Thursday, September 15, 2011


I've been mulling over whether or not to do a post or two about translation theory, since translations are back in the news. Whether or not I'll get around to it, I'm not sure, but two of my points would be that much of the issue comes down to (a) the meaning of "meaning" and (2) the relationship between "form" and "meaning."

But perhaps I can offer just a thought or two about the word literal. The word is almost unavoidable, but I think we should take pains to use it carefully and rarely. The reason is that it can be used in a number of different ways, and it is quite easy to misunderstand.

Consider the question, "Do you take the Bible literally?"

Many of us would answer, "Yes," because we take the Bible seriously in accord with its varying genres seeking to determine the author's intent; in other words, we don't treat it as a fictional fable with spiritualized lessons. The questioner probably has in mind things like whether Adam and Eve were historical people, whether Jonah was really swallowed by a whale, whether Jesus really walked on water, etc. They are not asking silly things like, "So if Jesus says he's the door, where are his hinges?" They want to know if we understand the details of history and miracles metaphorically.

With regard to translation debates, some people use "literally" to mean translating woodenly. For them, translating "literally" is tantamount to "transcribing" (which is not the same as "translating").

And on the other side of the spectrum, there are well-known pastors who tell their congregations every week that in this passage, the term "X" is "literally, A." In other words, by "literally" they mean lexically.

So when someone asks me if I take the Bible literally, or what this passage means literally, or what the literal meaning of this word is, it's quite difficult to answer until we know how they are using the word. Are they asking about seriousness, the cognitive element of a metaphor, the lexical meaning of a word, etc.

Let me say just one more thing about the idea of saying about a word that it "literally" means X.

What we are seeking in interpretation is an author's communicative intention in using particular words in particular ways in particular contexts. A good lexicon is a helpful too but an artificial construct. It provides readers with a range of words in the receptor language that correspond with, or denote, the term in the source language. But merely looking up term X in the lexicon and seeing the verbal equivalent A does not mean we should say that "X is literally A." It may be that A accurately represents X, but that is not determined by the lexical entry but rather by the context and the way in which the author intends to use the word to communicate his point.