Do You Really Know Greek?

I’ve been having some fun reading papyri lately. I started reading Ephesians in P46 but got distracted in verse 14 on the second page with ἀρραβὼν. I didn’t know this word because it occurs only once in the New Testament. Knowing the verse in English, I thought up a non-Elizabethan sounding gloss and was ready to move on. However, the verse came up in a message I heard on Sunday. Interested, I ran down the extra-biblical sources that BDAG listed and learned a lot.

One of the resources I used was Grenfell and Hunt’s The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The first fifteen volumes are available for free download at Google Books and the Internet Archive. I found many of these printed Greek texts surprisingly difficult to read despite having spent years studying Greek and making good grades throughout. I can do a tolerably decent job sight reading the NT. What was my problem with these Koine Greek texts?

I can’t fake knowing Greek when reading things I haven’t memorized.

Perhaps “fake” is too strong a term, but it’s not far off. I really wonder if I can truly say I am literate in Greek. It seems my Greek level is somewhere between true literacy and how my daughter pretends to read books. My daughter can identify the meaning of words on the pages of her favorite books, but hand her a new book and you’ll quickly discover that she doesn’t know how to read.

I am occasionally asked in missions questionnaires how many times I have read the entire Bible. Honestly, I’ve lost count. I usually say “seven” because I’m pretty sure there have only been seven or eight times that I have actually read every word of Leviticus. However, like many Christians, I’ve read the New Testament literally hundreds of times. When I “read” my Greek NT, vocabulary gaps and unfamiliar syntax are usually filled by my knowledge of the English Bible.

Greek classes in seminary tend to reinforce dependency on English translations. Virtually every translation assignment Greek students receive comes from the New Testament, a text that most of the students have almost memorized already. Rather than teaching a true literacy of Greek, seminary Greek classes tend to create a hybrid literacy that relies upon established translations for meaning then supplements that knowledge with enough Greek proficiency so that students won’t miss anything important. However, an unintentional side effect of this hybrid literacy seems to be that students catch and emphasize details that the text does not.

Think about it. I just used an imperative. I wonder if the NT writers were really jumping up and down, waving their arms, and shouting “get this” every time they used an imperative. I wonder if obscure lexical connections sprung to the original recipients’ minds as they read Paul’s letters. I wonder if we really know Greek as well as we would like others to think.

Between the LXX, extra biblical papryi, and Greek fathers, Greek students could be assigned more unfamiliar texts to translate. Students would miss out on some of the exegetical practice that translating NT texts afford. However, they might also learn to read Greek better. Perhaps students could then begin treating NT Greek more like a real language and less like a code.

The Earnest of Our Inheritance

Ephesians 1:14 calls the Holy Spirit “the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession.” The word “earnest” (ἀρραβὼν) was a common term referring to an advance or down payment. Here are a couple first-century examples.

The document to the left (P.Fay.91) is a first-century (A.D. 99) employment contract of a woman named Thenetkoueis to serve for the season in an oil-press belonging to Lucius Bellenus Gemellus at a daily wage, the exact amount of which is not stated, but of which she receives an advance of 16 drachmae.

The word for “advance” (used on line 14) is the same word Paul uses in Ephesians 1:14 in reference to the Holy Spirit. Just as an advance on a paycheck gives employees what they presently need and proves that more payment will come, the Holy Spirit has been given to us both to satisfy our present need and to prove that God will one day completely reward us.

The term “earnest” (ἀρραβὼν) was used in reference not only to advances on employee paychecks but also to down payments of any sort. The term could even be used to refer to a down payment payed to one’s exterminator. A first-century letter (P.Oxy. 299) reads,

“Horus to his esteemed Apion greeting. Regarding Lampon the mouse-catcher I paid him for you as earnest money 8 drachmae in order that he may catch the mice while they are with young. Please send me the money. I have also lent Dionysius, the chief man of Nemerae, 8 drachmae, and he has not repaid them, to which I call your attention. Good-bye.” (The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol 2, pp. 300-301).

The Holy Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance from God. Like an advance on a paycheck, the Holy Spirit gives us what we need for today. Like a down payment, the Holy Spirit proves that we will receive our full reward.

