The ESV Bible Blog discusses the literal rendering of the term for knowledge in sexual contexts. Some contemporary translations treat this as a mere euphemism for the physical act of sex. Since we don't use the word 'know' in English in this way, he argument goes, we should use an expression that says what really took place, a physical act of sex. I think this loses not just a connotation of what the original expression says. I think it loses the very reason that word was used to begin with. I do note that the ESV doesn't always keep the original word, as the post admits. It just treats this argument as presumptive, as I think it should be treated. Other factors might turn out to be more important in any given passage. I don't know if I'd always agree in particular cases, but I think that's the right approach.
However, I think one argument the post discusses but does not endorse seems to me to be too far, and I think what it shows is a deeper problem in translation to begin with. The argument is that translating the Hebrew word for knowledge in these contexts as "have relations with" is banal and does not capture the element of knowing in the original. Is this true? Maybe so, but if so then I wish it were not true. Has the sense of relationship and relating to someone completely gone out of expression "to have sexual relations"? If so, this is a further slide down a path we've already seen in the past. Intercourse was once a close sharing, of human interaction on a deep level. Now it's sex, and it's used in he clinical, banal way that "have relations with" is claimed to be used. Consider also the word 'intimacy'. We can say that two people were intimate, and we might just mean that they did the nasty in exactly the sense of performing the physical act, with no sense that they were close in any other way.
I wonder if the problem is partly just an avoidance mechanism. In a culture that really wants sex to be nothing more than a physical act, one that seeks to remove moral notions, including shame and guilt, from the mere physical enjoyment of the act. The easiest long-term way to do that is to use the terms that signify more than that in a way that doesn't signify more than that. I don't know if anyone is actively seeking to change the language the way feminists in the 60s deliberately did with gender-neutral masculines, but I have to wonder if there's some sort of unconscious resistance to a certain way of thinking going on here.
I saw Equilibrium a couple weeks ago, and it provides such a vivid portrayal of exactly this sort of thing. It was a future society that had removed their own emotions via drugs in order to remove the potential of conflict. It was a very peaceful society in the sense of lack of conflict, but it wasn't Hebrew shalom, which signifies wholeness and health. It wasn't really no emotion at all. It was just no emotion besides very run-of-the-mill, low-level emotion like Spock's fascination with certain facts despite his Vulcan disavowal and suppression of emotions. The drugs didn't cut emotion off completely, just anything beyond he minimal level required for portraying people in a movie and not ending up with something really boring. People had different personalities, and they had preferences and so on. What they didn't have is admiration or appreciation of truly beautiful things or disgust or regret over unfortunate circumstance.
One character was asked what he felt about his wife being taken away for having committed a sense crime. His response was, "I don't know what you mean," and he was being fully honest. He didn't have any idea what an answer to that question was supposed to be like. Many people don't know what to say to questions like that, but he didn't even have a concept of what the question was getting at. Characters who stopped taking their emotion-suppressing drugs had these epiphanies just from hearing music or reading poetry, and a member of the equivalent of their police who had been rounding up sense offenders all his life suddently realized what killing was when he missed a couple doses of his drugs, and he could barely contain himself.
The reason I bring this up is that the characters readily use emotion-language. They talk about things they don't understand, things they've never experienced. Well, they don't really talk about those things. They just use the words for them. The things those words are supposed to refer to are the sort of thing that you can't really talk about unless you have some acquaintance with them. This was a deliberate feature of the script, according to the interviews in the DVD extras. They wanted the viewer to see the retention of language that no longer meant anything more than something much less than what it means to people now. I don't know if they saw that this happens already in natural language, without the inverse Brave New World elements of the world they were putting together, but they captured that fact of contemporary English very nicely.
This is just an extreme form of what has been happening in contemporary English, and it's not just a fact about English. Any term used to capture that sex is more than just a romp in the sack will over time simply end up giving little sense besides the physicality of it. This is why the Greek 'phileo' is so rare in the New Testament, even though it had been virtually synonymous with 'agapeo'. The popular usage of the term had become associated with kissing. I guess it's a good thing the reference to Amnon's rape as agape in the Septuagint didn't have a similar effect, or the New Testament authors wouldn't have had any word to use for love.
So how do you translate this term? Do you insist on capturing the element of knowing by translating with an expression that ensures that will get through, or do you use a term that people reading it will know has to do with sex? Is there a way to do both? I don't know what my answer would be, but this is just a general symptom of a larger problem in translation to begin with. This comes up over and over again in translation, and those who generally insist on literal translation tend to have grown up hearing words used in a way that most people wouldn't understand, while those who insist on capturing the sense of the terms that wouldn't be captured in a more literal rendering seem to ignore the fact that key elements of what it means does get lost when you focus on one element of the sense and not another.
That's the problem in this case. This is actually one of those places where the so-called literal translation just isn't, as Wayne Leman points out in his response to the ESV Blog's post. What's being called a literal translation is really just a dynamic translation focusing on a different element of the sense of the original. It captures one component of the sense but not another. But I'm not sure the one usually thought of as the dynamic translation is better, because that also captures one element but not another. Which element is more important? One is more important for signifying what actually takes place, but the other is more important for signifying a crucial element of what that means, one with ethical and theological significance enough for me not to like either sort of translation. I'd like to see a way to capture both elements.
Update: Kenny Pearce considers another aspect of this with respect to Mary's use of this idiom in Luke. In that case, at least, it's a Hebrew idiom being used in Greek that we want to translate into English. Since it wasn't a Greek idiom, it would have sounded funny already in Greek. So if it sounds funny in English, that just conveys more of how the original would have sounded. I think this is right, but that's not the only issue. It's not just that it sounds funny. It also isn't understandable to large numbers of English speakers, particularly those who didn't grow up knowing anything about the Bible or this use of 'know'. If the majority of college students don't even know the difference between what Christians call the Old Testament and the New Testament, then why expect them to know details like this?