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.

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You might think that every word has a meaning. But open a dictionary and you will see that most words have several meanings and some have such a wide range of meanings that one might wonder how they can be useful at all.

I was reminded about this by an exchange among friends on Facebook. (edited a bit to remove personal details)

Status update by friend 1: Home after a wonderful weekend. Attended a wedding on Saturday and visited with old friends.
Comment #1: didn’t know we were considered old
Comment #2: ancient

I am sure that these comments were made in good fun. But the exchange does show two of the meanings of “old”. The “old” friends are not ancient, but rather people who have been friends for a long time, or perhaps friends which one had not seen for a long time.

This past football season, I  noticed that football announcers say of a good receiver that he has “soft hands”. This means that the receiver catches the ball very well. I suppose that the ball would bounce off something “hard” but “stick” to something soft. This is quite a different meaning than when an advertisement says that a certain cream or soap will give a woman soft hands.

We use context to sort out which meaning of a word or phrase is intended. There is no confusion, it is clear when the “soft hands” means one thing and when it means the other. After all, football announcers would not be commenting on the luxurious qualities of the skin on the hands of a macho receiver!

The fact that every word has a range of meaning must be taken into account in a good translation. In one sense, Bible translation is not the same as interpretation. When Revelation says “Then I saw a black horse, and its rider had a balance scale in one hand”, the translator should just translate. It is then up to the preachers and theologians to interpret the meaning of the black horse and the scale. But in another sense, one cannot translate even one word or phrase without interpreting it. Here is an example from Psalm 24 where “soft hands” are not mentioned, but “clean hands” are:

“Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart… He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Savior.”

In some cultures, dirty hands indicate a hard worker. To say that some one has clean hands is to say that they are lazy. (Source: From the Wycliffe UK magazine, Words for Life, November 2012)

In such a case, it would be foolish to translate the words “clean hands” literally. It would mean that God approves lazy people. So the words “clean hands” (or rather the Hebrew words so translated into English) have to be interpreted, and then the translators finds words in the other language that match that interpretation. Something like “He whose hands are not soiled with evil deeds” might work, but the exact solution will vary from language to language.

Languages are amongst the richest and most complex systems humankind has ever produced.

Antoine Lefeuvre

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