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Underlying Problems in Furuli's Linguistic Theory

A Review of Rolf Furuli's The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation

Luis Carlos Reyes


This review originally appeared on February 25, 2003


In this book Furuli attempts to utilize modern linguistic insights to substantiate an atomistic view of language. Furuli argues that in translation and interpretation the smallest linguistic symbol that one should work with is the word. This belief is in contrast to the translation methodologies developed by Nida and utilized by many translators involved in idiomatic translations, which have considered the sentence or kernels as the basic units for translation. One of Furuli's goals is to attempt to provide a working framework in Bible translation where language itself is seen as the criterion for detecting bias, "...the criterion of bias should be language rather than theology" (1999:60). As a case study for his analysis, and as a testing ground for his linguistic theory, Furuli utilizes the controversial and largely literal New World Translation (NWT). The reader should be made aware that Furuli's particular view of language-and specifically the methodological procedures that he has utilized as a result of adhering to such a particular view of language-has greatly affected his overall analysis and review of the NWT. This is an extremely important point because the results of his case study investigation of the NWT hinge on the validity of his linguistic theory for interpretation and translation. It is precisely here where the greatest weakness lies in this book, in that Furuli seems absent of any knowledge of relevant current research, research that in fact invalidates his linguistic view of human communication.

For Furuli translation and interpretation procedures have overly relied on the code model of communication, as is clearly evident in his heavy dependence of the so-called "triangles of signification" (1999:9-15). Furuli also writes, "The transmission, or the change from the code represented by the source language to the code of the receptor language occurs in the mind of the translator" (1999:50). The problem is that Furuli sees the translation situation primarily as a matter of correct coding and decoding. In other words, Furuli assumes that if the translator correctly decodes the original lexico/grammatical linguistic meaning of the isolated word (this decoding procedure is sometimes extended to the entire linguistic context), and further correctly encodes that identical lexico/grammatical linguistic meaning over to the target language to its closet linguistic equivalent; then this will lead to a proper translation in the receptor language (RL). In fact current research in the realm of human communication and translation has shown that this theory of human communication is flawed (Dan Sperber & Deirdre Wilson, 1995, Ernst August Gutt, 1992, 2000). As Gutt noted, the flaw in this theory is that it assumes that correct decoding and correct coding will necessarily lead to a correct understanding by the receptor, in the sense that this would guarantee obtaining the intended message of the original sender (1992:18).

Furuli's code model of communication is an inadequate model, not only because it cannot account for implicit information, but also because it assumes that the decoding of the linguistic signals is a sufficient means to uncover the communicator's intended meaning. As a result Furuli confuses the distinction between linguistic meaning and speaker intended meaning. From the perspective of semiotics, the transmission of all the communicator's intended meaning has been understood to transpire by the sender encoding and the receptor decoding the explicitly encoded linguistic signs. It seems that such a notion is founded on the assumption that the nature of human communication solely involves the transmission of a "signified" by the use of a "signifier" (the dyadic distinction proposed by Saussure), or from an over reliance and adherence to the distinction made by the Ogden-Richard's "basic triangle" (symbol-thought-referent) when applied to the transfer of meaning in human communication via language. However, insights from Relevance Theory have revealed that human communication involves more than information transfer by means of linguistic encoding and decoding. Sperber and Wilson have noted that, "...there is a gap between the semantic representations of sentences and the thoughts actually communicated by utterances. This gap is filled not by more coding, but by inference" (1995:9). This observation naturally leads one to recognize a distinction between the lexico/grammatical meaning of a sentence (semantics), which utilizes the code model, and a distinction of utterance interpretation (pragmatics), which utilizes the inferential model of RT where the cognitive process involved, "integrates the linguistic contribution with other readily accessible information in order to reach a confirmed interpretative hypothesis concerning the speaker's informative intention" (Robyn Carston, 1998: 2). Within the framework of RT, this distinction in utterance interpretation is an important one to keep in mind, since apart from relating to how implicit information arises in human communication, it also helps illustrate that what the communicator communicates is not just the decoded meaning of the lexico/grammatical linguistic elements (the semantic representations), but also includes the total communicative intent and actual thoughts communicated by the utterances as a whole, as expressed in a particular situation. Sperber and Wilson noted that, "Treating linguistic communication as the model of communication in general has led to theoretical distortions and misperceptions of the data" (1995:55).

Unlike other code model advocates, Furuli's has taken this model to an extreme by proposing that, "Bias in Bible translation is characterized by renderings that either 1) contradict lexicon, grammar or syntax. . ." (Furuli, 1999:60, italics in original). Furuli obviously did not consider the phenomenon of anacoluthon in NT Greek. What of the instances when the SL encoders "contradicted" their own grammar or syntax (i.e., contradicted their own code) in theological passages as in Rev 1:8? Now, if the SL encoders at times contradicted their own SL grammar/syntax when encoding and expressing a theological idea, without being labeled as "biased," then why should the RL decoder/encoder (translator) be labeled as "biased" if he too contradicts the very same SL grammar or syntax while encoding a theological passage over in his translation? Space forbids an exhaustive review of this book, but pinpointing this underlying problem inherent in Furuli's book is enough for me to discourage any serious consideration of this book.