Literary biblical text analysis and translation

A “literary functional equivalence” (LiFE) approach in translation is characterized by the following features:
• A discourse-centred, genre-based perspective, in which the parts of a text, whether the original or its translation, are viewed in light of the whole, and vice-versa.

• A prominent pragmatic-functional component, in which the form and content of a text is both selected and arranged to convey specific communication goals.

• Taking into account how the overall situational frames of reference (the intra-, inter-, and extra-textual environment) of any passage would have influenced the original interpretation, and how the linguistic-literary, sociocultural, and other contextual aspects of the translation will affect the contemporary understanding of Scripture.

• A focus on the artistic (formal) and rhetorical (functional) dimensions of discourse.

• Special interest in the oral-aural dimension of the text of the Bible as it is articulated aloud in public.

The following is an overview of the prominent artistic and rhetorical features of biblical literature (cf. ch. 6 in T. Wilt, ed., Bible Translation: Frames of Reference, Manchester: St Jerome, 2003):

These nine stylistic features clearly demonstrate the fact that the Bible is superbly composed sacred literature. These factors are grouped and briefly described below:

A. General and foundational factors
1. Unity – involves the basic harmony and compositional integrity of the biblical text
2. Diversity – refers to the wide range of literary devices that complement the overall unity of a literary discourse
3. Rhetoricity – includes the frequent dimension of persuasion, whether explicit or implicit in the text, producing “proofs”, or logical lines of argumentation

B. Factors pertaining largely to the macrostructure of a text
4. Structure – organization of the text into many different genres, including distinct types of biblical prose and poetry
5. Patterning – the manifold arrangements of discourse design, e.g., repetition, chiasmus, that are manifested in the text
6. Foregrounding – features that highlight certain aspects of the discourse through devices like focus (point) and progression (over a span of text)

C. Factors associated more with the microstructure of a text
7. Imagery – pictorial imaging techniques in discourse, e.g., metaphor, simile, metonymy
8. Phonicity – the abundant use of audible patterns, such as alliteration, assonance, rhythm, rhyme, etc.
9. Dramatics – the prevailing preference for texts presented in the form of direct discourse, no matter what the genre

These diverse features are complementary and closely interrelated, sometimes even overlapping in their textual realization. Translators would do well to recognize the varied ways in which these features are incorporated in the biblical text, and work towards finding equivalent devices in the language into which they are translating. In order to achieve the latter goal, some preliminary as well and ongoing research will be needed with respect to the available oral and written verbal art forms of the target language.


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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