Form, Function, and the Literal Meaning Fallacy

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M. L. Strauss, “Literal Meaning” Fallacy


Form, Function, and the “Literal Meaning” Fallacy in Bible Translation
Mark L. Strauss Bethel Seminary San Diego
Introduction: The Rise of Meaning-Based Bible Translation The 1980s and ‟90s may rightly be called the heyday of functional equivalence in
Bible translation. During these decades the meaning-based translation theories associated especially with Eugene Nida, the United Bible Societies and Wycliffe Bible Translators (SIL), flourished both in the English speaking world and in the world of international Bible translation. Nida originally referred to his method as “dynamic equivalence,” later adopting the more appropriate “functional equivalent.”1 The first English version to consciously adopt this method was Today’s English Version (TEV; also known as the Good News Bible [GNB]). The New Testament, translated by Robert Bratcher under the auspices of the American Bible Society, was published in 1966 as Good News for Modern Man. The whole Bible followed in 1976. Even before the TEV, various attempts had been made to produce translations which reflected contemporary English idiom. A number of such versions appeared in the early twentieth century, including The New Testament in Modern Speech (1903), produced by Richard Weymouth, The Twentieth Century New Testament (1904), a committee production, The New Testament: A New Translation (1913, 1926) by James Moffatt, and The New Testament: An American Translation (1923) by Edgar J. Goodspeed. All of these sought to translate the Bible into clear and contemporary English. Goodspeed, in a statement with remarkable affinity to later dynamic equivalent theory, wrote “I wanted my translation to make on the reader something of the impression the New Testament must have made on it earliest readers.”2 This vivid relevance was the particular concern of works like J. B. Phillips‟ New Testament in Modern English (1958) and Kenneth Taylor‟s enormously popular Living Bible, Paraphrased (1967, 1971). For many readers, Taylor‟s dynamic and idiomatic renderings brought to life what had previously been a closed and incomprehensible book.
Since all Bible translation utilizes both formal and functional equivalence, it is impossible to simply categorize versions as either one or the other. All translations exist on a continuum between form and function. The New International Version (NIV; 1973, 1978), the most popular version in the English speaking world, claims to be a middle-ofthe-road or mediating version between these two translation theories. Indeed, most contemporary English versions profess to seek the perfect balance between accuracy and readability. Terms like “complete equivalence” (NKJV), “optimal equivalence” (HCSB), “literal-idiomatic” (ISV), and “closest natural equivalent” (God’s Word) are frequently coined by Bible translators to express this balance. 3 But it is beyond dispute that the last quarter century has seen the proliferation of more idiomatic Bible versions. In addition to
1 See Jan de Waard and Eugene A. Nida, From One Language to Another. Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating (Nashville: Nelson, 1986), 7-8. 2 Edgar J. Goodspeed, New Chapters in New Testament Study (New York: Macmillan, 1937), 113. 3 See the introductions or prefaces to each of these versions for these terms. The description “closest natural equivalent” is used by de Waard and Nida in From One Language to Another, 41.

M. L. Strauss, “Literal Meaning” Fallacy


those cited above, recent English versions which have been heavily influenced, either directly or indirectly, by functional equivalence include the New English Bible (NEB; 1961; 1970), the Jerusalem Bible (JB; 1966), the New American Bible (NAB; 1970; rev. NT, 1986); the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB; 1986), the New Century Version (1987, 1991), the Revised English Bible (1989), The Message (1994), God’s Word (1995), the Contemporary English Version (1991, 1995), the New Living Translation (1996), and Today’s New International Version (NT: 2002).
This does not mean that formal equivalent versions have lost their influence in the English speaking world. The King James Version, like its predecessors, took a predominantly formal equivalence approach, and its revisions have continued this tradition:4 the Revised Version (RV; 1881-85), the American Standard Version (ASV; 1901), the Revised Standard Version (RSV; 1952), the New American Standard Bible (NASB; 1971; updated ed. 1995), the New King James Version (NKJV; 1982), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV; 1990) and now the English Standard Version (ESV; 2001). In addition, recent new versions (not revisions) like the International Standard Version (ISV; NT: 1998) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB; NT: 2000) generally follow a formal equivalent approach. There are at least six widely available English Bibles (KJV, RSV, NKJV, NASB, NRSV, ESV) and two New Testaments (ISV, HCSB) which are generally formal equivalent. The KJV is still the second largest selling English version (behind the NIV), the NKJV is fourth, and the NASB is sixth.5 In light of this, it seems a bit odd that in a recent Christianity Today article, Raymond Van Leeuwen would argue that “We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation,” “one that works from a different theory than FE [functional equivalence].”6 The title of the article suggests that there is a dearth of formal equivalent versions and a commensurate overload of functional equivalent versions. Yet while functional equivalence is dominant in the world of international Bible translation, this is clearly not the case in the English speaking world, where many pastors and churchgoers (and some scholars) still favor formal equivalence.

