Beating a dead metaphor

Here’s an email I received from one of the readers of my Lingamish blog [Some details removed]:

Dear Friend in Christ, Greetings in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ! I have been going through the studies at your web site, and I am deeply inspired with all of the teachings and studies thereon like Bible studies, sermons, children’s sermons and other teaching materials on our Web site. This is such a wonderful studies you have arranged for all the nations, in the long run of your service for the nations of the all the world. I am from [a politically/religiously repressive country] where it is difficult to have Radio and TV channel for preaching purposes. They would not allow us to do that here; the Satan has real strong hold over everything. I often say that we are living in the land of the enemy. Friend, I humbly request you to expand your outreach your program in [a language] and [another] language. […]I would ask you to pray and share it among the brethren. I would offer my services for being translator, recorder and distribution/sales. I pray that your consideration will have His mark over your decision. May God bless you abundantly! May His perfect will be done! Grace and Peace be with you, all brethrens. Yours brother in Christ, [Name removed]

Notice anything wrong here? While you can only applaud this man’s desire to translate my witty blog into the languages of his home country, I can guarantee that the result wouldn’t be anything like my blog. It is entirely possible that this isn’t just some devious huckster trying to flatter me and then make a buck. Maybe he did read my blog and see nothing but spiritually uplifting “Bible studies, sermons, children’s sermons and other teaching materials.” But the truth is he missed the point. He didn’t get the joke.

And if the joke’s on him, I’m afraid that the same can be said of some of us Bible bloggers who have been blogging ourselves blue in the face on 1 Corinthians 9:27. If the first rule of the Hippocratic Oath is “Do no harm” then the first rule of translation should be George Orwell’s: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Yet most of the suggestions I’m seeing so far are barbarous. And  barbarous for the simple reason that they’re mixing dead metaphors.

The word in question is this one: ὑπωπιάζω. (hupopiazo) This word has a fantastic etymology: hupo-op-piazo “hit under the eye.” Unfortunately we only have two occurrences of the word in the New Testament:

For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” (Luke 18:4-5, NRSV)

So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:26-27, NRSV)

The reason this word gets used in such different contexts is that the word is a dead metaphor, or “semantically bleached” (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase on a blog). And further proof of this is that Paul collocates it with “body” which would really be strange: “I hit myself on the face my body.” Finally, this is just a small word in a big mixed metaphor that rambles through chapters 9 and 10 and includes slavery, boxing, athletic training and yoga. Well, maybe not yoga. But I hear John Hobbins found some yoga in this passage so it must be there.

This is one of those cases where we as translators just have to laugh at ourselves and say, “Gee, I don’t really know how to bring in the meaning of ὑπωπιάζω into my translation, but I can at least make sure I don’t say anything barbarous.” And that is what English translators have been doing far into the distant past when they all walked around wearing powdered wigs. KJV and all the rest simply say “discipline” and who am I to contradict such an illustrious crowd?

For another example of Paul’s use of mixed metaphors, see 1 Timothy 1:18-20.

Well, this is my first ever post on BBB and I deserve a good beating for it I’m sure. But right now I’m hungry so I’m going to head over to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

13 thoughts on “Beating a dead metaphor

  1. eddie says:


    I don’t know how many times I’ve received this email to various addresses, about different websites and from different addresses.

    You didn’t send him your bank details did you?

  2. David Ker says:

    Beat it…

    Maybe beat the record for shortest time as a contributor at BBB before being kicked off by Wayne.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Well said! Sorry, no one is buffeting you with all you can eat, so you’ll have to buffet your own body. When you have done that you can bust your gut to lose the weight you have put on.

    But I will see if I can give you a black eye with this punch: what is your evidence that this is a dead metaphor, or “semantically bleached”, and not a live one?

  4. J. K. Gayle says:

    Now we see why they invited you to join BBB. What a [great] post, beating up on the [anonymous] would-be translator and the [blogging] macrolexicophiliacs too.

    Before we’re hit with “do no harm” as the first rule (before we get hit with Orwell’s antibarbarian rules), there are a few positive “first” things Hippocrates vows (to the goddesses and gods, to his teacher and his children, and to his patients): first, “prescribe regimens for the good”

    Speaking of prescriptions, it’s funny that Jesus uses the parable that Luke translates so that hearers can write their own prescriptions, for themselves. And Paul is busy prescribing painful cures for himself (if he is mixing metaphors and thereby providing examples for readers). My missionary parents used to use this book called Where There Is No Doctor.

