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.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    Is “knew” a metaphor, or a description of what really happened? Did Adam and Eve have unfeeling sex, or did they consummate their love for one another? Because in loving another person, we come to know all the beauty of that person. Just as on that Day – when we will truly be able to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – we will know as we are known.

  • Tom Hering

    Is “knew” a metaphor, or a description of what really happened? Did Adam and Eve have unfeeling sex, or did they consummate their love for one another? Because in loving another person, we come to know all the beauty of that person. Just as on that Day – when we will truly be able to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – we will know as we are known.

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  • WebMonk

    I would tend toward the view that it was the normal cultural term/metaphor of the time when this was written, and it’s a pretty good one too. What do we have today? “Hooked up” and “slept with” are the two relatively decent ways normally used. Maybe “dating”? :-}

    I think “knew” is a pretty good one, all things considered. It’s not a term we use today, so modern readers will need to learn the term, but it is pretty obvious what “knew” entails in most situations, so I don’t think it’s all that much of a difficulty to overcome. The only objection I would have to reading too much into the term “knew” is that sometimes the term is used for having sex with prostitutes, which sort of removes the entire “consummate their love for one another” aspect.

    “Made love to” isn’t all that bad, and since we don’t have any readers from the 1800s today, misunderstandings would be zilch. It would certainly destroy the poetic flow of most of the passages, but perhaps “knew each other intimately” would be an accurate translation?

    Or, you know, we could just drop any pretense to euphemisms and just say “Adam had sex with Eve….”

  • WebMonk

    I would tend toward the view that it was the normal cultural term/metaphor of the time when this was written, and it’s a pretty good one too. What do we have today? “Hooked up” and “slept with” are the two relatively decent ways normally used. Maybe “dating”? :-}

    I think “knew” is a pretty good one, all things considered. It’s not a term we use today, so modern readers will need to learn the term, but it is pretty obvious what “knew” entails in most situations, so I don’t think it’s all that much of a difficulty to overcome. The only objection I would have to reading too much into the term “knew” is that sometimes the term is used for having sex with prostitutes, which sort of removes the entire “consummate their love for one another” aspect.

    “Made love to” isn’t all that bad, and since we don’t have any readers from the 1800s today, misunderstandings would be zilch. It would certainly destroy the poetic flow of most of the passages, but perhaps “knew each other intimately” would be an accurate translation?

    Or, you know, we could just drop any pretense to euphemisms and just say “Adam had sex with Eve….”

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Tom, it’s the word. Hebrew “yada”, and yes, it’s to be understood on many levels.

    As I read the NIV paraphrases, the phrase “Do I have to spell it out for you?” comes to mind.

    WebMonk’s comment on the phrase “make love” is spot on, too. There are many times reading 19th century literature where I’ve done a double/triple take at that phrase.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Tom, it’s the word. Hebrew “yada”, and yes, it’s to be understood on many levels.

    As I read the NIV paraphrases, the phrase “Do I have to spell it out for you?” comes to mind.

    WebMonk’s comment on the phrase “make love” is spot on, too. There are many times reading 19th century literature where I’ve done a double/triple take at that phrase.

  • trotk

    WebMonk -

    The phrase “had sex” is an awful idea. The phrase itself only goes back to 1929 (DH Lawrence), and previously, sex only referred to the division of the species into male and female.

    The problem with the phrase is that sex as a verb has killed the use of sex as a noun, which has forced us to use the word gender instead. Gender for sex only began in the 1960′s.

    The problem with gender (as opposed to sex) is that they mean different things. Sex (noun) is a biological division. Gender is not. It is primarily linguistic, but referring to humans, it is about their characteristics, not their nature.

    Thus the verb sex, being introduced in the 20th Century, is killing the ability to refer to someone’s biological sex, and forcing us to refer to their gender, which modern society can make mean whatever it wants, because it isn’t tied to the biological organs. We are losing an important expression.

    I refuse to use the word gender except in grammatical terms. It oftentimes causes shock on a person’s face when I ask “what sex?” instead of “what gender?” or when I say “man or woman” instead of “male or female”.

  • trotk

    WebMonk -

    The phrase “had sex” is an awful idea. The phrase itself only goes back to 1929 (DH Lawrence), and previously, sex only referred to the division of the species into male and female.

    The problem with the phrase is that sex as a verb has killed the use of sex as a noun, which has forced us to use the word gender instead. Gender for sex only began in the 1960′s.

    The problem with gender (as opposed to sex) is that they mean different things. Sex (noun) is a biological division. Gender is not. It is primarily linguistic, but referring to humans, it is about their characteristics, not their nature.

    Thus the verb sex, being introduced in the 20th Century, is killing the ability to refer to someone’s biological sex, and forcing us to refer to their gender, which modern society can make mean whatever it wants, because it isn’t tied to the biological organs. We are losing an important expression.

    I refuse to use the word gender except in grammatical terms. It oftentimes causes shock on a person’s face when I ask “what sex?” instead of “what gender?” or when I say “man or woman” instead of “male or female”.

  • trotk

    Whoops.

    You can see how pervasive the issue is when I used “male and female” in the first paragraph instead of “man and woman”.

    The use of language matters, as it both reveals what we think and changes how we think. It is both thermometer and thermostat.

  • trotk

    Whoops.

    You can see how pervasive the issue is when I used “male and female” in the first paragraph instead of “man and woman”.

    The use of language matters, as it both reveals what we think and changes how we think. It is both thermometer and thermostat.

