hermeneutics human scripture

When Is A Door Not A Door?

The other day, my buddy Keith Keyser sent me a link to an article by James Hamilton Jr., an associate professor at Southern Baptist Seminary whereby Hamilton lays down what he sees are the logical ends of adhering to dynamic equivalence theory (going forward I’ll refer to it as functional equivalence) when it comes to Bible Translations. In the end, he says, the translator has decided to translate what he thinks the author means over against the words the author uses. His main examples were grounded on the “glory” language of the Gospel according to John and the importance of retaining that sort of thing. His closing thoughts are that if one doesn’t know the original languages then one should stick to a formal equivalence translation.

I’m torn because I’m a bilingual Hispanic American.

Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand English. I do. The thing is, because I understand both languages, I understand the fundamental problems in adhering to solely a formal equivalent translating theory. But before I get to that I need to explain the problem strictly within the confines of the English language.

Another buddy of mine, Dan, was doing a word study on the term “light” and noted how the word is used in English. Dan realized that he couldn’t really pin down the meaning of the word light.  It can literally mean an electromagnetic radiation that travels in a vacuum at the speed of 300,000km per second and it can literally mean not-heavy. It can just as easily mean something that informs (shed some light on the problem), public knowledge (bringing something to light), or an igniting flame (hey bud, you got a light?)

Dan stumbled across the first obstacle of translation which I’d expand on by saying that the word “light” has no singular literal meaning.

How do you translate light into Spanish? You can’t just translate it luz because you don’t really know which meaning of “light” you’re applying. This is invariably a problem with Google Translator. Type in a single word, and it’ll give you a meaning. Change the sentence and watch the words change. What you need is a context. So if the sentence the word “light” resides in is “turn on the light” then you can translate it to luz. But if the context is “Wow, this baby is very light” you can’t translate it to luz. You would either use the word ligero or the phrase de poco peso (which means of little weight).

But even then, you have to be careful. The receptor language (the language that is receiving the words that are being communicated, in this case Spanish is receiving the translation of the English words) might have a semantic range on words that can cause very strange meanings. For example, in the right context luz means to give birth. So you can have the phrase “Give light” be translated to Dar luz and the phrase “Give birth” be translated “Dar a luz”.

This is another major problem that plagues a formal equivalent translation. Indeed, you don’t even know when words change. So a word in the original language might perfectly translate to “gay” in 1611 but today it causes snickers and you have to use the word “happy” or “cheerful”.

Problems multiply exponentially when you employ idioms or euphemisms.  I remember my father translating for an American English speaker who used the words “That’s totally cool”. My father couldn’t translate it to the literal words because it wouldn’t convey the same meaning at all: something like “that is thoroughly frigid.” So my father used an Hispanic idiom that conveys the same idea but literally has problems if it was coming back to English: “onda max” which literally means “deep wave or depth””.

And forget other idioms like “who let the cat out of the bag” or “he that pisses against the wall.” (the literal translation of a  phrase in 1 Kings 16:11 but which not even the NASB—an exceedingly literal translation—nor the Darby version, translates literally!)

What you quickly discover that if you’re doing any translation, you’re trying to convey what the text means in the original language and you can’t even consistently do that solely with a formal equivalent theory. Of course, a person can then swing completely the other way and decide that because what’s maximally important is the meaning, then the original words don’t matter—and that would be a mistake. Not only because the original words are inspired, but because you’ve stepped into a minefield of trying to clear up specific ambiguities.

For example, going back to our light problem, let’s say you have a guru who purposefully speaks about light shining in darkness, the effects of light to the darkness and how his message is light and that we who don’t come to terms with the message are blind and in the dark. If you translated what the guru was saying by means of explaining what he is saying, you’ve lost the ambiguity the guru was putting forward as well as the very colorful metaphor. What translators tend to do in this case, is keep the words (the form) while trying to convey what the words are doing (the function).

But then, the ambiguity goes even further when you realize that Greek and Spanish, unlike English, can insert gender into nouns and specify the action source within a verb. So while in English we use the word “I” or “You” or “They” for the object of a verb (I say; you say; they say), Spanish just conjugates the verb (to say: decir) with the right form (I say: digo; You say: dice; They say: dicen). English allows you to know that the subject is male or female (he or she) until it’s either personal or more than one: then you don’t have a clue. So if it’s a group of women speaking, you’ll say “they say” but in Spanish we’d add ellas which indicates group of women.

In Koine Greek (the Greek of the New Testament), you can conjugate the verb (lego: I say; legeis: you say; legousin: they say) but you have no clue about the sex unless you have other words (like nouns) which have the gender inserted. In Spanish we sometimes add an –a in the back of the noun to indicate feminine and an –o to indicate masculine but that in no way indicates the object is either feminine or masculine. Los vecinos at the puerta are masculine neighbors at the feminine door but you might just discover that it’s a mixed gender group and your door is totally sexless: a few more sentences and we’ll slam right into the gender neutral language of the TNIV and the NIV 2011!

So what do we do with all this?

Well, I definitely don’t think this means we should be chucking our formal equivalent versions and all purchasing an NIV 2011. Nor do I think that we should follow Hamilton in sticking only with a formal equivalent Bible. I think we should be trying to learn the original languages (they’re so rich after all) but I also think that we live in a very productive day and age with a fine amount of scholarship behind various translations.

The best, I think, is to employ multiple versions and consistently use them all in your studies. If I were to offer a recommendation, I’d say: NASB (formal), ESV (formal with better English) HCSB (mediating with delicious English), NET (mediating with delicious notes), NIV (functional), NLT (functional) and MSG (purely functiona and that links to the audio versionl). I’d make one of the first three my main Bible (mine is the NASB) and I’d check across the others. The MSG wouldn’t be so much for checking, but for seeing how meaning can be conveyed. I’d recommend Gordon Fee’s How To Choose A Translation but with the caveat that he unnecessarily comes down hard on formal equivalent versions.

Oh, and when is a door not a door? When it’s ajar. Yup, I didn’t mention puns, poetry, or plays on words either!

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3 replies on “When Is A Door Not A Door?”

Hi Rey,

I left this comment on your thread @ Theo last week and wanted to see if MY understanding is correct.

I too am bilingual. As mentioned on another thread recently I am a Greek born Australian. It took me over 5 years after I became a Christian to start reading an English Bible because I was attending a Greek speaking church in Sydney all that time.

I first delved into King Jimmy because I was told it was ‘accurate’. So I began exploring and came across John 7:15b “How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?” “Knowing letters” is a Greek idiom still used in modern Greek that simply means “to be educated”. If I was to translate Greek for an English speaking person I would never use “knowing letters” because it’s not a phrase we use in English and it would not make any sense because it’s too literal. I would translate it as “educated”. This is what NASB, ESV, NIV etc have done by using “learned”, because as Marv said, “the receptor reader will not necessarily be able to employ them as the original language reader would” (emphasis mine)

Is this the FE scenario you’re talking about?


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