Translation, "literal meaning," and the search for better metaphors

(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?

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Christy you ask some great questions!

Just yesterday I was talking to a friend, and he was telling me that, “The Bible is not open to interpretation.” This remark completely baffled me and it had largely had to do with how we were using the word ‘interpretation’… He used the word as meaning some sort of “up in the air” practice where it means different things to different people, each of which differ from the original “plain meaning” of Scripture. Where as I understand ‘interpret’ to mean gleaning the meaning from anything you read based on a multitude of factors: context, intention, etc.,

Saying “The Bible is not open to interpretation.” Is to me a self-contradiction. Everybody, in day-to-day conversation, interprets what people mean beyond what they literally say, and this applies to literature as well.

The husband ask the wife, “is something wrong?” And the wife responds, “nothing.”

99% of people (at least in American culture) will understand that what the wife is literally saying is far different than what the wife is literally meaning. The wife most certainly doesn’t mean that nothing’s wrong, but is in all likelihood saying she needs space or it’s the husbands fault for her distress.

There’s a lot of meaning packaged in that seemingly insignificant word “nothing” that’s goes miles beyond what you’ll find in a dictionary or lexicon concordance.


I also like what C. S. Lewis says about Jesus’ statement: “I am the Door”.

Without knowing any further context, and even if you didn’t know who was speaking, you automatically know that the person speaking is NOT saying he’s a literal wooden door with hinges. You know that the meaning is implying some sort of passage or entranceway. However, you would never know what the speaker was talking about if you didn’t know about the literal meaning of the word “door”. It’s amazing what connections your brain makes based on such little information.

Some other examples where context is key.

A six-year-old girl says, “The moon is made of cheese!” … The hearer doesn’t put a lot of stock into what she is saying and infers that because she’s a little girl she has a big imagination and probably would ask her something like, “Where’d you hear that from?”

But take that same statement and put it in the mouth of a different person…

An astronaut says, “The moon is made of cheese!” The hearer will walk away with very different implications. Is he serious? Is he insane? How did he become an astronaut… Maybe he knows something I don’t know since he personally walked on the moon etc.,

I think there’s a difference between “literal” and “literalistic”. I know some people that use the word “literal” to mean, “in accordance with overall context and the authors intention.” While other people mean “literal” to mean historical/factual or the “plain sense meaning” of any given text.

I started reading Augustine’s book, “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” and right away I understood that the way he was using “literal” was far, far different than how most modern people use the word “literal”. He said things like: “in the beginning” was referring to Jesus, because he was before all things. He inferred the light in verse three to be referring to angels. That the days were literary devices. In this sense I think he used the word “literal” in closer concordance to authors intention.

He also, I’ve heard, wrote commentaries on the “figuritive meaning” of Genesis. Who knows what ideas he comes up with that book!




“I started reading Augustine’s book, “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” and right away I understood that the way he was using “literal” was far, far different than how most modern people use the word “literal”. He said things like: “in the beginning” was referring to Jesus, because he was before all things. He inferred the light in verse three to be referring to angels. That the days were literary devices. In this sense I think he used the word “literal” in closer concordance to authors intention.”

Like this quote!

George Brooks

@gbrooks9, @TimothyHicks

Augustine operated under the code model too, I imagine. I wasn’t really referring to the idea that words can be used literally and figuratively. Even people who advocate the code model of communication and formal equivalence in translation recognize literary devices, figurative language, and language specific idioms.

I’m more trying to point out that we need to more clearly articulate to people that original meaning of Scripture was largely determined by relevance to the shared context of the original author and readers, and the meaning we draw from Scripture, (unless we work pretty hard at trying to put ourselves in the ancient context, will be largely shaped by our context), and our meanings will be different than the meanings they got.

There is this prevalent conception that the meaning of Scripture exists in the text itself. One metaphor I have noticed (that I think is unhelpful and inaccurate) is mining. The idea is that gems of wisdom and insight exist in the text and if you can just chip away at the obscure and inaccessible language of the original (by having an almost ‘word for word’ translation) you will be rewarded by finding the gems that are covered up in there. But that’s not at all how the construction of meaning actually works.

Doug Trick proposed the metaphor of a computer shortcut. A sentence in the text is like the computer icon. When you click on it it activates a whole program in the computer’s ‘mind’ that can go all sorts of different directions. It’s possible that different users have the same shortcut icon, but clicking on it brings up different versions of the application with different capabilities.