4 See Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation. Ancient and English Versions (Grand Rapids: Baker,
2001). 5These figures are from the Christian Booksellers Association, available at The order of the first ten as of February 2003 is: NIV, KJV, NLT, NKJV, The Message, NASB, NIrV, Interlinear and Parallel Bibles, Amplified Bible, NCV. The NLT recently passed the NKJV. 6 Raymond Van Leeuwen, “We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation,” CT vol. 45 no. 13 (Oct. 22,
2001), 28-35, quote from p. 29. This call for a new version may be related to Van Leeuwen‟s role on the editorial team of the ESV (a revision of the RSV). Translators are always justifiably excited about their new translation and hope it will fill an important niche. Reading between the lines, Van Leeuwen seems to say, “We really do need a new translation…and here it is! – the ESV.” But in fact the ESV follows the same translation method as the RSV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV and other formal equivalent versions. I should add that I like the ESV. It updates the RSV, which, in my opinion is one of the better formal equivalent versions. It should fill a role for those unhappy with the Byzantine text-type of the NKJV, the genderinclusive language of the NRSV, and the sometimes overly-literal approach of the NASB. But the ESV is not unique or innovative, suffering from the same shortcomings as other formal equivalent version. Much more on this below.

M. L. Strauss, “Literal Meaning” Fallacy


Indeed, the last few years have seen a resurgence in formal equivalence as a translation theory, a trend D. A. Carson calls “the rise of linguistic conservatism.”7 This may be seen, on the one hand, in recent versions like the ESV and HCSB which tend more toward formal equivalence. It may also be seen in a number of articles and books criticizing functional equivalence as a translation theory. Some of these accept functional equivalence as a legitimate method which plays an important role in the church, but warn of its weaknesses and criticize its dominance in the field.8 Others consider functional equivalence to be fundamentally flawed as a translation theory, replacing God‟s inspired words with loose and inaccurate paraphrase.9
My plan will be to establish the basic goal of translation, and then evaluate the manner in which formal and functional equivalent versions pursue this goal. I hope to bring greater clarity to this sometimes muddled debate.
The Goal of Translation: The Transfer of Meaning Before we can establish the legitimacy of a translation theory, we must identify the
goal of translation. A simple definition would be the following: The goal of translation is to transfer the meaning of a text from one language (the source or donor language) to another language (the receptor or target language). All parties agree that determining the meaning of the original text in the source language is essential to the translation process. All also agree that the modern day reader must be able to comprehend the
7 D. A. Carson, “The Limits of Functional Equivalence in Bible Translation – and Other Limits Too,” in The Challenge of Bible Translation. Communicating God’s Word to the World. Essays in Honor of Ronald
F. Youngblood, eds. Glen G. Scorgie Mark L. Strauss, and Steven M. Voth, Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
2003), 65-113. 8 See especially Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “On Bible Translation and Hermeneutics,” in After Pentecost: Language and Biblical Interpretation, eds. Craig Bartholomew et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 284-311, and a more popular version, “We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation,” (See note 6 above). Van Leeuwen, professor of New Testament at Eastern College, argues “that the dominance of „functional equivalence‟ in Bible translation urgently needs supplementation by translations that are more direct and transparent to the original languages.” He objects to “the almost universal hegemony” of functionally equivalent versions, asserting that “one type of translation has come to dominate, and that dominant type of translation is less apt for Scripture in literate societies than in commonly supposed, particularly with respect to study by educated persons” Van Leeuwen calls for a translation that is more consistently transparent (a term he prefers to “literal”), “so that the original shines through it.” (“On Bible Translation,” 284-285, 287). See also Anthony Howard Nichols, “Translating the Bible: A Critical Analysis of E. A. Nida‟s Theory of Dynamic Equivalence and Its Impact Upon Recent Bible Translations,” dissertation, University of Sheffield, 1996. 9 See most recently, Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English. Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002). Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College, identifies his work as a “wholehearted defense of essentially literal translation in the King James tradition” (p. 18). He decries dynamic equivalent translations for destroying the literary quality of the text, over-simplifying its meaning, removing important theological terminology, modernizing ancient contexts, and removing the majesty, mystery and ambiguity of the original. The book‟s strength is its call for greater attention to the literary qualities of the Bible. Its weaknesses are a lack of linguistic sophistication with reference to Greek grammar and translation theory, and misrepresentation of the complexities of transferring meaning from one socio-linguistic context to another. He considers Eugene Nida‟s influence on English Bible translation to be “on balance, negative, depriving current Bible readers of the Bible they need” (i.e., a literal one) (p. 14). Yet throughout the book, Ryken never seriously engages with Nida‟s theories and does not seem to comprehend fundamental linguistic issues at stake in the debate. His arguments are often ad hominem and polemical.

