God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Words that Mean More than One Thing

I think it can helpful to look at familiar English words as a way of understanding ancient words and how best to translate them.

In this case, we’ll look at one way words can mean more than one thing.

“Cash” in English

One meaning of the English word “cash” is actual physical money — dollar bills, 5’s, 10’s, etc.

As credit cards became more widespread, “cash” was used in opposition to “credit.” Two ways to pay for something were by credit card or with actual bills. The second one was called “cash.”

Because there was something more immediate about “cash,” it came to represent anything that wasn’t credit. So paying by check was one way of paying cash (even though “cash” could also be the opposite of “check”). Paying with a debit card is also different than credit, so that’s also “cash.” In this sense, too, “cash” (debit card) is the opposite of “cash” (physical money).

“Cash on delivery” (“C.O.D.”) now just means payment on delivery, and is the opposite of pre-paid. You can sometimes use a credit card to pay for something C.O.D.

Most English speakers don’t have any difficulty understanding “cash” in these various contexts.

Sarx in Greek

The same sort of thing happened with the Greek word sarx, variously translated “flesh,” “human nature,” “sinful nature,” “humanity,” etc.

The trick is that the word means more than one thing.

In this regard, it’s like “cash” in English, because sarx does mean “flesh,” but also one particular aspect of “flesh,” and also “flesh” in contrast to various other things.

Even though the English word “flesh” also means more than one thing — think of “human flesh,” “the flesh trade,” “flesh and bones,” etc. — we don’t have anything that migrated in meaning the way sarx did. That’s why it’s difficult to translate.

I think that understanding this basic fact about words is essential to formulating a plan to translate them accurately.

What other polysemantic (“having more than one meaning”) words can you think of?

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November 3, 2010 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | 12 Comments