translation equivalence – possession #2

Thank you to each one who commented on the preceding post in this series. Information from the comments is critical to what we need to discuss next, which is how do we translate instances of semantic possession to English translation equivalents.

As always, to review, a translation equivalent is how speakers of a target (translation) language actually express the meaning of a form in a source language. By “meaning” we are referring to “rich” meaning, that is meaning which is referential, connotational, rhetorical, figurative, etc. In both the source and target languages, the forms used to express rich meaning are essential. It is the forms themselves, plus inferences we draw from them (a la Relevance Theory), that are the vehicles by which we communicate meaning to one another.

In our preceding post we introduced English possessive syntax which is the usual grammatical form to communicate the semantics of simple possession. English possessive syntax for nouns consists of an apostrophe plus the letter “s” added to the end of a word which refers to a person who is the possessor, that is, the person who is considered to “own” some object as in:

“Sally’s sister”
“Bill’s computer”

Blog reader correctly noted that English speakers sometimes use an “of” prepositional phrase to express possession and gave these examples:

-“Son of Sam” killer
-“children of a lesser god”
-“son of a preacher-man”

We could add a couple of others such as:

daughters of the American Revolution
son of the South

When a language has more than one syntactic form to express a meaning (in this case, possession), we always need to ask: When do we use each form? What is the difference between them?

Rich Rhodes noted in a comment that the “of” prepositional phrases are “marked”. “Marked” is a technical linguistic term referring to a form which is somehow unique, special, out of the ordinary.

By far, possession in English is most commonly encoded with possessive (apostrophe-s) syntax. Whenever we come across an “of” phrase encoding possession, we sense that there is something special about it. It stands out as unusual from the “unmarked” (normal, default) possessive syntax with apostrophe-s. It could easily take an entire Ph.D dissertation (as Rich noted in his comment on the preceding post) to describe English possessives. Including in that research should be study of the contexts in which “of” possessives are preferred over apostrophe-s possessives. My beginning hypothesis is that phrases such as “son of Sam” and “daughters of the American Revolution” have some greater literary or cognitive salience than do possessives expressed with apostrophe-s.

Notice how bland “Sam’s son” sounds compared to “son of Sam”. “Sam’s son” could refer to any son of any man named Sam and we would not think that anything of special consequence is going to be said about this Sam’s son. But saying “son of Sam” catches our attention, since it is the less common way of expressing English possessive. And, indeed, the Sam of “son of Sam” had a very unique “father” relationship to psychologically tortured serial killer, David Berkowitz.

If I spot some blood on our floor after our grandchildren have been playing (our grandsons like to wrestle), I can ask my wife, “Whose blood is that?” If she saw what caused the blood to get on the floor, she would answer with something like:

Oh, it’s Jonah’s blood.
It’s Jonah’s.

She would never say, and I suggest most other English speakers would never say, either:

Oh, it’s the blood of Jonah.

The appropriate response uses the normal, unmarked apostrophe-s syntax, not an “of” prepositional phrase.

Similarly, if I wonder which of our grandchildren left their mitten on our living room floor, I can ask: “Whose mitten is that?” Appropriate responses could be:

It’s Talea’s.
It’s Talea’s mitten.

But it would not be appropriate to use the marked “of” phrase:

It’s the mitten of Talea.

Someone *could* use the “of” phrase. But it would not be good English. It would not be the proper syntax for this situation.

And that gets us back to Bible translation. As I’ve noted before, when trying to find a translation equivalent for a source text expression, we should not ask: “Could we say it this way in English?” but, rather, “How would it be said in this context in English?” This requires very careful attention to how the various kinds of English syntax are used in different contexts. There is just as much English scholarship needed for Bible translation as there is biblical language scholarship.

Well, it looks like I’ve filled up the message buffer of the blog editor and still have not gotten to discussion of translation of biblical examples of translation equivalence for possession. And that’s OK. We need to establish the background information necessary for being able to properly discuss translation of the biblical forms. It is so important when doing Bible translation that we not only pay full attention to the language forms of a source text, but that we also are aware of all of the forms of a target language and when each is properly used. Too often Bible translators have paid insufficient attention to the linguistics of English when translating to English from the biblical languages. The result has been Bibles which are technically inaccurate since they communicate wrong or distorted meanings, such as wrong meanings communicated by using the marked “of” possessive syntax when the unmarked apostrophe-s syntax should have been used.

