Being Pragmatic about Words

We are having a fascinating discussion about ἀποστέλλω and πέμπω in Apostles and missionaries. I don’t want to slow it down, but one comment on that post brought some thoughts about Pragmatics to mind.

Stephen Beck, here, says, “But for now I did want to ask Mike to consider two verses: John 7:18 and 12:49.”

He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.[NIV, 7:18]

For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.[NIV 12:49]

You’d think John would use ἀποστέλλω in both places, wouldn’t you?

At first glance (and second and third) I would think so, too.

But, I think each can be relatively easy to explain (well, “easy” from my perspective, that is 🙂 )

Let me state that my perspective seeks to bring to the surface each word’s pragmatic function in the texts in question. It really doesn’t have as much to do with their precise referents or their relative semantics (though the semantics come into play). It has to do with the impact on the hearer’s interpretive context. It has to do with molding the way we (and they) interpret the words. Your observation–which is a good one in my view–is focused on the semantics. However, it is that focus that (I think) causes people to go down a specific pathway that leads them to questions framed as you have yours. Language, and more specifically, language in use, is more complex than (dare I say) simply semantics. If we analyze the discourse from a pragmatic functional perspective, then (I think) some exegetically relevant observations and conclusions are ready at hand.

Specifically, as I see it, considering the sentences results in:

John 7:18: The story develops to a relative climax.
John 12:49: Jesus’ authority would be overstated (I’m not thinking in theological terms here, but in linguistic ones; that is, it would receive too much focus.)

First, John 7:18.

πέμπω is used in John 7:16, 18, and 28. ἀποστέλλω is used in 29 and 32. πέμπω is then used again in 33.

The use of ἀποστέλλω in 32 refers to the guard sent by the Pharisees; so, let’s set that aside–the discourse relevant features applicable to this discussion revolve around Jesus and not the guard. (Though this rather interestingly pits the Pharisee’s authority against God’s–not a good place to be. More about that in a sec.)

As the pericope develops, the question of where Jesus comes from is developed. That is, it’s initially a πέμπω type of question–it’s solely geographic. However, the building of tension continues until Jesus uses ἀποστέλλω. At that point there’s a strong reaction (vs 30). Note that these are two widely disparate reactions: take him by force and unreserved commitment to him. Both of these are responses to an exercise of authority. The first is the proud, belligerent reaction. The second is the humble, submissive one. But, the important thing to note is that the sense of ‘geography’ changed to one of ‘authority’. As a slight aside, in the English translation, did you (like me) wonder, “What’s up with these two strong reactions? Why the hate? Why the belief?” Our Pragmatic level response to the text differs from how the original readers (and participants in the event) responded. As I see it, that’s a translation problem.

Also note the use of ἄρχων (‘authorities’/’leaders’) in verse 26. I don’t wish to make too fine a point, but the question of who is in charge is clearly portrayed in the background on the canvas of this pericope picture. This “questioning of the Pharisee’s authority” in 26 is picked up again in verse 32–the Pharisees don’t like it. It seems to me, BTW, that verses 25-32 form a chiasmus with the use of ἀποστέλλω pretty close to the middle.

So, basically, it’s a build to climax pericope. Consistent with that is the uses of πέμπω (more general ‘send’) building to the use of ἀποστέλλω (specific type of ‘send’) at a climatic point.

Furthermore, verse 33 starts the next paragraph. Notice the use of οὖν in 33. οὖν is a discourse marker which indicates two things: Development and close thematic proximity to the previous theme. In other words, John indicates to the reader that this new paragraph picks up the theme of the previous one and develops it further. That is, Jesus states, by using ἀποστέλλω in 29, that he has been given a mission. So, his use of πέμπω here in 33, though it’s referring to a change in location, would still keep conceptually alive the ‘mission’ concept in the background of the hearer’s thinking (cognitively, the associated neurons would stay turned on). In fact, it does exactly that, but the crowd misses the meaning (the theme is way too beyond them). John continues (from chapter 6) to build this idea of Jesus being glorified in his resurrection. But, sadly, the crowd can’t think in terms of a resurrected Christ. So, when they wonder, “where is this guy going to go?” they think in terms of a mission; but quite interestingly, it’s a mission to the Gentiles!