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meaning in the receptor language in order for the translation to be successful. While this is straightforward enough, the debate concerns how best to transfer the meaning from the source language to the receptor language. Advocates of formal equivalence, also known as literal, word-for-word, direct, or transparent translation,10 claim that the formal structure of the source language should be retained inasmuch as possible. Advocates of functional equivalence, also known as dynamic equivalence, meaning-based translation or idiomatic translation, stress the need to produce an equivalent meaning in the receptor language, regardless of the form.11 In general, formal equivalence gives greater prominence to the source language, particularly its formal structure; functional equivalence gives equal prominence to source and receptor languages, stressing that both the meaning of the original and the perception of the readers are essential components of translation.12 Formal equivalence places greater stress on individual words (hence, “word-for-word”); functional equivalence on the semantic function of phrases and clauses.
Translation is an inexact science and art and some meaning will be lost with every translation decision – whether formal or functional. There are significant challenges and potential pitfalls related to any translation approach. Advocates of functional equivalence themselves point this out, and the theoretical and practical literature is full of cautions, clarifications and caveats.13 My thesis is that while there are important cautions related to functional equivalence, there are fundamental flaws with formal equivalence as a philosophy of translation. This is because meaning not form is the goal of Bible translation. Lexical and syntactical semantics must always take precedence over lexical and syntactical forms.
The goal of a literal or formal equivalent translation is to reproduce the form of the Greek and Hebrew as much as possible. In its more nuanced form this is often stated, “As literal as possible, as free as necessary.” In other words, the translator stays with one-to-one correspondence until is it necessary to alter this for the sake of meaning. But note that even this statement correctly gives veto power to meaning over form. Formal correspondence should be utilized if it produces equivalence of meaning. The ultimate goal is not formal equivalence, but semantic equivalence. The assumption of many practitioners seems to be that these two are the same, and that if you attain formal equivalence you have reached semantic equivalence. But as we will see, this is far from

10 The two terms which are now coming into use, “direct” and “transparent,” are used somewhat differently
by different practitioners. Some understand these to mean essentially the same as formal equivalence. Others who reject much formal equivalent methodology use them of translation which gives greater access to semantic features of the source language. Because of this confusion of definition, I will not adopt them in this paper. 11 Dynamic equivalence, a designation coined by Eugene Nida, was criticized as theory for stressing the
need to attain an “equivalent response” in the receptor audience. The term “functional equivalence” was coined in part to stress the need for equivalent meaning rather than equivalent response. We will deal with this difference in the discussion below. 12 In practice, functional equivalence is often accused of giving too much prominence to the receptor
language, but there are many cautions in the literature against this. We will discuss these later. 13 In addition to the works of linguists and translators like Nida, see the important cautions of D. A.
Carson, “The Limits of Dynamic Equivalence in Bible Translation,” Evangelical Review of Theology 9 (1985): 200-213, now revised and expanded in “The Limits of Functional Equivalence in Bible Translation – and Other Limits Too” (see note 7).