  • SKPeterson

    Would not “made love to” have problems if “knew” was also used for encounters with prostitutes? There is sex, but not much love. Perhaps “knew” is a good phrase in describing the proper focus of sex within marriage and the physical manifestation of two becoming one. Perhaps the ancient writers used “knew” or a Hebrew/Aramaic variant that was a double entendre or was dripping with irony.

  • SKPeterson

    Would not “made love to” have problems if “knew” was also used for encounters with prostitutes? There is sex, but not much love. Perhaps “knew” is a good phrase in describing the proper focus of sex within marriage and the physical manifestation of two becoming one. Perhaps the ancient writers used “knew” or a Hebrew/Aramaic variant that was a double entendre or was dripping with irony.

  • SKPeterson

    @trotk – please replace my use of “sex” with “intercourse” :) .

  • SKPeterson

    @trotk – please replace my use of “sex” with “intercourse” :) .

  • trotk

    SK (@7) Thanks. There are a slew of biological terms and euphemisms that we can use without falling into the use of “have sex.”

    I think that “know” is a great metaphor that is both euphemistic and illustrative. There ought to be deep knowledge between husband and wife that is spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical, and the physical should be the consummation (another great metaphor) of the others.

  • trotk

    SK (@7) Thanks. There are a slew of biological terms and euphemisms that we can use without falling into the use of “have sex.”

    I think that “know” is a great metaphor that is both euphemistic and illustrative. There ought to be deep knowledge between husband and wife that is spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical, and the physical should be the consummation (another great metaphor) of the others.

  • Booklover

    It seems the translators of these contemporary versions have the same problem that the writers of much contemporary Christian music have: they are dating themselves even as they are writing.

  • Booklover

    It seems the translators of these contemporary versions have the same problem that the writers of much contemporary Christian music have: they are dating themselves even as they are writing.

  • WebMonk

    I admit I have never thought about the verbizing of sex (joke intended).

    In that case, I will go with SK’s suggestion of “intercourse”! “Adam had intercourse with Eve…” That should certainly be precise enough. Wait, should we be more medically precise? There are a couple different types of intercourse, after all. Precision to the max! Of course, the fact that children resulted in this case does certainly narrow things down, so maybe full medical precision isn’t completely necessary.

    And as a former Pennsylvanian I have to support the word intercourse. That’s the town we have in Pennsylvania after all. And it’s not all that far from Hooker, either!

  • WebMonk

    I admit I have never thought about the verbizing of sex (joke intended).

    In that case, I will go with SK’s suggestion of “intercourse”! “Adam had intercourse with Eve…” That should certainly be precise enough. Wait, should we be more medically precise? There are a couple different types of intercourse, after all. Precision to the max! Of course, the fact that children resulted in this case does certainly narrow things down, so maybe full medical precision isn’t completely necessary.

    And as a former Pennsylvanian I have to support the word intercourse. That’s the town we have in Pennsylvania after all. And it’s not all that far from Hooker, either!

  • WebMonk

    Book, that’s a problem that all translations at all times have. Some to greater or lesser extents, but they all have the same “problem”.

  • WebMonk

    Book, that’s a problem that all translations at all times have. Some to greater or lesser extents, but they all have the same “problem”.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

    An excellent point about language. I was surprised when I began taking language courses in seminary to find out how poetic some of the Biblical writings are – I remember thinking that Jeremiah especially was far more beautiful than a translation could be (especially in assonance and alliteration for obvious reasons, as well as figures of speech). Some translations are certainly better at preserving the beautiful parts.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

    An excellent point about language. I was surprised when I began taking language courses in seminary to find out how poetic some of the Biblical writings are – I remember thinking that Jeremiah especially was far more beautiful than a translation could be (especially in assonance and alliteration for obvious reasons, as well as figures of speech). Some translations are certainly better at preserving the beautiful parts.

  • Rob

    Not to assume that people don’t already know this, but with a Masters in Biblical Languages, I thought this could help lend shape to the discussion.

    There are two basic approaches to Biblical translation: (1) Formal equivalence, which seeks to translate every word as directly as possible and change syntax only when necessary; and (2) Dynamic equivalency, which seeks to produce in the reader a similar effect to that which the original would have had on the original reader.

    Now, think of these two as poles on a spectrum. On the far right is formal equivalence, most pronounced in something like Young’s Literal Translation and most popular (as far as I can tell) in the NASB. On the far left are translations/interpretations like the Message or the Living Bible. Both approaches are inherently limited, which is why there will always be a need for specially-trained pastors to preach the word. This is also why the LCMS requires all pastors to be able to read in the original languages (and I think any denomination which does not is being more than a little bit reckless).

    From the beginning, the NIV has been more toward the dynamic equivalent end of the spectrum. The tNIV and now the new NIV (the nNIV?) seem to push further in that direction. This is the end of the spectrum that is by its very nature more subjective and a more challenging job for the translator(s). It necessitates a clear grasp on how the original hearer/reader would have received a phrase or metaphor (a tall order in itself), then must find a modern equivalent (another tall order). This end of the spectrum is also much more quickly obsolete, as language usage changes and, for the most part in modern English, narrows.

    All that is to say, if the NIV or the new NIV doesn’t do it for you, move on. There is no such thing as the perfect translation. If you’re tired of moving on, then it’s time to enroll in some Biblical language classes. But regardless, we can thank God that, despite our human limitations, failings, and lack of wisdom, His Spirit still speaks through His Word.

  • Rob

    Not to assume that people don’t already know this, but with a Masters in Biblical Languages, I thought this could help lend shape to the discussion.