Reading Ephesians in P46 (Eph 1:1-11)

I plan to read Ephesians in P46 over the next few weeks. P46 is one of the oldest and most important copies of Paul’s epistles in existence. The University of Michigan houses 60 of the 172 extant pages, and digital images of those pages are available for free download at the APIS database.

Why read P46? Two reasons. First, I want to read P46 because it’s there. After spending thousands of dollars and countless hours learning Greek in seminary, why not read P46? It’s cool, free, and really not that hard to read. Second, I’m developing some Bible classes and hope to find some examples that can be easily converted into visual aids.

Why post my notes here? Again two reasons. First, I think this stuff is interesting, and that’s ultimately the reason anyone blogs about anything. Second, even if you don’t know Greek, I hope to provide an inside look at textual criticism and demystify the process a bit. Feel free to skim down to the end where I boil things down into a few observations.

Ephesians begins on page 146. This is marked at the top center of the page with the letters ρμς. Ancient manuscripts often used letters to mark page numbers. You can read more about this numbering system from the University of Michigan.

Since this is a third-century manuscript, P46 is written in uncials, a style that uses only capital letters without spaces between words. The writing style can take some getting used to, but P46 was copied by a professional scribe and is very readable. If you need help reading the script, check out this page on reading 3rd century book hand.

Reading Notes

Ephesians 1:1 (1st line, 1st letter). The scribe uses three different abbreviations in this verse: ΧΡΥ/ΧΡΩ for Χριστοῦ/Χριστῷ, ΙΗΥ for Ίησοῦ, and ΘΥ for θεοῦ. Each abbreviation is marked with a line above the text. P46 omits the article “τοῖς” preceding οὖσιν and “ἐν Ἐφέσω” found in UBS4. The text reads, ΠΑΥΛΟΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΟΣ ΧΡΥ ΙΗΥ ΔΙΑ ΘΕΛΗΜΑΤΣ ΘΥ ΤΟΙΣ ΑΓΙΟΙΣ ΟΥΣΙΝ ΚΑΙ ΠΙΣΤΟΙΣ ΕΝ ΧΡΩ ΙΗΥ. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, according to the will of God, to those who are holy and believe in Christ Jesus.”

1:2 (3rd line, 4th letter) The scribe introduces two new abbreviations: ΠΡΣ for πατρὸς and ΚΥ for κυρίου. There is a slight variation in the spelling of the second word in this verse. P46 reads “υμειν” rather than the “υμιν” found in UBS4. No change in meaning. The text reads, ΧΑΡΙΣ ΥΜΕΙΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΙΡΗΝΗ ΑΠΟ ΘΥ ΠΡΣ ΗΜΩΝ ΚΑΙ ΚΥ ΙΗΥ ΧΡΥ. “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

1:3 (4th line, 16th letter) The scribe accidentally omitted the first ten words of this verse. UBS4 reads, “Εὐλογητὸς ὁ θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.” The MS the scribe was copying probably read, ΕΥΛΟΓΗΤΟΣ Ο ΘΣ ΚΑΙ ΠΡΣ ΤΟΥ ΚΥ ΗΜΩΝ ΙΗΥ ΧΡΥ. However, when the scribe looked back to begin verse three, he probably looked for the five abbreviations he had just copied to find his place. Unfortunately, verse three begins with the same five abbreviations in the same order, and the scribe accidentally skipped over ten words. “Homoioteleuton” is the technical name for this copying error (To better understand how this happens, imagine copying lines 7 and 8, both of which begin with the same word. A scribe could write the first word of line 7 and pick up copying on line 8). The text reads, Ο ΕΥΛΟΓΥΣΑΣ ΗΜΑΣ ΕΝ ΠΑΣΗ ΕΥΛΟΓΙΑ ΠΝΕΥΜΑΤΙΚΗ ΕΝ ΤΟΙΣ ΕΠΟΥΡΑΝΙΟΙΣ ΕΝ ΧΡΩ. “[Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,] who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.”

