Accuracy in Communication

I have maintained in a number of posts that it is pointless to talk about accuracy in a medium intended to communicate without involving the audience that is intended to receive the communication. First, I would like to note that it is quite possible for the information in a medium of communication to be inaccurate for all potential audiences, i.e. the information is just plain wrong. But when one is talking about a translation, one is dealing with the accuracy with which the information in the source language is carried over into the receptor language, and that is always audience dependent. In fact, the information in the source language could be completely wrong, and yet be accurately conveyed by the translation.

I was discussing this with my wife this morning at breakfast. Yes, we do discuss such things over meals from time to time. She provided me with a wonderful illustration. In the move Angels in the Outfield there’s a scene where the coach, played by Danny Glover, plays some baseball with a few neighborhood kids. There’s this really little guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing yet, and somehow he hits the ball, but he just stands there. (I don’t remember the details, and don’t have the movie at hand to check, but the basic point is there.) Everybody is yelling at him, “Run Home! Run Home!” So he runs home. But “home” to him is where he lives, not home base. Off he goes, off the ballfield and down the street.

Now in a sense the communication was accurate, but the audience didn’t comprehend what was going on. He applied another definition of “home” that made sense to him and ran with it. The information was not communicated accurately.

Our favorite word in this whole ESV discussion seems to be propitiation. Most people I encounter are not at all sure just what propitiation means. There are, in fact, a number of meanings of propitiation in various non-Christian contexts that I would not want applied to Christianity, and which I do not believe reflect accurately the meaning of the words “hilasterion” or “hilasmon” in New Testament literature.

But more critical for the moment than the question of whether I’m right or they are on “hilasterion/hilasmon” is the simple question of whether people hear accurately what these translators are trying to communicate with the word “propitiation.” That is the real objective test of communication–how accurately does the hearer understand the meaning the writer/translator intended to convey.

I submit that for a large number of readers, the situation will be much like that little boy in the movie–running for the wrong “home.”

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  1. Henry, I could not agree with you more. I few years ago I coined the phrase “communicative accuracy” to refer exactly to what you discussed in your post. Some people objected saying that accuracy really should only refer to exegetical accuracy. But I maintained that no matter how exegetically accurate a translation was, if the way it was worded did not accurately communicate the message intended by the exegetes (or, farther back, the original author), then that translation was not accurate. So far, the big name producers of English Bible versions have not caught on to this use of the term accurate, but I am convinced that it is accurate! 🙂

  2. I will footnote you on the term. 🙂 Seriously, I’m using it in a book that’s currently in proofreading and editing phases dealing with inspiration. I couldn’t remember where I had heard the term, and you now have provided me with that information.

  3. Today I was reading once again Warren Weaver’s famous 1958 letter to Science, entitled “Communicative Accuracy.”

    It looks as if this term has later and independently re-emerged along a separate evolutionary continuum!

    I thought you might be interested in the 1958 version, which is very important to me and others in the field of risk communication.

    See “Communicative Accuracy,” by Warren Weaver, 7 March 1958, Volume 127, Number 3297 at:


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