    There are two basic approaches to Biblical translation: (1) Formal equivalence, which seeks to translate every word as directly as possible and change syntax only when necessary; and (2) Dynamic equivalency, which seeks to produce in the reader a similar effect to that which the original would have had on the original reader.

    Now, think of these two as poles on a spectrum. On the far right is formal equivalence, most pronounced in something like Young’s Literal Translation and most popular (as far as I can tell) in the NASB. On the far left are translations/interpretations like the Message or the Living Bible. Both approaches are inherently limited, which is why there will always be a need for specially-trained pastors to preach the word. This is also why the LCMS requires all pastors to be able to read in the original languages (and I think any denomination which does not is being more than a little bit reckless).

    From the beginning, the NIV has been more toward the dynamic equivalent end of the spectrum. The tNIV and now the new NIV (the nNIV?) seem to push further in that direction. This is the end of the spectrum that is by its very nature more subjective and a more challenging job for the translator(s). It necessitates a clear grasp on how the original hearer/reader would have received a phrase or metaphor (a tall order in itself), then must find a modern equivalent (another tall order). This end of the spectrum is also much more quickly obsolete, as language usage changes and, for the most part in modern English, narrows.

    All that is to say, if the NIV or the new NIV doesn’t do it for you, move on. There is no such thing as the perfect translation. If you’re tired of moving on, then it’s time to enroll in some Biblical language classes. But regardless, we can thank God that, despite our human limitations, failings, and lack of wisdom, His Spirit still speaks through His Word.

  • Dave Sarafolean

    Veith wrote…

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

    Amen!

    Rob #13 is right on. This discussion is explored in depth in Leland Ryken’s book, The Word of God in English.

  • Dave Sarafolean

    Veith wrote…

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

    Amen!

    Rob #13 is right on. This discussion is explored in depth in Leland Ryken’s book, The Word of God in English.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I personally appreciate the intimacy implied by the word “knew.” I think we should keep that translation particularly in a society that has so cheapened sex. Plus, the idea of that level of intimacy goes well with the idea, and “they will become one flesh.”

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I personally appreciate the intimacy implied by the word “knew.” I think we should keep that translation particularly in a society that has so cheapened sex. Plus, the idea of that level of intimacy goes well with the idea, and “they will become one flesh.”

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m having a hard time believing this is a good translation strategy:

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

    The only language I speak even passably well is Spanish, in which I know but a few idioms. Still, it’s enough to know that they really don’t translate well.

    Imagine being told that the latest movie is “very father”. Or, upon surprisingly running into someone, hearing that “the world is a handkerchief”. Imagine then that the person using these phrases refused to tell you what they meant, instead insisting that you work it out for yourself. Wouldn’t really aid in comprehension, would it?

    Yes, God inspired the metaphors in Hebrew and Greek, but to argue that we shouldn’t therefore translate the metaphors is to argue that we shouldn’t translate the language, either. And if it’s okay to translate the words that I don’t understand, wouldn’t it therefore be okay to translate the metaphors I don’t, as well?

    Which brings us to “knew”. Is it a good metaphor? Sure. Is it one an English speaker is expected to know? I don’t know. I remember the first time that my parents explained to me what “knew” meant “in the Biblical sense”, I thought they were joking. I knew what “knew” meant, and it wasn’t that (though I was likely too young to fully understand that, either)!

    And let’s not miss the context here. The primary purpose of what the Bible is telling us is to let us know how Eve came to be pregnant. Is it also trying to convey “important meaning about marital sexuality”? Possibly, but at the end of the day, the point is that they had sexual (and, let me be clear: vaginal) intercourse. (Note: not merely “intercourse”, as that means nothing more than dealings, or the exchange of thoughts between persons. Which definition brings us back to the idiom found in “knew”. Of course, almost no one uses “intercourse” to refer to anything other than sexual congress these days.)

    Yada, yada, yada.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m having a hard time believing this is a good translation strategy:

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

    The only language I speak even passably well is Spanish, in which I know but a few idioms. Still, it’s enough to know that they really don’t translate well.

    Imagine being told that the latest movie is “very father”. Or, upon surprisingly running into someone, hearing that “the world is a handkerchief”. Imagine then that the person using these phrases refused to tell you what they meant, instead insisting that you work it out for yourself. Wouldn’t really aid in comprehension, would it?

    Yes, God inspired the metaphors in Hebrew and Greek, but to argue that we shouldn’t therefore translate the metaphors is to argue that we shouldn’t translate the language, either. And if it’s okay to translate the words that I don’t understand, wouldn’t it therefore be okay to translate the metaphors I don’t, as well?

    Which brings us to “knew”. Is it a good metaphor? Sure. Is it one an English speaker is expected to know? I don’t know. I remember the first time that my parents explained to me what “knew” meant “in the Biblical sense”, I thought they were joking. I knew what “knew” meant, and it wasn’t that (though I was likely too young to fully understand that, either)!

    And let’s not miss the context here. The primary purpose of what the Bible is telling us is to let us know how Eve came to be pregnant. Is it also trying to convey “important meaning about marital sexuality”? Possibly, but at the end of the day, the point is that they had sexual (and, let me be clear: vaginal) intercourse. (Note: not merely “intercourse”, as that means nothing more than dealings, or the exchange of thoughts between persons. Which definition brings us back to the idiom found in “knew”. Of course, almost no one uses “intercourse” to refer to anything other than sexual congress these days.)

    Yada, yada, yada.

  • WebMonk

    Might there be something to consider of the difference between metaphor and idiom? Would “knew” be an idiom or a metaphor?

    If it’s an idiom, then I would say that it ought to be translated into whatever form best describes the concept of the idiom. If it’s a metaphor, then the metaphor itself is definitely a part of the communication – “the medium is the message” and all that – and shouldn’t be brushed aside lightly.

