The first 13 verses of 1 Corinthians 13 form an extended poetic passage about love. As with all stylistic prose, this text is difficult to translate well.
In particular, verses 4-7 present a challenge to the translator, because in those verses “love” is personified through 15 Greek verbs that describe what love does. (As an aside: it’s tempting to capitalize “Love” here: “…verbs that describe what Love does.”)
As I’ve already pointed out, mimicking parts of speech when translating generally has very little merit. So there’s no particular reason to translate a Greek verb as an English verb, rather than, say, an English adjective, or something else.
Most translations take the first Greek verb, in 13:4 — makrothumeo — and render it as the adjectival “is patient” rather than, for example, the now stilted “suffereth long” of the KJV. By itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. And, in fact, I can’t think of a good modern English verb that means “to be patient.”
But other Greek verbs in the series do end up as verbs in English. Most translations opt for “rejoices” for chairo and sugchairo in verse 13:6, for example.
The problem is that the English mixture of verbs and adjectives destroys the pattern of the original, and, along with the pattern, much of the powerful impact of the original.
Here are approximations of the 15 concepts expressed as verbs in the original:
- makrothumeo – be patient
- christeuomai – be kind
- zilow – be jealous
- perpereuomai – brag
- fusiow – be arrogant
- aschimoneo – behave improperly
- ziteo ta eautis – be self-centered
- paroxunomai – be irritable
- logizomai to kakon – bear a grudge
- chairo [epi ti adikia] – rejoice [because of evil]
- sugchairo [ti alitheia] – rejoice [because of the truth]
- stego – endure
- pisteuo – believe
- elpizo – hope
- upomeno – endure
Can you think of 15 verbs or 15 adjectives to express these 15 concepts?
The dictionary can be double edged sword, used either to understand or wielded to confuse.
In another forum, a KJVO proponent defended the KJV translation “the voice of the turtle” (for the Hebrew kol ha-tor) as accurately representing a bird call in Song of Songs. His reasoning was that “turtledove” is listed as one of the (archaic) meanings for “turtle,” so “voice of the turtle,” he says, means, “voice of the dove.”
I think this approach is as common as it is misguided.
It usually goes something like this:
It turns out that the Hebrew doesn’t say “clap” but rather “strike with.”
James 2:23-24 uses the same root twice to highlight the point that Faith requires Works. But that important rhetorical device — duplication of the root — is lost in most translations. For example (NRSV):
(23) …”Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Genesis 15:6] … (24) You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
That translation, like most others, is ambiguous regarding the exact connection between Abraham’s belief (in James 2:23, which quotes Genesis 15:6) and faith (in James 2:24).
But in Greek, “believed” is pisteuo and “faith” is pistis. The text connects Abraham’s pistis with the general nature of pistis. It’s essentially a grammatical accident that we see a verb in Genesis 15:6 — so also in James 2:23 — and a noun in James 2:24.
Why do translations have such a hard time capturing this basic effect? The KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV all have “Abraham believed” here, instead of the obvious other choice: “Abraham had faith.”
(The NAB’s lapse is particularly surprising. In Genesis itself that translation reads, “put his faith.” The CEV opts for “had faith” in James 2:23, but then goes with “what we believe” in verse 24.)
I also think it’s no small matter that the same root appears twice, a topic I’ll turn to soon.
John 8:32 — “the truth will set you free” (i alitheia eleutherosei umas) — is one of the most well known lines in the Bible.
The key words are pretty easy to translate. The Greek alitheia is “truth” and eleutherow is the verb “to free.” So even thought we might prefer “the truth will free you,” the usual translation seems just fine.
But what the translation doesn’t capture is the similarity of sound between the two key words: aLiTHeia and eLeuTHerosei. (The -sei at the end is part of the verbal declension of eleutherow.)
John 8:32 is the second half of a thought that starts in 8:31. The usual renderings of 8:31 suggest more confusion regarding translation: “…if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples” (NRSV); “…if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (NIV); or “…if you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples” (NAB). The difficult word to translate in this context is meno.
I think we again find an important clue in the forms of the words. The conjugated form of meno (“continue,” “hold,” “remain,” or more generally “live”) is meinite, and the word for “disciples” is mathitai.
Taken in isolation, the similarity of forms hardly seems noteworthy (MeiniTe and MathiTai). But in conjunction with 8:32, I think we find two pairs of similar words.
So here’s the challenge: Can you think of a way of capturing that important effect in English?
In a widely viewed video, Christopher Hitchens mocks the Ten Commandments with, among other jabs, the contrast between a commandment and an observation. “#6: Thou shalt not kill,” Hitchens (mis)quotes at 2:46 into the video. Then he notes (2:48 into the video): “Almost immediately after the events at Sinai, and the delivery of these instructions by God at the top of the mountain, Moses orders all his supporters to draw their swords and kill all their friends and brothers for their profanity.”
His point, I guess, is the incongruity between “not killing” and then “killing.”
But it’s widely known that the 6th commandment (numbered 5 by Catholics) doesn’t prohibit all killing. Hitchens is misquoting the commandment based on a mistranslation that dates back to the KJV.
I go through the evidence in my latest book, but the information is well known, and even a cursory look at published translations shows how many people know that the original version didn’t read “do not kill.” The NIV, NRSV, and even ESV translate this commandment as “you shall not murder.”
So I wonder. Does Hitchens really think that the KJV is accurate here? Or is he setting up a straw man just to be argumentative?