God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Sarx, Flesh, and Mismatched Metaphors

T.C. Robinson brings up the issue of sarx again. (We went through this some time ago: Peter Kirk on BBB, Doug Chaplin on Clayboy, Mark Goodacre on NT blog, Jason Staples, a short post here, and more.)

The word is a perfect follow up to our discussions earlier this and again today about metaphors. It’s pretty clear that sarx literally means “flesh.” I think the translation challenge is that the metaphoric framework of the NT uses the concept of “flesh” differently than we do now.

In our culture, “flesh” has at least three main metaphoric uses: physicality (“he’s here in the flesh”), robustness (“flesh out”), and sex (“the flesh trade”).

In the NT, and particularly as Paul uses the word, sarx has a slightly overlapping but very different metaphoric use. In his essay “Flesh” in Romans: A Challenge for the Translator (in The Challenge of Bible Translation), Dr. Douglas Moo observes that one usage out of five of the word sarx is to “designate the human condition in its fallenness.”

And there’s the rub.

The metaphoric use of “flesh” in English relies on a system of metaphor that differs significantly from the NT metaphor of “flesh.” It’s not that sarx in Greek means different things in different places, but rather, I think, that different metaphors are at work in different places, and only some of them are compatible with modern, Western ones.

Here are some questions that come to mind:

Should mastery of a new system of metaphor be required just to read the Bible? (If so, “flesh” is a fine translation of sarx. If not, “flesh” doesn’t work.) Is it possible to ingore our native system of metaphor?

Can the meaning of the text be conveyed independent of the metaphoric system that accompanies it? (If so, “sinful nature” is a fine translation.)

Or is the metaphor part of the meaning? (If so, part of the “sinful nature” concept of sarx is its connection to the flesh.)


October 29, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 18 Comments

On Metaphorical Dissonance

George Lakoff (in More than Cool Reason) points out that metaphors are conceptual, not merely linguistic. Then he has an example of how metaphors might differ, and what the consequences would be.

I think it’s helpful to keep these issues firmly in mind as we translate across cultures.

Here’s what Lakoff has to say:

1. One metaphor for us is “argument is war”:

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies[….] Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war[….] It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing. (p. 4)

2. Cultures could (and do) differ:

Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending[….] Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently […] and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all. (pp. 4-5)

October 29, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 1 Comment