The Meaning of Ka’at
Let’s consider the Igkaadian language, a make-believe language. We find the occurrence of the word ka’at in a text, but we don’t know what it means. Since there is no Igkaadian lexicon (=language dictionary), we can’t look it up. So we do the work ourselves by finding as many occurrences of the word as possible. Note how the range of meaning changes in each sentence:
I’m going to the ka’at to get a drink.
Some would suggest the meaning “bar” or “drinking fountain,” etc.
Go to the ka’at and fill up your canteen as soon as you have pitched your camp.
Here the context suggested by “canteen” could be a campout, prompting some to suggest the meanings “river, spring, lake,” etc.
During the seventh inning stretch, I’m going to the ka’at to buy me a soda.
The context is a ball game during which a soda could be purchased. Thus, we should think of something like a concession stand.
During the next commercial, I’m going to walk into the kitchen to get me a cold soda from the ka’at.
The context is watching tv (as indicated by the reference to the commercial break). Here we find out that the ka’at may be located in the kitchen and that one can get a cold soda from it. Thus, ka’at could refer to a refrigerator in this context.
If we could just find a few more references to ka’at in the extant literature of the Igkaadian language, we could be more exact in determining its meaning. Unfortunately, in our case, this is all we have to go on. We’ll have to make a decision based on these few occurrences, unless perchance, archaeologists someday discover either more Igkaadian texts or another cognate language which has a word similar to ka’at. (To illustrate this last point, I may not know the Spanish word iglesia, but since it appears to be derived from the Greek word ekklesia, then I can usually surmise that iglesia must have something to do with “church.”)
[We should pause to note that a number of words found in the Hebrew Bible occur only once or twice anywhere in any Hebrew text. This makes translation very difficult. The KJV translators, for example, admitted that for some words, they were merely guessing the best they could. In the past 100 years, archaeologists have discovered a number of other Hebrew texts, and a number of Semitic languages related to Hebrew have also been discovered (Akkadian, Sumerian, Ugaritic, etc). This has helped immeasurably in translating those words which occur only rarely.]
Formal Equivalence vs Dynamic Equivalence
So, synthesizing the data above, we attempt an explanation of the word ka’at. Minimalistically (that is, “literally,” but in reality that term is inaccurate), ka’at is some sort of source for quenching one’s thirst. Usually, we would try to assign a one-word English equivalent (= gloss) equivalent to ka’at, but unfortunately, I can’t think of one.
To go beyond this minimalistic (“literal”) definition, the context must be ascertained. In some contexts, ka’at could mean a concession stand, a refrigerator, a bar, or an outdoors body of water such as a lake, spring, creek, or well.
Here is where “formal equivalence” and “dynamic equivalence” part ways. Formal equivalence (the translation theory behind NASB, ESV, the old ASV, and to some extent NRSV) would generally translate ka’at with its one word minimal equivalent. On the other hand, dynamic equivalence (the translation theory behind NIV) would generally translate ka’at according to the fuller meaning supplied by the context of the individual passage.
An Example from the Greek
The above discussion of the imaginary Igkaadian word ka’at is applicable to the difficult Greek word sarx. Here are a few sentences illustrating how biblical writers may have used it:
Great Aunt Elsie would like to attend revival meetings this week, but her sarx is too weak to climb the steps up to the church building.
Here, Aunt Elsie’s body is too weak or frail.
We disciples wanted to pray with Jesus, but our sarx was weak.
Here, although somewhat ambiguous, the statement seems to reflect the context of the disciples’ great sleepiness.
An unregenerate person wants to do the desires of the sarx.
It seems here that sarx refers to human nature in all of its fallenness.
Do not eat sarx sacrificed to idols.
Here, sarx seems to refer to meat (or some other sort of food).
Ouch! Don’t touch me. My sarx is sunburned.
No one knows where the sarx of Moses was buried.
Here, sarx seems to refer to a dead body.
Do not let anyone compel you to circumcise your sarx.
For Jews, the term sarx may refer to that part of the male organ which was cut off for religious purposes.
Jesus Christ was born son of David, according to the sarx.
Here (cf. Rom 1:2-4), the human lineage of Christ is referred to.
Meaning of Sarx: Formal and Dynamic
From all of the above examples, it is clear that sarx is “multivalent,” that is, it has many meanings depending on context. One might assign the word “flesh” as a minimalistic one-word gloss for it. This is what the NASB usually does. In contrast, depending upon context, the majority of modern translations will try to supply the most specific meaning to a given context. Thus, you will see the word translated in the NIV as sinful nature, muscle, meat, flesh, skin, body, human nature, muscle, etc., depending upon the context.
