Figures of Speech in Bible Translation

Dr. Robert Thomas Memorial Lecture Series on Bible Translation

The Master’s Seminary, together with the Tyndale Center for Bible Translation, invited me to bring this year’s annual lecture on September 10. My chosen topic: “Words Capturing the Mind and Heart: Figures of Speech in Bible Translation.” One of the greatest challenges of Bible translation involves the translation of figures of speech from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the Scriptures. When should translators use a formal (literal) equivalent, a dynamic (idiomatic) equivalent, or a literary equivalent?

In 2 Corinthians 4:2 the Apostle Paul focused on truth. False teachers majored on deception and skewing the truth. In Bible translation we ought to exhibit the same concern for truth and accuracy. Even in the apostle’s forceful declaration, we find the use of figurative language. The New American Standard Update (NASU) translates the phrase “adulterating the word of God”; the English Standard Version (ESV) uses “tamper with God’s word”; and, the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) gives it as “distorting the word of God.” The Greek δολόω (dolóō) contains an implied metaphor: “like corrupting gold/silver/wine with inferior ingredients.” The same verb occurs only one other time in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:6, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” NASU). It’s clear the NASU translators of 1 Corinthians 5:6 took the implied metaphor into consideration along with the immediate context’s reference to “leaven.” They also paid attention to the implied metaphor in 2 Corinthians 4:2 (with their “adulterating wine”), but both ESV and CSB chose not to try to preserve the thought of the implied metaphor. The point is: the translators faced figurative language and opted for different ways by which to render it.

For the purpose of this brief explanation (and introduction), I present the following example answering the question in the first paragraph above in regard to what translators should do with figures of speech:

Deuteronomy 23:3

  • Formal Equivalent: “No Ammonite or Moabite may come into the meeting to worship the LORD, and none of their descendants for ten generations may come in.” New Century Version (NCV) [But, I must hasten to point out that NCV totally ignored the last words of the verse in the Hebrew text: עַד־עוֹלָֽם (‘ad-‘ôlām), “forever.”]
  • Dynamic Equivalent: “The people of Ammon and Moab can’t join in worship with the Lord’s people. That also applies to their children after them for all time to come.” New International Readers Version (NIrV)
  • Literary Equivalent: “No Ammonite or Moabite may join the community of the LORD’s people; even to his fourteenth generation no one may ever do so.” Standard Bengali Common Language (SBCL)—see below. [“To the fourteenth generation” in Bengali has the same exact meaning as the Biblical Hebrew “to the tenth generation”–both basically mean “never.”]
Deuteronomy 23:2-3 SBCL

With this tantalizing introduction, I invite you to listen to the lecture online (click on the lecture title in the first paragraph above). The 32-minute lecture actually covers a little over half of what I was prepared to say. Always better to come fully loaded, than to have nothing more to say after ten minutes. It’s a lesson every preacher has to learn: Come fully prepared to tell the congregation everything about the chosen Bible text, but stop when 40 minutes has expired—leave them longing for more, rather than languishing in the pews due to sermon overload.

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