Here’s how I would translate 7:29
    I know him. Because I am from him. He’s the one who gave me my mission.

That’s how I see it.

For John 12:49, I see it as Jesus muting the whole authority component. It’s kind of like this. If I say, “I’ve been given the authority to do a job. I’m the envoy. This authoritative sending has..yada…yada…yada.” Pretty soon it’s not about what I’ve come to do; it’s about me talking about my authority. That misses the point. So, in this pericope of John 12, the authority aspect is already there in that it is the Father who is in focus. To use ἀποστέλλω, while consistent with the aspect of the mission, wouldn’t be consistent with the intended focus. It’s about the Father.

For example, if he had used ἀποστέλλω, then the text would read more like this:
Then Jesus cried out, “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who gave me the authority to do what I’m doing.”
That subtly shifts the focus from being on God, the Father, to being on Jesus. Jesus goes on to say that when a person sees him (ie Jesus), he’s looking at the Father. And that Jesus is the light so people can really see what they need to look at. So, the whole point is to get people to see the Father. Jesus is the reflector, but the Father is the point. Read the pericope now, I think you’ll see that part of what is being conveyed there is Jesus saying, “It’s not about me; it’s about the Father.”

One could easily argue that using ἀποστέλλω would be more consistent with the theme. However, one can also easily argue that its use would bring too much emphasis to a specific component, in fact, one that can be very easily not emphasized by the use of a different word, namely πέμπω. I lean toward the later.

At least, that’s how I see this one.

Layers of language and translation

Linguistics is a great thing to study! Anyone who has done a bit of formal study of linguistics will know that it has many sub-fields such as phonology, syntax, morphology, semantics and pragmatics. In this post we’re going to dig down through the layers and see how focusing on each layer results in significantly different translations. For this we’re going to use the following verse as an example:

Matthew 26:33: ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν αὐτῷ· εἰ πάντες σκανδαλισθήσονται ἐν σοί, ἐγὼ οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι.
NLT: Peter declared, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.”

Each layer is a little further from the source, a little more abstract and a little (or a lot) harder to study. But I hope you’ll see that the deeper you go the more potential there is for exciting and powerful translations!

Phonology is the study of sound in language. There is of course no translation which attempts to fully convey the phonology of its source – such a translation would really be a transliteration instead! Most translations do however transliterate occasionally. Although names, both of people and places, frequently are given a meaning in in the Bible, they are usually transliterated or transferred into the target language. For example Πέτρος /petros/ becomes Peter in most Bibles.

Many translations however also transliterate other words. These transliterated words have become English religious jargon, but in many cases they were regular words in the Hebrew or Greek. Words like apostle, baptise, messiah and sabbath are all basically transliterations. While it might be easiest to stick with tradition and use these words, it is worthwhile considering if they can be translated, and what effect that would have on the translation as a whole.

Morphosyntax, or morphology and syntax, is the study of structure in language, of words and sentences respectively. Translations that focus on morphosyntax will try to mimic the structure of the source text as much as is possible. Our example has two verbs in the main clause, ἀποκριθεὶς and ἀποκριθεὶς, and the strictest mimicking translations will actually include both, such as the NKJV: “Peter answered and said to Him…” Most translations recognise that this phrase is a common idiom and instead just use a single verb in English: for example the ESV has “Peter answered him…”

A better example is found in the next phrase, for which the ESV has “Though they all fall away because of you…” Some verbs must always have a preposition, as David Ker recently discussed. These are sometimes given the technical name of bipartite verbs, i.e. two-part verbs. The phrase looked over has a unique meaning which look by itself does not have – essentially it is a distinct verb. I suspect that σκανδαλισθήσονται ἐν is similar. Translations which are attempting to mimic the source’s morphosyntax will translate this phrase with a verb and a preposition, as the ESV did, with “fall away / because”. Okay, that’s really a three part verb! Other translations however might treat the Greek verb as a unit, and replace it with whatever conveys the meaning of the whole unit best. That may also be a multi-part verb, or it might be a single word. This is what the NLT does, which translates it as desert.