Inerrancy and Translational Theories
Some claim that inerrancy works better with formal equivalence than dynamic equivalence (see, for example, the gracious and positive contributions that Bro. Danny has made in a number of posts). The argument assumes “plenary verbal inspiration” (viz., God gave the biblical writers the inspired message in such a way as to guarantee that the Greek and Hebrew words they chose were sufficient and accurate to convey this meaning to their audience [at least this is close to how Forlines defines inerrancy]). They argue that since inspiration extends to the very words of Scripture, the English words which are in exact correspondence to the very Greek and Hebrew words should be used. In light of the foregoing examples, I think the weakness of this argument is apparent.
What would be the formal equivalence of sarx? Well, actually there is no formal equivalence to sarx apart from context! Meaning is determined entirely by context. That is why we should translate the meaning of the text (the con-text) rather than fragmenting it by translating minimalistically. I think most people can see that a so-called literal translation does not bring us any closer to the original meaning of the Greek. Consequently, I reject the notion that formal equivalency reflects inerrancy better than dynamic equivalence.
Formal Equivalency and “Translation English”
Every night on tv news, we hear many foreign politicians speak who are not fluent in English. This is what we call “translation English.” The speaker thinks of what to say in his own native language and then does a minimalistic translation into English, making his comments sound awkward.
While in India, I saw a sign written first in Hindi and translated minimalistically into English: “It is crime to make dirty the Taj Mahal.” A good dynamic equivalence translation would have ironed out that awkwardness.
Using an American dictionary, a Chinese restaurant manager once wrote “Check is not acceptable,” when good English idiom would demand something like, “Checks are not accepted” or simply “No Checks.”
If the hispanic reporters covering news in Washington had to go by formal equivalence, they would have to talk about El Presidente Bush en la blanca casa instead of casa blanca.
While overseas, I asked in French, “Ou est la salle de bain?” which is a word for word translation of the important English phrase, “Where is the room of the bath.” No one understood me, except for the one person who knew a little English. He explained to me that the proper phrase is “Ou est le petit coin,” which minimalistically rendered is, “Where is the little corner.”
This kind of awkwardness abounds in the formal equivalence translations (less so in ESV). This is why we read “coals of fire” instead of “fiery coals,” and “power of glory” instead of “glorious power.” Or, “the earnest of the Spirit” instead of “the earnest, which is the Spirit.” Or, “his meat was locusts and wild honey” instead of “his food was locusts and wild honey.” Or, “if any bowels (!) and mercies”(Phil 2:1). Many, many such examples abound. We who have been born and reared on KJV all of our lives have gotten so used to such awkwardness that we don’t even notice it. Put KJV’s Psalm 23:1 (“I shall not want”) into the hands of inner city youth in East St. Louis, and they won’t have a clue as to its meaning.
One should also note how formal equivalence lacks cultural sensitivity. KJV’s word for word formal equivalence of Heb 12:8 reads, “But if ye be without chastisement..., then are ye bastards, and not sons.” Few of us would otherwise use the somewhat crass word. The same is true for Saul’s statement that David “pisseth.” A formal equivalence seeks words to accurately convey meaning without causing the kind of offense which is otherwise absent in the original language.
Another example of cultural insensitivity of a different kind is the phrase about Adam having to work by the sweat of his brow. One translator working with a people in Africa who didn’t yet have the Scriptures in their language asked the people about this passage. They were entirely befuddled by the phrase “by the sweat of his brow.” The missionary later explained that in their tropical jungle setting, you can be sitting at ease in the shade of your front porch sipping lemonade and still have beads of sweat on your forehead. He asked the natives how they express the idea of hard work. They responded by talking about how all the men would pull with all their strength on a rope tied to a tree in order to uproot it. Their local idiom for such effort was, “busting their gut.” Here is just another example where dynamic equivalence works far better than formal equivalence in expressing the meaning of God’s word.
What’s Great about the Formal Equivalence Translations
While the formal equivalence translations are not the best for general reading or for scripture memory, they are extremely helpful in doing detailed exegetical work. For example, the ASV (1901) is the only commonly used English translation to reflect the five-fold repetition of the Hebrew word ‘bd in Exod 1:13-14:
And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigor: and they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of value of service in the field, all their service, wherein they made them serve with rigor.
Obviously, this is a very awkward translation, and ultimately, very poor. However, itnot good English, then it is not a good translation.
The NIV does a good job of maintaining a good balance of being obedient to two masters. The one master is the original language; the other is the receptor language (English). On one hand, slavish obedience to the original makes for a poor translation. On the other hand, over-commitment to the receptor language loses too much of the original language. NIV does an admirable job of serving both masters.
Again, NIV is not dynamic equivalent. It lies very much in the middle between formal equivalent and dynamic equivalent. Thus, while NASB, ASV, and ESV make for very good translations for doing lexical (word) and syntactical (sentence structure) studies for people who don’t know the original languages, the NIV is a premiere, perhaps the premiere translation for general use, for general reading, and for memorization.