Vern Poythress on “Fullness Versus Reductionistic Semantics”

Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation is a collection of papers originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2004.  Each of the five authors was part of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version (ESV).  This post is part 4 of a series, evaluating Vern Poythress’ paper, “Truth and Fullness of Meaning: Fullness Versus Reductionistic Semantics in Biblical Interpretation.”


Vern Poythress’ paper presents a rather jarring shift from the previous papers in this volume.  First, it is far more technical, and displays a level of engagement with linguistic theory that was largely ignored, even intentionally, in previous papers.  Second, he never makes use of the label “essentially literal,” making his contribution to the case for this translation philosophy less explicit.  Third, I found myself in agreement with most of his arguments, although below I will point out some weaknesses.


Poythress observes that since the Enlightenment, scientific rigor and objectivity have become very high values.  But any rigorous scientific theory inevitably involves reduction of a complex matter into something more simplified.  Poythress examines three twentieth century innovations that, while useful, have the tendency to reduce the complexity of meaning into something more one-dimensional, a weakness that is especially unfortunate considering the unique complexity of God’s word:

1) Symbolic logic.  While helpful for uncovering logical fallacies, this theory requires that we work with isolated sentences devoid of situational context, thus reducing the richness of communication into isolated strings of propositions.  Poythress affirms propositional revelation, but stresses that meaning is more than the truth value of a statement.  It is situated in context.

2) Structural linguistics.  Here, Poythress focuses on how structural linguistics views meaning.  Tracing the development of modern linguistics from Saussure to Chomsky, he demonstrates that language is seen as a working system, with regularities common to all speakers.  Saussure’s focus on langue over parole, and Chomsky’s breaking down of meaning into simple kernel sentences all demonstrate a reduction in the true nature of meaning.  Like symbolic logic, these linguistic theories deemphasize syntagmatic relations, remove situational context, and ignore the speaker’s idiosyncrasies.

3) Translation theory.  Nida was very aware of the reductionistic tendencies of modern linguistic theory, but he still tried to glean as much as possible from it.  Poythress points out the title of Nida’s 1964 work, Toward a Science of Translating, which reveals Nida’s assumption that use of rigorous science would aid him in the quest for translating the fullest meaning.  In the end, Nida’s translation philosophy adopted the same forms of reduction that structural linguistics exhibited.  In addition, it added its own reductions, among them the assumption that all meanings are clear and transparent.

Poythress argues that scientific rigor and meaning are in fact opposing forces.  Where translation is a science on the one hand, it is an art on the other.  An artist-translator, “using solid knowledge, artistry, and intuition together,…comes up with a translation that captures more fully the total meaning of the original.”  According to Poythress, translation as science and art are complementary perspectives.  Any one approach has unique limitations.

Continued Development.  Poythress briefly mentions more recent developments in linguistic and translation theory.  He cites cognitive linguistics and Gutt’s application of relevance theory to translation as examples of the shift toward a greater recognition of the complexity of meaning.  These are good things, he says, but reductionism is still a danger.


Poythress makes many helpful observations here.  His discussion of the dangers of reductionism and his criticisms of specific theories are appropriate and solid.  While I agree with the main thrust of his paper, I noted two weaknesses:

1) He downplays the improvements of recent theoretical developments.  Poythress acknowledges that the developments of newer theories such as cognitive linguistics and relevance theory are a move in the right direction, but he only mentions them in passing.  He blankets them with the generalization that “the spirit of formalization and reductionism remains in place.”  While this is true, he leaves it unclear to what degree these newer theories have improved upon their predecessors, giving the impression that they haven’t actually made great strides.

This is unfortunate.  In my assessment, cognitive linguistics and relevance theory have greatly improved our ability to take into account a fuller picture of meaning while also retaining the scientific rigor of earlier theories.  No doubt they are still guilty of reductions as Poythress points out, but by failing to engage with them, he downplays the degree to which these newer theories have improved.  I’d be interested to hear Poythress’ assessments of such theories, but in this paper they’re all lumped together with those that prove to be easier targets.

2) He fails to enhance the case for essentially literal translation.  This criticism isn’t leveled so much against the paper itself, because I don’t suspect it was Poythress’ primary aim to argue for essentially literal translation.  (The paper was both presented and published elsewhere before its inclusion in Translating Truth.)  My issue is with the paper’s placement in this volume.  Without a single mention of essentially literal translation, the reader is left to discern how Poythress’ material advances the book’s thesis.