    An idiom is much more a function of the particular language being spoken and not an integral part of the message. A metaphor is much more a symbol containing the communication and is an integral part of the message. And, just to muddy the waters, the two can overlap at times.

    I haven’t the in-depth knowledge of Hebrew to know if “knew” would fall in the idiom or metaphor category. I would guess it’s an idiom, but one that has some basis in the concept it is communicating.

  • WebMonk

    Might there be something to consider of the difference between metaphor and idiom? Would “knew” be an idiom or a metaphor?

    If it’s an idiom, then I would say that it ought to be translated into whatever form best describes the concept of the idiom. If it’s a metaphor, then the metaphor itself is definitely a part of the communication – “the medium is the message” and all that – and shouldn’t be brushed aside lightly.

    An idiom is much more a function of the particular language being spoken and not an integral part of the message. A metaphor is much more a symbol containing the communication and is an integral part of the message. And, just to muddy the waters, the two can overlap at times.

    I haven’t the in-depth knowledge of Hebrew to know if “knew” would fall in the idiom or metaphor category. I would guess it’s an idiom, but one that has some basis in the concept it is communicating.

  • trotk

    tODD

    “Know” has had the meaning in English of sexual intercourse since at least 1200. We have references in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) from that time period. These are (according to the scholars of those texts) imported from the Hebrew use of the verb, and so it wasn’t an original OE meaning.

    But given that this use of the word has been in the English language for at least 800 years, you can’t really argue that it is a foreign idiom anymore. Instead, it is just an archaic meaning. We ought to learn archaic meanings (at least those that have value), because oftentimes they have more inherent meaning than modern usages. Know is a perfect example. Languages tend to devolve and simplify over time (like the loss of the subjunctive in modern English), and the older meanings and usages usually are “thicker” than their modern counterparts.

    I agree with your principle (that idioms don’t translate), but “know” isn’t idiomatic. The point about idioms is that their meanings don’t follow from the words themselves logically. “Know” is more euphemistic (*in a sense that I will explain) than idiomatic or metaphoric. I disagree with Dr. Veith on calling it a metaphor (because there aren’t two things compared) and I disagree with the negative characterization of euphemisms. These three categories tend to overlap.

    *Euphemism aren’t just about the avoidance of saying something bad by substituting a polite construction. They are also used to avoid references to the physical body and its actions so as to not be overly intimate. Meaning is not necessarily lost in this, and in some cases, the word can be enriched. Know is a beautiful example of enriching the word copulate, with forcing the person to be too intimate with the details of others’ bodies.

  • trotk

    tODD

    “Know” has had the meaning in English of sexual intercourse since at least 1200. We have references in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) from that time period. These are (according to the scholars of those texts) imported from the Hebrew use of the verb, and so it wasn’t an original OE meaning.

    But given that this use of the word has been in the English language for at least 800 years, you can’t really argue that it is a foreign idiom anymore. Instead, it is just an archaic meaning. We ought to learn archaic meanings (at least those that have value), because oftentimes they have more inherent meaning than modern usages. Know is a perfect example. Languages tend to devolve and simplify over time (like the loss of the subjunctive in modern English), and the older meanings and usages usually are “thicker” than their modern counterparts.

    I agree with your principle (that idioms don’t translate), but “know” isn’t idiomatic. The point about idioms is that their meanings don’t follow from the words themselves logically. “Know” is more euphemistic (*in a sense that I will explain) than idiomatic or metaphoric. I disagree with Dr. Veith on calling it a metaphor (because there aren’t two things compared) and I disagree with the negative characterization of euphemisms. These three categories tend to overlap.

    *Euphemism aren’t just about the avoidance of saying something bad by substituting a polite construction. They are also used to avoid references to the physical body and its actions so as to not be overly intimate. Meaning is not necessarily lost in this, and in some cases, the word can be enriched. Know is a beautiful example of enriching the word copulate, with forcing the person to be too intimate with the details of others’ bodies.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    tODD makes a good point about not always translating the idioms word for word; one place where the KJV gets it right and the NIV gets it literal is in 2 Corinthians 2:17, where the KJV uses “corrupt” and the NIV uses “peddle.” The denotation of the word is for a traveling peddler, but the connotation there is the assumption that a peddler would corrupt his wares.

    That said, I think the KJV gets it right with a literal translation here, as the context makes it very clear what’s going on. It’s a question of how much thinking one must do to figure out the idiom, I think.

    And John’s got me thinking about how I want to learn a touch of Hebrew poetry. You can get, for what it’s worth, the Psalms with klezmer-style accompaniment here.

    http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Online_Store/Other/Psalms_Collection/psalms_collection.html

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    tODD makes a good point about not always translating the idioms word for word; one place where the KJV gets it right and the NIV gets it literal is in 2 Corinthians 2:17, where the KJV uses “corrupt” and the NIV uses “peddle.” The denotation of the word is for a traveling peddler, but the connotation there is the assumption that a peddler would corrupt his wares.

    That said, I think the KJV gets it right with a literal translation here, as the context makes it very clear what’s going on. It’s a question of how much thinking one must do to figure out the idiom, I think.

    And John’s got me thinking about how I want to learn a touch of Hebrew poetry. You can get, for what it’s worth, the Psalms with klezmer-style accompaniment here.

    http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Online_Store/Other/Psalms_Collection/psalms_collection.html

  • trotk

    excuse me, the last paragraph should say, “Euphemisms aren’t…withOUT forcing…”

  • trotk

    excuse me, the last paragraph should say, “Euphemisms aren’t…withOUT forcing…”

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    The question we have to ask is this: how nuanced can we get with the interpretation of a given word or phrase while still retaining the orginal meaning of the text?

