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 | , , , , ,


  1. Excellent post; I completely agree about avoiding unnecessarily imposing an interpretation in the process of translation—hence my strong feelings on sarx, where so many have imposed a (wrong, at least in my view) specific interpretation on the word.

    There is one place, however, where I think the use of quotation marks for something that is clearly a paraphrase can be useful, and that is in the context of explaining what something means. You did it, for example, when you said, “… if I claim: Shakespeare wrote, “Why can’t I marry you?”

    Another way this could work is to reference the line of Shakespeare and then say something to the effect of: In modern English, Juliet is saying, “Why are you Romeo?” Even though it’s not the exact wording of what Juliet says, you’ve at least triggered to your reader that your paraphrase is intended to function as an interpretive quote. I do think there is a function for such a thing, as long as it’s properly marked.

    **Oh, and thanks for properly using an example most modern English speakers completely misunderstand—I use the “Wherefore art thou Romeo” line all the time to explain how English has changed, since nearly every modern English speaker (being unfamiliar with Elizabethan English) thinks she’s saying, “Where are you, Romeo?” To this end, I agree with John MacWhorter that doing Shakespeare in modern English would perhaps be far more interesting and entertaining.**

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | December 14, 2009

  2. Jason:

    I didn’t mean literally that quotation marks should never be used for anything except quotations. After all, we use quotation marks:

    • To refer to words as words. For example, What does “homoioteleuton” mean?
    • To refer to to sentences. For example, Shakespeare’s Juliet meant, “Why couldn’t you be someone I can marry?”
    • Particularly in academia, to convey unease at using a particular word or phrase (scare quotes). For example, That English “translation” is a barely coherent, seemingly random arrangement of words.

    I meant that the form of citing Scripture that puts words between quotation marks and then attributes a source should only be used for translations, not for interpretations. That’s why I was uncomfortable with Pastor Warren’s:

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

    I think that sort of things blurs the important line between what’s in Scripture and what people think it means. I would have preferred:

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

    And, more generally, I think people should be clearer about distinguishing interpretation. from citation (in the form of translation or otherwise).

    Comment by Joel H. | December 15, 2009

  3. […] try to translate the pragmatic meaning. We just saw an example from Bill Mounce (criticized by me here, by Steve Runge, Mike Aubrey and others). He took the text of the beatitudes and tried to turn […]

    Pingback by On Translating Pragmatics « God Didn't Say That | December 15, 2009

  4. I was actually agreeing with you, Joel, just clarifying the one case where this kind of loose interpretive “translation” (i.e. some form of paraphrase) could fruitfully be used with quotation marks.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | December 15, 2009

  5. Hmm; that last bit about Dr. Mounce and his interpretive translation of Mt. 5:3 makes me wonder what he’s going to do with the upcoming revision of the NIV as a member of CBT.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    Comment by James Snapp, Jr. | January 3, 2010

  6. But the phrase in quotation marks was not the tweeter’s own phrase. I would have no problem saying that he quoted the NCV, however questionable the NCV may be as a translation. To omit the quotation marks would be, I think, to appropriate another’s work.

    Perhaps what we should see is something like this:

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

    Comment by Largo | December 30, 2010

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