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Friday, November 24, 2006

Literal translation and literal interpretation

On this blog we sometimes post evidence that literal translation can obscure the original meanings of the biblical texts. This is especially true of translation of figurative language of the Bible.

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.

11 Comments:

At Sun Nov 26, 01:42:00 AM, Blogger Brian said...

Was Gordon Fee right when he wrote in 'How to read the Bible.." that the question in translation is "do we translate what Paul said and let the reader figure out what he meant?" or "Do we translate what he meant so as to be sure the reader knows what he said?"

I can see the pros and cons of each.

 
At Sun Nov 26, 08:17:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Was Gordon Fee right when he wrote in 'How to read the Bible.." that the question in translation is "do we translate what Paul said and let the reader figure out what he meant?" or "Do we translate what he meant so as to be sure the reader knows what he said?

Wow, what a great question, Brian?!

Let me tell you where I'm at on this at this point in my life and Bible translation career. Most Bible readers are not adequately equipped to figure out what Paul meant by what he said. They are left to guess, or to follow their favorite Bible teacher, or their preferred doctrine.

I think that there is a false dichotomy between "what is said" and "what is meant". We always *mean* something when we *say* something. The purpose of translation is to accurately communicate to those who do not understand the original language what was meant by what was said in the original language.

The fear, of course, is that when we start dealing with meaning we are getting into interpretation. But I don't think we have any choice if we are going to get any sense out of what is said in the Bible. Somehow, someone has to figure out what was meant by what was said. God has given to the church those who are gifted in the biblical languages and interpretation so that they can help us understand what was meant by what was said. I think that they need to help us get that meaning into our translations.

Now, in cases where the scholars are divided on what something means I would recommend that we footnote alternate interpretations.

This is my opinion. Others differ with me and prefer that readers figure out meaning for themselves. But I have seen too many cases where readers come up with strange interpretations because they are not properly equipped to figure out the original meaning.

A dear Christian friend tried to comfort my wife and me once when we were going through a difficult time. She told us, "The Bible repeatedly says, 'It came to pass.' It does not say it came to stay." Well, this lady was sincere, but she had gotten the wrong meaning from the phrase "It came to pass." She was not familiar with its actual meaning having to do with the time arriving for something to take place.

 
At Sun Nov 26, 01:30:00 PM, Blogger Daniel Goepfrich said...

Our theologies will determine where we stand on this issue more than just about anything.

As a believer in both verbal and plenary inspiration, I believe that God inspired not just the spiritual thoughts but also the spiritual words to His writers.

Thus, when I translate, the "literal", i.e., plain meaning, of the words themselves is where I look first, assuming that God chose those words for a specific reason.

 
At Sun Nov 26, 01:55:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Daniel,

Do you want a Bible version that calls the Holy Spirit, the 'Holy Breath'?

Somehow it is just not possible to establish one and only one 'plain' meaning for a word in Greek. Therefore, decisions will be made, this is inevitable.

 
At Sun Nov 26, 02:08:00 PM, Blogger Daniel Goepfrich said...

Suzanne,

I agree, and that's what I was trying to say. Because of the preciseness of the original languages compared to English, we have to be very careful in our translations, because our theologies will definitely come into play.

In the Timothy example, for instance, it's not just a matter of a single word meaning either x or y that causes the discussion. A 'better Bible' is not necessarily one that teaches (in this passage) that women can or can't be teaching pastors just because the translator believes it to be true.

'Better Bibles' still have to stick with the text as written. There is obviously some interpretation in translation.

IMHO, 'better Bibles' are those who translate words and thoughts together as accurately to the original as possible, and let the Author Himself - along with His specially-gifted teachers - sort out the meanings of those that are not obvious upon first glance.

 
At Sun Nov 26, 03:23:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

In the Timothy example, for instance, it's not just a matter of a single word meaning either x or y that causes the discussion. A 'better Bible' is not necessarily one that teaches (in this passage) that women can or can't be teaching pastors just because the translator believes it to be true.

