Mounce Archive 13 — How Should Bible Translations Deal with Metaphors?
Everyone needs a break once in a while, and Bill Mounce is taking one from his weekly column on biblical Greek until September. Meanwhile, we’ve hand-picked some classic, popular posts from the "Mondays with Mounce" archive for your summer reading and Greek-studying pleasure.
Today's "classic" asks a question Mounce asked over five years ago regarding Bible translations and metaphors: Where should Bible translations draw the line when it comes to the texts use of metaphors?
Mounce provides three solid examples to illustrate why his question is important, concluding:
The Bible was not written at a "Dick and Jane" (another metaphor) level. It is deeply textured, and there is a beauty and depth to how the biblical writers were inspired to communicate God’s truth. It is a challenge to find that center ground between presenting God’s truth to a new culture and language in ways that are understandable, and writing with the depth and complexity that epitomizes the original intent.
Which of course raises a more basic question: Does verbal inspiration extend to metaphors?
Consider the excerpt below and read the original in the link to better understand how you as an exegete can faithfully convey the Bible's deeply textured metaphors "with the depth and complexity that epitomizes the original intent."
This is one of the fundamental questions all translations struggle with. How are they going to deal with metaphors. Related to this question is the issue of technical terms such as "saint" or "propitiation."
For some metaphors, the answer is simple. If it conveys no meaning to the target language, or if it is going to be misunderstood by the majority of readers, then most translations will simply interpret the metaphor. One way that Hebrew says a person is patient is to say that they are "long of nose." Does this phrase "literally" mean that their proboscis is of unusual size? Of course not. The metaphor/idiom literally means they are patient. I doubt any translation is comfortable saying "long of nose," although the KJV’s "longsuffering," while no longer part of colloquial English, is a tad more transparent to the imagery than "patient."
On the other side of the spectrum is a statement like the "hand of the Lord." Does this "literally" mean God has a physical hand? Of course not, and translations generally are comfortable allowing this type of metaphor (i.e. anthropomorphism) to stand (cf. Luke 1:66). It is not going to be misinterpreted.
But where does a translation draw the line?
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.
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