I began the first of these two posts by discussing the problems with how most people use the word literal when referring to the translation of a particular word or phrase. In this second and final part (hopefully), I’d like to explain the origin of these thoughts and suggest some conclusions…
I began thinking about this as a result from reading Moises Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (Clickable).
On page 143, he has a discussion about the Spanish verbs, tomar and comer, which are traditionally given the English glosses to drink and to eat respectively. He writes,
While this correspondence suggests that the terms “have the same meaning,” the true facts emerge in the combination to eat soup (or ice cream), where Spanish does not tolerate comer but rather uses tomar la sopa (or el helado). This difference suggests that whereas the English term should be defined with reference to the manner in which the food is take to the mouth, the Spanish terms indicate the constitution of the food…. In short, the meanings of these terms are, at least in part, a function of their possible syntagmatic combinations.
What made me think about this is that I’ve heard people say that comer literally means to eat. And I’m sure you could imagine someone giving a seemingly brilliant insight into how the mind of the native Spanish speaker works or functions, as we occasionally hear a preacher or teach do with Hebrew and Greek. But comer doesn’t mean to eat. Comer literally means Comer. Only an extended definition can describe the meaning of comer in English. Something like…
Comer: to eat by means of mastication; to eat solid foods. Not used with foods such as soup or ice cream.
I think that if we are going to use the language of “literal” and “non-literal,” then we need to make a distinction in meaning. Fundamentally speaking the true literal meaning of anything is that thing itself. The meaning of cup is cup. The meaning of eat is eat. Perfect synonyms are incredibly rare in any language.
When we talk about translating discourse, we need to ask whether meaning is found at at structural level or a semantic level. I think its pretty clear that meaning is chiefly semantic, not structural (though structure, as seen in Ephesians, contributes to meaning, emphasis, and audience impact).
Thus, literal ought to be limited to semantics, not form or structure. Seeking structural literalness will result in inaccuracy, which does not help in conveying information. That’s at a phrase and clause level. At a word level, as we saw above with comer and tomar, it is misleading to say that comer means to eat, with no qualifications. We cannot be rigid in seeking to always translate comer with to eat and tomar with to drink. And yet, so called “literal” translations will often seek to use the same English word to translate the same Greek or Hebrew word. At times, you can get away with this, but overall, it can cause significant problems. Literal meaning in translation ought to accurately express original meaning/semantics, not merely form or syntax.
Otherwise, its not literal, just awkward.