Is it mean to not mean what you mean?

Only if you don’t mean it. Unless, of course, you do mean to be mean; but, that’s a different topic.

I want to commend Steve Runge, and what he is doing with the NT Discourse blog. Though my commendation is hardly worth anything. What he is doing will stand on its own. In one of his blog entries, he talks about semantic meaning versus pragmatic effect. Translators need to get their minds around this.

I’d like to share an insight showing the value of pragmatic effect. But, first, let me generate some interest. 🙂 In my opinion, an understanding of pragmatic effect is vital to the proper exegesis of this text: It is John 1:50-51.

Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee underneath the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. [ASV]

I’m using the ASV in an attempt to achieve some level of transparency into the Greek.

ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, ὅτι εἶπόν σοι ὅτι εἶδόν σε ὑποκάτω τῆς συκῆς πιστεύεις; μείζω τούτων ὄψῃ. καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὄψεσθε τὸν οὐρανὸν ἀνεῳγότα, καὶ τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ θεοῦ ἀναβαίνοντας καὶ καταβαίνοντας ἐπὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.

Now, look at, but don’t really read, those two verses in a red letter edition. Note the phrase translated from καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ (“And he says to him”). Notice that Jesus is speaking, then John interjects, “and he says to him,” and then Jesus keeps speaking. Now, look through the rest of John and find another place that has the narrator of the story “interrupt” the speaker. (This is the value of the red letter edition.) There’s places where the story flips back and forth between different speakers. But, here we have the narrator of the story “interrupt” and state the obvious: “And Jesus says to him.” Does that type of discourse construction happen very often in John? In fact, how often does it happen anywhere?

There are places where clarifying statements are made–contextual qualifiers. John 2:7 is like this.

Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the ruler of the feast. And they bare it. [ASV]

The comment about filling the waterpots to the brim qualifies what happens in the context of the story. Semantically, it expresses that these large jars were completely full. It has the effect of slowing the story down; it lets the reader “see” what is happening. The καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς (“And he says to them”) then causes the reader to pick back up after the interruption. John does a similar contextual qualification in John 1:50-51. But, there he states the obvious. It’s not a “picking back up after the interruption.” It IS the interruption! I think it was Seinfield who loved to say, “What’s up with that?”

I haven’t done a complete analysis, but I think the construction is rare.

So, why did John choose to do that?

That effect, or at least the originally intended effect, is called pragmatic effect. At this point I really don’t care what interpretation any one of us comes up with. The point is to notice, or get the feel for, the effect. It’s important to gain and improve one’s skill in observing these original authorial choices.

Pragmatic effect is the effect a semantic meaning has in a particular context. For exegesis it’s very important to notice it. For translating the meaning into a different time and place, it’s vital to reproduce that effect by constructing the resulting text appropriately. The original author chose a specific construction to accomplish it. We need to do the same, though the construction may be quite different. However, in order to translate accurately, first we have to learn to notice it.

2 thoughts on “Is it mean to not mean what you mean?

  1. Mike Sangrey says:

    Above I said, “In my opinion, an understanding of pragmatic effect is vital to the proper exegesis of this text: It is John 1:50-51.

    Let me explore and illustrate the results of Pragmatic Effect by offering a suggested translation. To be clear, the pragmatic effect of the “interruption” is to create a rather substantial ‘pause’, a pregnant pause, if you will. This strong pause places a strong emphasis on what follows. In this case it also creates a strong adversative. The semantic meaning of the pre-positioned, double AMEN further adds to this effect.

    There’s also two pieces of implicit information we need: One, it was common practice for a relatively devout Jew to be regularly seen under a fig tree. In other words, Nathanael being under a fig tree was not only not unusual, but highly likely. And, two, there’s an allusion to Jacob’s ladder which would have been quite obvious to the original readers, especially to Nathanael.

    These three observations–pregnant pause, the common practice under the fig tree, and Jacob’s ladder–all have to do with pragmatics (ie. semantic meaning interacting with context). Together, they produce a translation (into modern English and Western culture) something like the following:

    Jesus replied, “I told you I saw you under a fig tree and you place your faith in me? You believe too easily.” Jesus paused for a brief moment. “Now, consider very carefully what I’m about to say. The Son of Man is the ladder by which God’s messengers travel between an opened heaven and this earth.”

    Note: I’ve added the reference to the ladder metaphor and the phrase “between an opened heaven and this earth” to make explicit the obvious allusion to Jacob’s ladder.

    The rhetorical impact of this is for Jesus, at the culmination of the Johanine introduction, to make a very strong claim about who he is. Essentially, the claim here perfectly matches the claim in John 1:1-18. Jesus is the conduit to carry God’s message–He is God’s Word to mankind.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Good stuff, Mike. Clearly written. It helped me understand better what Jesus was *really* communicating to Nathanael. We miss too much of the original meaning of biblical texts when we translate “only what the text says.” If we don’t include what the original author meant and intended his audience to understand by what he said, we have only translated part of the meaning to English or any other language. I suppose we could add a fair amount of pragmatic meaning in footnotes, but I find it easier to follow if my old eyes don’t have to switch back and forth between the translated text and its footnotes.

    So, I guess we need a nice wedding between pragmatics and Relevance Theory to get complete Bible translation. 🙂

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