Linguistic Trivia–Translating τα σπλαγχνα

Meaghan Smith, an alumna of MCC and now working as an exegetical checker with an SIL Bible translation team in Ethiopia, was on campus today.  She spoke to my Greek class about issues in translation, and the words τα σπλάγχνα in particular in Philippians 1:8.  The words are mostly metaphorical for what we call “the heart” and refer to affection, sympathy and compassion, or other tender emotions.  That part is easy enough for translators.  In Philippians 1:8 it’s simply a matter of asking “How do speakers [of the target language] express that?

But we also got to thinking about the non-metaphorical use of the words.  Like our word “heart” ta splanchna literally refers to internal organs, but the question is “which organs?”  I have told my students (and you, gentle readers) that the splanchna are the organs above the diaphragm, i.e., the heart, liver, spleen, and so forth.  We looked it up in class this morning and found that according to Lowe and Nida, the splanchna are “the intestines.”  Have I been giving misinformation?

After class I went to TDNT and found that in classical usage the words do refer to the “nobler organs” (I find the quaint, almost Victorian expression interesting).  In fact, Homer refers to sacrifices in which the splanchna of sacrificial sheep are the heart, liver, and so forth which are cooked and eaten by the celebrants as part of the sacrificial ritual.

So maybe I was right after all?  But Lowe and Nida point to the one non-metaphorical usage in the NT, where Judas fell headlong and his splanchna burst out.  It seems more likely that the lower organs would be dislodged by a precipitous fall than the ones protected by the ribcage and held up by the diaphragm.

So now we have the question of synchronous or diachronous linguistics?  Well you have to go with the usage more contemporaneous with the source you are comparing–if there is enough evidence.  But I would still ask whether this one passage is enough synchronous evidence or not.  My one complaint about Lowe and Nida is that the lexicon does not cite any contemporary evidence outside the New Testament.

One other trivial issue.  A couple weeks ago Michael Halcomb was asking for onomatopoeic expressions in Greek.  I have always thought σπλάγχνα made an interesting sound, but I’m not quite sure it qualifies as onomatopoeia.  Did Judas’s noble or ignoble organs go SPLANCH! when he hit the rocks at the bottom of the cliff?

These questions are just curiosities, thought don’t really affect the meaning or translation of the passage in Philippians.  But I had a professor once who said you might learn something useful as a by-product of pursuing things not so obviously useful.

Next time I will return to more edifying thoughts–more honorable, pure, and noble themes–when I return to the Epistle to the Philippians.  In the meantime I’m interested in what some of my linguistically inclined friends think.  How would you translate σπλάγχνα?  Is it a good case of onomatopoeia?

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