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the case, since the formal structures of Hebrew and Greek are very different than the formal structures of English (or any other language). Even versions which claim to be “essentially literal” are far from formally equivalent. They constantly fall back on idiomatic renderings whenever formal equivalence does not work. In other words function or meaning is given precedence over form. This is because translators intuitively recognize that in almost every sentence, Greek and Hebrew idioms do not “work” the way English works. Thus, while translators of literal versions may be proceeding with a method of formal equivalence (word for word replacement), their decisions are governed by a philosophy of functional equivalence (change the form whenever necessary to retain the meaning).
The problem comes when translation decisions are affected by the perceived need to retain form. The result is often barely-comprehensible (or incomprehensible) English rather than a natural rendering which communicates to contemporary readers with the same clarity that the Greek or Hebrew communicated to the original readers.
Awkward and obscure English translations often result from seeking to translate idioms word-for-word, without carefully considering the meaning. Consider Matthew 5:2:
NKJV: Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: RSV/ESV: And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: NASB: And opening His mouth He began to teach them, saying, NIV/TNIV: and he began to teach them, saying: TEV: and he began to teach them NLT: This is what he taught them:
The Greek idiom uses two phrases anoigo¯ to stoma (“open the mouth”) + didasko¯, (“teach”) to express a single action. Opening the mouth and teaching are not two consecutive actions, but one act of speaking (cf. Acts 8:35; 10:34; Rev. 13:6). In English we would never say, “The professor opened his mouth and taught the class.” This is a Greek idiom, not an English one.
Or consider Acts 11:22:
NKJV: Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, ESV: The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem NASB: And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem NIV: News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, TEV: The news about this reached the church in Jerusalem, NLT: When the church at Jerusalem heard what had happened,
None of these versions is actually word-for-word. The Greek, translated word-forword (and adjusting word order), reads something like “but the word was heard into the ears of the church being in Jerusalem.” All of the versions significantly modify the Greek forms. Yet for the more formal equivalent versions there is a perceived need – even in the NIV – to retain the Greek idiom “into the ears of…” (eis ta o¯ta t¯es…). But this is not English. I would never say “this came to my ears,” but rather “I heard this,” or “the news reached me.” The attempt to be “literal” has produced what scholars wryly call “Greek-lish,” an artificial translation-ese which mimics the syntactical forms of Greek. What sounded clear and natural to a Greek speaker now sounds awkward and unnatural.

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The slogan “As literal as possible, as free as necessary” should be changed to a philosophy of translation which places the priority on meaning: “Translate the meaning; follow the form when it promotes this goal.”
I should add that I am not arguing against the production or use of formal equivalent Bible versions. I use them and encourage my students to use them. These versions have an important role in Bible study, particularly for those with only a rudimentary knowledge of the original languages. They are helpful tools for (1) identifying the formal structure of the original text, (2) examining Hebrew or Greek idioms and formal patterns of language, (3) tracing recurrent words, (4) identifying ambiguities in the text, and (5) tracing formal verbal allusions (which might be obscured by idiomatic renderings).14 In short, they provide a window on the original text for those with limited skills in studying it directly.
An examination of the translation process will help to illuminate why formal equivalence fails as a theory or philosophy of translation.
Translation as Interpretation Words are arbitrary and conventional symbols used to signify meaning. A word does
not get its meaning from its sound or form, but from the conventional meaning attributed to it by a particular socio-linguistic group.15 The English word “gift” commonly means “something bestowed voluntarily and without compensation.” But the same word in German (das Gift) means “poison” (a very different kind of “gift”!). There is nothing inherent in the form of the word which determines its meaning. Words are conventional symbols which point to conceptual meaning.
The words or symbols of one language differ from the words or symbols of another. This is why translation is necessary. Not only are the words different, but the manner in which these words interact and relate to one another – their syntactical relationships – is also different. Because there is no one-to-one correspondence between words (lexemes) or their relationships (syntax), translation always involves a two-step process. The translator must first interpret the meaning of the symbols, and the relationship between those symbols, in the source language and then determine the best way to reproduce that meaning in the receptor language. The goal of translation is not the reproduction of words, but the transfer of meaning.
In a recent book, Leland Ryken disputes this basic translation model. In a chapter entitled “Seven Fallacies About Translation,” he rejects as fallacious that “We should translate meaning rather than words,” and that “All translation is interpretation.”16 He claims that by focusing on meaning, dynamic equivalent versions are wrongly “translating what they interpret the meaning of the original to be instead of first of all preserving the language of the original.”17
But how can you “preserve the language of the original” when the source language is different than the receptor language? Ryken seems to assume the literalist fallacy that the words and syntax of one language have exact counterparts in another, so that meaning
14 These points are taken from my book, Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation & Gender Accuracy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 83. 15 The exception is onomatopoeia, where a word (like “whoosh!”) is intended to sound like its meaning. 16 Ryken, The Word of God in English, 79-91. 17 Ryken, The Word of God in English, 79, and passim.

