how not to build a house

This is a big metaphor, almost a parable, if I could write better. I want to tell how not to build a house.

I know we will want some light in our new house so I go buy some windows. I space them around me. Since Home Depot sells them with frames I’m able to balance them on the flat bottoms of the frames, sort of. But it would be nice if we had something underneath them so we could see out of the windows at eye level. Sigh!

Well, if I am going to keep this blog going and check on world news, I am going to have to get wired for the Internet (priorities, right?!). So I call the phone company and ask them for Internet service. No problem. They are able to flip a switch at a city junction box not too far away.

But I still don’t have anything to plug my computer into to pick up an Internet signal. Oh, I also need a phone line? OK, I’ll call the phone company back and ask to have a phone line installed. I wait a couple of days and a phone technician arrives. He looks at me a little funny when he sees me sitting on my Easyboy chair with my laptop in my lap, and some windows propped up around me, but doesn’t say anything. He strings a cable from the nearest electric pole and brings it close to one of the windows. He tells me that should be the right amount of cable. He attaches a box and says that the interior phone wiring has to be done by my contractor or paid for separately if he is supposed to do it. He hesitates, but then says, “Of course, you’re going to need some walls for me to run the phone wires through if I am going to do the job.” Hmm!

Walls, of course! Why didn’t I think of them in the first place?! OK, back I go to Home Depot and ask a nice service person where I can buy some walls. “Walls?” she asked. “Yes, walls,” I answered. “Well,” she replied. We don’t sell walls. You have to build the wall yourself, but we do stock all the parts for walls.” “OK, I said, then I want to buy those parts.”

She took me to the lumber department and pointed to some 2×4’s. She said, “Those would make good studs.” My mind had wondered a little. I was thinking about my next blog post. When she said “good studs”, I thought maybe she was referring to men like me. Oops!

I didn’t wait for her to tell me if I needed anything besides stud. I bought the 2×4’s and headed home. I tried to balance the studs, 16 inches on center, but most of them fell over. They were even more difficult to balance upright than the windows. I realized I would need something to connect to each stud.

Connections, connections! Each time I turned around it seemed like something needed to be connected to something else. I just wanted my house in good shape so I good get all my great ideas into blog posts.

I decided I should have taken my brother-in-law’s advice and hired a contractor to build the house. And he also said I would need a floor plan so the contractor would know how to put everything together. I had missed the big picture.

I had been so focused on each small thing that I wanted in the house that I had forgotten about all the connections that would be needed from one part to another. I had forgotten the most important thing, the big picture, how it all would fit together at the end, how it would look, whether it would be pleasing to my family, not to mention our neighbors who I had caught glances of watching me a few times, shaking their heads as they watched me trying to stand up the windows frames and the studs.

I guess a house can be something like how we communicate with language. There are small parts like words, bigger parts such as phrases and clauses and sentences. But even these parts all have to fit together well according to an overall plan that helps determine how the smaller parts fit together. Following a (meaningful!) master plan can result in a house that looks nice and works well.

It’s not enough just to make good phrases and hope I can get them to connect well together. The language parts all have to relate to each other according to principles (rules) unique to each language, something like a building code, not just words or phrases strung along as I had been doing with the smaller parts of my house. And everything had to fit within the master plan for our particular house, er, paragraph or concept, that I’m trying to communicate.

Translation should replicate an original building (text), but do it following the code of whatever language is being translated into. And the code tells us which parts can be used and how they are supposed to connect together. There is still plenty of room for creativity working within the framework of the code.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear 🙂

I invite you to give examples of English Bible translation wordings which focus on the smaller units of language but miss how they are connected to the larger pieces. They miss the the expression of ideas according to the building code of English, examples which linguistically stumble along rather than flow.

15 thoughts on “how not to build a house

  1. Steven Runge says:


    After building houses for 18 years to work my way through three degrees, I think that you have hit several nails on the head! Many things could be added, but you have captured the fundamental need of connecting the big picture to the finished product.

    I can’t help but wonder if some translations were designed by folks who had yet to build a garden shed. They called out for grand things, or faithful equivalence, but failed to factor in the reality of real world conditions. I remember building a custom home in the high rent district. The roof was very complex and beautiful architecturally, but a mess to build as a framer. We ran into a problem where the entry way was supposed to be 10′ tall, yet the roof came down in parts of it to sit on a 9′ wall. We told the architect that it would not work, that the room was supposed to go through the roof. If you looked at the interior detail drawing, it worked. If you looked at the exterior elevation drawing it worked. It only became a problem when you merged the two. He insisted we were wrong, being stupid blue collar workers and all. The expression on his face when he actually visited “our reality” and came to grips with his mistake, was priceless.

