The Translation of Biblical Live and Dead Metaphors and Similes and Other Idioms -- By: Weston W. Fields

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 02:2 (Fall 1981)
Article: The Translation of Biblical Live and Dead Metaphors and Similes and Other Idioms
Author: Weston W. Fields

The Translation of Biblical Live and Dead
Metaphors and Similes and Other Idioms

Weston W. Fields

Live and Dead metaphors and similes and other idioms are often the testing ground for the quality of a Bible translation. Meaningful translation must try to transfer these figures into the receptor language idiomatically. Yet many modern translations take the course of formal and not dynamic equivalence, and in the process often obscure the meaning of the text. If the principles suggested are followed in the translation of these figures, the meaning of the Bible will be more accurately conveyed to its readers.


The quality of a Bible translation may be measured by many things, but among the most telling is a translation’s method of handling fixed idioms, especially live and dead metaphors and similes. Anyone who translates any language for any purpose struggles with idioms, but Bible translators seem to struggle the most. There are both linguistic and theological reasons for this.

On the linguistic side, there is often no agreement, even among translators of a particular version, about how idioms ought to be translated. There is an implicit if not explicit truism among those trained more in the biblical languages than in linguistics that even though a word-for-word, or “formal-equivalence,” translation is strictly impossible if one is to transfer a message coherently from one language to another, the more closely one approximates such a formal equivalence, the more accurately he will convey the meaning from the source language to the receptor language.

On the theological side, the suspicion of translations which do not in some way show word-for-word correspondence with the original language usually finds its source in a misunderstanding of the task of translation, generically speaking. Since those who believe the Bible is the inspired message of God place a high value on knowing the meaning of that message as accurately as possible, it follows that they are concerned that the process of translation neither adds to nor deletes from that message. But frequently one encounters the erroneous belief that a difference in number and order of words in the transference from the source language to the receptor language somehow equals a difference in meaning in the translation. Every translator, however, from the third-grade student who is studying French to the seasoned scholar who has years of translation experience, knows this is not true. Yet, among Bible translators and biblical language scholars there is very often a distrust of a translator who espouses the translation of meaning, or who casts Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic idioms (espec...

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