(This is kind of long and involved, but I think it might generate some interesting discussion if you can bear with the setup.)
It is my observation from interacting with people here and in other venues where the intersection of academic disciplines, faith, and biblical interpretation are topics of discussion, that when people have a view of a topic that is informed by a “literalist” approach to Scripture, you can present facts from relevant academic disciplines all day long with little to no effect. So maybe that is not the best approach, and we should spend more time discussing communication and language and try to affect the way that meaning is approached in Scripture first.
Many Evangelicals’ ideas of how meaning is derived from Scripture are not congruent with current models of how language is processed, and they show a fundamental ignorance of basic linguistic concepts concerning the role translation plays in communicating the intended meaning of Scripture.
Two weeks ago I was at the 8th Biennial Bible Translation Conference in Dallas and linguist Doug Trick of Trinity Western University presented a paper the discussed the problems that Bible translators working globally and cross-culturally encounter when talking about their work in U.S churches, where people generally have completely inaccurate concepts of how translation works. He examined some of the metaphors and conceptual frameworks that are used in churches and seminaries to talk about getting meaning out of the Bible (and language in general) and how woefully incompatible these ideas and metaphors are with the currently accepted models of communication and translation theory. (These models have developed as the field of pragmatics in linguistics has applied modern brain research on memory and language processing from the field of cognitive psychology.) He suggested we need to come up with and promote some new metaphors, and we need to do so more intentionally given the fact that the “other side” has been engaged in some pretty hard core publicity efforts lately. (The push in some circles to get churches to switch to the ESV and the backlash against the new NIV are cases in point.)
The model of communication that many Evangelicals promote (consciously or not) is called the code model. In this model, the meaning in a speakers mind is “packaged” in words and strung together according to the rules of grammar to make a proposition. The hearer refers to the definitions (or “literal meaning”) of the words that exist in his or her memory and the way they are strung together to “unpackage” the meaning. Translation involves exchanging the various packages of meaning in one language for differently wrapped, but essentially equivalent packages in the receptor language. Communication is a process of decoding the parts and adding up the sum of meaning. (Trick’s said a metaphor for this process is the children’s game where a number represents a letter and you are given a secret code that consists of a bunch of numbers. If you have the key for decoding the message and know which numbers go with which letters, you can get at the encoded meaning.)
Under this model, “formal equivalence” in translation is valued. That means a “good” translation is one that corresponds as closely as possible to the forms (a one to one exchange of words and equivalent grammatical structuring) of the original message. There is a fixation on the “literal meaning” (which is not an actual linguistic term or concept) and the idea that the more similar (faithful) a translation is on the surface to the original, the easier it will be to unpackage the intended meaning of the original author.
On the other hand, the model of communication that most linguists/translators operate out of these days is the inferential model. (It is highly influenced by Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory of pragmatics.) In this model, the speaker (author) has an intended meaning in mind. She ascertains the shared context with the hearer (reader) and provides the hearer with a “communicative cue” that she believes will guide the hearer to her intended meaning along the path of least resistance. The hearer takes the words that the speaker says and derives an explicature based on their shared context. (The explicature is the proposition that was directly communicated after relevant information is inferred from the context.) From the explicature, the hearer then infers an implicature (a hypothesis of the speaker’s intended meaning based on the shared context).
For example, take the sentence, “The door is open.”
To derive the explicature, the hearer needs to infer which door in the shared context the speaker is referring to (the refrigerator door? the front door? the car door?) and which sense of ‘open’ is most relevant (unlocked? not shut? Senses of ‘open’ that are irrelevant to the context will not even be activated in the hearer’s mind; senses such as ‘honest and forthright’ or ‘a running computer application’ or ‘ready for business’ or ‘unrestricted.’)
Once the explicature is derived, (Let’s say in this case the explicature is “The back door of the house the speaker is in is unlocked.”) the hearer forms an implicature based on the context.
The meaning is in the implicature. If the shared context is me looking out my kitchen window while washing dishes and seeing my neighbor coming up to on my back porch to return the baking dish she borrowed, and I yell out the window to her, “The door is open” she may derive the implicature “Christy is occupied with something and can’t come escort me into the house, but she wants me to let myself in and join her in the kitchen.”
If the shared context is my husband and I preparing to turn in for the night, and I say as my husband passes by the back door “The door is open” he may derive the implicature “Christy wants me to lock the door before we go to bed.”
The explicature in both cases is the same, the implicature is not, and it is the shared context that determines how the hearer interprets the speaker’s intended meaning.
In translating the Bible, the translator is essentially eavesdropping on a conversation that he is far removed from linguistically, culturally, and historically, and is doing his best to recreate the shared context of the original speakers and hearers in order to 1) correctly derive the explicature and 2) hypothesize the intended implicatures.
Then he has the task of trying to recreate the same explicatures in another language which will undoubtedly not precisely overlap lexically, grammatically, pragmatically, or conceptually with the original language. (It is incredibly naïve to presume that there is ever a totally equivalent overlap in the concepts triggered by a word even from one speaker to another in the same language, let alone in different languages. Take for example, the discussion that happened a while back on this board over the ancient Hebrew word raqia and the modern English word sky. Though these words have the same referent in the real world, they triggered different concepts in their respective contexts.) Even if the translator can communicate the explicature well enough for the new audience to infer a similar proposition as the original audience, the new audience does not have the same shared context with the original speaker as the original audience and will miss some of the intended implicatures and often hypothesize implicatures that were never part of the original speaker’s intended meaning.
So, now the point of explaining all this: What better metaphors do you think we could start using with people when we talk about getting meaning out of Scripture? What metaphors more accurately picture what actually happens in communication and translation?
Can you think of any metaphors or conceptual frameworks that are repeatedly held out in churches that predispose people to cling to the code model when approaching Scripture? How could we deconstruct those ideas and move the conversation to a more accurate understanding of how communication through Scripture and translation takes place?