Tag Archives: English language

The Centrality of Language

As my wife knows, I have become a little persnickety about concepts regarding meaning, language, and the like. Unfortunately I allowed myself to be enticed into a Facebook ‘discussion’ on Bible translation (sidenote: facebook ‘discussions’/arguments rarely work). Shame on me, I should have known better.

I became the ‘bait-taker’ in this Facebook comment thread because the author denigrated an entire translation, the “Nearly-Inspired-Version” as he called it (where have I heard that before?). I am not here to defend the NIV per se but it is significant to realize that no translation is inspired.

Translations are never one-to-one. Meaning is not tied wholly to words but to context and usage (both linguistic and cultural). To use a semi-crass example: I remember learning Spanish in high school and college. I thought, in my immature and innapropriate way, that it would be funny to learn how to describe bodily functions en Español. I learned that, en Español, I would say, “me tiro un pedo” — literally, “I threw a fart.” That’s not actually what is happening during the act of passing gas — it is an idiom, an expression. Just like I have never “grabbed the bull by the horns,” though I often claim to.

Literal translations are never entirely sufficient. The Bible is inspired, but it is inspired human language. As such, all the idiosyncrasies, irregularities, and communicative difficulties of human language exist (e.g., idiom, non-standardized spelling, grammatical irregularities, etc.). The reason I was so bothered by the original Facebook post was the way it disparaged an entire English translation because of one non-literal translation. This person was upset that a particular verse in the NIV (Genesis 2:17) translated bĕyôm (literally “in the day”) as “when” (I know that the NET Bible also translates bĕyôm this way).

but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17, NASB).

“In the day” is very likely an idiom meaning “when.” If I was talking and said “the other day” I rarely mean a specific date and time but, rather, “a while ago” or “when this happened in the past.” In fact, I sometimes refer to things that happened months ago as “the other day.” The real kicker in Genesis 2:17 is not what is meant by “in the day” but what is meant by “die.”

My concern with this type of naïve literalism is not the intent. I understand that those who want wooden, word-for-word, literal translations are trying to preserve (in their minds) the original text. Nor is my concern the actual translation of Genesis 2:17 (I am fine with either “when” or “in the day” and would probably have translated it “in the day” because I think the idiom transfers well). My concern is that a narrow understanding of language and inspiration will actually confuse the intended meaning of the text as understood in its original cultural-linguistic context. As such, strict literalism might obfuscate rather than elucidate the intended meaning.

There are a number of examples of this problem that I run into every time I try to translate anything (whether it is Spanish, Koine Greek, Biblical Hebrew, English slang, body language, etc.). Maybe I’ll share some more examples in the future from things I am translating!