    Words change meaning over time. What needs to be done with subsequent translations of the Word of God is adaptation to the cultural use of words and phrases while maintaining fidelity to the original meaning of the Scriptures. Where a word or phrase can be updated in order to preserve original meaning, it should happen. For example, in the KJV, the word “conversation” is used where we would use the word “conduct.” This is, of course, an acceptable-yea, a necessary!-change of meaning.

    Furthermore, style must be preserved as well as substance. When the Bible speaks of God as hiding us under the shadow of His wing (Psalm 91), that poetic phrasing should be preserved, as well as the balance of the literal meaning behind its figurative presentation.

    Those who undertake Bible translation perform no small or easy task. It is a responsibility which carries with it the duty of preserving the very words of Almighty God Himself. It is a fool who takes this task lightly.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    The question we have to ask is this: how nuanced can we get with the interpretation of a given word or phrase while still retaining the orginal meaning of the text?

    Words change meaning over time. What needs to be done with subsequent translations of the Word of God is adaptation to the cultural use of words and phrases while maintaining fidelity to the original meaning of the Scriptures. Where a word or phrase can be updated in order to preserve original meaning, it should happen. For example, in the KJV, the word “conversation” is used where we would use the word “conduct.” This is, of course, an acceptable-yea, a necessary!-change of meaning.

    Furthermore, style must be preserved as well as substance. When the Bible speaks of God as hiding us under the shadow of His wing (Psalm 91), that poetic phrasing should be preserved, as well as the balance of the literal meaning behind its figurative presentation.

    Those who undertake Bible translation perform no small or easy task. It is a responsibility which carries with it the duty of preserving the very words of Almighty God Himself. It is a fool who takes this task lightly.

  • Porcell

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

    No matter the language, The Holy Spirit principally, though not necessarily with “inerrancy”, inspires deeply religious men of many languages to translate the original Aramaic, Greek or Hebrew and put it in fine, accurate biblical language.

    The King James Version is the most elegant of the English versions, even if some of its translations are questioned by modern scholars. Any sensible person eventually come to understand the sexual meaning of “knew” that beautifully expresses the depth of sexual relation between a man and a woman.

    As to the term “inerrancy,” according to Carl Piepkorn, there are no vocables in the Bible or the Lutheran symbolical literature that use the term. The Christian Bible is written by great religious men inspired principally by the Holy Spirit, though they are fallen and to some extent limited by time and place. Even the canon that was chosen largely by the Catholic Church, while principally inspired by the Holy Spirit, is not totally free from error.

  • Porcell

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

    No matter the language, The Holy Spirit principally, though not necessarily with “inerrancy”, inspires deeply religious men of many languages to translate the original Aramaic, Greek or Hebrew and put it in fine, accurate biblical language.

    The King James Version is the most elegant of the English versions, even if some of its translations are questioned by modern scholars. Any sensible person eventually come to understand the sexual meaning of “knew” that beautifully expresses the depth of sexual relation between a man and a woman.

    As to the term “inerrancy,” according to Carl Piepkorn, there are no vocables in the Bible or the Lutheran symbolical literature that use the term. The Christian Bible is written by great religious men inspired principally by the Holy Spirit, though they are fallen and to some extent limited by time and place. Even the canon that was chosen largely by the Catholic Church, while principally inspired by the Holy Spirit, is not totally free from error.

  • Shane Ayers

    I’m glad you pointed this out, Dr. Veith. Metaphors are not merely tools–they teach us something about the primal reality of which they speak. They reveal to us “the dual footprints of nature” as Bacon (of all people!) wrote.

    The metaphor “knew” for sex is particularly powerful–it is almost a prophetic diagnosis of the weak and estranged recreational sex we know today.

  • Shane Ayers

    I’m glad you pointed this out, Dr. Veith. Metaphors are not merely tools–they teach us something about the primal reality of which they speak. They reveal to us “the dual footprints of nature” as Bacon (of all people!) wrote.

    The metaphor “knew” for sex is particularly powerful–it is almost a prophetic diagnosis of the weak and estranged recreational sex we know today.

  • WebMonk

    As has been pointed out before, “knew” isn’t a metaphor, Shane. I agree with earlier that it’s probably more of a euphemism than an idiom.

    Definitely not a metaphor, though.

    Euphemism and idioms would both still (to my non-translator-expert mind) fall in the category of language-specific things which need to be translated to the target language with emphasis on the proper meaning in the target language.

    Metaphors need to be more carefully considered to pass along both the exactly translation meanings, and for the metaphor’s structure.

  • WebMonk

    As has been pointed out before, “knew” isn’t a metaphor, Shane. I agree with earlier that it’s probably more of a euphemism than an idiom.

    Definitely not a metaphor, though.

    Euphemism and idioms would both still (to my non-translator-expert mind) fall in the category of language-specific things which need to be translated to the target language with emphasis on the proper meaning in the target language.

    Metaphors need to be more carefully considered to pass along both the exactly translation meanings, and for the metaphor’s structure.

  • Porcell

    WebMonk, the Oxford definition metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable

    I should say that the term know is a figure of speech in which know is applied to the action of sexual coupling in a way that is not literally applicable, though figuratively brilliant.

  • Porcell

    WebMonk, the Oxford definition metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable

    I should say that the term know is a figure of speech in which know is applied to the action of sexual coupling in a way that is not literally applicable, though figuratively brilliant.

