God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge: The Truth Will Set You Free

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?

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June 9, 2010 - Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , ,

10 Comments »

  1. Wordplays are very challenging to translate.

    Most of the time I just point them out, as they get lost in (almost all) translation.

    Comment by Don Johnson | June 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. the truth will translate you

    I checked a couple of online Hebrew translations – one gets some ‘sounds alike’ qualities – but they seem accidental. The word play also seems slight in this case but I am glad to see the possibility. I note that the Greek is very compact also.

    this one from a very old PDF – using a causative of deliver (e.g. as in Psalm 31:4) and what is that last word! (2 Samuel 24:1 was the only instance I could find!)

    vida`etem et-ha)emet veha)emet tociakem lecherut
    and you will know the truth and the truth will set you on fire

    כִּי תַשְׂכִּילוּ אֶת־הָאֱמֶת וְהָאֱמֶת תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶתְכֶם חָפְשִׁים

    this one doesn’t use a causative but renders it with a literal ‘make’ and it renders ‘know’ with ‘understand’ or ‘prosper’ (Deut 29:9). I assume that chaphshim is the more normal word for ‘free’.

    what do you make of these word choices?

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | June 9, 2010 | Reply

  3. The accuracy shall acquit you?

    Comment by Joel | June 9, 2010 | Reply

  4. “REALity will reLEAse you. If you STay in the Word and be diligENT, then you are my STudENT.”

    Comment by Gary Simmons | June 9, 2010 | Reply

  5. I’m never happy with my efforts, but I can’t resist. It was my wife who suggested using “liberate”:

    My true disciples are disciplined about my words;
    They who have deliberated will be truly liberated.

    Comment by Will Fitzgerald | June 10, 2010 | Reply

  6. I like Gary’s a lot. Another (far from perfect) alternative would be:

    “Life’s truth will liberate you…”

    Comment by Eric | June 11, 2010 | Reply

    • Thank you! I was hoping someone would notice mine.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | June 11, 2010 | Reply

  7. Re:

    “vida`etem et-ha)emet veha)emet tociakem lecherut
    and you will know the truth and the truth will set you on fire”

    “Set you on fire” perplexes me as an English translation of “tociakem lecherut” (for those unfamiliar with that transcription scheme but familiar with Hebrew, the “c” represents the letter tzade).

    “Cherut” is modern Hebrew for “freedom” (not for “fire”) — “lecherut” = “to freedom” — “tociakem lecherut” = “will cause/allow you to go out to freedom” (or, in more idiomatic English, “will let you go free” — the verb-root in ‘tociakem’ is the same root used in the Hebrew word for ‘going out’ or ‘exodus’ or in the Hebrew phrase for ‘the Exodus from Egypt’)

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | January 14, 2011 | Reply

  8. Truth will set you loose to be a prudent student.

    Comment by bloggingjesus | December 11, 2011 | Reply

  9. “If you live in my word you will learn from me how to be alive in the Father as I am.” (This is a poor paraphrase not translation, but it’s what I come back to after reading the context carefully.)

    Comment by Andrea Johnson | May 22, 2012 | Reply


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