Oh, as I awakened too early this morning with thoughts about this post running through my brain, I realized that all translation (whether biblical or not) is an incarnational act. In translation to any language the meanings of the forms of a source text (such as the written Word of scripture) take on the human flesh (form) of yet another language.

This process requires great humility, partly because we need to be patient to search for appropriate translation equivalents, which communicate full, rich meaning of the forms of the original written Word. And when we discover those forms, we need to humbly submit to them in kenotic (Philippians 2) fashion. We must resist the temptation of linguistic colonialism that forces source text syntax on to the target language where it doesn’t belong. None of us would be so foolish as to try to change a rose into a carnation. We recognize that both are beautiful. All linguistic forms of every language are, in some sense, beautiful. Our job as Bible translators, women and men alike, is to let their unique beauty shine forth, without being forced into some other linguistic mold.

(to be continued)

9 thoughts on “translation equivalence – possession #2

  1. Samrobb says:

    IANAL (I Am Not A Linguist), but hey – I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express somewhere once. So I’ll comment 🙂

    Using the “X of Y” construct in English seems to be something used to shift the direction of emphasis. “Sam’s son”, for example, as a possessive, focuses on the relationship between Sam and his son. The starting point for the relationship is Sam – we’re focusing on him, and his son is related to him (via the possessive).

    Using the “X of Y” expression, on the other hand, seems to focus on the relationship in the opposite direction. “Son of Sam” doesn’t start with Sam, and extend the relationship to the son – it starts with the son, and from there, expresses a relationship to Sam.

    I’m not sure if this carries through into all “X of Y” constructs in English, but it makes sense – where’s the focus of the discussion? When we say “Christ’s blood”, the focus is on Christ. When we say “the blood of Christ”, the possessive is still there, but the focus is on the blood.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    IANAET (I Am Not An Embedded Theologian). But the “translation equivalent” of the English “Holiday Inn Express” in biblical Greek is “πανδοχεῖον.” Or is it “κατάλυμα”? Ben Witherington III at Christianity Today has the answer.

    Your words also are brilliant. Some of us really appreciate your final two paragraphs here (and ALL they mean for their humility and kindness that is much owed to you)! And your very final sentence, in a funny way, matches (or does it mis-match) the penultimate sentence in Mark Liberman’s Whorfian post today.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Sam is I think hinting at something significant which is that in English possessive forms like “X’s Y” are always definite, at least when the possessor is definite. To make it indefinite you have to change to “one of X’s Ys”. But the alternative can be definite or indefinite: “the Y of X” or “a Y of X”. Of course you would still use the first construction in many indefinite cases, saying for example “one of Talea’s mittens” rather than “a mitten of Talea”. But this could be a reason for avoiding this construction in other cases like “daughters of the American Revolution” rather than “some of the American Revolution’s daughters”.

    On the other hand “a carpenter’s son” is indefinite in both possessor and possessed. But “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55) is ambiguous between the definite son of an indefinite carpenter and the indefinite son of a definite carpenter. If you want to make both parts clearly definite you have to write “the son of the carpenter”.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Sam, thanks for your IANAL comments.

    As my wife and I were eating breakfast this morning we were discussing the difference between “Christ’s blood” and “the blood of Christ”. I told her that if someone wrote a theological book focusing on Christ’s blood, they could title it “The Blood of Christ”, but not “Christ’s blood”. I think this is related to what you wrote in your comment.

  5. tc says:

    Here’s the grind: we have become too biblish.

    But again, can we maintain that continuity with the theological past while avoiding the biblish bug?

  6. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    Two commments:

    1) We don’t have to know analytically what the difference between “X’s Y” and “the Y of X” is, to be able to use them in the appropriate context when we are native speakers. It can help, but it’s not necessary at all. I don’t know a single serious poet or writer who can analyze what it is they do syntactically.

