Linguist-Translator with Valuable Insight on Bible Translation

Ernst-August Gutt, an author recommended to me by David Bell, has changed my wavering opinion on whether or not Bible translations should translate metaphors. You really need to read Gutt’s whole—relatively brief—discussion to follow this, but try anyway:

It is often claimed that a metaphor is a formal device that serves to embellish text. We are also told that it usually has one basic point of similarity that constitutes the meaning of the metaphor and that can be expressed in nonfigurative language. On the basis of this claim we, as translators, are encouraged to replace a metaphor by plain-language expressions if the metaphor is not readily understood.

In fact… metaphors are not formal devices with an embellishing function; rather, they are needed to get the communicator’s intended meaning across. In fact, they may be the only way in which she [throughout his book, “she” is a communicator and “he” is an audience] can fulfil her intention of communicating additional weaker implications. (p. 51)

Gutt goes on to deny that metaphors necessarily have only one point of similarity with reality.

An Example from Work

An example from Gutt will make his statements clearer. Say you have a boss named Bill who’s a 1) ruthless 2) bully 3) surrounded by administrative assistants who enforce his will throughout the department.

You may comment at some point, “Bill is a gangster.” You do so not because you want to clearly state propositions 1), 2), and 3), but because you want to imply them, you want to leave the door open for people to make what they will of your statement—within the constraints set by context. That’s metaphor at work. It makes language rich by opening up subtle possibilities of communication, “weak implications” instead of strong ones, as Gutt puts it.

An Example from Dating

Another of Gutt’s examples will still perhaps help. Brian wants to ask Joy on a date, but he’s not sure she’s open to the possibility. So he says to her, “I hear they built a new section of Cleveland Park.” Joy could draw from that statement that Brian wants to make conversation, that he’s curious to know what others think about Greenville County’s fiscal choices, or that he wants to visit that part of the park with her on a romantic walk. Brian purposefully (ah, that Brian!) made various implications possible rather than stating directly what his intentions were. That’s what metaphor does, Gutt says.

Applying Gutt to Translation

Unless a metaphor is utterly opaque (i.e., no one will figure out what it means if you translate it straightforwardly) and there are no contemporary equivalents in the receptor language, I’m inclined to think now that a metaphor should be left alone in Scripture and not put in plain language. So if God inspired Amos to write, “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,” He left some possibilities of interpretation—various implications—open. Most interpreters understand Amos’ metaphor as talking about famine: you have clean teeth when you don’t get to eat anything. But translators shouldn’t come along and try to smooth out the difficult metaphor by saying something like, “He gave you famine in all your cities.” It removes beauty, yes; but, more importantly, following Gutt, it doesn’t communicate quite what God meant. It narrows the possibilities too much.

As with all ideas like this, I’ll attempt to keep it in mind and test it as I read Scripture in the future.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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