  • trotk

    Porcell, not to quibble, but know is literally applicable. You do actually come to know a person in sex, obviously physically and in other ways as well. This is why it is an expression worth using – because it is a rich meaning.

    But a metaphor hinges on comparison. Know isn’t compared to copulation. Instead, copulation is a particular type of knowledge. Thus, this isn’t a metaphor.

    It isn’t really idiom either, because the point of idioms is that the words don’t actually end up meaning what they are supposed to. In “know”, you merely have a specific application or type of knowledge that is a rich expression, because it implies other types of knowledge and companionship.

  • trotk

    Porcell, not to quibble, but know is literally applicable. You do actually come to know a person in sex, obviously physically and in other ways as well. This is why it is an expression worth using – because it is a rich meaning.

    But a metaphor hinges on comparison. Know isn’t compared to copulation. Instead, copulation is a particular type of knowledge. Thus, this isn’t a metaphor.

    It isn’t really idiom either, because the point of idioms is that the words don’t actually end up meaning what they are supposed to. In “know”, you merely have a specific application or type of knowledge that is a rich expression, because it implies other types of knowledge and companionship.

  • Cincinnatus

    trotk: And that is why the sacraments are more than merely symbolic (metaphors), yes?

  • Cincinnatus

    trotk: And that is why the sacraments are more than merely symbolic (metaphors), yes?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    No, WebMonk, “know” is a metaphor, expressing sexual relations in terms of mental understanding. It can also be a euphemism, I suppose. The problem is, English has only euphemisms and dysphemisms (is that a word?) to talk about sex. As has been said, “sex” just refers to “gender” in its original meaning. “Intercourse” means something like conversation and social relationships (would the Amish in Lancaster County mean anything else?). Then we have obscene expressions that make the act seem worse than it is. The most vulgar of the terms, according to some etymology I’ve read, derives from a word meaning “to strike, or hit.”

    Also, my point about Bible translations goes far beyond this one example. The Hebrew and the KJV refers to “bowels of compassion.” That makes some junior high aged children giggle. Modern translations reason that the ancient world located emotion figuratively in the bowels, whereas we speak of “the heart.” (We know that it’s the brain, but we still say “heart.”) Actually, we still use the older figure of speech when we say, “I felt it in my gut.” Anyway, if the ancient Hebrews located emotion in the intestines, I want to know that!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    No, WebMonk, “know” is a metaphor, expressing sexual relations in terms of mental understanding. It can also be a euphemism, I suppose. The problem is, English has only euphemisms and dysphemisms (is that a word?) to talk about sex. As has been said, “sex” just refers to “gender” in its original meaning. “Intercourse” means something like conversation and social relationships (would the Amish in Lancaster County mean anything else?). Then we have obscene expressions that make the act seem worse than it is. The most vulgar of the terms, according to some etymology I’ve read, derives from a word meaning “to strike, or hit.”

    Also, my point about Bible translations goes far beyond this one example. The Hebrew and the KJV refers to “bowels of compassion.” That makes some junior high aged children giggle. Modern translations reason that the ancient world located emotion figuratively in the bowels, whereas we speak of “the heart.” (We know that it’s the brain, but we still say “heart.”) Actually, we still use the older figure of speech when we say, “I felt it in my gut.” Anyway, if the ancient Hebrews located emotion in the intestines, I want to know that!

  • Porcell

    Trotk, I see your point but regard it as a stretch. Most people when it comes to sexual delight would view know as simply a fine biblical figure of speech. People involved with the pleasure of sex hardly think of it as knowledge, though on reflection might appreciate it as an incisive metaphor.

    Next time you get the urge with your wife or girl-friend, be careful not to say that I want to get to know you tonight or whenever. That could break an otherwise delightfully randy spell.

  • Porcell

    Trotk, I see your point but regard it as a stretch. Most people when it comes to sexual delight would view know as simply a fine biblical figure of speech. People involved with the pleasure of sex hardly think of it as knowledge, though on reflection might appreciate it as an incisive metaphor.

    Next time you get the urge with your wife or girl-friend, be careful not to say that I want to get to know you tonight or whenever. That could break an otherwise delightfully randy spell.

  • WebMonk

    I still don’t think “knew” is an example of a metaphor, but there are enough different definitions for the word “metaphor” that nearly anything can be classified as one, so pick your definition to get your desired result, I guess.

    I can certainly seeing a lot of words for sexual intercourse coming from roots like “hit” or “strike”. That’s a pretty decent description in a lot of ways. The striking just ain’t done with a hand.

  • WebMonk

    I still don’t think “knew” is an example of a metaphor, but there are enough different definitions for the word “metaphor” that nearly anything can be classified as one, so pick your definition to get your desired result, I guess.

    I can certainly seeing a lot of words for sexual intercourse coming from roots like “hit” or “strike”. That’s a pretty decent description in a lot of ways. The striking just ain’t done with a hand.

  • trotk

    Peter, your advice is appreciated. I will run it by my wife and see how she feels about it.

    One of the reasons that I like “know” so much, is because English lacks good words for sexual intercourse. “Have sex” is the norm, and apart from being rather empty in connotation, it is distorting our concept of male and female into masculine and feminine.

    I would maintain that know isn’t really a metaphor for two reasons:

    The comparison (sexual relations to mental understanding) is just as much of a stretch as it is to say that you know someone literally when you have sexual intercourse.