    Not like Orwell or Aristotle. You brought up the former; I mention the latter because he offers prescriptions using ὑπωπιάζω. (hupopiazo):

    “Approved hyperboles are also metaphors. For instance, one may say of a man whose eye is all black and blue ὑπωπιασμενον, ‘you would have thought he was a basket of mulberries,’ because the black eye ὑπωπιον is something purple, but the great quantity constitutes the hyperbole.” (see Rhetoric Bekker page 1413a)

    and the pseudo Aristotle beats us up with solutions to Problems Book IX “On Bruises, Scars, and Weals”:

    “for their whole body [i.e., ἅπαν τὸ σῶμα the entire body of old men] becomes like a bruise ὑπώπιον” (See Bekker page 890a)

    “Why are bruises τὰ ὑπώπια dispersed by the application of bronze vessels such as cupping-glasses or the like? Is it because bronze is a cold metal? So it prevents the heat from withdrawing from the blood which collects owing to the blow, and when this withdraws fom the surface a bruise results γίνεται ὑπώπιον. So it must be applied quickly before congealing takes place. Thapsia mixed with honey helps in the same way, for being hot it prevents the blood from being chilled.”

    But before all the brutal prescriptions (for the other guy), there was this pre-KJV, pre-barbarian, pre-Paul example:

    “Then glorious Hektor burst in with dark face ὑπώπια like sudden night, but he shone with the ghastly glitter of bronze that girded his skin, and carried two spears in his hands. No one could have stood up against him, and stopped him, except the gods, when he burst in the gates; and his eyes flashed fire.” (Illiad Book XII, 463).

    and I am deeply inspired with all of the teachings and studies thereon

  5. David Ker says:

    Peter, I know the argument that this verb doesn’t collocate with “body” is weak but I was striving more for entertainment and controversy rather than accuracy.

    JK, thanks for examples from a time when this verb’s etymology matched its meaning.

  6. solarblogger says:

    The NRSV doesn’t seem to be using this as a fully dead metaphor. I understand the concept. But wouldn’t most such terms easily translate to one fairly generic word? The NRSV translators seem to be asking themselves how this boxing picture could apply to the situation. Luke 18 seems to have boxing strategy in mind. A kind of fighting that wears someone out. (Rope-a-dope?) Then their 1 Corinthians rendering seems to allow a literal reading. You pointed out the difficulty of punching your body in the eye. Perhaps that is a good difficulty? You know not to take it literally. My first question is whether a literal reading should be made so easy.

    The boxing idea conveys many things. One is that one opponent hits another. When the metaphor was alive, it didn’t just signify punching below the eye, but that one boxer punched another below the eye, and all the rest that entailed. The fact that a person cannot really deliver such a blow to himself is a sign that it is not to be taken literally. To use a word like “buffet” may or may not convey the same. “Punish” is perhaps worse, as that is something that anyone can do to him or herself.

    A rendering where a literal reading is difficult might be called for. Perhaps “Go toe to toe with” would work.

    I would stay away from the buffet, though. If the ones where you live are anything like the ones in California, they really are a punishment.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    I like your solution here too. Inserting the word “literally” does literally get rid of the problem.

    But now I’m wondering if Paul wrote in such a problematic way that his Greek readers might (without our English translational solutions) easily wonder whether he’s literally a boxer. Mark the gospel writer (or whoever added its ending to its 16th chapter) goes on with δαιμονια and γλωσσαις and οφεις and θανασιμον τι πιωσιν. Are these literal “demon deities” and literal “tongues” and literal “snakes” and literal “deadly drinks”? Some think so when reading Luke’s Acts with Paul getting into and out of trouble with these elements.

    But why should our translation try to have these things all figured out? Why can’t it blacken our eye and be a slippery as a snake … or a tongue?

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    Kurk, your comments, like your favoured translation, are as slippery as a snake, perhaps because you are as wise as one, and as gentle as a dove. 😉 (deliberate smiley, if it works in Blogger as well as WordPress)

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