The trouble with being a linguist is that you can’t get away from your object of study. Every time anyone opens his or her mouth you are liable to hear something of significance for understanding how language works.
The late University of Chicago linguistics professor, Jim McCawley who, if they gave Nobel prizes in linguistics, would have gotten one of the first ones, used to carry a pad of paper in his pocket to make note of interesting examples he noticed in actual use. He would occasionally unnerve his interlocutors by whipping it out in the middle of a conversation, even a one-on-one conversation, and scribble down the crucial wording, all without missing a beat.
Well, I had one of those McCawley moments about a week ago. Those of you who have been watching sports recently have indubitably been subjected to this Lowe’s commercial.
And that’s the point. Our thoughts are not words. Something has to happen in our minds to connect our thoughts to words. Even the most articulate of us have been struck by anomia at the most inconvenient moments. Having anomia doesn’t mean that we have fuzzy thinking. After all, we know exactly what we mean, and like the woman in the commercial, we know it when someone else gives us the right words. For this to occur it must be the case that thoughts and words are distinct.
These facts fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Even very smart people, especially smart people who can write well, make the mistake of thinking that words are thoughts. We all read Orwell’s famous essay, Politics and the English Language, in high school. Our English teachers all nodded approvingly as he argued that if people only made the effort to use English well, they wouldn’t think bad political thoughts.
While it is true that one can’t speak clearly without thinking clearly, it doesn’t work the other way around. Like the lady in the ad, we may know exactly what we mean and simply be unable to articulate it. (And I’m sorry, Mr. Orwell, but people with the most outrageous political opinions can nonetheless speak quite clearly about them.)
In the Bible translation debate I read the formal equivalence folks arguing as if the words were the thoughts. They blanch at the thought of rewording a passage in English because they believe that that somehow changes the meaning. They reluctantly concede that some changes need to be allowed so the translation isn’t complete word salad, but, they say, to be close to the real meaning we must use an “essentially transparent” rendering in English.
However conversations like the one in the commercial above show us that you can be very precise in thought and use less than exact wording (with a suitably cooperative interlocutor) to communicate exactly what you intend. There is no value in trying to mimic the wording of the original language if that’s not the way English works.
This is what I tried to convey in my inaugural post in this blog when I said that the meaning is not in the words. We use words as tools to communicate, but they are, in the last analysis, only the tools, and not the meaning itself. We get into trouble arguing about translation when we forget this fact (or ignore it unawares).
The last time I asserted that the meaning is not in the words, I was taken to task, as if that claim were tantamount to saying that meaning apart from words is vague and ethereal. Of course, that is not the case at all. Meanings are almost always quite precise, at least the first order meanings. The deeper implications of those first order meanings can be vague or difficult, but the first order meanings are rarely imprecise. So when the Greek in Matt. 23:2 says: ἐπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν ‘they sit on the seat of Moses’ it means exactly ‘they bear Moses’ authority’. The argument isn’t about referential accuracy. Everyone agrees on that. The argument is whether the burden of getting to that meaning should be borne by the wording of the translation, or by teaching the churched to understand what an essentially transparent translation means. The supposed value of the second approach is that you don’t you miss literary allusions (which were noted for this passage in Lingamish’s comment in the discussion on the translation of this passage over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry).
For me, the cost of the second option is too high. If the connection of the wording to the first order meaning isn’t automatic, the communicative force of the allusions will be lost anyway. You’re better off with the dynamic equivalent translation and an indication of the allusions with a footnote.