A morphosyntax-mimicking translation might be written by using the same types of clauses and phrases as the source, representing them as is natural for the target language. The most extreme mimicking translations however also attempt to mimic the source’s word order of regardless of whether that is the target language’s normal way of representing those structures. To me this seems especially ironic considering that both Hebrew and Greek have a significantly free word order, and so any significant word orders will be for reasons other than syntax!

Semantics is the study of meaning! To some extent I covered this in the previous section, as most translations which don’t focus on conveying morphosyntax instead focus on conveying semantics. So semantic translations are free to pick whichever words and sentences they need to most closely translate the meaning of the source, regardless of whether the structures are similar or not.

Each of these layers we’ve been digging through is more abstract, and so translations that focus on lower layers are harder to produce. Sometimes there is significant ambiguity, or even if the source is understood clearly, the target language’s culture may think about some issues in a very different way. One further example from our verse is the noun πάντες, which has the basic meaning of all. There are though a great many ways in which it has been translated, some of which are all, all men, or everyone. A semantics-sensitive translation will ask what was implied in the source language, and what will be inferred from the translation, and if they do not match up the translation will need to be edited further.

Pragmatics is the study of language in context. This is necessarily more abstract than the other layers we’ve covered as we have a far from complete knowledge of the context in which the Bible was written. As the focus of pragmatics is context, a big part of it is studying language as whole texts or conversations, rather than as individual sentences or words. Mike looked at some interesting contextual issues in Matthew recently.

One thing that comes under pragmatics is the intent of a text’s author. Everything ever said or written has been said or written with some purpose. Parts of the Bible have been written to encourage and to rebuke, to excite the readers and to express deep grief. I suspect that The Message as a translation aims to convey these author intentions as its highest priority, even if that means that the individual semantics of a sentence must be changed. Sometimes I think it does this very effectively, but at others times I think the intentions it conveys have been too strongly tainted by speculation. While The Message is an interesting experiment and other translation teams would be wise to study it, I personally don’t think that intentions should be ranked over semantics for most general purpose translations. These translations will remain a niche item.

Another aspect of pragmatics is to do with information. The study of information structure looks at how language is used to mediate between the different collections of knowledge we all have. One significant concept is that of focus, which is used to bring to the forefront something which the speaker thinks their listeners do not know. In Biblical Greek pronouns, like ἐγὼ “I”, are frequently optional, and using them adds emphasis. Both οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι and ἐγὼ οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι have the semantic meaning of “I will never desert you,” however the second has a pragmatic focus on the “I”. A translation could even consider printing I in italics in this verse. I’ve only found one translation which seems to convey this emphasis, the ISV: “Even if everyone else turns against you, I certainly won’t!”

Other layers
There are many other layers to language which are rarely considered to much depth for Bible translations. Some of these are the genre of texts, the register of texts (is it high brow or low brow?), the differences between individual authors etc. The list just keeps on going! I believe that the majority of current Bible translations focus on either morphosyntax or semantics. Clearly there is still much room for improvement!

Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (part II).

A frequent prayer of mine, for I don’t know how many years, is, “Lord, make me so I worship you in spirit and truth, whatever that might mean.” I know from John 4:24 that God wants that. If I don’t know what the prepositional phrase means, I want to know what it means in my life even more than I want to know what it means in my head. I want God to know that, too. And I know that God knows the meaning of the phrase. And, whether I understand the phrase or not, I know I’m still deeply dependent on his help to weave that meaning into my life, even into who I am. Still, I’ve wrestled with the meaning for a very long time.

I started out with Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (part I) and I’m heading to this result:

The worship of God by his worshippers must be spiritual and authentic.

How do I get there?

