God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Translating Pragmatics

A well-known example in linguistics describes a group of people sitting a living room that has become chilly because a window has been left open. “It’s cold in here,” one person says, by which he means, “please close the window.” The second meaning is the pragmatic meaning in this case.

The issue is important for translation because many people — wrongly, in my opinion — try to translate the pragmatic meaning. We just saw an example from Bill Mounce (criticized by me here, by Steve Runge, Mike Aubrey and others). He took the text of the beatitudes and tried to turn their point into a translation.

Both English and ancient Greek allow a pragmatic generalization toward exclusivity. In English, “First Class customers on Delta airlines get dinner” can reasonably be interpreted to mean “only First Class customers…,” just as the Greek “the merciful … shall obtain mercy” can reasonably be interpreted to mean “only the merciful….” But precisely because the pragmatics work the same way in English and Greek, they shouldn’t be translated, any more than “it’s cold in here” should be translated into, say, Spanish, as “please close the window.”

When God answered Job in Job 38 with the words, “where were you when I established the earth?” I think the point was, “what makes you think you can understand suffering?” But that doesn’t mean that the point is the translation.

There are times when a translation has to reflect pragmatics. But I think that what’s conveyed by inference or allusion in one language ought to be similarly conveyed by inference or allusion in translation. Anything less diminishes the beauty and power of the original.


December 15, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , ,


  1. Ditto. If the Greek writer wanted to communicate the pragmatic meaning directly, he could do that. But he didn’t, so let’s not do it ourselves unless we have to. Then we’re in danger of finding ourselves in the awkward (and depending on one’s theology, maybe dangerous) position of telling the original writer how he should have said it.

    Comment by Mitchell Powell | December 17, 2009

  2. […] But Don’t Editorialize We just saw a case of an attempt to translate the pragmatics of a text instead of the text […]

    Pingback by Translate But Don’t Editorialize « God Didn't Say That | December 18, 2009

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