Literary (oratorical) influence on the Bible interpretation-translation process

There are two areas of literary (or “oratorical”—with an emphasis on the oral-aural dimension of discourse) importance and consequence that must be considered during the translation process. An “artistic” concern leads one to focus upon the formal, esthetic and iconic facets of verbal texts, whether oral or written, i.e., what is beautiful, euphonious, memorable, sensually appealing in discourse. There is accordingly an emphasis upon the poetic (artistic), relational (phatic) and ritual (liturgical) functions of communication. A “rhetorical” interest, on the other hand, directs one towards the functional, dynamic aspect of text transmission, i.e., what is powerful, persuasive, influential, pragmatically effective in discourse. In this case, the emphasis is upon the expressive, affective, and imperative functions of communication.

The formal scope of an oratorical (including a “poetic”)* approach thus extends in two directions which converge and overlap in many places. One impulse examines the artistic beauty of the Scriptures with respect to both the original and the translated text. Here one seeks to determine what makes the biblical text esthetically attractive—capturing the eyes, ears, and general interest of its hypothetical audience—thereby also enhancing the other communicative aims that the author sought to achieve in and through his words.
(*The discipline of poetics refers to the study of formal [structural and stylistic] artistry in literature—its analysis, interpretation, and comparative evaluation.)

The second literary inclination highlights the potency, or persuasive power, of the source and target texts. How did the writers of Scripture use language to capture minds, hearts, and wills—that is, to influence their hearers and readers to understand, feel, accept, and do certain things? Here the analyst attempts to identify the specific stylistic features that enabled people to experientially sense the Bible’s impact in terms of diverse emotions, passions, attitudes, and moods?# Together, the manifest artistry and rhetoricity of the original text serves to enhance its overall credibility, authority, and authenticity, while effecting varying degrees of interpersonal power and solidarity in relation to a continual succession of audience groups, both ancient and modern.
(#From a theological perspective, my view is that this literary motivation and textual implementation was guided in the case of the various authors—composers, recorders, editors, etc.—of Scripture by the essential, effectual operation of the Holy Spirit.)

The bottom line: Any biblical text—large or small, poetry or prose—can (should?) be translated in a literary (oratorical) manner to the extent and degree possible under the prevailing circumstances of production. That means with an ear keenly attuned to the rich phonic potential and the distinctive expressive beauty (the linguistic genius) of both the biblical text as well as the vernacular version. Of course, a more radical application of a “domesticating,” literary method of translation in the TL may result in certain lack of equivalence with regard to the forms of the original SL text, for example, various types of repetition and larger structural patterns (inclusio, chiasmus, an acrostic arrangement). This loss must be balanced against the increased psychological effects (literary perception, rhetorical impact, aesthetic appeal) that an artistic-rhetorical version might generate, especially for a listening audience, and in particular one that understands and can appreciate the literary value of the original text—and, on the other hand, the creative efforts made to replicate as much as possible of this aspect of meaning in translation.

About ewendland

I am currently an instructor at the Lutheran Seminary, Lusaka, ZAMBIA (since 1968). My academic training has been in biblical studies (BA, Northwestern College; MST, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary), Bible translation (several SIL courses), linguistics (MA, University of Wisconsin, Madison), and African languages (PhD, UWM). I am a “retired” translation consultant for the United Bible Societies (having worked with projects in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). I currently still serve as an external examiner in Zambian languages (University of Zambia) and as visiting professor in OT, NT, and Ancient Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, with an affiliation to the Centre for Bible Interpretation and Translation in Africa ( My research and writing interests focus on the literary (structural, poetic, rhetorical) analysis of biblical texts and their oratorical translation, especially in southeastern Bantu languages (
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