Dr. Jim West’s comment that Jeremiah 25 is a good litmus test for translation — and his claim that the NLT doesn’t do badly — directed my attention to the NLT’s translation of Jeremiah 25. In light of some resent claims about the disaster in Haiti, Jeremiah 25:7 in the NLT jumped off the page at me:
“But you would not listen to me,” says the LORD. “You made me furious by worshiping your idols, bringing on yourselves all the disasters you now suffer.
I’ve bolded the part that struck me. The problem is that the Hebrew doesn’t say that. Here’s the original:
|“You didn’t listen to me,”||v’lo sh’matem eilai|
|says Adonai,||n’um adonai|
|“so that you angered me”||l’ma’an hach’isuni|
|with the works of your hands||b’ma’asei y’deichem|
|to harm you.”||l’ra lachem|
The verse follows up on the previous one, in which God warns, “do not pursue other gods and serve them and bow down to them, and do not anger me with the works of your hands, and I will not harm you.” The repetition in verses 25:6 and 25:7 of “anger,” “works of your hands” and “harm” tie the two together.
Verse 25:6 is classic Hebrew parallelism, in which “other gods” from the first part is like “works of your hands” in the second part. These are idols. More interestingly, Jeremiah juxtaposes “pursuing/serving/bowing down to [other gods]” with “angering [God].” So one message of verse 25:6 is that “serving other gods” is like “angering God,” just as “other gods” are like “works of [human] hands.”
It seems to me that at the very least a translation of these two verses should (a) convey the point of the passage, and only the point of the passage; and (b) preserve the connection between the two verses.
The NLT fails (a), because the original verses do not say “bringing on yourselves.” Does the original text imply that the false-god worshippers have brought about their own punishment? Maybe, if you think that failing to heed a warning is the same as bringing something on yourself. But even so, turning an implication of the text into the text is a mistake.
The NLT also misses the connection with the previous verse: “Do not make me angry by worshiping the idols you have made. Then I will not harm you” (Jer 25:6, NLT). The switch from “angry” to “furious” for the same Hebrew word is misleading. The NLT rewrite of 25:6 lacks the parellism of the original, but I think it still conveys the similarity of angering God and worshipping idols.
Other translations do a better with (a), generally sticking to the text and not editorializing, and most stick essentially with the KJV: “[Jer 25:6] And go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, and provoke me not to anger with the works of your hands; and I will do you no hurt. [25:7] Yet ye have not hearkened unto me, saith the LORD; that ye might provoke me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt.” The parallelism in 25:6 is preserved, as is the connection between the two verses, because both have “provoke me to anger,” “works of your hands,” and “hurt.”
On the other hand, “do you no hurt” and “to your own hurt” are barely English.
The ESV changes “hurt” to “harm,” updating the English a bit. The NRSV does the same.
The NAB fixes verse 25:6 with “bring evil upon you,” but then keeps “to your own harm” in the following verse, breaking the connection between the two.
The NIV fixes verse 25:6 with “then I will not harm you” and follows up with “and you have brought harm to yourselves,” again shifting the focus a little.
The CEV correctly preserves the neutrality of the Hebrew in 25:7: “you are the ones who were hurt by what you did,” but in 25:6 that version invents a new premise: “I don’t want to harm you.”
Though there are some interesting translation issues in Jeremiah 25:6-7, it’s among the more straightforward passages, and I’m a little surprised how far some versions stray in translating it.
From the About page comes this question:
Mark 1:2 and Isaiah 40:3 — is the idea that crooked paths need to be straightened, or that obstacles need to be removed?
Isaiah 40:3 is a variation on classic Hebrew parallel poetry. We have two parallel phrases, each with four words. For example, from the NRSV, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD// make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” we have:
A. In the wilderness [bamidbar] prepare [panu] the way [derech] of the Lord [Adonai]
B. Make straight [yashru] in the desert [ba’arava] a highway [m’silah] for our God [leiloheinu]
We might bicker over the lexical translation choices (“highway” seems particularly out of place), but the point is that we have two ways each of referring to four things: God, the desert, the road, and making the road. The first three are pretty easy to translate, but then things get complicated.
The first way of making a road here in Hebrew is panu, more literally “to clear” or “to turn aside.” Translators usually correctly render this verb with an English word that has to do with making roads.
Unfortunately, though (and, come to think of it, ironically), the English choice of “make straight” for the second Hebrew verb here (yashru) leads readers astray. The central point wasn’t so much “straight” as “make.” Like panu derech (“make a way”), yashru m’silah means to prepare a path. So a better translation might juxtapose “clear the way” and “make a path,” or, preferably, some more poetic equivalent.
