Re: etymology and Semantic domains

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Fri Apr 24 1998 - 11:12:39 EDT

 Don Wilkins writes,
>First a question: is your *single word* linguistic model still based on the
>semantic domain concept? At first I thought it was, but then your comment on
>the translator's approach confused me. For that matter, what do you see the
>translator using as his/her sources and methodology for this model?
>Having asked that, let me suggest that in reality the translation process
>runs far too wide a spectrum to be categorized as kernel vs. single word,
>semantic domain vs. etymology, etc. It is most probably a delicate
>combination of all methods and sources that have some claim to legitimacy.
>E.g., I am as quick as anyone to condemn root-fallacy errors, yet Clayton
>has already pointed out that there are cases in which the use of etymology
>is valid. Also, in the real marketplace, readers have the rightful
>expectation that a *translation* is not a commentary, as it can quickly
>become if the translators try too hard to make the meaning of the text
>"clear". When we say that we are trying to determine how the first-cent.
>reader in this or that precise geographical location understood a word or
>phrase, I heartily concur with the goal, but fear that the ultimate answer
>is "ignoramus".

Dear Don,

Thank you for a very fine post. Of course you are right that any kind of
Bible translation is "a combination of all methods and sources", though
with a very different stress, depending on whether a literal or an
idiomatic transltion is sought. When I studied Applied linguistics and was
immersed in the slogan "Take care of the meaning and the words will take
care of themselves" (Danica Seleskovitch, Sorbonne), I asked myself, with
the biblical text in mind. "Is there a way for the reader who wants to have
a share in the translation process to achieve that? Which kind of
translation can help the reader, at least in a limited way, to check the
translators? Is it possible to measure the contents of theology and bias in
a Bible translation to the effect that we can differentiate between what
should be allowed and what should not be allowed?

With this in mind, I started a study of the New World Translation with
Today«s English Version as a comparison. The advantage of the NWT in this
context is that it is extremely literal, even to the point of using the
Hebrew and Greek sentence structure. In the NT, the theology of the
translators is clearly evident, and it is widely accused of being biased,
even dishonest - an ideal situation for my approach. I will try to answer
your basic question above by using the renditions of these versions as in
the case of three Greek words as an example.

AGAPH occurs 116 times in the NT. The NWT translates it every time by
"love" while the TEV translates it 114 times with "love" (verb or noun).
KOSMOS occurs 186 times in the NT. The NWT translates it 185 times with
"world" and the TEV 175 times. SARC occurs 133 times in the NT. The NWT
translates it all the times with "flesh" while TEV uses this word only 17
times. The word SARC was chosen because it is the example par excellence
of the futility of a literal translation. Keeping in mind that both the
writing of texts and the translation of them are *communication* I have
asked: Would the TEV way of rendering SARC be the best kind of
communication for ALL groups of Bible readers, or would particular groups
benefit more from the NWT way? Is it really possible to communicate by a
literal rendition of such a word as SARC? And an even more interesting
question: Why did the NWT render KOSMOS as "world" only 185 and not 186

Studying these questions in depth, I have reached the conclusion that for
study purposes, for the group of persons who do not know the original
languages, but who want to come as close as possible to the original words,
a uniform rendering of words (with particular restrictions) is the best way
of communication. So my model for a literal translation is based upon
*communication*, upon the difference between "langue" and "parole" (de
Saussure), between word, reference and concept (C.Ogden) and on the
achievements of psycholingiustics (Jean Aitchison) and not on etymology or
Semantic domain. This means I suggest that all resources, including the
context, which is very important, be used. But the important goal should be
to restrict interpretative translation as much as possible, and make the
text ready for the readers to do the interpretation.

The central idea with this literal approach is the *concept* . A word just
signal a concept in the mind, and by using , as far as possible, one
English word for each Greek and Hebrew word, one concept is signalled in
each case, and then it is up to the reader to find its contents. However,
the ranges of concepts are sometimes different between English and Greek,
and therefore there are also constraints in this area. The place where the
NWT did not translate KOSMOS with "world" is 1 Pet 3:3 where "adornment" is
used. In Greek, physical order and beauty was entailed inside the concept
signalled by KOSMOS, in English this is not the case, but two different
concepts are signalled by "world" and "adornment". In addition there are
different kinds of words, some are fully refrential, others are not; and in
some instances will a literal translation clearly be misleading. So "a
combination of all methods and sources" is necessary also in literal

Any translation has got to be a compromise (when chosing one thing
something else must be left out), and the NWT can be criticised on several
points. However, the reference edition (not the ordinary editions) of 1984
with its footnotes (for the most part textual in nature rather than
interpretative) and its indices represent a very fine tool for those
wanting to come as close as possible to the original text. There are also
other literal translations which may be of help along the same lines. I
want to stress that for almost any purpose do I personally choose to do
idiomatic translation; my positive view of literal ones is completely tied
up with my concern for the interests of the Bible readers. And I do not
think that these are adequately cared for by many modern, idiomatic


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semtitic languages
University of Oslo

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