A.T. Robertson, in his BIG grammar says:

[Prepositions were originally adverbs]. This is now so well recognized that it seems strange to read in Winer that “prepositions e.g.often assume the nature of adverbs, and vice versa,” Giles puts the matter simply and clearly when he says: “Between adverbs and prepositions no distinct line can be drawn.”…Brugmann …adds that we cannot draw a sharp line between the use as adverb and the use as pre-verb or preposition. [pg 554]

Essentially, a preposition connects the phrase to something in the sentence adverbially—that is, it modifies it. The intent of using prepositions was to speak and write more clearly, to hone away any misunderstanding. Interestingly, even though he is speaking about Greek prepositions, Robertson points out that the Emperor Augustus was noted for his extensive use of Latin prepositions to increase clarity. He points out that one must first consider the grammatical case, then the preposition, then the context. The order is important.  He says the preposition was used to clarify the case meaning.

It’s when we transfer the result of that process over into English that we get into trouble.  We tend to think we have to “do it with a preposition.”  If the result is adverbial in nature, we have some leeway on our voyage to accuracy.

Generally, grammars convey that this adverbial function carried by the preposition is geometric. Many of us, I’m sure, have seen Machen’s diagram. Therefore, we very easily seek an analysis of ἐν which is always locative. Robertson’s discussion even supports this mindset. So, when considering the John 4:24 clause, we try to make worship occur in spirit and in truth. Therefore we go through extensive mental gymnastics to make sense of that. For me, that has never worked. I’ve tried.

Let’s look at some other examples (English text is from the NASB).

Matthew 11:21: πάλαι ἂν ἐν σάκκῳ καὶ σποδῷ μετενόησαν (“they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”). Does this repentance occur in the location of sackcloth and in ashes? Not really. The sackcloth and ashes are viewed as highly related to the repentance. This is the dative idea which the preposition strengthens and makes more clear. Compare Mat. 11:21 with the meaning of “repent in a car and the front seat” and you should see what I mean. This later is obviously speaking of location alone. Now, does that mean that the repentant person was not viewed as having put on the sackcloth? No, he or she was viewed that way—even though they might not have actually put on the sackcloth. The emphasis is not on the actual location; it’s on modifying the conceptual implications of the verb.

Luke 4:36: ὅτι ἐν ἐξουσίᾳ καὶ δυνάμει ἐπιτάσσει (“with authority and power he commands”). Is the power and authority in the commanding? Obviously not. The people were stunned by who this Jesus was. The power and authority are highly related to the commanding, but they did not exist in it; they existed in Jesus. Again, this is the dative idea strengthened by the preposition. There’s an adverbial relationship between the objects of the preposition and the verb.  In this case, the translators captured this by using ‘with’.

Luke 21:34: μήποτε βαρηθῶσιν ὑμῶν αἱ καρδίαι ἐν κραιπάλῃ καὶ μέθῃ καὶ μερίμναις βιωτικαῖς (“your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life”). Is the burdensome difficulty located in the drunken behavior and anxiety? Again, no. Though with some mental gymnastics you can make that work. It’s better to think of these occurrences in instrumental terms and not locative terms. I think it would be appropriate to translate this clause using ‘by’ instead of ‘with’.

To get a little closer to the words used in John 4, we can consider Luke 1:17: αὐτὸς προελεύσεται ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ ἐν πνεύματι καὶ δυνάμει Ἠλίου (“he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah”). This can be easily rendered as, “He will go…with the same spirit and power as Elijah.” If you think very carefully about what you mean when you say, “going in the spirit of” you can see that using the phrase ‘with the same’ means essentially the same thing.

How does one say worship with one’s spirit in English? One can say just that. However, one can say the exact same thing by saying worship spiritually or one can say, the worship must be spiritual. The adverbial nature of the relationship is more clear without the preposition.

There’s still a question of what worshipping spiritually refers to in the real world. I’ll address that in a moment. But, at least we now have a clause that is starting to look like English.