1:4 (6th line, 17th letter) In this verse the scribe slightly changes his style. The scribe usually ends lines at word divisions (or breaks in compound words). However, ΚΑΤΕΝΩΠΙΟΝ, appearing at the end of line eight, is wrapped across the line break with its last two letters beginning line nine. This is curious because it doesn’t appear that the scribe ran out of room. The text reads, ΚΑΘΩΣ ΕΖΕΛΕΖΑΤΟ ΗΜΑΣ ΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ ΠΡΟ ΚΑΤΑΒΟΛΗΣ ΚΟΣΜΟΥ ΕΙΝΑΙ ΗΜΑΣ ΑΓΙΟΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΜΩΜΟΥΣ ΚΑΤΕΝΩΠΙΟΝ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΕΝ ΑΓΑΠΗ. “Just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love”

1:5 (9th line, 15th letter) P46 omits the preposition “διὰ” preceding “Jesus Christ” as is found in UBS4. This appears to be simply an oversight. The text reads, ΠΡΟΟΡΙΣΑΣ ΗΜΑΣ ΕΙΣ ΥΙΟΘΕΣΙΑΝ ΙΗΥ ΧΡΥ ΕΙΣ ΑΥΤΟΝ ΚΑΤΑ ΤΥΝ ΕΥΔΟΚΙΑΝ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΛΗΜΑΤΟΣ ΑΥΤΟΥ. “He predestined us for adoption as sons [through] Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will”

1:6 (11th line, last seven letters) The scribe splits ΕΠΑΙΝΟΝ between lines 11 and 12 and ΕΧΑΡΙΣΤΩΣΕΝ between lines 12 and 13. These splits were obviously caused by space issues. The scribe misspells ἐχαρίτωσεν by adding a sigma before the tau. This misspelling is understandable because the verb is χαριτόω formed from the noun χάρις. It is worth noting that P46 reads “ἧς” as is found in UBS4, not “ἐν ᾗ” as is found in the TR. This reading is better due to weight of external support and the fact that copyists would more likely mistakenly produce the TR’s reading than vice versa. Either way the meaning is basically the same. P46 also agrees with UBS4 and lacks the phrase “υἱῷ αὐτοῦ” after “ἠγαπημένῳ.” This phrase was almost certainly an explanatory note that worked its way into several texts of the Western tradition. The text reads, ΕΙΣ ΕΠΑΙΝΟΝ ΔΟΖΗΣ ΤΗΣ ΧΑΡΙΤΟΣ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΗΣ ΕΧΑΡΙΣΤΩΣΕΝ ΗΜΑΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΗΓΑΠΗΜΕΝΩ. “to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the Beloved.”

1:7 (13th line, last three letters) The reading matches the UBS4 exactly. The TR renders τὸ πλοῦτος as masculine rather than neuter, a very minor error. P46 reads, ΕΝ Ω ΕΧΟΜΕΝ ΤΗΝ ΑΠΟΛΥΤΡΩΣΙΝ ΔΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΙΜΑΤΟΣ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΤΗΝ ΑΦΕΣΙΝ ΤΩΝ ΠΑΡΑΠΤΩΜΑΤΩΝ ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟ ΠΛΟΥΤΟΣ ΤΗΣ ΧΑΡΙΤΟΣ ΑΥΤΟΥ. “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace.”

1:8 (16th line, last five letters) No anomalies; no variants. The text reads, ΗΣ ΕΠΕΡΙΣΣΕΥΣΕΝ ΕΙΣ ΗΜΑΣ ΕΝ ΠΑΣΗ ΣΟΦΙΑ ΚΑΙ ΦΡΟΝΗΣΕΙ. “which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and intelligence”

1:9 (18th line, 9th letter) This is the last verse on this page that can be read clearly. As in Eph 1:2, P46 spells the first person pronoun “υμειν” rather than “υμιν.” P46 also omits αὐτοῦ after θελήματος (UBS4 includes the pronoun). This is probably another case of homoioteleuton since the ending of θελήματος has a close resemblance to αὐτοῦ. The text reads, ΓΝΩΡΙΣΑΣ ΗΜΕΙΝ ΤΟ ΜΥΣΤΗΤΙΟΝ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΛΗΜΑΤΟΣ ΚΑΤΑ ΤΗΝ ΕΥΔΟΚΙΑΝ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΗΝ ΠΡΟΕΘΕΤΟ ΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ. “making know to us the mystery of [his] will, according to his purpose which he planned in him”

