Literal Green



It’s blackberry season in Southern Oregon. Wild blackberry plants are invasive and difficult to kill, so they are considered a pest. But their berries are delicious. Picking them requires dodging their vicious thorns: not easy to do given the irregular shape and placement of the wild clumps. It is also important to only pick the blackest berries. The reddish-black ones may look ripe, but they will leave a sour taste in your mouth.  Don’t even think about biting into a red one!

Which leads me to a fun truth: Blackberries are green when they’re red.

Green blackberries

Green blackberries

While that is literally true,  it is not meant to be taken literally. Some people say that a literal translation of the Bible is best. But all languages joyfully use words in ways that defy literal interpretation and translation. Blackberries being green when they are red is just one little ice crystal on the tip of the iceberg. This fact makes a truly literal translation of the Bible or anything else a bit strange.

For God is my witness, how I long for you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ

That is the translation of Philippians 1:8 in Young’s Literal Translation (highlighting mine). True to the name of his translation, the translator adopted a literal translation of the Greek word σπλάγχνον – “bowels”. Figuratively, it means affection; the Greeks of the time considering that affection came from the bowels, whereas my culture says that it comes from the heart. In some places, strong emotions are said to come from the liver. I have a gut feeling that you might point out that the digestive tract is not absent from the words I use to describe my emotions. But most Bible translators cannot stomach a literal translation of σπλάγχνον. Consider the same verse in the English Standard Version, which calls itself an “essentially literal” translation (highlighting mine).

For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus

When translators belly up to the translation table, they should take into account the ordinary meaning of words, whether literal or figurative. Blackberries, they might well translate, are unripe when they’re red.

If you liked this, you might also like Words, Not just anyone can translate, or Understand.



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