    The word has been in English since Old English, and was a translation of Hebrew at that point, and thus the metaphor never existed in English. Instead, an imported metaphor lives in a language for so long that when you look up “know” in the dictionary you get sexual activity as a legitimate definition. Metaphors that cease to (or perhaps never really did) aren’t really metaphors now. It is just another meaning for the word, and as Veith said, one that “communicates important meaning about marital sexuality in God’s design”. That statement alone makes me surprised, Dr. Veith, that you see it as metaphorical rather than literal.

    That said, I am all for translations that keep the original metaphors, idioms, and euphemisms in place and then add generous footnotes to explain them, because they shed so much light on the writer and culture, plus they enrich our understanding of the truth that God is communicating.

  • trotk

    Peter, your advice is appreciated. I will run it by my wife and see how she feels about it.

    One of the reasons that I like “know” so much, is because English lacks good words for sexual intercourse. “Have sex” is the norm, and apart from being rather empty in connotation, it is distorting our concept of male and female into masculine and feminine.

    I would maintain that know isn’t really a metaphor for two reasons:

    The comparison (sexual relations to mental understanding) is just as much of a stretch as it is to say that you know someone literally when you have sexual intercourse.

    The word has been in English since Old English, and was a translation of Hebrew at that point, and thus the metaphor never existed in English. Instead, an imported metaphor lives in a language for so long that when you look up “know” in the dictionary you get sexual activity as a legitimate definition. Metaphors that cease to (or perhaps never really did) aren’t really metaphors now. It is just another meaning for the word, and as Veith said, one that “communicates important meaning about marital sexuality in God’s design”. That statement alone makes me surprised, Dr. Veith, that you see it as metaphorical rather than literal.

    That said, I am all for translations that keep the original metaphors, idioms, and euphemisms in place and then add generous footnotes to explain them, because they shed so much light on the writer and culture, plus they enrich our understanding of the truth that God is communicating.

  • Rob

    You are all getting off track. There were two predominant ways in Biblical Hebrew to say, “he did the thing that gets women pregnant”. One, “to know”, is used here. The other “to lay with”, is used elsewhere. This is not metaphor, idiom, or euphemism, it is part of the semantic range of the word.

    To say translators must stick with the most common gloss for “yada” – “to know” – is overly dogmatic. The semantic range for Hebrew words is much broader than we are used to in English. Other examples – “come” and “go” are the same word in Hebrew; “understand” and “experience”; “turn” and “return”; “sit” and “dwell”; etc., etc. Context has to decide what usage is implied. There is an inherent symbolism in the Hebrew language itself, making Hebrew the perfect language for poetry and prophecy (compare this to the inherent precision of Greek semantics and syntax, which make it the perfect language for closely-reasoned argumentation). This has always been a cause for great awe in me. Most of the Old Testament is prophecy and poetry, and it was composed in a language that is perfectly suited to it. Most of the New Testament is careful expository reasoning, and it was composed in a language that is perfectly suited to it. The image of God as an author is indeed a powerful one.

    What’s fun about this discussion is it shows how incredibly difficult translation is. As the range of translation issues goes, this one is relatively easy. But you can see how people’s literary and theological preferences immediately get heaped onto the text and everyone hopes the original language will vindicate their view.

    In this case, no such luck. Yet it can still be cause for rejoicing in God’s abundant grace, even in the languages themselves.

  • Rob

    You are all getting off track. There were two predominant ways in Biblical Hebrew to say, “he did the thing that gets women pregnant”. One, “to know”, is used here. The other “to lay with”, is used elsewhere. This is not metaphor, idiom, or euphemism, it is part of the semantic range of the word.

    To say translators must stick with the most common gloss for “yada” – “to know” – is overly dogmatic. The semantic range for Hebrew words is much broader than we are used to in English. Other examples – “come” and “go” are the same word in Hebrew; “understand” and “experience”; “turn” and “return”; “sit” and “dwell”; etc., etc. Context has to decide what usage is implied. There is an inherent symbolism in the Hebrew language itself, making Hebrew the perfect language for poetry and prophecy (compare this to the inherent precision of Greek semantics and syntax, which make it the perfect language for closely-reasoned argumentation). This has always been a cause for great awe in me. Most of the Old Testament is prophecy and poetry, and it was composed in a language that is perfectly suited to it. Most of the New Testament is careful expository reasoning, and it was composed in a language that is perfectly suited to it. The image of God as an author is indeed a powerful one.

    What’s fun about this discussion is it shows how incredibly difficult translation is. As the range of translation issues goes, this one is relatively easy. But you can see how people’s literary and theological preferences immediately get heaped onto the text and everyone hopes the original language will vindicate their view.

    In this case, no such luck. Yet it can still be cause for rejoicing in God’s abundant grace, even in the languages themselves.

  • Stephen

    On my way to church there is a sign for a little church that reads “Verbo.” How do others hear that word? Even though it is not my native language, I am struck by what it conjures up. I don’t think immediately of “Word” in the same sense as it is in English. For me, it just feels different. “Verbo” feels like it is in motion, while “Word” feels solid and grounded. Languages do things in our minds we cannot control. They have an incarnate reality about them. Isn’t it cool?

    Rob’s observations about Greek and Hebrew are so moving. He makes a better case here than I attempted to do in the other thread on this topic for the two things that need to be stressed – emphasis on facility with biblical languages by pastors and perhaps a return to teaching them to young people. And secondly, which may seem almost contrary, the fact that the translations we have are reliable, ultimately not because of what we can do as translators, but because God is faithful.