    All you need is a writer’s ear and a clear sense of the intended meaning.


    2) Not to be to radical but, tc, why do we need to connect to our theological past?

    Think about it. Theology is completely derivative. If you believe in sola scriptura, then theology has no place in translation. The text must come first. We have to know what the text means in order to have a theology. It’s circular to use theology to propose a reading of the text. If the text is unclear on some point, theology should be unclear on that point. If the text has apparent contradictions, theology should not attempt to resolve them. (For my money, that’s the problem with systematic theology. It goes beyond what God has said, and thereby puts the mind of men above God’s Word. And remember this is an academic speaking.)

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    Such reductions, Rich.

    So how would you advise C. S. Lewis to better reflect on the Hebrew Psalms? Should he leave his Christian theological hat at the door, and censor his chapter “Second Meanings” (even though he seems perfectly to have both the writer’s ear and the syntactician’s analytical eye)?

    And what would you have to say to Ilan Stavans (also a human in God’s image, and like you having “the mind of men,” if not such an academic mind as yours so narrowly submitted to ancient logic manifested so modernly):

    Love and the Bible?

  8. Richard A. Rhodes says:


    I understand, and fully agree, that there is such a thing as literary translation. Well done literary translations are works of literature in their own right. They represent not only a reading of the original but have their own range of readings, which may or may not be fully appropriate as readings of the original.

    I completely agree there are things that can only be expressed in poetry, in art, or in music or dance.

    There is, however, a time and a place for such things. This is not that place or that time.

    C. S. Lewis’ translation of the Psalms is a literary translation. At that point anything is fair game — even reference to NT understandings.

    But …

    That’s not what we’re talking about here. Yes, there are parts of the Scripture that should sound literary, because they are literary, but that does not mean that we should engage in literary translation for basic Bible translation. (See my Dec. 17 comment on this post.)

    Think of it this way. We’re saying we need to drive a nail into a board. We keep trying to use a hammer and you complain because we’re not using a radio.

    Moreover, you say things that sound like you think you know better. In fact, you say things that are, at times, quite insulting, like suggesting that thinking like ours is what made Hitler possible. You call us reductionist because we want to do simple grammar and exegesis.

    I know that post-modernists think they know better. I know that feminists think that linear thinking is the cause of the world’s ills.

    I just happen to think both positions are deeply wrong and would be happy to debate it at length (just not on this blog where we are trying to do something else). And I will do so knowing full well that in the end the issue is as much matter of preference as fact. Like Pike I am a pragmatist. I buy into the philosophical positions I do because they both fit the world and do what I’m interested in.

    Being a platonist is not a moral failing, it is an intellectual mistake. Rosch is not a platonist. To think that she is is a mistake on the order of confusing Newtonian physics with the theory of relativity.

    Please, give me a little credit for knowing what I’m talking about when I say I am neither a platonist nor a reductionist.

  9. J. K. Gayle says:

    We’re saying we need to drive a nail into a board. We keep trying to use a hammer and you complain because we’re not using a radio. . .

    I just happen to think both [post-modernist & feminist] positions are deeply wrong and would be happy to debate it at length (just not on this blog where we are trying to do something else).

    Rich, I respect you and Wayne very much. There is a place to question Aristotle’s logical method, even when it’s applied to translation of the Bible. My complaints have been way too shrill (sounding as if I’m saying “use a radio you platonist,” and try postmodernisms or feminisms or Christian literary translation, or else you’ll end up doing what the Pharisees did and what James Murphy did for Adolf).

    May I try again? Some of the people who’ve been influenced by Ken Pike (even believers in Jesus) like Larry Wall (and others in PERL computer-language development) have this non-Aristotelian motto I like very much: “TIMTOWTDI” or There Is More Than One Way to Do It. Wall clearly says this better than I have. My sincere apologies to Wayne and to you for suggesting that you don’t know what you’re doing, and that you’re working for the dark side! I think you’re both brilliant men! May I make that–if nothing else–very clear? I think you and Wayne are brilliant men. (And I have believed once or twice that Aristotle’s shadow is not as cool as it seems. Please know that I’ll move dialog about this elsewhere. My apologies again.)

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