Today Aaron O'Kelley blogged his disapproval of the term "literal interpretation." I understand Aaron's concern and may even share it, to some extent. But our preferences for terms sometimes are of little consequence where it really counts, which is how a majority of people understand and use a term.
I personally do not like calling translations such as the TEV, CEV, and NLT paraphrases. I have tried to explain over the years that, technically, a paraphrase is simply a restatement of something in the same language. But I have been fighting a losing battle when it comes to use of the term paraphrase by ordinary people interested in Bible translation issues.
Aaron explains a usage of "literal interpretation" which he approves of:
In our day, the word "literal" has undergone something of a shift in meaning. Today, "literal" is often opposed to "figurative." "Jesus died on a cross" is considered a literal statement, but "God's mighty right hand brought Israel out of Egypt" is considered a figurative statement, because God does not have a material body, which means necessarily that he does not have a right hand, at least in the way we normally conceive of right hands. I believe these distinctions must be recognized when one approaches Scripture, and if one prefers to use the term "literal" in opposition to "figurative," then I have no quarrel with that use of the term. In this sense, then, many parts of the Bible should be interpreted literally and many parts should not.I agree with Aaron and have often posted on this blog about translation of figurative language in the Bible.
Aaron goes on to explain a usage of "literal interpretation" which he disapproves of:
Sometimes, however, I hear the word "literal" used in another sense, and it is this sense that I think is wrong. Some people say, "Do you take that literally?" to mean, "Do you think that text should be applied to our lives as it stands?" An example of this usage of the term would be to say, "I do not interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15 literally because I think women should not be forbidden from serving as pastors today," or, conversely, "I interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15 literally because I think women should be forbidden from serving as pastors today." In actuality, the word "literally" does not belong in this kind of conversation.While I understand Aaron's point, I think there are so many people who use the term "literal interpretation" for precisely this approach to any Bible passage, namely, that of taking it at its face value, with the normal meaning that most people would get from it, without reference to any historical, cultural, or theological context which might lead us not to understand the passage as it initially sounds. For many people, find some meaning to a passage other than the most direct one that seems to present itself is akin to not taking the Bible seriously, not believing it as we should, and even, sometimes, beginning the "slippery slope" towards liberalism, postmodernism, or any other approach to the Bible which is disapproved of by those who approach the Bible as, well, "literally" as possible.
There is a big boulder to push for Aaron or any of the rest of us to try to get people not to use the term "literal interpretation" in the way that Aaron doesn't like.
For me, even though I may not like the labels some people use, I am beginning to accept them. After all, I should, I guess, since I so often say that I am a descriptive linguist, a linguist who simply observes how people actually use language, rather than a prescriptive linguist, who tells people how they ought to speak.
At this point in my life, my greater concern is not with labels, but with the methodology behind them. The longer I work in Bible translation and the more I study the Bible seriously, the more I have come to realize that any overall literal approach to the Bible has problems that we must be aware of. I do not believe in overall allegorical or symbolic interpretations of the Bible, except for those parts of the Bible which seem to have been written symbolically, such as parts of the book of Revelation. And I do not believe that we should translate the Bible literally *unless* doing so is the most accurate way to convey the original meaning of a passage to those who will use the translation.
So, literalness has a place, but its place is determined by original meaning and the purpose for a translation and the nature of a translation audience. And original authorial meaning is something that I will continue to believe in, no matter what label is given to it. It is that original meaning which needs to be translated accurately, clearly, and naturally into any language.
How does this relate to translation of passages which some take at face value and others do not? I think this question is one which cannot be easily answered here, nor in any single post, but which needs to be addressed by everyone concerned about adequate Bible translation. Jesus taught, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26 TNIV) But there is no indication that anyone who heard him understand that statement literally. It is more likely that they understood his speaking about "hating" relatives to be hyperbolic exaggeration, a typical technique used by Jewish rabbis. If people use a literal translation of this passage and do understand that Jesus is not teaching that we should actually hate our relatives, then we have not accurately translated for those people.
And I am beginning to think that if Paul did not intend 1 Timothy 2:11-15 to be understood to teach that women should be prohibited from being teaching pastors, we should think twice before translating that passage in a way that that meaning is communicated. And now I realize that I have opened a huge can of worms. Many will say that I have now gone from advocating just translation of the Bible to interpretive translation. But I don't see that there is a qualitative difference between translating a passage with an interpretation that has much evidence that it was the original intending meaning and translating biblical idioms and figures of speech in a way that their figurative meaning is understood accurately in translation. In each case accuracy involves translating original meaning in a way that translation users can get the same understanding that the original authors intended their audiences to get from what they wrote.
I do not believe that we should simply inject our personal interpretations of the Bible anywhere we wish. Instead, as translators we need to work within the community of faith and scholarship, attempting to translate each passage in a way that the best scholarship seems to indicate is the most likely original meaning. If that means going against traditional interpretations, then we may need to do that for the sake of the most accurate Bible translation. Unfortunately, "best scholarship" is an ideal. There is currently no consensus scholarship for the interpretation of some Bible passages including 1 Timothy 2:11-15. But I think that there is a growing openness on the part of biblically devout people to use something other than a "literal interpretation" (sorry about that, Aaron!) of that passage.