Bible translations and metaphor

In my earlier post about the even newer New International Version of the Bible, I complained about how that line of translations is indifferent to metaphor, poetry, and beauty of language. I cited as an example how the new NIV renders “the valley of the shadow of death” as “the dark valley.”

I would argue that sensitivity to literary qualities is necessary in an accurate translation. Metaphors are not just ornaments. They express meaning and are essential in expressing complex, multi-leveled, rich meanings that go beyond simple prosaic statements.

Consider these translations of Genesis 4:1:

The historic English Bible, from the KJV through the ESV, keeps the Hebrew metaphor: “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived.”

The 1984 NIV thinks it has to explain what the metaphor means: “Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant.”

The 2010 NIV is more romantic: “Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant.”

The original Hebrew uses a profound metaphor that communicates important meaning about marital sexuality in God’s design: They “knew” each other.

Ironically, the other readings are just as metaphorical and even more euphemistic. “Lay with” is ugly and strangely old-fashioned, a version of “sleep with.” “Make love,” not too long ago, meant courting or flirting, not having sex (so that many contemporary readers of 19th century novels think they are much more racy than they are).

At any rate, “Adam knew Eve” is how the original language reads. If God inspired the words, He surely inspired the metaphors.

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