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My brother-in-law told me a story from when he was in a small village in Haiti years ago and a visiting American was preaching, using a Creole interpreter to speak to the locals. At one point the speaker emphatically made a point declaring that something …“wasn’t worth a hill of beans!” My brother listened with some interest to what the interpreter would do with this since a “hill of beans” would be worth a considerable fortune to all the listeners present. The interpreter simply told the audience that it “wasn’t worth anything” (as my brother approvingly noted). So here was a simple case where I think most of us could agree that an interpreter made a good decision to deliver the thought instead of the actual words --even if some of the vehemence got lost. Had he been faithful to the words, the listeners would likely have been confused or even misled.

But what I’m gathering from your latter post above is that even this example doesn’t capture what you are getting at in speaking of the code model as opposed to the inferential model. So would “decoders” have been okay with the interpreter’s decision in my example?

You are exactly right to note that so many of us westerners operate in a “decoder” mode of thought. Even when I am aware of it and disapprove of it, I still have a habit of mining the Scriptures that is hard to break. I have recently been influenced by Enns in this, as you well know, and it seems that to view Scriptures as a “living document” (conservatives hate that concept when they charge liberals of treating the U.S. constitution that way --so I can imagine a similar reaction from religious conservatives about the Bible) then we are nevertheless engaging in the more time-honored tradition of how so many early church leaders engaged with it as well.

I am currently reading through the NRSV English translation, and I understand that scholars attempted to be more faithful to the Greek/Hebrew words without entirely neglecting the concepts and thoughts. Are there any English paraphrase versions that get similar scholarly approval in the inferential side of things? I know that this discussion goes (as it should) much deeper than mere translation technicality. But I’m curious as to your thoughts nonetheless.

There is so much wealth to gain by just trying to let Scriptural narratives go where they will, and letting them intersect ordinary life.

At the risk of having quoted this here before (attributed to Mark Twain I think) “It isn’t the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me so much as the parts that I understand perfectly well.”

Perhaps even our confidence on that “perfectly well” part shouldn’t be mistaken for certainty!


I think the problem is that lots of Bible translations are a mix of interpretive choices, with literal choices, for translations.

A good example I think is Job 3:8 KJV, “Let the curse it that curse the day, who are ready to raise up their mourning.”

The context of this passage is after Job loses all his family, all his possessions, and then (to add insult to injury) becomes consumed in boils, and is left lying in the sand scratching himself with a shard of clay. The chapter in question is filled with depression and darkness, where Job wishes he was never born, and the KJV translator chose to interpreting “mourning”, in what he believed fit the context of the passage.

But what virtually every other translation says is something very different. “Who are reading to raise up Leviathan” … From other passages Leviathan is some sort of sea monster that’s very ferocious. In the KJV it’s understandable why the translator went with “mourning” … Is raise up Leviathan some form of metaphor? Why is this passage all the sudden talking about a sea-monster?

Not only that but this is the first time Leviathan is mentioned in Scripture. And it’s used in conjunction with some form of despair.

You’re topic says “in search of better metaphors”. Maybe something like, the Bible is written FOR us, not TOO us? Before reading any particular passage, don’t start off with a question in your mind that you intend the Bible to answer, but instead ask yourself what questions are the passages addressing? Don’t say, “What is it that I want to know?” But rather “What is it the Bible has to offer?”

I’m just spitballing here…


Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes they use equivalent idioms or figures of speech. Though you can find idioms that are translated word for word in the KJV. Saul goes into the cave to “cover his feet” which is not an English idiom. We would say “relieve himself.” (1 Samuel 24:3) The ESV says David “slept with his fathers and was buried” which, though understandable, (and misunderstandable) is not natural English, it’s a word for word interpretation of the Hebrew. We would more naturally say something like “was laid to rest with his ancestors.” (1 Kings 2:10)


As an Englishman I always treasure the Living Bible translation that says Saul went into the cave to go to the bathroom…

One issue that you don’t (I think) cover is the deep intertextuality of the Bible: there are complex connections between all parts of it. It’s pretty clear that the prophets, the Evangelists, St John the Divine and so on drew on the older biblical texts, developed and combined them in new ways, and marked these ideas with verbal allusions to the source(s).

A translation that tends towards unpacking the thought behind the words will often not reproduce the same key words in different passages (not least because the later writer was himself reinterpreting ideas and even languages in a way that was probably quite unaware of modern linguistic theory!). In other words, the writers were dealing with sequences of words as well as expressing ideas.

