Translating Metaphor: He just snapped for no reason!

Metaphor and analogy drive much (all) of semantic change.

The text is from 4 Macc 2:2-3

2 ταύτῃ γοῦν ὁ σώφρων Ιωσηφ ἐπαινεῖται, ὅτι διανοίᾳ περιεκράτησεν τῆς ἡδυπαθείας. 3 νέος γὰρ ὢν καὶ ἀκμάζων πρὸς συνουσιασμὸν ἠκύρωσε τῷ λογισμῷ τὸν τῶν παθῶν οἶστρον.

I was reading 4 Maccabees in Greek this evening and was reminded of this audio clip from Brian Regan:

It’s the fascinating metaphorical extensions of the word: οἶστρος.

Here’s the entry from LSJ (with integrated supplement):

οἶστρος, , gadfly, breese, prob. Tabanus bovinus, an insect which infests cattle, τὰς μέν τʼ αἰόλος οἶ. ἐφορμηθεὶς ἐδόνησεν, ὥρῃ ἐν εἰαρινῇ Od.22.300; of the fly that tormented Io, A.Supp.541 (lyr.), Pr.567 sq. (lyr.) (also called μύωψ, ib. 675, Supp.308: but the two are distd. by Arist.HA490a20, 596b14).

2. an insect that infests tunny-fish, prob. Brachiella thynni, ib. 557a27, 602a28.

3. a small insectivorous bird, perh. Sylvia trochilus, ib. 592b22.

II. metaph., a sting, anything that drives mad, κεραυνοῦ οἶ. E.HF862; οἴστροις Ἐρινύων Id.IT1456: abs., the smart of pain, agony, S.Tr.1254.

2. any vehement desire, insane passion, Simon.36.10 P., Hdt.2.93, E.Hipp.1300, Pl.R.577e, etc.; ὄρεξις μετὰ οἴστρου καὶ ἀδημονίας Epicur.Fr.483: c. gen. objecti, κτεάνων for wealth, AP11.389 (Lucill.): generally, madness, frenzy, S.Ant.1002, E.Or.791: pl., Id.Ba.665; μανιάδες οἶ. Id.IA548 (lyr.).

3. in good sense, zeal, οἶ. εἰς πᾶν ἀγαθὸν ἔργον PMasp.3.13 (vi a.d.).

And the text from the 4 Maccabees 2.2-3:

2 ταύτῃ γοῦν ὁ σώφρων Ιωσηφ ἐπαινεῖται, ὅτι διανοίᾳ περιεκράτησεν τῆς ἡδυπαθείας. 3νέος γὰρ ὢν καὶ ἀκμάζων πρὸς συνουσιασμὸν ἠκύρωσε τῷ λογισμῷ τὸν τῶν παθῶν οἶστρον.

The semantic development here is pretty great:

Physical entity of the external world: gadfly.

Metaphoric Extension (my supposition): the sight of cattle freaking out while being bit by gadflies.

Semantic Bleaching: Any sort of sharp pain or sting.

Semantic Bleaching: An apparently inexplicable pain (i.e. the gadfly isn’t seen) giving the appearance of madness.

Metaphoric Extension: An inexplicable passion giving the appearance of madness.

Semantic Bleaching: inexplicable passion extended to both positive (zeal) and negative.

Specific Instantiation in 4 Macc 2:3: Sexual desire is irrational emotion.

This sort of metaphorical phenomenon is the grounding of all language use, too. Our ability to categorize and metaphorize our experience is what grounds language in the world. But translation as it is currently done, doesn’t account for this very well (whether we’re talking about “literal” or “functional” translation). Consider the NRSV’s translation here:

vs 2-3 It is for this reason, certainly, that the temperate Joseph is praised, because by mental effort he overcame sexual desire. For when he was young and in his prime for intercourse, by his reason he nullified the frenzy of the passions.

Aside from the incredibly awkward phrasing and the generally terrible way that most translations deal with translating texts involving sex (it always feels like they’re blushing when I read them), the bigger point is that all of the semantic entailments of the metaphor are lost here. The problem is how to regain them–if that’s even possible in English. In terms of the theoretical questions, we’re getting there slowly. We haven’t yet gotten there in terms of practice. Linguists have been working on these issues of meaning for a few decades now and they’re starting to get through (I hope). It’s what Rich Rhodes was talking about when he spoke of a 4G translation.