By focusing readers’ attention on “straight,” the English translation misses both the poetry and the point.
The KJV popularized the tradition of using italics to mark the English words of a translation that are not actually in the original Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic) of the Bible.
But I think this typographic custom creates the false impression that translation words come in two varieties, with the first kind supposedly representing words that are really in the original, and the second (italicized) those that are not.
For example, Revelation 1:1 in the KJV reads, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ…; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” The thinking was that the Greek doesn’t have a word for “it” here, and that this fact is important to a reader of the passage in English.
As it happens, the Greek in Revelation 1:1 also doesn’t have a word for “he” here, but my point is not that the KJV did a bad job of applying the italics (though I think that it did), but rather that it’s a bad idea in general, because it propagates two wrong notions.
What does “only implied” mean?
First, it gives the impression that there are two kinds of words in a translation, some “really” in the original, some only implied by the original. But I think that all of the English words are “only implied” by the original. After all, the original contains no English words.
Two questions from the About page ask about Isaiah 9:5 (9:6), “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (NRSV).
The final phrase of this child’s name (“Prince of Peace”) are probably the most famous, so we’ll start there.
The Hebrew is sar shalom, that is, sar of shalom. While the English “Prince of Peace” has a nice alliterative ring to it, there’s little support for translating sar as “prince,” and even “peace” for shalom is a bit misleading.
The Hebrew sar is generally someone in charge of something. For example, we find in Genesis (21:22, 21:32, etc.) that Phicol is in charge of Abimelech’s army; Phicol there is the sar of the army. Later in Genesis, Potiphar is sar of the tabachim (this is probably an expression, perhaps “chief steward”). There’s a sar of the jail (“jailkeeper”), of drink (“cupbearer”) and baked goods (“chief baker”).
In Exodus 2:14 the term is used generically when a Hebrew challenges Moses with the rhetorical question, “who made you sar and judge over us?” In Numbers 16:13, a verbal form of the noun is used to mean “rule over us.”
The recent brouhaha about gun sights etched with references to Biblical passages has brought renewed attention to John 8:12 and 2 Corinthians 4:6, both about light. To understand the light, I think we need a detour through the word for “face”: prosopon.
The Face – prosopon
At its most basic level, prosopon is literally the face, as in Matthew 6:16, where fasting involves caring for the the head (kefali) and the face (prosopon); or in Revelations 10:1, where the word appears with pous, “foot.”
But we see from Matthew 16:3 that the word also means “appearance.” The phrase prosopon tou ouranou — literally, “face of the sky” — is clearly “how the sky appears.”
Other times yet, prosopon forms part of an expression. We find pipto epi prosopon — literally “to fall on the face” — which is an act of humility or of supplication. (“Falling on one’s face” may have been a physical act of prostration, but even so, it was a Greek expression, perhaps taken from the similar Hebrew one (nafal al panav). By contrast, in English if I “fall on my face” I probably slipped. The English phrase can also refer to failure.)
Similarly, stirixo to prosopon — “to set the face” — means to head toward, as in Luke 9:51.
The English word “face” is also used figuratively, but, obviously, it’s a mistake to assume that the English figures of speech match the Greek ones just because they happen both to contain a word meaning “face.”
So when we read in 2 Corinthians 4:6 about prosopon Christou, we know that it may be the physical face of Christ, but it need not be. It could be Christ’s appearance, or something even less tangible. And the English “face” may or may not be the right word for it.
The Light – fos
This brings us “light,” fos in Greek.
In Genesis 1:3, God creates fos, that is, “light.” Fos, then, is physical light, a usage we find throughout the LXX and the NT
Light in general is important to the human condition, and it also plays a central role in the Greek dualism that pits lights against darkness, so we we aren’t surprised to find that fos refers not only to physical light but also, in general, to good things.
When Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1 in Matthew 4:16, he uses the images of “living in darkness,” versus “seeing a great light,” and of the “shadow of death” versus the “rise of light.” Isaiah makes it clear that light is good and darkness bad in Isaiah 9:2, where he talks about the happiness and joy that come with light.
Similarly, Acts 26:8 puts “darkness to light [fos]” in parallel with “the power of Satan toward God,” again using fos for “good” in general.
And once again, we have expressions in English that involve “light,” but that doesn’t mean that “light” in English is the same as fos in Greek. For instance, in English one can “see the light,” but that phrase means “to understand,’ not necessarily “to find goodness.” (This is why Acts 22:9 is hard to translate — it involves the contrast between literally seeing the light of God’s sign to Paul versus literally hearing the sounds.)