One small example: the passage about building Solomon’s temple refers to the large bronze laver in the courtyard literally as “a sea”, and no doubt some translations tidy up the communication by using some other word more indicative to us of a big bath than the Atlantic Ocean.

Then perhaps we read Revelation 4, where before God’s throne is a “sea of glass”. We get confused because at the end of Revelation it says there’ll be no more sea, and we altogether miss the fact that in Rev 4 the “sea” is like the one in the temple, ie a bath for purification, only even more pure and so transparent - and not like the one with the sandy beach. And so we miss that the scene isn’t set just in a royal throne room, but in the “real” cosmic temple of God, with significant elements of the one in Jerusalem retained for particular teaching purposes.

And because we miss that, perhaps we also miss the fact that Solomon’s “sea” was originally called that because in some way it represented the seas of earth, as the altar made of “unhewn stones” represented the earth, and so we miss out on in a rich vein of understanding how much of the Bible is built around temple imagery, Israel as a priesthood for the whole world, allusions back to the garden of Eden and the creation story, etc, etc. All because we clarified the meaning of one word.

Another example I mentioned (I think) on another thread - we read John the Baptist or Jesus calling their enemies “a brood of vipers” and think it’s a cutting insult, but maybe miss the fact that “seed of serpents” is a deliberate refererence back to Genesis 3.15. It is more of a divine judgement, and a chilling call to radical repentance, than an insult.

Now it’s almost impossible to represent those connections in a translation that translates the writers’ worldview into ours in a lively way - one needs to think in Hebrew or use a more literal translation - and, of course, know it back to front like the Jews or early Christians did.

So we really need all kinds of translation, and the deeper we’re digging, the more linguistic depth we need - and we certainly need to shun the Fundamentalist idea that anybody who takes the most obvious (to them) sense of a single modern translation, however good, has understood much of what the biblical writer, or the Holy Spirit, meant to convey.


Jon, I was always a little confused by that Revelation reference to the fact there there “would be no more sea”, until now! Thanks for the word-link on that; and so … your point is well-taken on how aiming for the over-all thoughts exclusively could cause us to miss out on word-play connections that were important to original audiences.

Of course, Revelation has so many other references to the “sea” (which I would take to be more as in “an ocean”) for which the same word pulled double duty in short order. So it seems to me our English confusion is understandable. Just a few passages removed we read about angels and large evil beasts standing in or emerging from (the sea?), or having one foot planted on the seashore while the other was in the sea. Which is why I would imagine actual oceanic imagery must have been in play in those instances. But I don’t doubt there is still much going on there that I remain clueless about.

I do confess to having not lost much sleep over it, though!

Scholarly studies and linguistics are all helpful when we read ancient text, but a translation will inevitably loose something, because the differences in languages is a result of the differences in the respective peoples and their way of life.

When we consider meaning and intent in a text, we need to reflect on why we have read it, how we have read it, and anything in our experiences that is relevant to that text - these matters are what results in “meaning” to us. These days I am inclined to read the Bible (particularly the NT) almost as if the writer had sent me a letter or has decided to partake in a friendly dialogue with me. Communicated meaning inevitably is derived from face to face dealing we have had during our life. The Bible ultimately deals with a way of life and the type of human beings we choose to be - that is where meaning amongst Christians become synonymous with the Word.

Merv, hot off the back of teaching a 6 week course on Revelation, I’m a dangerous interlocutor!

If we exclude the reference to the bronze/crystal sea, the sea in Revelation either serves as just one of the bits of the world affected by events (like having mountains thrown in it, drying up, losing its Roman slave galleys etc), or more significantly as the recurrent biblical metaphor for chaos (or tohu wabohu, in best John H Walton tradition!).

So a beast associated with the sea is, you can be sure, going to be up to no good, and the reason the age to come is said to be sea-free is intended to be part of showing that God’s rule and order is now all in all.

Remember, though, that the style is apocalyptic, so there’s no necessity for a symbol in one place to be consistent with a symbol somewhere else - each vision stands on its own merits.

More importantly for those of us not looking forward to an eternal future in a vast cubic tower block with no trips to the seaside, apocalyptic visions don’t have to be consistent with physical reality either. It’s eminently possible that the transformation of the world at the return of Christ will involve lapping waves, tropical islands, and of course English ale and guitar music… duly transformed into the likeness of Christ, of course!

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A friend of mine had a children’s Bible that said Paul went into the cave to “use the toilet” and his five year old was like, “So the ancient Israelites installed toilets in their caves? Wow!”

