Have you ever noticed that some questions don’t ask for information (which is the default purpose of questions)? Instead, while they have the form of a question, their purpose in communication is to emphatically state something. Such “questions” have traditionally been called rhetorical questions. (Later added note: “rhetorical” does not mean there is no meaning or that the meaning is insignificant. “Rhetorical” here means that the question form serves some other rhetorical purpose than to ask a question.)
One of my favorite routines to hear is a series of rhetorical questions that emphatically communicate “YES!!” Here are two that are typically in such a series:
- Do fish swim?
- Is the Pope Catholic?
Feel free to add others in the Comments to this post.
Now, what does this have to do with Bible translation? Some languages, unlike English, do not have rhetorical questions. But if a translator is not aware of that, and is translating rhetorical questions from Biblical Hebrew texts or the Greek New Testament or from a Bible translation in some national language that uses rhetorical questions such as English and French, users of their translation will get the wrong meaning from those questions. They will think that the questions are asking for information since that is the only purpose of questions in their language.
I think I’m dealing with this issue in a translation of Genesis in one of the tribal languages I am checking these days. I have had to ask the translation team to do a study of questions in their language to determine if any questions can be used to emphatically assert something instead of asking for information.
When we know which questions in the biblical texts are rhetorical, not asking for information, we can know not to translate them as questions in languages which do not have rhetorical questions.
What are some rhetorical questions you can think of which occur in the biblical texts?