    Thanks for taking the time for the post!

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    Building a house is a great analogy for building systems. I have never seen it used quite this way as you have – but it works. Electrical, wiring, plumbing all have their analogue in software. Many people learn perspective in other areas by generalizing from experience in the area of their expertise – well or not so well. So the analogy can also apply to communication by writing – just another less precise form of software (with a few more unknowns).

    Maybe Amos got his spirit from shepherding, and Solomon his theology from his own political need and desires. Political, religious, and social subsystems make up the strata of ideas that a translator has to deal with. They provide walls, floors, even plans that consciously or unconsciously inform word choice, grammatical forms, paragraphs etc. And of course – your favorite – the reader, your ‘neighbors’ to use your analogy, and their attitudes toward what you are building in your translation. Exposed in your Lazy-boy with leaning two by fours may not fit their political, emotional, or social needs.

  3. JKGayle says:

    Wayne, like Steven and Bob here, I have ears and am listening. Your analogy would be a parable if it had a plot. It’s a structuralist view of language that demands the imperative: “Translation should replicate an original building (text), but do it following the code of whatever language is being translated into.”

    At this blog, I know you’re after making better Bibles in English (and professionally working towards the first translations into the 2000 languages that still don’t have any Bible). The detail you give here is fascinating. The analogy to the languages of the Bible does work on many levels. Reminds me some of Ken Pike’s work with some of us on his analysis of the English language instructions for putting together a barbecue grill. He was also interested in the formalism, the sequencing, and let some of us make comparisons to Sydney Lamb’s view of language (i.e., as “stratificational linguistics” with the kinds of connections you make here with a house and house plans and house components). Also, Wayne, I appreciate your making “still plenty of room for creativity working within the framework of the code.”

    Going with your analogy, and thinking about translation – I’m just wondering about the implications for better Bibles in English and even the first Bible in any of the 2000 languages that don’t yet have one. (I read your post here after reading Julia O’Brien’s project “Reading the Bible as an Adult” where she focuses not on language structure but on language with respect to “the power of a good story . . . literature that matters . . . stories that help us think about our lives. . . stories worth talking about.” Similarly, Julia’s two more recent blog posts are on “The Bible as Instruction” as the familiar metaphor, as she pushes readers to think of the Bible as story.) Ever read Bob Longacre’s “Grammar of Discourse”? If so, do you think it’s a good compromise between structuralist linguistics and the language of story, of life and living (as seems to be the language of Hebrew and Greek of the bible)?

  4. Bob MacDonald says:

    To run this metaphor into its Biblical use – Jesus found himself welcome in homes which our Lazy-boy image doesn’t fit, and the walls were open in ways we might not approve of – sinners getting in to kiss his feet etc. But we consider that the house being built is built by its Lord and not in vain – though our city and neighborhood does not accept him on his terms. His wood is not a smooth 2×4 nor his throne a Lazy-boy. So ‘let us go to him outside the camp’ – outside of our comfort zones, our political, religious, or social scruples.

  5. JKGayle says:

    To run this metaphor into its Biblical use – Jesus found himself welcome in homes which our Lazy-boy image doesn’t fit

    Bob, Great point! (In our euro-/anglo-centric perspectives, we sometimes get surprised when the U.S. government housing built for American Indians and former slaves from Africa doesn’t fit. Likewise, when the Australia Commonwealth housing for Aboriginal peoples doesn’t suit them. The Jew named Joshua – aka Jesus – seems rather itinerant, using metaphors like Destroy this Temple, and Foxes have holes, but promising to rebuild much differently).

  6. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob and Kurk (second comment), you both make good points, and they have to do with the cultural context in which language exists.

    We, of course, still need to deal with the building codes of each of the languages involved. If the basic building blocks of each language are not fit together according to each language’s code, it is much more difficult to communicate about what goes on within each cultural context.

    If we could, I’d like us to focus in this post on the basic building blocks of *language* and how they fit together to communicate concepts.