I agree that reading in multiple translations (if you have that luxury in your language) and consulting scholars to try to understand the context and to try to “know the same things they knew” is the best way to get the most meaning out of Scripture.

Exactly. This your “sea” example is a great demonstration of how a single word can trigger a whole set of concepts and associations in one language/people group/socio-cultural context and the translated word (even if it were to be kept consistent) would not trigger the same whole set of associations, because it’s removed from our worldview.

I think it just goes to show that no one is going to understand all the original/intended meaning of Scripture by reading the text alone (no matter how great the translation or how much they study the original languages). Part of the meaning is accessed by being discipled by those who have passed down the traditional understandings. And we can recover meaning that may have been lost along the way by listening to scholars who can shed light on the ancient contexts and worldviews that would have shaped how the original authors and audiences might have understood it.

That’s why when some people say stuff like, for example, “Walton’s whole argument is at variance with the principle of the perspecuity of Scripture. This maintains that God intended ordinary people, guided by the Holy Spirit, and using sound rules of hermeneutics, to understand the Bible’s fundamental doctrines. We do not require elite scholars, whether they be theologians or scientists, to interpret the Bible for us,” (Dominic Statham on they aren’t making any sense to me. How in the world do you maintain such a “doctrine of the perspecuity of Scripture” in light of what we know about how communication and translation works?

I think the Holy Spirit can speak through his word in fresh ways and communicate meanings and applications that the original writers did not intend and the original hearers did not understand. But some people go too far with an approach that insists the “plain meaning of the text” (or in other words, the meaning that is obvious to me) is the only true meaning. That is arrogant and silly.

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Though less elegantly worded, Kent Hovind has said many times, “I don’t need some guru to try and tell me what Scripture means.”

What I don’t understand is how people don’t realize that when you read the Bible (as you yourself would understand it in your own cultural context) than the meaning will literally change as time goes on. It’s a bit demeaning to me to call scholars gurus, also.


I think you need to include my first paragraph Christy - my comment is to consider both scholarship, theology, current tradition - if and when we do this, we may reflect on how we read and understand the text. The Holy Spirit speaks to those who are basing their life on the Faith. I am making general remarks that may apply to ancient text (as distinct from text created within our won world/culture). Reading for example, Homer’s Iliad translated into English can easily lead to an inadequate comprehension, but this can be increased a great deal if we get information on the translator, the approach, and perhaps comparing that to the original Greek.


I thoroughly agree on your nuanced approach to the “perspicuity of Scripture”. It’s an astonishly robust book to cultural trampling - witness the fact that there is still a recognisable worldwide faith despite hundreds of different cultures, major changes in philosophy, scientific comings (and goings) and so on, including poor education.

I sometimes think that the advance of background knowledge closely matches the need for it: the simple assumption of a young earth chronology was a non-issue until geologists (mostly Anglican clergymen) began to advance their science and have to grapple with gap theory, day age theory and so on, or retreat into literalism.

Likewise mining philosophical wisdom for doctrine on the Trinity or the Incarnation only became necessary when clever heretics started pulling unquestioned truths around in the early centuries.

For those like Walton to point out the irrelevance to the OT writers of such chronology is a corrective which would have helped nobody in particular back in the 17th century, but steers us back towards the priorities of the historic faith now.

Sadly America, I feel, has made a unique virtue of “plain (ie non-contextual) meaning”, though my ancestors encouraged something similar over here for a while (my great-grandparents were Primitive Methodists). I blame Charles Finney and camp meetings in undeveloped and bored communities, but that’s an outsider’s view. What is certain is that many have forgotten that Jesus himself endorsed specialist scholarship:

Have you understood all these things?" They said to Him, "Yes." And Jesus said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old."

When James, too, said, “Not many of you should become teachers” he was saying more than keeping your fingers out of the collection bag and delivering 3 point sermons on time. In an oral culture, they’d have had to study, and memorise, both the Scripures and the detailed interpretations of the apostolic tradition, which included (as the epistles show) much from the body of Jewish exposition over the centuries.

The joke is that literalism is blind to its own cultural imperialism: in many pre-literate cultures, a literal-historic understanding of Genesis 1-3 one wouldn’t be the plain meaning at all: it seems “simple folks” over here trump “simple folks” over there!

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I was just responding to what you said with a related thought, not disagreeing. You must be talking to lots of fight-pickers lately. :wink:

No fight intended Christy - perhaps clarification :heart_eyes:

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