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transfer occurs automatically. He tries to avoid this obvious fallacy by distinguishing between “linguistic interpretation” and “thematic interpretation.”18 As we shall see, this is a legitimate distinction when “linguistic interpretation” is defined correctly. But what Ryken means by “linguistic interpretation” is limited to “decisions regarding what English words best express Hebrew or Greek words.”19 This is far too narrow a definition since languages differ not only in word meanings, but also in syntax, idioms, connotations, collocations, and a host of other ways. The translator practicing only Ryken‟s “linguistic interpretation” would have to render the Greek phrase pater h¯emo¯n ho en tois ouranois in Matthew 6:9 as “Father our the in the heavens,” instead of “Our Father in heaven....” (ESV; TNIV) because the syntax of Greek and English function differently. The message as a whole must first be understood in the source language before the meaning can be transferred into the receptor language. All translation involves interpretation.
Although utilizing a more nuanced linguistic approach, Raymond Van Leeuwen expresses concerns similar to Ryken‟s. He claims that functional equivalent versions often practice interpretation which should be left to the reader. He writes “It is hard to know what the Bible means when we are uncertain about what it says.” 20 The claim is that formal equivalence tells us “directly” what the Bible says, while functional equivalence inappropriately interprets the meaning of text. This interpretation, in turn, may be wrong, or at best, may limit the reader to only one option. Such interpretation, he argues, should be left to commentaries.
There is certainly a case to be made for retaining intentional ambiguity when it is present in the original text. Furthermore, translations must be careful not to exclude viable interpretations. We will deal with these issues later. Yet the statement “what the Bible says” is problematic from the start. The Bible is written in Hebrew and Greek, so every English translation changes every word of what the Bible says. Direct translation without interpretation is impossible since every word, phrase and clause in Greek or Hebrew must first be understood before it can be translated accurately. Since it is impossible to have a translation which “says what the Bible says,” we need versions which mean what the Hebrew and Greek mean.21
Translation as Communication Since words are symbols representing ideas or concepts, we must go a step further
and define the translation process more comprehensively. By definition, the transfer of meaning is an act of communication. For a translation to be successful, meaning must be
18 Ryken, The Word of God in English, 85-87. 19 Ryken, The Word of God in English, 85. 20 Van Leeuwen, “We Really Do Need,” 30. Again: “The problem with FE [functional equivalence] (i.e., most modern translations) is that they prevent the reader from inferring biblical meaning because they change what the Bible said.” 21 Van Leeuwen is well aware of this. At one point he writes that “translation is a difficult and, in some ways, impossible task. Translations always compromise and interpret.” He adds that, “A translator‟s first and most important job is to bridge the language gap. She seeks the best way of saying in English what was said first in Hebrew or Greek. But even this is not simple. No English word fully matches a Greek or Hebrew word.” Yet a few paragraphs later he seems to contradict himself when he writes, “When our translations do not say what the Hebrew or Greek say, it is hard to know what the Bible means.” Van Leeuwen, “We Really Do Need,” 33.