As an aside, I’ve wondered whether Matthew 11:21 should be “ash permeated sackcloth”, Luke 4:36 should be “powerful authority”, Luke 21:34 should be “anxiety filled drunken behavior” (recall a primary driver to drunkenness is depression), and Luke 1:17 should be “powerful spirit”. That is, the two joined objects of the preposition should be thought of as a single concept. But, I’m getting off track.  I just bring it up here since it rather surprises me how often it seems to work quite well.

Let’s move on to ἀλήθεια (“truth”). I’ll not spend as much effort here.  As I’ve been mentioning, we have to connect the concepts to the real world.  This intentionally considers the Pragmatic features of the text (that is, it considers the words as they relate to the communication context).  We have to work through the Pragmatics of the original as well as the Pragmatics of the destination.

Conceptually, truth, authenticity, and integrity are related. Truth is thought of as more theoretical, more ethereal, more abstract. Don’t misread me; it can be relied on and in my epistemology, must be. However it is cognitive; it can’t have flesh and bones, it can’t be seen unless embodied in something. However, integrity and authenticity are truth practiced. When truth becomes embodied, it becomes integrity. Integrity and authenticity refer to the pragmatic (ie. practical, not Pragmatic) side of truth. These are when we see truth.

In our language it is more natural to talk about truth in doctrine or to talk of an axiom or thought that is true. However, when we talk about an action or a person, we talk in terms of authentic behavior or having integrity. Even in Bible translation topics, when we talk about an authentic translation, we’re referring not to the doctrine contained in the text.  We’re talking about how faithfully the translation has reproduced the original content in our real textual world, the one we hold in our hands.

Here’s an example of these two types of “truth”.  In their world the two types can be referred to with one word.  In our world, they are different words.

John 8:44: ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ οὐκ ἔστηκεν ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν ἀλήθεια ἐν αὐτῷ (“[The devil] does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.”). Notice the two different phrases. One is “person in the truth.” The other is “truth in the person.” What does it mean to stand in the truth? And what does it mean to have truth in you?

Let me ever so slightly change the wording of the NLT in John 8:42-47 so you can get your mind around a larger context (a conceptual metaphor) within which these phrases are used. My change is underlined:

Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It’s because you can’t even hear me! For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has no authenticity, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe me! Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? Anyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God.”

The whole argument here revolves around who is authentic—Jesus or the Jewish leadership. The leadership said they were the authentic children of God. Jesus answers by saying the devil isn’t authentic because he’s a liar, and since the leadership can’t even understand Jesus (who speaks and lives only the truth), that makes them liars, too. Therefore, they can’t be authentic children.

This argument rests on the difference between two expressions: the person who is in the truth and the truth that is in the person. The later refers to one’s understanding of what is true. The former refers to how the person lives out what is true. In our words, the later refers to truth, the former refers to authenticity.

Dealing with such a difficult to translate text deserves a much more thorough explanation. Certainly, it needs more proof. My intent here is to give people some linguistic meat to chew on. We won’t solve all the issues here. I certainly haven’t. However, I think it’s very important to notice a translation which doesn’t communicate. If a translation doesn’t communicate, then any argument that it is accurate falls to the side—how can it be accurate when no-one knows what the translation means? Or, how can it be accurate when it can mean so many different things to different people?

Well, more needs to be done. However, for now I’ve arrived at: the worship of God by his worshippers must be spiritual and authentic.

Ok, I had asked above what it was in the real world that worshipping spiritually referred to. So, you’re probably wondering, what’s the real world referent of πνεύματι?

To clarify that is the preacher’s job. 🙂

Tell you what, I’ll address that in another, very short, installment. It will be short since I’m going to simply express my own view. The reality of it, however, is that spirituality is a big topic. And the disjunction between modern psychology and anthropology and the same of 2,000 years ago is quite substantial. There is simply no way to capture the reorientation via a single word (or two) in John 4:24.  Many Christians disagree what spirituality means (which is why the posting will be short 🙂 )

Lastly, consider what I’ve said above by comparing it to Peterson’s translation in The Message.  Personally, I find it rather satisfying since I hadn’t seen this before I started writing these posts.

