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.

Spurgeon is the Exception that Proves the Rule

Wes Hill, guest posting at Abraham Piper’s microblog 22 Words, writes:

I’ve never understood the phrase, “the exception that proves the rule.”

An exception proves there isn’t a “rule” to begin with, right?

Here was my suggestion:

Ok, try this: The general rule is that ministers of the gospel should get formal training or else their sermons are going to be exegetical bunk.

Charles Spurgeon is the exception that proves the rule, because though, yes, he did not get formal training, he read so much on his own that he effectively did.

God Uses PHAT Christians

I once heard a sermon titled “God uses PHAT Christians.” The preacher’s acronym spelled out the following:

  • Pure
  • Humble
  • Available
  • Teachable/Trained

Now don’t try to guess who preached this sermon. I don’t know. I keep a “bad sermons” file—simply because I want wild examples to show to future homiletics students but I’m not creative enough to come up with them! But I take the preacher’s name out of each file because it doesn’t matter.

However, I have heard many preachers make the same point this man was making, just without the cheesy acronym. Over and over I’ve heard “God’s only going to use you if you make yourself into a clean vessel.” Now, I deeply want to be holy, but I don’t think this talk from preachers is helpful. I have often thought, What about Pharaoh? What about Samson?

Recently, Mark Dever and Don Carson discussed this point in Mark Dever’s 9Marks Leadership Interview Series, a set of recordings I highly recommend. They feature an intensely (almost annoyingly =) knowledgeable pastor asking knowledgeable questions to knowledgeable guests. And I can add “godly” to “knowledgeable” for pretty well everyone involved. The discussions are edifying, informative, and Scripture- and theology-heavy.

After talking about fallen ministers, Dever and Carson talked about PHAT Christians:

Dever: Never think that because your ministry is apparently successful that reflects your relationship with the Lord. There are many holy ministers who’ve not been used in any apparently mighty way, and there are those who have been used mightily by God whose own work we will known in the last day how God will judge it in regards to themselves but God used the burning bush, God used Balaam’s donkey. The fact that God uses something speaks to God’s greatness.

Carson: That’s right; it does not necessarily speak to the moral perfections of the agent used.

Dever: And sometimes in our pious language we make it seem like the more holy we are the more powerfully we’ll be used. And while there’s some truth to that, you think of Pelagius, who was known as a very pious man but whose theology could not have been more prideful.

Carson: And there is no direct correlation between piety, godliness on the one hand and fruitfulness on the other. There is some correlation in the grace of God sometimes, but you cannot build anything on that. Some of the most godly Christians I know live and serve in corners of the world where there is almost no fruit, and there is a great deal of suffering, and when the saints go marching in they’ll be somewhere near the head of the pack and people like me won’t be anywhere near.

Well said.