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transferred from one person to another. Meaning ultimately resides not in words or sentences, but in persons. Evangelical hermeneutics has historically associated the meaning of a text with the author‟s intention. The meaning of Paul‟s letter to the Galatians is discerned by exegeting the text to determine what Paul meant. Those conversant with contemporary hermeneutical discussion will recognize that this is an oversimplification, and that meaning must be seen as a dynamic interplay between author, text and reader.22 While such nuancing is necessary, evangelicals steadfastly assert (a) that there is a meaning in the text, and (b) that this meaning has as its locus the intentional speech-act of the historical author. For translation to be successful, the intention – not just the words – of the author must be successfully transferred from one person to another.
Functional equivalent translations are sometimes criticized for being thought-forthought rather than word-for-word. But all translation – indeed all communication through language – begins and ends with thoughts, intentions and inferences. For communication to be successful, the intention of the sender must be accurately inferred by the receiver. Since translation is communication across languages, it is not merely the transfer of symbols (words and sentences), but the transfer of meaning from person to person.
Of course the search for intentionality has been under serious and prolonged attack from advocates of the new hermeneutic, deconstruction, and reader-response approaches to biblical interpretation. For years the author has been presumed to be dead, or at least terminally ill. Yet recent communication theories have seen the resurrection of the author. Speech-act theory,23 Relevance Theory,24 and pragmatics25 have all given renewed significance to speakers and authors, asserting the importance of intentionality in all communication, both oral and written.

22 See especially Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998);
Anthony Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980); idem, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of
Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). 23 John R. Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.
Press, 1969). For application to literary works see Mary Louise Pratt, Towards a Speech Act Theory of
Literary Discourse (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1977); Sandy Petrey, Speech Acts and Literary Theory (London: Routledge, 1990). With reference to biblical studies see Hugh C. White, “Introduction: Speech Act Theory and Literary Criticism,” Semeia 41 (1988), 1-24 (this whole issue is devoted to speech act theory and biblical studies); Kevin Vanhoozer, “The Semantics of Biblical Literature: Truth and Scripture‟s Diverse Literary Forms,” in D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds., Hermeneutics,
Authority, and Canon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 49-104. 24 Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, Relevance: Communication and Cognition (Oxford: Blackwell; 2nd
ed., 1995). A good summary of relevance theory may be found in Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber, “Relevance Theory,” in G. Ward and L. Horn (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics (Oxford: Blackwell,
forthcoming), available at For the application of
relevance theory to Bible translation see Ernst-August Gutt, Translation and Relevance: Cognition and Context (St. Jerome, 2nd ed. 2000). 25 Stephen C. Levinson, Pragmatics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983); Jacob L. Mey, Pragmatics. An Introduction (Blackwell, 2nd ed., 2001).

