I give my body a black eye

Several bloggers over the last few days have been looking at how to translate 1 Corinthians 9:27, especially the part for which I can offer the literal translation

I give my body a black eye and lead it in slavery.

The conversation seems to have started with TC, who prefers the TNIV rendering

I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave.

Nathan’s first offering

I black my eyes, bringing my body into subjection

was later revised to

I beat my body down, forcing it into submission.

Doug responded to Nathan’s first version by noting that

The passage is replete with metaphors drawn from the experience of (especially) the Isthmian games which Paul may have experienced first hand. … his emphasis is on training rather than competing … Paul shows no sign of discomfort with the imagery of the gym, but seems at ease in the culture. (The other part of what makes it interesting, of course, is the immediacy of this kind of imagery for today’s fitness-obsessed society of largely unfit people.)

It is the training metaphor, therefore, that renders translations of verse 27 like RSV “I pommel my body” or NIV “I beat my body” and Nathan’s own “I black my eyes” so dubious. It’s indisputable that ὑπωπιάζω [hupopiazo] does mean “give someone a black eye” but the phrase makes little sense if it is taken literally. No-one in training injures themselves on purpose. …

Doug then offers his own rendering:

I put my body through a punishing training schedule.

The trouble with this, as I noted in a comment, is that there is nothing here to indicate that this is not to be taken literally. Doug’s wording suggests simply that Paul is saying that he visits the gym regularly. But surely that is not his point, especially in the light of 1 Timothy 4:8. I noted that

If Paul is putting his body through anything, it is not a literal exercise programme but abstinence from sin and from pleasures which might distract from the Lord’s work.

In response Doug asked me

whether anyone is in more danger of taking my English metaphors literally than they were 2000 years ago of taking Paul’s Greek metaphors literally.

In reply I wrote:

Good question, Doug. I would suggest that a more literal translation of Paul’s words, something like “I give my body a black eye and lead it in slavery”, could never be understood literally, but your “I put my body through a punishing training schedule” could. Perhaps to the original readers also this passage was so clearly non-literal that it could not be misunderstood as literal. Anyway I would presume that these words are not what would normally be used by someone going into training for the Isthmian Games: a boxer would certainly not punch himself! So I don’t think “I put my body through a punishing training schedule”, words which an athlete in training might actually say, is a very accurate translation.

My main point here is that we need to preserve the signals in the original text that language is not literal. Among those signals are that, in Doug’s words, “the phrase makes little sense if it is taken literally”. By tidying up the text so that it makes literal sense, Doug loses the signals of the metaphor, probably leading to misinterpretation.

But I do like the last part of Doug’s rendering of the verse:

so that I don’t become one of those who tell others what to do, but themselves collapse before the finishing line.

This reminds me of this interesting story, and picture, from the 1908 Olympics in London: a marathon runner who collapsed just before the finishing line and was helped across it – but later disqualified for receiving assistance.

10 thoughts on “I give my body a black eye

  1. Hi Peter,

    it’s nice to see you defending the need for a metaphor-for-metaphor translation here. At least, that is what I think you are doing.

    I don’t like Doug’s “training schedule” translation any more than you do, but it would also be nice to come up with an equivalent metaphor that is not quite so nonsensical as TNIV’s ‘strike a blow to my body’ is.

  2. Indeed, John. Can you suggest one? I don’t think I can. The problem is that in English if we use “body” we automatically think in literal terms, at least when talking about an individual. I don’t know if that was true in Koine Greek.

  3. John, Why would you call the TNIV’s “strike a blow to the body” nonsensical?

    We’re all aware of the difficulty in preserving the ancient metaphors so that they sense in the receptor language.

    I think the TNIV has a great effort when compared to other versions.

  4. Pingback: Boxing with metaphors: round 2 » MetaCatholic

  5. Peter,
    You’ve got company:

    Luke uses the word ὑπωπιάζω to translate the Aramaic of Jesus (who’s talking again about an exemplary woman in one of his parables). More on that in my comment at Nathan’s blog.

    Aristotle uses the word ὑπωπιάζω in accidental (shall we say “metaphorical”) hyperbole (when warning that hyperbole is just for the emotionally immature, like Jesus, who use hyperbole and who make emotional women examples for men). More on that in my comment at Doug’s blog.

  6. Pingback: The literary Bible: the winner’s wreath (redux) « He is Sufficient

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