Sometimes it’s hard to know if we see an idiom in Greek or a metaphor — that is, whether the text us using fos in its general sense of “good” or whether the text is using physical light poetically. John 11:9-10, for example, explains that those who walk at night without light stumble, while those who walk by the light of day do not. The message transcends physical walking, light, and darkness, but the words themselves may not. That’s how allegories work.
In John 8:12 we probably see both physical and metaphoric light, first the light of the world, then the light of life.
2 Corinthians 4:6 is much more interesting, as we see next.
More Light – fotismos
Like John 8:12, 2 Corinthians 4:6 progresses from physical light to something else. The physical light comes in the phrase ek skotous fos, “light out of darkness.” (This is sometimes footnoted as a citation of Genesis 1:3. I’m not convinced.)
But in the second half of 2 Corinthians 4:6 we find the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (a phrase that is much less awkward in Greek). Here, however, instead of the usual word fos we find the less common fotismos. That Greek word is related to fos in roughly the way that “enlightenment” or “lighting” is related to “light,” but — as usual — we don’t want to let English happenstance mask what the Greek means.
In the LXX, we find fotismos a handful of times, and here’s what interesting: the word is often used in connection with the face! So we have Psalm 44:4 (43:4): o fotismos tou prosopou sou for the Hebrew or panecha (“light of your face”); Psalm 90:8 (89:8): fotismon tou prosopou sou for the Hebrew lim’or panecha (“light of your face”). There are two Hebrew words for “light” here — or and ma’or — but even though they are both usually translated as fos, here we find fotismos, both for or and for ma’or in connection with panim (“face”).
It’s not clear how much to make of this — the sample is mostly limited to Psalms, and sometimes, as in Psalm 89:16 (88:16), or panecha is just fos tou prosopou — but it’s still suggestive.
The word fotismos is rarer still in the NT. We see it here in 2 Corinthians 4:6, and two verses earlier in 4:4. In verse 4:4 we find the fotismos of “the gospel of the glory of Christ,” and here in 4:6 of “the knowledge of the glory of God,” and then, toward the end of 4:6, the fotismos is connected to “Christ’s face.”
The Light of Christ’s Face
So what we have is a metaphorical use of “face” (prosopon) in the NT that doesn’t match how we use “face” in English, and a special word for “light” (fotismos) that seems to be if not specifically connected to the face at least generally metaphoric in ways that the English “light” is not. And the two metaphoric words come together in 2 Corinthians 4:6.
The NRSV translates, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” But this seems to me like a case of getting the words right and missing the point; other translations fare similarly. (Also, the grammar is particularly awkward in English.)
Equally (in)correct as a translation would be, “…the benefit of knowing God’s glory in the presence of Jesus Christ.” In addition to fixing the English grammar, that translation conveys some aspects of the original Greek, but at the expense of the connection to “light.” Similarly we might consider, “…the beauty of knowing God’s glory in the presnce of Jesus Christ,” with the same benefits and drawbacks.
We can also compare, “the light of knowing God’s glory before Jesus Christ.” Again, it fixes the English grammar, and in so doing, I think it highlights the incongruity of “light” here, which misses the impact of fotismos.
As a bolder option, we might try, “the glow of knowing God’s glory as illuminated by Jesus Christ.” It’s still not right, but it seems to me that it’s better than the word-for-word translation.
The central problem for translation is that we can’t accurately capture the incidentally metaphoric use of prosopon (“face,” but not really) and the specifically metaphoric use of fotismos (“light,” but really not).
Still, even without a great English translation (any suggestions?), I think we can recognize the beauty of the original poetry, and — at the risk of straying from the realm of translation — ask if it belongs on weapon of war.
[Update Jan 22, 2010: Trijicon has reversed its policy of putting Bible citations on its gun sights.]
Perhaps because understanding parts of speech is so central to learning a foreign language, translators often try to preserve parts of speech when they translate.
But I think this is a mistake.
We know from modern languages that parts of speech often have to change in translation, and I think we see cases where more flexibility would benefit Bible translations, too.
As usual, we use modern languages to help us understand how translation works, and then apply the lessons to translating ancient languages.
The French for “I’m hungry” is j’ai faim, or, perhaps more to the point, the English for j’ai faim is “I’m hungry.” This generally undisputed point is relevant because j’ai faim starts off with “I have” (j’ai) followed by a noun which we can roughly translate as “hunger.” Certainly this pronoun-verb-noun combination has to become a pronoun-verb-adjective one in English. Anything else is simply to misunderstand the French or to misrepresent it in English.
Specifically, the awkward “I have hunger” is an inaccurate translation. Even though it makes (a little) sense in English, the French is a common expression while “I have hunger” in English is certainly not.