    Like Rob says in his first post, if you don’t like a translation, move on. I personally have several. I’m attached to one NIV for sentimental reasons and it has a great set of study helps, but I break out the Greek when I feel the need. Sometimes I’m curious enough to read a passage in two or three other translations. Sometimes the KJV manages to get interesting verb tenses in there somehow. But there are verb tenses in Greek that simply DO NOT translate into English. They require exposition. Furthermore, there are so many ways to absorb the scriptures privately through study, but there is always a context in which we do it.

    Which brings me to my last point I tried to make on the other thread (is this horse dead yet?). There seems to be an underlying assumption that the Bible somehow exists alone or between an individual reader and their private experience of it without a community that interprets it. This is simply false. It has its life among other believers (plural, always plural!). This is part of what is confessed in that third part of our trinitarian creed, a communion of saints, which is in part a worshipping community where the scriptures are read, studied, heard and heeded, where the Holy Spirit calls people to a life of repentance, thanksgiving and service. It is also the tradition of how the text has been interpreted in the past, like the Lutheran Confessions for instance. That is where our personal interpretations develop their fullest meaning.

    Oh yeah, while we’re discussing poetry, we haven’t even touched on all the variant readings in the NT. Is it “We have peace with God” or “We might have peace with God” in Romans? Take your pick. That is a whole other issue translators face. Still, God is faithful.

  • Stephen

    On my way to church there is a sign for a little church that reads “Verbo.” How do others hear that word? Even though it is not my native language, I am struck by what it conjures up. I don’t think immediately of “Word” in the same sense as it is in English. For me, it just feels different. “Verbo” feels like it is in motion, while “Word” feels solid and grounded. Languages do things in our minds we cannot control. They have an incarnate reality about them. Isn’t it cool?

    Rob’s observations about Greek and Hebrew are so moving. He makes a better case here than I attempted to do in the other thread on this topic for the two things that need to be stressed – emphasis on facility with biblical languages by pastors and perhaps a return to teaching them to young people. And secondly, which may seem almost contrary, the fact that the translations we have are reliable, ultimately not because of what we can do as translators, but because God is faithful.

    Like Rob says in his first post, if you don’t like a translation, move on. I personally have several. I’m attached to one NIV for sentimental reasons and it has a great set of study helps, but I break out the Greek when I feel the need. Sometimes I’m curious enough to read a passage in two or three other translations. Sometimes the KJV manages to get interesting verb tenses in there somehow. But there are verb tenses in Greek that simply DO NOT translate into English. They require exposition. Furthermore, there are so many ways to absorb the scriptures privately through study, but there is always a context in which we do it.

    Which brings me to my last point I tried to make on the other thread (is this horse dead yet?). There seems to be an underlying assumption that the Bible somehow exists alone or between an individual reader and their private experience of it without a community that interprets it. This is simply false. It has its life among other believers (plural, always plural!). This is part of what is confessed in that third part of our trinitarian creed, a communion of saints, which is in part a worshipping community where the scriptures are read, studied, heard and heeded, where the Holy Spirit calls people to a life of repentance, thanksgiving and service. It is also the tradition of how the text has been interpreted in the past, like the Lutheran Confessions for instance. That is where our personal interpretations develop their fullest meaning.

    Oh yeah, while we’re discussing poetry, we haven’t even touched on all the variant readings in the NT. Is it “We have peace with God” or “We might have peace with God” in Romans? Take your pick. That is a whole other issue translators face. Still, God is faithful.

  • helen

    Actually, we still use the older figure of speech when we say, “I felt it in my gut.” Anyway, if the ancient Hebrews located emotion in the intestines, I want to know that!

    It’s relevant because we still are affected “in our gut” to strong emotion, (regardless of ‘knowing’ that it’s processed in the brain). There was a little boy in a past neighborhood who reacted to unpalatable information by vomiting.

  • helen

    Actually, we still use the older figure of speech when we say, “I felt it in my gut.” Anyway, if the ancient Hebrews located emotion in the intestines, I want to know that!

    It’s relevant because we still are affected “in our gut” to strong emotion, (regardless of ‘knowing’ that it’s processed in the brain). There was a little boy in a past neighborhood who reacted to unpalatable information by vomiting.

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  • Al Schmidt

    I agree with Trotk regarding today’s unfortunate use (or misuse) of gender when the conversation pertains to the male or female sex. Gender, expressed by the concepts of feminine/masculine, is a culturally relative concept that varies with time and cultural values, whereas sex is a biological concept and is always constant and quite distinct from cultural values. For instance, at one time in the USA it was seen as “unmaculine” for men to use under-arm deodorant, but not today. It was “unfeminine” for women to wear pant suits, but not today. An American Marine dressed in a skirt uniform instead of trousers would today in our culture be seen as “feminine. But Roman soldiers at the time of Christ wore skirts, and no one saw them as feminine.
    Hence, I too only use the word “gender” in the context of a grammar book.

  • Al Schmidt

    I agree with Trotk regarding today’s unfortunate use (or misuse) of gender when the conversation pertains to the male or female sex. Gender, expressed by the concepts of feminine/masculine, is a culturally relative concept that varies with time and cultural values, whereas sex is a biological concept and is always constant and quite distinct from cultural values. For instance, at one time in the USA it was seen as “unmaculine” for men to use under-arm deodorant, but not today. It was “unfeminine” for women to wear pant suits, but not today. An American Marine dressed in a skirt uniform instead of trousers would today in our culture be seen as “feminine. But Roman soldiers at the time of Christ wore skirts, and no one saw them as feminine.
    Hence, I too only use the word “gender” in the context of a grammar book.

  • Cincinnatus

    Ah, gender as performative. Someone has been reading a bit too much Judith Butler.

  • Cincinnatus

    Ah, gender as performative. Someone has been reading a bit too much Judith Butler.

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