1:10 (20th line, 17th letter) The text becomes difficult to read here at the bottom of the page. The missing text is supplied in brackets based upon the spacing of the letters and the reading of other MSS. The text reads, ΕΙΣ ΟΙΚΟΝΟΜΙΑΝ ΤΟΥ ΠΛΗΡΩΜΑΤΟΣ ΤΩΝ ΚΑΙΡΩΝ ΑΝΑΚΕΦ[ΑΛΑΙΩ]ΣΑΣΘΑΙ ΤΑ ΠΑΝΤΑ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΧΡΩ ΤΑ ΕΠΙ [ΤΟΙΣ ΟΥ]ΡΑΝΟΙΣ ΚΑΙ ΤΑ ΕΠ[Ι ΤΗΣ ΥΗΣ] ΕΝ [ΑΥΤΩ]. “to be enacted in the fullness of time, the summing up of all things in Christ, [things] in heaven and things on [the earth] in [him].

1:11 (last line) this page contains only two words from this verse. The text reads, [ΕΝ Ω] ΚΑΙ ΕΚΛΗΡΩΘ[ΗΜΕΝ]…. [In whom] we have also obtained an inheritance….


The absence of “in Ephesus” in verse one could be evidence that Ephesians was a letter sent to many churches, with the church at Ephesus being the primary recipient. Perhaps this letter was also called the epistle to the Laodiceans in Colossians 4:16.

In verses 2, 6, and 9, the text contains misspellings. These sorts of errors account for the vast majority of textual variants. When you hear someone say that their are thousands of errors in the ancient biblical manuscripts, remember that most are minor mistakes such as misspellings or are easily explainable like the scribal errors in verses 3, 5, and 9.

By my count, this page contains at least six errors. Before you start calling for this scribe’s resignation, remember three things. First, this text is a copy of a copy. Our scribe might be innocently recording the mistakes of another. Second, lowercase letters and spaces between words had not yet been invented. Make a handwritten copy of this text yourself and see how many mistakes you make. I bet it will be more than six. Third, this copy was made before Christianity was legalized in A.D. 313. The scribe was probably working under a little bit of pressure as he wrote. Have you worried about being fed to a lion today?

Proponents of the Majority Text forget these factors. They argue that we should ignore manuscripts like P46 because later manuscripts are in a larger abundance and were more accurately copied. However, this position wrongly values quantity over quality. If I printed out my scanned copy of P46 a couple thousand times, I will have created a similar larger abundance of more accurate copies. The issue is the quality of the text, not the quantity.

The value of P46 resides in its age. Unlike the much later Majority Text manuscripts, P46 was copied relatively soon after Paul’s original letters were written. Thus there were fewer opportunities for scribes to make mistakes while they made copies of copies of copies. True, scribes in the 10th century and later copied more accurately due to increased safety in monasteries and better tools including lowercase letters and spaces between words. However, these factors only ensured that the copies available to 10th century scribes would be passed on with relatively few errors. The 10th century scribes had to copy from something that was a copy of a copy of a copy. Having a scanned copy of a third-century manuscript allows one to skip seven centuries of scribal errors. In today’s digital age, you can make as many perfect copies of texts like P46 as you want. Of course, they won’t do you any good unless you read them.

Bible Mythbusters: The Origin of “James” in English Bibles

Fact: The New Testament name Ἰάκωβος (“James”) is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name  יַעֲקֹב  (“Jacob”) in the Old Testament. English Bible translations render the Greek word Ἰάκωβος as “James” in every NT occurrence. When this word occurs in the slightly different form Ιακώβ, it is translated “Jacob” in reference to the OT Bible character.

Myth: A popular story floats around seminaries about the origin of this quirky translation in English Bibles. The story goes that King James wanted to have a biblical name. Since he was funding the KJV, the 1611 translators felt obliged to honor his request.

Experiment: If the this translation originated with the 1611 KJV, then prior English Bibles would translate Ἰάκωβος as “Jacob” rather than “James.” While I was at the UMI library a couple weeks ago, I tested this myth by checking a 1541 Great Bible.

Busted! The Great Bible translates Ἰάκωβος as “James.” This practice is probably just an attempt to draw out the slightly more Hellenized flavor of Ἰάκωβος over Ιακώβ. However, it is still helpful to note the close connection between the names “James” and “Jacob” for English speakers, who can easily miss this relationship.

The Comma Johanneum

The Comma Johanneum is the technical name for a short clause appearing in some translations’ rendering of 1 John 5:7-8. The text of the comma appears below in bold.