Other examples don’t work at all in English.
For instance, the French j’ai sommeil means “I’m tired” or “I’m sleepy,” but preserving the parts of speech results in the absurd “I have sleepiness.”
The Modern Hebrew kar li means “I’m cold,” even though the Hebrew is an adjective followed by a prepositional phrase. “Cold to me” and “there is cold to me” are clearly the wrong translations.
The German wie geht’s Ihnen? means “how are you?” It’s an interrogative-verb-pronoun-pronoun combination. The literal “how goes it to you?” is wrong. English demands interrogative-verb-pronoun.
Another common misunderstanding is that the grammar of a different language — say, French — reflects a fundamentally different way of thinking about the world. So some people naively think that because the literal equivalent of “I have sleepiness” is grammatical in French, the French notion of being tired differs from the English one.
But we can see that this approach is flawed because alongside the French j’ai sommeil we find je suis fatige, literally, “I am tired.” In other words, both expressions — the English-grammar variety and the French-grammar variety — exist side by side in French.
What we see instead is that parts of speech can change within a language without changing the meaning, and that parts of speech sometimes have to change as part of a successful translation.
Another Modern Example
Modern Hebrew has few adverbs, so aderverbiness (if you’ll pardon the word) is often expressed through a combination of b’ofen (“in a manner”) or b’derech (“in a way”) followed by an adjective. For example, “I explained it clearly” in Hebrew becomes …b’ofen barur, “…in a clear manner.” “Superficially” is b’ofen shitchi, “in a superficial manner.”
Here we find a greater temptation to mimic the Hebrew parts of speech, because “in a clear manner” and “in a superficial manner” sound like English. But even though they are grammatical, they are still the wrong English to translate the Hebrew.
Two Biblical Examples
A perfect example of the need to think beyond parts of speech comes from the Greek kata, commonly glossed as “according to” or “as.”
In Mark 4:10 and Luke 9:18 we find the phrase kata monas, literally “as alone,” but every translation I know of renders that phrase with the adverb “alone.”
The very similar Greek kata idian (usually kat’ idian) highlights the issue. The word idian is pretty close to the English “self.” So kata idian could be “by himself,” and this is how the ESV translates the phrase in Matthew 14:13. The KJV gives us “apart” and the NIV translates “privately.” As it happens, “by himself” is grammatical English, but — as we’ve seen — the fact that it so closely matches the Greek doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best translation.
In Romans 2:2 we find kata alitheian, which the KJV translates literally as “according to truth”: “But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things.” Some other translations recognize that “according to truth” is not English, and offer instead “rightly” (ESV), “is true” (NAB), “is based on truth” (NIV), “justly,” (NJB), etc.
In Romans 11:21, kata fusin — “according to nature” — is almost always translated “natural,” as in the NRSV: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.” Yet three verses later, most translations go with “by nature” for the same phrase.
These issues are particularly important when it comes to kata sarka, “according to sarx.” I’m not going to revisit the complex issue of sarx here. My point is more simply that even if the NIV translators are right that the word means “sinful nature,” they still may be wrong in translating, “according to the sinful nature.” Perhaps “in sin” is better, or “sinful,” etc.
The verb katergazomai means “do,” but that doesn’t mean that we need to translate it as a verb every time.
Philippians 2:12 gives us: sotirian katergazomai, “work out salvation,” (KJV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, NIV, etc.). But maybe a verb is called for here. What about katergazomeni thanaton in Romans 7:13? It’s usually translated along the lines of “working/producing/causing death.” Again, a verb seems the better choice (though there are other considerations, like the word play with egeneto thanatos earlier in the verse).
What we see is that the slavish preservation of parts of speech tends to create awkward, inaccurate translations.
What other examples can you think of?
I found out that I had a lot to learn from the God of my New Living Translation Study Bible […]
Why didn’t I discover this about him earlier? I had allowed my pride and prejudice to cloud my judgment. The kind of pride that sometimes keeps me from recognizing the Jesus of the New Living Translation Study Bible.
If I’ve understood the author’s point (the post is signed by Gladys N.), the claim seems to be that the NLT has its own God and its own Jesus. If so, obviously, the NLT is not a translation but a rewrite, and one that, presumably, readers who are interested in the original God and Jesus would want to avoid. In other words, what the author seems to think of as a merit is in my mind a fault.
Later on, the author posits that, “God made this [message] clear in His Word in the New Living Translation Study Bible.”
But the statements seems so outrageous — almost like a parody of the KJV-onlyists — that I have to believe I’ve missed what’s really going on.