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Linguists draw an important distinction between sentences and utterances.26 A sentence is a semantically complete unit of language.27 “He hit the ball” is a sentence. An utterance is a sentence which appears in real life, spoken or written within a particular context. Suppose one of my children is playing baseball outside and I say to my wife, “He hit the ball.” Later, watching a baseball game on television, I remark “He hit the ball.” While these two are the same sentence, they are two different utterances (with different contexts and different referents). While sentences have potential meaning, utterances have actual meaning (or we might say actualized meaning).28 Every sentence in the Bible is an utterance, since it appears in a context and has actual, not just potential, meaning.29
The meaning of an utterance is determined not by its linguistic components alone (which are the same for both of the sentences above), but by the whole life setting in which it is uttered. Linguists refer to the former – the linguistic components – as semantics, the meaning of the words, phrases and clauses. The latter – the total life setting – involves not only semantics, but other factors as well, including the pragmatics of the speech act and the assumptions of sender and receiver. Pragmatics refers to all the accompanying circumstances and contextual factors, including tone of voice, inflection, gesture, proxemics (the use of personal space), and cultural considerations.30 Assumptions refer to all that the sender and receiver bring to the utterance, including knowledge of the language system, worldview, cultural perspective, etc. These three – semantics, pragmatics and assumptions – work together to produce meaning. For example, in American culture the gesture of winking may mean the speaker‟s words are to be taken facetiously, while in biblical culture it is usually an invitation to sin.31 Assumptions determine the meaning senders and receivers assign to both linguistic and pragmatic entities.
We can now clarify the steps of translation. The translator, whose goal is to transfer the meaning from the original author to the contemporary reader, has two daunting tasks. (1) The first is to determine the intention of the utterance or speech-act through a detailed examination of its co-text and context. The translator must seek, inasmuch as possible, to identify the assumptions shared by both author and original readers and thereby infer the intention of the author. This inference will never be exact because of the differences in time and culture, and because all communication has a measure of imprecision. But through a study of linguistic and cultural data, the translator can determine with a high degree of certainty the author‟s intention and the relevance which the readers would have
26 See Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1989), 22-23., 63-64. 27 This is a simplified definition, and there is significant debate concerning what constitutes a sentence. The one constant seems to be the idea of completeness. 28 By “real” we mean existing in a particular context. An imaginary character in a novel may produce an utterance. 29 Proverbs in a collection like the biblical book of Proverbs are more complex, since they are relatively context-less and may be said to represent community wisdom rather than an author‟s discourse speech act. Yet proverbs do have both intentionality and meaning, derived from the assumptions of the socio-linguistic community in which they were produced. 30 In written language, pragmatics are more limited than in oral communication, since no speaker is present. Yet some features, such as bowing down or tone of voice may be explicitly narrated. 31 Cotterell and Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation, 14-15.

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given to the utterance. (2) The second task is to determine how best to communicate this intention to the contemporary reader. This means identifying the body of assumptions which the contemporary reader is likely to bring to the text, and determining how thoroughly these assumptions overlap with the assumptions of the original author and readers. The goal must be to bring the assumptions of contemporary readers sufficiently in line with the assumptions of the original author so that they can infer the meaning which the author intended. Many of these assumptions will be similar, because of the commonality of human experience. Others will be different, because of differences in language, culture and worldview. Bringing divergent assumptions together can be done: (a) by educating readers concerning the assumptions of the author and original readers (language, culture, worldview), (b) by using language in the translation which intentionally bridges the gap between these assumptions, or (c) by some combination of these two. 32 Of course all translations practice “(b)” to a certain degree, since Greek and Hebrew words are replaced with English ones. But how many of the assumptions should be set out in the translation itself? An example of different solutions may be seen Matthew 23:5:
TNIV: “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; NLT: “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear extra long tassels on their robes.
The TNIV, together with most formal equivalent versions, uses “phylacteries,” a transliteration of Greek phylacteria (cf. NIV; NASB; NKJV; RSV; ESV). The NLT provides an explanatory phrase. The former requires education for most readers. The latter provides an explanatory bridge to the assumptions of the original readers. While both are accurate representations of the meaning, the latter would be more suitable for readers without a knowledge of first century Jewish practice.
Different readers will bring different assumptions and language proficiency to the text. This provides rationale for different kinds of versions for different kinds of readers, something advocates of functional equivalence have often stressed. In a work published in 1969, Eugene Nida asserted that in languages with a long literary tradition and a wellestablished traditional text of the Bible (i.e., languages like English), it is usually necessary to have three types of Scriptures:
(1) a translation which will reflect the traditional usage and be used in the churches…(2) a translation in the present-day literary language, so as to communicate to the well-educated

32 Some advocates of literal translation have adopted a superficial understanding of Relevance Theory to defend the claim that translators should only reproduce the formal structure of the original text and allow readers to infer the meaning from this. But this takes one component of Relevance Theory – that all comprehension is a result of inference based on assumptions – and turns it into a theory of irrelevance! For communication to be successful according to Relevance Theory, the receiver must be able to achieve maximal cognitive effects at minimal processing cost. This assumes a set of shared assumptions – cultural and linguistic – between sender and receiver. If the basic linguistic assumptions (the meaning of words and the nature of syntactical relationships) are not present, the reader cannot infer the sender‟s intention and communication fails. Relevance Theory must not be an excuse to leave the contemporary reader with the formal structure of the Greek but without the linguistic tools to infer its meaning.

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Form, Function, and the Literal Meaning Fallacy