5:7 “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
5:8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one” (KJV).

Aside from one relatively obscure modern version (Revised Webster Update, 1995) and the NKJV, no modern English Bible includes this passage. KJV-only advocates frequently cite this fact as conclusive proof that modern Bibles are removing the Trinity from the Bible and should be rejected on the grounds of Revelation 22:18-19. A quick check of my Greek NT shows that the passage to be absent in the Greek, but most KJV-only advocates would reject my Greek Bible (UBS4) as unreliable. The whole controversy sounded like a good excuse for me to visit my favorite library in the whole world.

The University of Michigan Library houses nearly 10 million books. The special collections division contains P46 (one of the oldest Greek Bibles in existence), a first edition of Erasmus’ Textus Receptus, a 1611 KJV, as well as thousands of other priceless books. After a short registration process, the librarian will hand you a copy of anything you want.

So does the Comma Johanneum belong in the Bible? Since the KJV is translated from Erasmus’ Textus Receptus. Let’s look at Erasmus’ original 1516 Novum Instrumentu[m] Omne (the famous title Textus Receptus, “received text,” was first used in the publisher’s preface to Bonaventure and Abraham Elzevir’s 1633 edition). Below is 1 John 5:6-9.

Notice that the Comma Johanneum is missing. Reading help: 1 John 5:6 begins on the first line with “οὗτός.” 1 John 5:7 begins on the fifth line and reads, “ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες” (“for there are three that testify”). If the comma were included, the text would continue: “εν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ πατήρ, ὁ λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἕν εἰσιν καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἕν τῇ γῇ.” It doesn’t.

Can’t make it over to Ann Arbor to check this out? No problem. You can download a free scanned PDF of Erasmus’ second edition (1519) from the Princeton Theol. Seminary Library at the internet archive. It likewise lacks the comma. Below is 1 John 5:6-9.

Reading help: 1 John 5:6 begins with the second word. 1 John 5:7 begins on the fifth line, same reading as before. 1 John 5:8 begins on the seventh line. The comma is absent.

Note that Erasmus doesn’t include verse divisions because they hadn’t been invented yet. Numbered verse divisions were first introduced in 1551 by Robert Estienne (aka Stephanus) in the fourth edition of his revision of Erasmus’ Greek text.

Erasmus’ Greek text supports the reading found nearly every modern English Bible. So where did the KJV translators get their spurious reading? The Catholic church did not like the fact that Erasmus’ version was calling attention to an error in the Latin Vulgate. Jerome believed that Latin copyists had intentionally added the Comma Johanneum to the Vulgate in order to refute Arian heretics and support Trinitarian doctrine. However, the passage more likely entered the Vulgate through a copying error in which a marginal note was mistaken for part of the text. Regardless of how the text found its way into the Vulgate, the Catholic church began pressuring Erasmus to include the reading in his Greek text. Under pressure from Rome, Erasmus included the passage in both Latin and Greek when he released his third edition in 1522. This inclusion remained in subsequent editions, including Theodore Beza’s 1598 edition, which was the primary source used by the KJV translators.

Unfortunately, I did not have access to a third edition of Erasmus’ Greek text. However, the University of Michigan did have a Latin Bible translated by Erasmus and dated 1522, the same year his third edition was released. I initially thought that this small octavo might be a copy of his paraphrased epistles, which was first released in octavo size in 1522 as well. However, the title clearly states, Novum Testamentum Omne, ex tertia recognitione (“The Entire New Testament from the third revision”). Erasmus’ entire NT paraphrase was not published until 1523 and that octavo-sized edition comprised two volumes. Furthermore, Erasmus’ Paraphrases were titled as such and would include “paraphrasim” in the title. Additionally, I did find evidence of an octavo-sized reprint of the Latin text from Erasmus’ third edition in 1522 (minus his annotations). Reprint editions usually do not attract scholarly attention. However, since the decorative border on the title page was done by Holbein, I was able to find one reference to this edition (Jeanne Nuechterlein, Translating Nature into Art [University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011], 167). Thus I was able to check Erasmus’ third edition after all.

Here is 1 John 5:6b-9 in Erasmus’ third edition (1522). The copy in the University of Michigan Library does not include Erasmus’ Greek text. However, the Comma Johanneum clearly appears in the Latin.

