God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Please take those quotation marks off your interpretation

Rick Warren tweeted:

To see consumerism on steroids, come here to Tokyo. “Life is not measured by how much one owns.” Luke 12:15

But neither Luke nor Jesus said that. Rick Warren did. (To be fair, so did the New Century Version translation.) The original Greek reads, “life is not estin…,” and estin just means “is.” So the phrase means, “life isn’t how much one owns.” (The meaning of the verb is not generally a disputed point.)

The translators of the NCV, though, decided to interpret Luke by adding the word “measured.” Maybe they’re right, maybe not, but either way, it seems to me that the quotation marks have to go.

I suppose there’s a theoretical sense in which quotation marks never belong around a translation (unless it’s the translation that’s being quoted). What was said in Greek can’t literally be directly quoted in English. But as a matter of practicality, most people know the difference between what someone said and what someone implied. And only the former gets quotation marks.

“Wherefore art thou Romeo?” It’s a quotation. The subtext is, “why aren’t you someone I can marry? Why are you Romeo?” But to put quotations around my interpretation is simply to misquote and mislead. Even if I’m right, I’m wrong if I claim: Shakespeare wrote, “Why can’t I marry you?”

Similarly, even if Jesus meant that “life isn’t measured…” to put quotation marks around what he meant is to misquote and mislead.

I think we see the same sort of thing in Bill Mounce’s claim today that “the nuance of autos is […] they alone” in the beatitudes in Matthew. (His post appears here, too.) Dr. Mounce’s point is that, for example, in saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs [autin] is the kingdom of heaven”:

Jesus is not saying that the poor in spirit, among others, are blessed. He is saying that they and they alone will inherit the kingdom.

Probably. But when Dr. Mounce adds:

[T]he fact of the matter is that this is what the Greek text says. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs, and theirs alone, is the kingdom of God.”

he is confusing what the text means and what the speaker (may have) implied. The Greek is no more or less ambiguous than the English, “…theirs is the kingdom of God” (though I might quibble about the English grammar.) And by putting quotation marks around his (probably correct) interpretation, it seems to me that Dr. Mounce is misquoting and misleading.

There’s an important place for interpretation. But I think part of its value lies in being distinguished from translation.

So, please — Pastor Warren, Dr. Mounce, and so many others — take those quotation marks off of your interpretations.


December 14, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Who is the King of Kings?

If for no other reason, the phrase “king of kings and lord of lords” is famous because it’s in Handel’s Messiah.

We first find “king of kings” in the OT, where the appellation is used for Pagan rulers: Artaxerxes in Ezra (where “king of kings” is the Aramaic melech malchaya) and Nebuchadnezzar in Ezekiel and Daniel (in Hebrew and Aramaic, respectively). The Babylonian rulers were “kings of kings,” reflecting their desire to rise above other, lower kings. (Based on this, Jewish custom would later call God melech malchei ha-m’lachim, “king of the kings of kings,” the final salvo of one-upmanship emphasizing God’s power over the “kings of kings.”)

In the NT, the phrases “king of kings” and “lord of lords” each have two Greek equivalents, a fact that is hidden by all of the English translations that I know of.

In Revelation we find phrases that are structurally similar to “king of kings” and “lord of lords,” basileus basileon and kurios kurion, respectively. The first is the same Greek phrase that we find in the LXX in Ezra, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

But in I Timothy 6:15 we find the less-expected basileus ton basileuonton — similar to “ruler of the rulings” — and kurios ton kurieuonton (“lord of the lordings,” as it were).

The difference is particularly surprising in light of the otherwise similar phrasing in I Timothy 6:15-16 and Daniel 2:37, including the fact that timi — variously “honor” or “glory” — is ascribed to the “kings of kings” in both places.

Is the different Greek wording for “king of kings” in I Timothy an irrelevant detail, best hidden (as it currently is) by translations? Or should translations let the English reader see that the wording in I Timothy is different than what we find elsewhere?

December 14, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , | 1 Comment