My best attempt at making this connection comes from his statement, “If we have an impoverished view of language, we are likely to have an impoverished view of the Bible as well.”  Since much of the article consists of a critique of Nida’s application of structural linguistics to translation, Poythress implies that dynamic equivalence is based upon an impoverished view of language.

If this is truly the paper’s contribution to the case for essentially literal translation, it should be pointed out that it is arguing against a definition of dynamic equivalence that is decades out of date.  As I mentioned above, great strides have been made in meaning-based translation theory with the advent of theories of language and communication that are far more robust than their predecessors.  Dynamic equivalence has evolved to the extent that many meaning-based translation proponents hesitate or refuse to use the label anymore.  But the authors of this volume tend to talk about dynamic equivalence as if it hasn’t changed a bit since Nida.  If this paper’s aim was to argue against meaning-based translation, then it should have spent more time engaging with newer theories.  But that would have weakened the force of his arguments, because the newer theories are less reductionistic.

Furthermore, Poythress’ warnings against reductionistic theories of linguistics and translation apply with full force to essentially literal translation philosophy.  Consider Collins’ presentation in the previous paper.  He separates text and meaning, and determines that translation involves only text, refusing to go beyond “recognized linguistic operations.”  This is an extremely reductionistic approach, a point I elaborated on in my previous post.


If, as I have suggested, dynamic equivalence has become less reductionistic in the last several decades, and if essentially literal translation remains more reductionistic, then Poythress’ arguments are actually making a stronger case for meaning-based translation.  Again, Poythress does not make his case for essentially literal translation explicit.  This is my attempt to put the pieces together.  I would be curious to hear from him how he views this paper’s contribution to this volume.

One thought on “Vern Poythress on “Fullness Versus Reductionistic Semantics”

  1. Before I reply, I must mention that I have no formal training in linguistics. So please feel free to correct me.

    I would be interested to see what Poythress has to say about what has become a popular linguistic framework in the classics – Functional Grammar (following the work of Dik). From what I understand, such a grammar would undermine a “basically literal” translation. It seems to me that Poythress’ thesis in the chapter actually argues away from a “basically literal” transation because it, too, is far too reductionistic.

    As I’ve been trying to read through the books of the New Testament in a more literary fashion (i.e. keeping the discourse in view the whole time), I have been surprised that someone like Ryken would support such a reductionistic view of translation either. If the modes of discourse in the ancient world and the Biblical languages were different than those of the target language, why would we translate “literally”? As you’ve mentioned before, what determines when one may depart from the “essentially literal” to the “free as necessary?” Once you’ve opened up that can of worms and let the cat out of the bag, it is really hard to put a lid on it again (mixed metaphors intended).

    As for the discourse of a particular letter, I wonder if a translation of Romans, for instance, wouldn’t be enhanced by making paragraph breaks and keeping the big picture of the argument of Romans in mind the whole time one is translating the whole letter. The function of each phrase must make sense to the big picture. This of course is complicated by the fact that Paul seems to enjoy going on rabbit trails in his letters, but I think one must argue his rabbit trails rather than assuming them. Examples of texts in Romans that are easily taken out of context when the whole context is not kept in view are Romans 7b (cf. Longenecker’s “Rhetoric at the Boundaries”) when not read in context of Romans 6-7a and 8a, and Romans 9-10 apart from the argument of 1-8 and 11. Of course, all I’m arguing for is avoidance of proof-texting, but can our translations aide us in avoiding proof-texting by making clear that sentences are not isolated? Or is that the job of the church to begin teaching scripture in a less piece-meal manner? Taking the transition from Romans 7 to Romans 8 as an example, if there is in fact a chain-link transition between these two chapters, it would greatly affect the meaning of the passage. Do we make that transition clear in the target language or leave it ambiguous to people who are not aware of ancient rhetorical techniques?

    I grew up in a somewhat fundamentalist way of reading scripture (understand proof-texting), and I assume that an atomistic approach to scripture is fairly prevalent. Another aid to readers would be to go back to ancient commentaries that seem to read scripture literarily (e.g Theophylact of Bulgaria from the 11th century has some really solid commentaries on the New Testament in which he keeps the theme of Galatians, for example, in the forefront of his mind the entire time). Again, is it the job of the translator or the teachers of the church to help the people read well? (I know this is not strictly an either/or question).


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