I agree completely - I don't think I have ever suggested a translator be dishonest with the text because of their beliefs. That is what I would like to see not happen.

On this passage we do have some Bibles that translate authentein as 'have authority', and some as 'assuming authority' - it is a special case, a one-off, one does have to decide.

In any case, we can always go to the rest of the Bible and see that the hierarchically ordered gifts, apostles, prophets, teachers, etc. included women and that Paul himself included women as co-workers, women had no distinct status, with 'differing' gifts and virtues - just folks, that is how we are. :-)

I don't feel all that concerned about 1 Tim. 2:12. I don't think I have ever blogged about it.

Thanks for sharing.

 
At Sun Nov 26, 09:44:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

Tonight a friend and I were laughing about my future job change - from a systems engineer to pastoral ministry. He joked that I'll go from a systems engineer to a scriptural engineer. Of course, I have no desire to be a "scriptural engineer."

I wonder however, how you protect yourself from becoming a scriptural engineer when doing translation work. It seems very clear to me that translation work is a very easy way to rewrite the Bible and claim you're doing a service to the church.

How then should we protect ourselves, in light of this post, from becoming scriptural engineers?

Peace,

Jeremy

 
At Sun Nov 26, 11:00:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Jeremy asked:

I wonder however, how you protect yourself from becoming a scriptural engineer when doing translation work. It seems very clear to me that translation work is a very easy way to rewrite the Bible and claim you're doing a service to the church.

How then should we protect ourselves, in light of this post, from becoming scriptural engineers?


What an important question to ask, Jeremy. I personally would consider changing the Bible during translation to be a sin. How can we protect ourselves from committing that sin? I suggest that we would need to do so the same way we protect ourselves from any other sin, by throwing ourselves upon the mercy of God, asking for his help, pleading for his guidance so that we translate his word as accurately as is humanly possible. Most Bible translators I have ever met regard Scripture so highly that they would not want to change it at all from its original meaning. They are people of integrity who would view changing God's Word as they would view distorting anything else that God has provided for our good.

What do you think? Is God big enough to help us not stray from the original meaning as he is to keep us from not straying from what he wants for us in any other area of our lives?

I can personally testify to the awesome responsibility I have felt helping translate the Bible for the last 30 years. I have even had to translate some verses differently from what the theology of my church taught us their meaning was, because I did not dare change what the Bible said and meant by what it said. I believe that God helped guard me from inserting my own theology into the translation. And we did pray for wisdom as we worked.

 
At Mon Nov 27, 11:50:00 AM, Blogger Brian said...

wayne - ryc: well i guess in the sense of literalness some think translating means "word for word" but in a way that makes sense leaves the text was what Paul "said." But I can certainly Fee's point (and Rod Decker too) that often what is said and what is meant aren't always clear so it isn't simple enough to translate "word for word." Too many times it seems like with a more literal translation the preacher has to stop and say "in other words what Paul is saying is..." (some call the KJV the "in other words Bible").

Is it possible to have a translation where the preacher/teacher won't have to re-state what that passage just said, unless they are in Romans or the Prophets?

 
At Mon Nov 27, 02:09:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Brian asked:

Is it possible to have a translation where the preacher/teacher won't have to re-state what that passage just said, unless they are in Romans or the Prophets?

Absolutely, Brian. But there would be a great deal of resistance to it by many ministers, seminary profs, and lay people who do serious Bible study. Many would not accept it because it would not sound to them like a Bible. We have distorted people's view of what a Bible should sound like by having so many translations which are not written in natural English.

It is definitely possible to have both high accuracy and very natural wordings.

 
At Thu Nov 30, 09:11:00 AM, Blogger Marvin Cotten said...

I'd like to refer to a similar post I made recently including the literal translation/literal interpretation terminology.
Find it at http://asphaleia.blogspot.com/2006/10/glossed-in-translation.html

 

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