    Kurk (first comment), I’m not a structuralist linguist. I’m a functionalist (more in tune with Halliday, European functionalists, Givon, et al). If we do not match functions during translation, then we have not honored genre, register, tone, rhetorical meaning, let alone the most basic kind of meaning of all, referential. We can’t match functions by a bit-by-bit approach to language. We have to get at the bigger picture. What is being communicated by a speech or writing unit and how do we express that according to the language code of English?

  7. Bob MacDonald says:

    I am wondering what these ‘code’ rules are. I guess this might be a simple list – but here is what I think you are and are not talking about – in reverse order:

    not cultural or political or religious power structures to which the Biblical words were or are addressed.

    but things like 1. English word order, SVO and its reversal sometimes in poetry, 2. agreement of subject and verb in person and number – noting that this information can be directly lost in English, 3. avoiding uncommon words.

    The translator is limited by his or her command of the receiving language. For me in English, I always think of that book on vowels EUNOIA by Bok See here for a delightful set of examples and I imagine doing a psalm with only the letter A for vowels! (Better be a short one)

    I come away from the thought as one who wants to break out of accustomed molds and shock a reader (like me) into a new way of hearing the text. Mostly I translate for myself – (and Hebrew is such a strain to learn that I am almost continuously in shock!)

    So I hear Job 21:2 for instance
    ב שִׁמְעוּ שָׁמוֹעַ מִלָּתִי
    וּתְהִי-זֹאת תַּנְחוּמֹתֵיכֶם

    How will I approach this?
    1. the repetition of the verb – hear, hear my speech. or is it Hear diligently my speech? Is it the town crier, or is it emphasis?
    2. And what will I do with the archaic Hebrew ‘speech’? How many ways it could be put into English but that would lose the connection or not that the word has in the poem to all the words, sayings, and speeches of the other characters.
    3. then I can assume that the second line needs the switch from Hebrew VSO to English SVO – but this is a poem and one could say
    ‘it will become – this – your comfort’. Deliberately making the line stop in the middle – to encourage slower reading. The traditional ‘Let this be’ while fine English might be read quickly or tossed off as ‘slight’.
    4. then that delightfully long word in Hebrew – your comfort – nine letters from a three letter root! Feminine plural noun from NXM with plural second person possessive suffix – English ‘you’ loses the plural/singular, English ‘consolations’ is OK but most would use ‘consolation’ like ‘comfort’ as a collective noun not requiring a plural. If one was to want connection with the other 8 uses of NXM – a Hebrew word loaded with meaning all by itself, one is stuck with always using ‘comfort’ or ‘console’ or one loses the sound of this verse and 15:11 (‘are the consolations of God small with thee’ KJV) and one loses the connection with 2:11 and 42:11 – one of the opening and closing brackets in the frame, and one loses the ‘miserable comforters’ play from 16:2, 21:34, the possible additional inclusio of 7:13, 29:25 and the rare (? unique) usage of NXM for ‘repent’ for a human. (Not to mention 6:10).

    I picked 21:2 at random – does it ever contain a lot of questions! I chose to use English ‘comfort’ and related words in all 10 of these instance. I could certainly see not choosing such concordance – but in this case I would like a footnote to make the connections for the reader.

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob wondered:

    I am wondering what these ‘code’ rules are. I guess this might be a simple list – but here is what I think you are and are not talking about – in reverse order:

    not cultural or political or religious power structures to which the Biblical words were or are addressed.

    but things like 1. English word order, SVO and its reversal sometimes in poetry, 2. agreement of subject and verb in person and number – noting that this information can be directly lost in English, 3. avoiding uncommon words

    Yes, except that #3 would not be part of the code of English. It would be a general principle for translation into a *common* dialect of any language. It is not necessarily a principle for translation into specialty dialects.

    Translation is a difficult task, as you’ve just illustrated with your Hebrew example. It requires that the person translating *into* a language be a native speaker of that language who is able follow the rules of that language. Not all native speakers can when they are in a translation situation. English translation teams need English language scholars who will *ensure* that no English wordings will appear which do not follow English rules, other than for exceptions to those rules for poetic purposes. Too many English Bible versions do not follow the rules of English for many of their wordings. They have scholars who do a good job understanding the rules of the biblical languages, but need scholars who will ensure that English rules are followed for the translation. This has nothing to do with culture or theology. It’s so very basic that I think that my posts are often interpreted to mean something else, when I’m trying to lay the most basic foundations of translation principles. If we don’t lay a foundation, we can’t build a good house upon that foundation.

