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