and common tone is better suiting to the source material. The point is – the custom of translation must be considered when selecting works for research.