God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Weak Flesh and Sarx

Just as people (Peter Kirk on BBB, Doug Chaplin on Clayboy, Mark Goodacre on NT blog, Jason Staples, and more) are talking about sarx again, the New York Times wrote today:

Il Giornale’’s attack expanded on Thursday, with another editorial aimed at the Catholic Church itself, mocking not just the “hypocrisy” of sexually active priests with “weak flesh,”….

So apparently the editors of the Times think that even in secular contexts, English speakers know that “flesh” can have connotations beyond the literal meaning of the word.

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September 4, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice | , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. Surely the NYT put quotes round “weak flesh” to indicate that they were quoting the Italian newspaper, presumably giving a literal translation of the Italian idiom “carne debole”. And they added “sexually active” to clarify what they were talking about. I don’t think this is an example of “flesh” being in general use in English. In any case, the meaning here would not be anything like what Paul meant by the term, which related to sinful tendencies in general and not only to sexual sin. I don’t think anyone would understand these priests’ “weak flesh” as anything to do with greed or laziness.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 4, 2009 | Reply

    • Surely the NYT put quotes round “weak flesh” to indicate that they were quoting the Italian newspaper, presumably giving a literal translation of the Italian idiom “carne debole”. […] I don’t think this is an example of “flesh” being in general use in English.

      I’m almost sure it’s a quote. (I tried to find the article on Il Giornale‘s website by searching for “carne debole” this morning, and I couldn’t find it. Anyone?) But even so, the editors of the NYT seem to have assumed that people would know it doesn’t just mean “flesh,” and I do think that in certain phrases “flesh” has connotations of impropriety.

      In any case, the meaning here would not be anything like what Paul meant by the term, which related to sinful tendencies in general and not only to sexual sin. I don’t think anyone would understand these priests’ “weak flesh” as anything to do with greed or laziness.

      Worse, it would be a little bit like what Paul meant, so readers in English think they know what’s going on when they don’t. That’s one more reason not to translate sarx as “flesh.”

      Comment by Joel | September 4, 2009 | Reply

  2. I don’t think there’s any question that flesh has connotations beyond the concrete meaning of the word. To prove it, all you need to do is type the word into Google or Urban Dictionary (look at the “related words” in Urban Dictionary).

    I’ve been chatting with a sociologist friend of mine about coming up with a reasonably good survey system to explore the range of meaning of “flesh” and a few other important Bible-translation-relevant words. Hopefully we can get this off the ground soon and I can provide some data.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | October 29, 2009 | Reply

  3. I’ve been chatting with a sociologist friend of mine about coming up with a reasonably good survey system to explore the range of meaning of “flesh” and a few other important Bible-translation-relevant words. Hopefully we can get this off the ground soon and I can provide some data.

    I’ll look forward to seeing the results. (One of my biggest frustrations with social science is the pattern of: “I’ve asked a few of my friends and based on what they said I’ve drawn a conclusion about all of humanity.”)

    Comment by Joel H. | October 30, 2009 | Reply

  4. You see, completely ignoring the that Italian idiom — and whatever surrounding context from the NYT that little sound byte comes from — I would have interpreted that the priests under attack were under attack because of hypocrisy and ED.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 5, 2009 | Reply

  5. I am not a theologian but a Believer in Christ living near Cape Town n South Africa….my concern is that I don’t see any recognition of the use of ” Sarx ” in Galatians 3:3 to express human effort and the law of Moses as attempts to be reconciled to God.” Sarx” is also used in Galatians 6:8 to express the sinful nature. There is clearly a conflict here as Sarx is used many times to mean the sinful nature but trying to gain God’s approval by following the Law was clearly abolished at the cross.We are only saved by Grace.Am I crazy or is there a much bigger problem in translating Sarx than the difference between physical flesh and carnality??
    Please respond!!!

    Comment by Doug Murray | November 18, 2016 | Reply


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