It’s somewhat surprising how sentences like the one in Matthew 26:36 arrive so quickly at the heart of some hard and yet simply stated translation questions. In Greek the original sentence is, τότε ἔρχεται μετ’ αὐτῶν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς χωρίον λεγόμενον Γεθσημανί. In English it is, “then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsamane.”
Gethsamane means oil-press. Should one translate it? Or transliterate it?
The US, just like everywhere else, has place names which rarely, if ever, bring the “original” meaning to mind. The locals around here rarely, if ever, think of a person named Landis when we refer to Landisburg. The newness of a port does not come to mind when we talk about Newport. Actually, as far as we’re concerned, there’s no port there. The town certainly isn’t new.
And like everywhere else, we also have place names which excite associated meaning in the hearer even though when we use the word we don’t necessarily intend that other meaning.
I live in Pennsylvania. We have some unique names. Many years ago we moved from an apartment into a house, and I needed to notify a magazine of the change of address. So I called their offices located in California. An apparently young woman (her voice sounded young) answered the phone and I told her what I wanted to do. She replied that it would be easy and we proceeded.
“Name?” “Mike Sangrey”
“Can you spell your last name?” “Sure,” and I did.
“Street?” “Well, it’s actually mailed to a box number,” and I gave that to her.
“City?” “It’s a small town.”
“Really?” she said. I replied, “Yep, that’s the name.”
“Ok. What’s your new address? I need the street first.” I gave her the street name.
“And having left Intercourse where did you move to?”
I could tell there was a smile behind the question. It was at this point in time I realized this was going to be a bit funny.
Her previous giggle was now laughter.
Now that I’m older and a bit more mature…well, maybe not…I’ve thought about what drives the best way to translate this conversation into non-English. Would it be best to translate the names or to simply transliterate them? I think the answer to that question is obvious. One would have to translate it, or the laughter makes no sense (and yet, even that isn’t perfect). But, the real question is: What is it in this conversational situation which drives the answer to the translate vis-a-vis transliterate question?
The locals don’t think there is anything odd about living in a town called Intercourse. Sometimes there were conversations about how it use to be named Crosskeys. In a previous life, it formed the intersection between two main thoroughfares—two courses—tying the “west” of that time to the east. One course went from Lancaster, to the West, to Philadelphia, in the East, and the other went from a major town in Delaware, to the South-East of Pennsylvania, to North-Western Pennsylvania and a city named Erie. These two “highways” intersected in Intercourse.
Today Intercourse is a popular tourist site (many Amish live in the area). The town sign, maybe 18 inches long and a foot high, sitting on a 8 foot pole at the edge of town is one of the more photographed spots in the area. I suppose you understand why it’s photographed so much, but the sign is hardly photographic. Reminds me of semiotics. Amateur photographers use semiotics; though they wouldn’t know that. Some professionals know. The sign signals meaning—well, multiple meanings as the case might be.
But, where is the meaning? We can see the sign. But, where’s the meaning? It is the answer to this question that ultimately decides whether or not we translate or transliterate.
Words are signs. For the locals, Intercourse signalled the place where they live. For many others it signalled…well, it signalled one of the other meanings. The one you’re thinking about. You are thinking about it aren’t you? You see, the meaning is in the mind. It is not in the text, not really.
Words do that. They signal, they don’t mean.
Though they only signal when used in context. And, they’re always in context. If I use a word seemingly all by itself, it still brings to mind a context within which it is interpreted. However, the vast majority of word usages, especially those used in text, are within a literary context. In other words, they are within a dynamic, author developed context. (Dynamic in the sense that the context develops as the reader reads through the text.)
This author developed context imperfectly causes the author intended, specific meaning to be selected within the reader’s mind. All of the raw meaning the author has to work with is in the mind of the audience member. He or she adds to it, manipulates it, grows it. But, it’s all there in the mind.
There’s other meanings, too, than just the one meaning typically selected by the word-context pair. These other meanings wait in the wings of the focal thought, apparently partly turned on. However, nearly always, meanings which are sometimes associated with the word are not even thought of when the word is used in a specific context. These associated meanings might be more readily accessible at the moment of use; but, generally they are not accessed. Unless forcefully brought to mind through analysis, they stay mute. After the word is used, these other meanings simply and quietly power down over a short span of time—never thought of. The author doesn’t make use of them; neither does the reader.
When I used the signal Intercourse on the phone, I had an entire context within which the word obtained its meaning. There was an entire history surrounding the term. So, for me, this otherwise highly energetic (cognito-linguisticly speaking, of course) signal was simply the name of a place. To the California girl, there was no placeness associated within her mind for this signal to trigger. For her it signalled…well, you know what it signalled. It’s that meaning in your mind that was just signalled (and, interestingly, signalled again even without the use of the word! You really should be more careful. Authors can do this to you and you’re relatively helpless to prevent them).
So, in order to accurately communicate meaning, where is the place within which an author should be interacting? It’s in the audience’s mind, isn’t it? Well, then, let me rephrase that question: in order to accurately communicate meaning, where is the place within which a Bible translator should be interacting?
The reader’s mind provides the canvas and the colors with which the author can paint his or her painting. In the case of the Bible, the Author uses the reader’s canvas and colors to paint a self-portrait. But, I digress to the true purpose of Bible translation.
If the meanings an author has to use are in the mind of the reader, then shouldn’t the author use the naturally occurring lexis and grammar that is within the mind of that reader?
I think so. And I think that makes a much Better Bible. It makes it effective because it communicates to that reader in ways that persuade, that grab, that speak authoritatively. It gets the reader to think the way the reader needs to think. That’s the beauty of good, high quality English in Bible translations.
So, back to the original question. For Matthew 26:36, should we select Gethsamane or Oilpress?
The originally intended meaning has little if anything to do with pressing oil. So, Gethsamane seems quite adequate. However, when you put the word into an expression such as, “to a place called…” the possibilities open up a bit. The fact that the expression has the word “place” gives “oil press” a placeness it would not normally have. Additionally, capitalizing and concatenating the expression “oil press” into one word further turns it into a place name.
So, why not, ”then Jesus went with them to a place called Oilpress”? It seems to me that is quite accurate. And, it communicates well.
But, perhaps the answer to the “why not” is because the modern English audience expects Gethsamane. It’s just as accurate. And the sentence is good English. It’s really just the name of a place, isn’t it?
And, isn’t that what your mind was thinking it meant?