“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.” [verses 23-24]

A Call for Coherency Scholarship

David Frank posted Reflections on the nature of Bible translation. And I really like what he said. So, I thought I would interact with it a bit (and hopefully encourage him to post more).

What he said there is why my “hobby-horse” is coherency.

The underspecification of the text, and the resulting ambiguity, provides the fuel for us to rip apart the text. We’re then left with pieces of text that we typically reform into a theological quilt of our own making. The fault is ours; it’s not the text’s fault. In fact, the ‘text’ is a ‘fabric’ and ripping harms the text as a text (Latin: textere). But, the ripping is a single step across the two step chasm of interpretation. So, that first step is needed. More on that in a moment. Also, the fault certainly isn’t the author’s (or Author’s). Language is what language is. It is cohesive in its very nature. And communication follows the same maxim. We’re good at this ripping, also known as analysis.

And we certainly need the analysis. In fact we need more of it. As Richard mentions, we haven’t yet analysed the pragmatics (ie. contextual connections where ‘context’ is the original interpretive environment) of the original Koine (let alone the Hebrew of the OT). Richard, we’ll get there–we’re good at analysis. I don’t want to oversimplify, but all we have do is to rip into the soil and unearth the data. We have, we really have, the analytical capability–we just have to do it.

But, we’re astoundingly poor at synthesis. In fact, I suggest that whenever a synthesis of the data is presented, people from all their different factions, whip out their ripped textual fabrics quilted into various theological wall hangings. They hang them up, and they point to chapter and verse, and then claim they have held back the fall of “orthodoxy.” I wish the mere existance of pragmatic data would not only foster, but determine synthetic expertise. It won’t. We have to develop our capability to process the data toward a coherent understanding (ie. comprehension) of the text. We are no good at comprehension.

We need the data that pragmatic analysis will bring; but, we absolutely must gain appreciation of coherency. Without coherency, we simply have more ripped pieces of cloth to sew into our factional quilts (as beautiful as they might appear to each of us).

David, your concern for the current state of factionalism is, in my opinion, well founded. And I believe the only solution is to develop our synthetic capability. We have to learn what it means to practice coherent interpretation. We have to learn what it means to have a text not only cohere with the text around it (cf information flow), but also how that text coheres with its greater context (cf pragmatics). We’re no good at either of these today. But, if we do it, then we will witness the fall of factionalism. We’re really talking about one and the same thing–coherent text, coherent community. I believe these two are joined at the hip.

If I’m right in my epistemological assumptions that truth is inherently coherent, and that truth practised results in godly growth, then the maturation of our capability to comprehend the text will unavoidably defeat factionalism. But, to do that, we not only need the analysed contextual data (so, we need to do the ripping), but we need to develop our capability to synthesize the data into a meaningful wholes. We don’t understand the wholes. We don’t know how to understand the wholes. We can sew our own theological quilts; but, we don’t know how to let the texts as wholes be the fabric as it has been given to us. We don’t know how to interpret the text within its original context. We don’t know how to follow the flow of the text.

This is a deeply philosophical posting. I admit that. So, the connection to Bible translation might not be immediately obvious. So, let me be more explicit. We need scholarship around coherency development so that we have such scholarship supporting translation decisions.

We’re making those translation decisions now without the benefit of such coherency capability. And so our translations jerk and stutter. The text is not coherency informed. And the factionalism is simply more evidence of such uninformed decisions.

Our translations are not inaccurate (sorry for the double negative) as if they are drunken men meandering around in sloshed stupors. It’s not that they aren’t on the right path. They are more like an unoiled tin-man, jerking with stuttering movements as he tries to walk the road laid with gold. With coherency scholarship we could make much more informed translation decisions. We would oil the translated text for the reader. The result would be linguistically smooth renderings, accurately capturing the intended meaning in the language of the audience. This incarnation of the intended meaning would produce godly growth as the Spirit fills the soul. It would fan the flames of unity because people would comprehend the Biblical text.

This is what I believe. I wish I could do it. But the only thing I can muster right now is to call for it to be done. May this little piece be part of the whole.

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.