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What to do with Metaphors in Bible Translation? (Monday with Mounce 23)

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Monday With Mounce buttonThis 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?

"Propitiation" is hardly part of most people’s active vocabulary, and yet it is a significant theological term with a specific range of meaning. Was Christ’s atonement focused on God’s wrath ("propitiation") or our guilt ("expiation"), and is the cross to be seen as the place of atonement ("mercy seat")?

The ESV uses the technical term and expects the reader to study their Bible (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; also the NASB).

The NIV/TNIV chooses to explain the metaphor with "sacrifice of atonement," "atoning sacrifice," and in Heb 2:17 "make atonement." The NRSV uses "sacrifice of atonement" twice and "atoning sacrifice" twice; if you are going to interpret the term I like this better as it retains some of the technical nature of the term. The NET actually uses "mercy seat" in Rom 3:25.

Is one right and the other wrong? Of course not. This is an issue of translation philosophy; and as long as it is stated clearly in the Preface to the translation, even those without a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek should be able to understand what is happening.

But back to the original question. How far does a translation go in conveying the original form of a statement? There are many examples I could show you, but here are a few.

(1) Are the hagioi "saints" or "holy ones"? I was surprised to see the TNIV go with the latter. I am not sure why they chose to. Both are open to the same set of misunderstandings. Perhaps someone who knows could respond to this.

(2) One of the more common metaphors in Paul is the idea that the Christian life is a "walk." "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Gal 5:16, ESV). Our decision was that this is a well-understood metaphor and conveyed the meaning exactly as Paul intended. And yet most translations interpret the metaphor as "live" (NET, NIV [changed to "walk" in the TNIV], RSV, NRSV). Why? Why would you flatten the texture and depth of the biblical text by removing a perfectly understandable metaphor?

Side note: I have pretty strong feelings on this one. One of the messages that the Western church must hear is that life is a journey.

Just because we have walked through the gate of conversion does not mean that we are done. There is the path of discipleship we must walk, and according to Jesus, life is at the end of the path, not the gate (Matt 7:14). (By the way, I am basically Reformed, so don’t run with that last statement.)

(3) Are we to "edify" one another (1 Thess 5:11), or "build up" (ESV), or "encourage" (NRSV and almost everyone else). I lost the vote on this one in the ESV. "Edify" is a perfectly good word that I think people understand. It means "to build up," but I like theological terms. People need a handle to hang on to, and a theological vocabulary does that. "Encourage" to me is a flat word devoid of literary texture.

There are many more examples of this type of issue, and I am sure I will be blogging on many more in the future, so let’s view this post as a foray into the topic. Oh, I’m sorry, did you not know the word "foray"? Should I use a flat, unimaginative term like "beginning"? It loses the idea of a group of soldiers advancing into dangerous ground.

Oh, there’s another mistake. I used "ground" metaphorically. Was that too difficult? Did you have to stop for just a second to process it?

Should I flatten all my language so you can understand it without thinking. Wait, "flatten" is a metaphor too.

Okay. A bit tongue in cheek (another metaphor), but you get the idea.

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? More on that later.

Mounce William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and general editor for 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. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at

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