On literal translation: He that hath eeris of heerynge, heere he.

That’s the Wycliffe Bible.

Dane Ortlund has an essay published in Themelios that responds to another Themelios article that Bill Mounce wrote for the December 2019 issue. Mounce’s article was: Do Formal Equivalent Translations Reflect a Higher View of Plenary, Verbal Inspiration?

I’m not going to touch Mounce’s piece, but I would like to engage with two of the ideas in Ortlund’s article: On Words, Meaning, Inspiration, and Translation: A Brief Response to Bill Mounce

Now there’s so much going on here, but I’d like to make two brief points. It’s about the ears.

A literal translation is the product of a community conventionalizing a set of target language glosses as authoritative over against any other glosses. It places the authority of those conventions over the authority of the original text itself.

First, there’s this: “the Greek word for ‘ears’”?

These arguments about the centrality of “literal” translation are, at their core, inherently anglocentric. They are anglocentric because precisely because they are being made in English and from the perspective of English. If they were made in French about the Greek word for ‘oreilles’, they would be Francocentric. The argument is culturally tied to the target language in way that (1) disrespects the source language and (2) ignores the complexity and language diversity of all the other potential target languages around the world. Let us now break this down.

In fairness to Ortlund, let’s quote the section in full.

An example that may help flesh out the difference I have with Mounce is in the example he raises from Acts 11:22. Many in Antioch are turning to the Lord, and the Greek text says ἠκούσθη δὲ ὁ λόγος εἰς τὰ ὦτα τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς οὔσης ἐν Ἱερουσαλήμ, which the ESV renders as “The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem.” Mounce notes that the NASB and ESV have “the ears” for τὰ ὦτα, whereas the NIV says “news of this reached the church in Jerusalem.” He commends the NIV: “The leaders of the church in Jerusalem heard about God’s activity in Antioch. That’s what the Greek means. That’s what God inspired.” Mounce thus contends that it is meaning that God inspires, not specific words.

But consider what is lost by blinding the English reader to the use of the Greek word for “ears.” First, something of the sheer vividness of the text is diluted—the earthiness, the concreteness, the colorfulness of the text.

Second, and with more significant implications, by omitting any explicit reference to the ears of those in Jerusalem, readers are blinded to any possible connections with other references to ears in Acts or elsewhere in the Bible. As it turns out, οὖς (ear) appears five times in Acts. The other four are not merely bland references to physical ears but spiritually and theologically loaded uses: Stephen refers to his hostile opponents as “uncircumcised in heart and ears” who “stop up their ears” (7:51, 57), and Paul cites Isaiah 6:9–10—“with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears”—to express the spiritual apprehension of his hearers (Acts 28:26–27). Might Luke wish us to see the Jerusalem hearers as successfully doing what Stephen’s opponents did not, about which Isaiah prophesied of old? I am not myself certain that this is a meaningful connection, but that is beside the point; based on Mounce’s translation principles, the English reader is never allowed even to consider the possibility due to the loss of literary concordance. Whatever the meaning and significance of these other four instances of οὖς, any possibility of a Lukan connection between these various uses of ear-language is eliminated by translating Acts 11:22 as news simply being “heard” or any other equally colloquial equivalent that loses explicit ear-language. Not only does Mounce think “heard” sufficiently translates the text, he thinks that what is inspired by God is the notion that the report was heard, but not the words communicating that notion. …

However we may wish to handle Acts 11:22, there is a broader, global danger in functional equivalence that Mounce does not acknowledge. To the degree that a translator focuses on “meaning” without a corresponding striving to carry over the actual words that convey that meaning, to that degree the translator is doing more interpreting in the translation. To be sure, all translation necessitates some degree of interpretation. But the more we focus on transparency to the original, the less risk we run of unwittingly importing our own erroneous interpretation of what the text means. It is the job of the pastor, teacher, author, commentator, and indeed every studious Christian to interpret the text. It is the job of the translator to translate the text. “The words of the Bible should be conveyed,” as Alter puts it, “not explained.”

bold emphasis mine.

Ortlund expresses a fundamental conceit that there are Greek words for English words. The underlying thought here is that meanings are, effectively, English. And there are Greek words for them. Whether Ortlund believes that or not, the language he chose, “Greek word for X,” necessarily frames the entire topic in this manner (if he doesn’t believe it, he needs to find a new frame of reference for talking about meaning).

This is because there is no Greek word for ‘ear’. There is only οὖς (ὦτα is the nominative plural). Well, that isn’t right either. There isn’t only ὦτα. There’s also ὠτίον and ὠτάριον. All of these could be glossed by the English ‘ear’. Greek words don’t mean the same way that English words do.

And vice versa.

When we translate from a source language into a target language, there is no such thing as “keeping all the words”. Greek words are not English words and ruling that only specific translational glosses can be used, does not constitute keeping all the words. The English word ‘ears’ isn’t “all the words”. Translating ὦτα as ‘ears’ isn’t translating the words. It’s still translating the meaning. ὦτα is gone. If you choose that as a gloss, all of the original words are still gone. Literal translation prioritizes English over Greek by assuming that English words have some bizarre one-to-one correspondence to the original language that doesn’t actually exist.

This is the hidden lie in the English Bible tradition. Literal translations only exist in languages that already have a translation. A literal translation is the product of a community conventionalizing a set of target language glosses as authoritative over and against any other glosses. It places the authority of those conventions over the authority of the original text itself. It is, thus, for the English Bible tradition, inherently anglocentric. Without an existing tradition of translation, the idea of “keeping all the words” wouldn’t exist. All the words are Greek.

Second: About James Barr…

Ortlund writes:

Some translators in recent years have gotten squeamish about the word “literal,” but they need not. It is a perfectly serviceable word. Barr’s cautions were salutary 40 years ago, clarifying that “literal” and “free” as descriptors of Bible translation need qualification and care as they are used. But the category “literal” is not useless. In any case, when paired with the adverb “essentially” it should be clear to any reasonable mind that what such a translation philosophy is seeking to do is be as transparent as possible to the original.

Recognizing, again, that literal only means something if a translation tradition already exists, nothing here is particularly problematic. Except, there are other cautions that James Barr is famous for emphasizing. The big one is confusing words and concepts. Remember those ears?

For someone who appeals to James Barr on other matters, Ortlund misses (or ignores?) the difference between words & concepts. He seems to believe that word concordance is central for understanding the literary/theological message of Acts: ears in Acts 7, ears in 11, ears in 28. But does he really think that the original audience tracked those references to ὦτα thousands of words apart across 21 chapters of text?

If we set aside the fact that this is a terrible example of thematic continuity, the reality is that you don’t need the word “ear” or ὦτα to appear everywhere for a theme of hearing(?) to be activated by the reader/listener. “Ear” is a word. It activates a larger concept, what in linguistics we call a “frame” And when you activate even part of a semantic frame, you activate the whole frame, which means that in the audience’s brains, have the same cognitive effect on the audience: ‘ear’, ‘listen’, ‘hear’. Words and concepts are different, even if they share a substantive relationship, but what is important is that concepts are bigger than just individual words.

You don’t need the word “ear” to activate a thematic concept. You can activate that concept/frame with all sorts of words. The best translators understand that. They understand that language has dynamic power for evoking ideas by the repetition of concepts without necessarily using the same word over and over. So, if a translator wants to use the word “heard” rather than “ear” in a given text where listening/hearing/ears are thematically relevant, he’s still getting the same literary effect. A conception of literary concordance that only cares about one-word repetitions ends up being more than a little myopic and not particularly literary.