Some might think it strange to find a copy of Erasmus’ Textus Receptus printed in Latin without any Greek. However, Erasmus’ goal was not to create the first published Greek NT, but rather he sought to create a fresh translation of the New Testament in Latin. The Greek was included for the sole purpose of supporting the accuracy of his Latin translation.

This purpose is stated on the title page to Erasmus’ first edition. My Latin isn’t the best, but it says to the effect, “The New Testament (Instrumentum), carefully revised and corrected by Erasmus of Rotterdam, verified not only by the actual Greek but also by each of the many language books and amended to their old faith, and finally approved by the citation of authors, as to the improvement of the translation, especially by Origen, Chrysostom, Cyril, Theophylact of Ohrid (Vulgarij), Jerome, Cyprian, Ambrose, Hilary, St. Augustine, together with the Annotations which teach the reader the reason for the changes. Therefore, let the true lover of theology and law become engaged, and then judge. Be neither immediately offended nor offend the faith over what has changed, but weigh whether it be changed for the better.”

Erasmus was writing a new Latin translation to surpass the Vulgate. The Greek text was only added to increase his translation’s credibility. As you can see to the right, Erasmus’ Latin translation was printed in the column opposite of the Greek. Erasmus hoped that readers would be convinced that his translation was superior to the Vulgate after they compared his translation with the Greek text and read his Annotations at the end. Unfortunately, the Catholic church judged Erasmus by his conformity to the Vulgate rather than to the Greek. There is no winning an argument with people who set a translation as the ultimate standard of correctness. Any significant deviation–regardless of warrant–is wrong.

Therefore, the Comma Johanneum was wrongly inserted into the Greek text of Erasmus’ third edition and does not belong in our Bibles today. Unfortunately, the KJV translators used a corrupt text in this instance and added a phrase that ought to have been omitted. Should we turn Revelation 22:18-19 back on KJV-only advocates and condemn the KJV for adding to the Word of God? No, this whole line of reasoning is utter nonsense. Every translation makes mistakes. In the 1611 preface, the KJV translators themselves admitted their human fallibility. The KJV is still a good translation. Just cross out twenty-four words.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

I recently finished reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos. Despite its odd title (an allusion to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the book is actually a serious work on translation by a Princeton University professor.

As the playful title might suggest, the book caters to a popular audience and is delightfully packed with curiosities, oddities, and difficulties surrounding the task of translation. We learn that Eskimos don’t really have a hundred words for snow and about the eighteenth-century academic discussion that prompted the myth. Bellos discusses rare grammatical categories such as evidentials, nouns that refer to only those objects that the speaker currently sees. We also get an inside look at the task of translating genres ranging from movie subtitles to bible translation to simultaneous interpretation. Here’s a teaser video from the publisher:

Bellos contributes two insights that are helpful for translators and anyone who reads a translated work such as an English Bible. First, all translation involves interpretation. Translators can only translate what they can express in their own words. Translators must come to some conclusion concerning what a text means before they can translate.  Thus differences in translation should be treated much like differences in interpretation, which translations inevitably reflect.

Second, when applied to a translation, the term “literal” can be misleading due to its flexability. The term “literal” is commonly used in at least three different senses. (1) “Literal” can denote that which is not figurative. The expression “it is raining cats and dogs outside” has two possible meanings. Figuratively, it means a heavy downpour. Literally, it means house pets are falling from the clouds. (2) “Literal” can denote that which is not false. It is not uncommon for an English speaker to say, “It is literally raining cats and dogs outside.” The speaker of course intends to emphasize the truthfulness of his or her figurative expression and does not imply that animals are actually dropping from the sky. (3) “Literal” can denote a translation that is not free. Translators must choose the degree to which their translations retain characteristics of the source language such as grammar, idioms, and word order. If we were to translate “It was raining cats and dogs” into another language, the free translation would substitute something about a heavy downpour while the literal translation would talk about dogs and cats plummeting towards earth regardless of whether the target language could make sense of such an expression.

We are predisposed towards all things “literal” largely because the term itself connotes that which is true. However, interpreters need to remember that the true meaning of a figurative expression is the figurative meaning, not the literal. Translators, when dealing with a difficult expression, should remember that their job involves a degree interpretation and should try to render the expression understandable to speakers of the target language.