  9. David Ker says:

    Per your invitation to give examples, I’ve been stuck in Hebrews 4 and 5. I don’t understand the connection between the passages joined by conjunctions. NIV marks them overtly but I don’t see how one idea leads into another. I’m referring to GAR and OUN in 4:8, 12, 14; and 5:1. I assume the parts stuck together for the original writer and readers but to me they sound disjointed.

  10. JKGayle says:

    Your example text is fascinating. OUN (to be clear) is in 4:1, 6, 11, and 16 (where OUN stops abruptly and doesn’t reoccur until much much much later – in 8:4). and GAR is also in 4:2 & 4:8. There is, it seems, a mutually exclusive context (almost an alternation) between the two conjunctions. OUN sounds to me like paragraph topic sentence markers – and the first OUN here seems to punctuate, to highlight the key phrase MHPOTE in 4:1. (MHPOTE only occurs three other times as sort of chapter markers, it seems – in 2:1, 3:12, and 9:17). Looks like the writer is making a key break / section start clearly with OUN MHPOTE and continues subsectioning / paragraphing with OUN. GAR gives topical support. (And I think Hebrews 4 is an incredibly important passage because it’s the only NT text that explicitly names JOSHUA, which is spelled in Greek of course the same was as JESUS is. The ambiguity is, don’t you think, quite important?)

  11. Bob MacDonald says:

    I have not done any work on Hebrews since 2006 – and since I don’t read Greek much – I can struggle through it to the great amusement of my friend who speaks Greek – I have relied on others for structural clues. Van Hoye did some really nice work in the middle of the last century. Through him (I found a French publication of his in those days in the University of Ottawa library.) I picked up some understanding of how key words mark the structure of the letter. I know he is among many who have done this and that their structures don’t agree 😐 In particular, he doesn’t use conjunctions at all in his analysis. We tend to think in terms of the connectors. The preacher in Hebrews seems to make the connections and open and close sections with significant words. My diagrams of his work begin here. I mapped every word – you can drill down where the little link symbol occurs. I have known some of you long enough that you may already have seen them – they are pretty (if of limited usage).

  12. Rick Ritchie says:

    I do like it if a particular Bible can shake me out of complacent assumptions. I think of how our uniform methods of printing might tempt people to read in certain ways. One Year Bibles even moreso than others. Should we read a Psalm or a Proverb like we do a Gospel or an Epistle? What if we printed those little instructions at the beginning of Psalms in a way that made it clearer how the information was used? How might we make it clearer that the Psalms were like the hymnal of Israel (or perhaps the choir director’s hymnal), and that attempting to read from cover to cover is like reading a hymnal from cover to cover? Perhaps different printing conventions for different genres would be helpful.

  13. David Ker says:

    JK and Bob, thanks for ideas on this. Bob, I lean toward your interpretation that the connectors mean rather less than we hope they would in determining the relationship between larger units of discourse in Hebrews.

    My current theory is that the “living sword” passage is one of those summarizing anthems much loved by Paul to signal a strong break between the theoretical and practical sections of a letter.

    JK, I’m fascinated by the Joshua link you mention and embarrassed that my leaning on English caused me to miss it.

  14. JKGayle says:

    and embarrassed that my leaning on English
    David, I’m embarrassed all the time & have been “reading” Greek 27 yrs. I love Anne Carson for confessing the following in humility (in her essay “The Gender of Sound”):

    “Sometimes when I am reading a Greek text I force myself to look up all the words in the dictionary, even ones I think I know. It is surprising what you learn that way. Some of the words turn out to sound quite different than you thought. Sometimes the way they sound can make you ask questions you wouldn’t otherwise ask.”

    Your asking such questions (and Wayne and the others asking too) is one reason I appreciate this blog.

  15. Mike Sangrey says:

    That was beautiful. Almost a parody of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Waters.” 🙂

    There’s a beauty to coherence.

    What’s really so cool about the language house, especially for those of us with laptops, is the act of plugging in the ethernet changes the meaning of the lazyboy. Should we then translate the chair as ‘the workman’? LOL.

    Regarding your question…my mind immediately went to the chapter break between Eph. 4:32 and 5:1. Gosh, that’s ugly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s