God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Love is What Love Does: On 1 Corinthians 13

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:

  1. makrothumeo – be patient
  2. christeuomai – be kind
  3. zilow – be jealous
  4. perpereuomai – brag
  5. fusiow – be arrogant
  6. aschimoneo – behave improperly
  7. ziteo ta eautis – be self-centered
  8. paroxunomai – be irritable
  9. logizomai to kakon – bear a grudge
  10. chairo [epi ti adikia] – rejoice [because of evil]
  11. sugchairo [ti alitheia] – rejoice [because of the truth]
  12. stego – endure
  13. pisteuo – believe
  14. elpizo – hope
  15. upomeno – endure

Can you think of 15 verbs or 15 adjectives to express these 15 concepts?


June 27, 2010 - Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , ,


  1. I look forward to hearing these responses.

    I’m particularly curious how “ZILOW” is rendered.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | June 27, 2010

  2. I have not tried to write against this pattern – but there is another factor. Some verbs are expressed in the negative – so the pattern is yynnn nnnnny yyyyn – I was surprised to see the apophatic nature of this part of the letter. Perhaps I will give it a try even though I don’t do much Greek

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | June 27, 2010

  3. This question immediately raises the relationship between this chapter and Exodus 34:6. The first verbs both seem to me to be alluding to this. So whatever was done in Exodus and its many allusions in TNK would govern what the translator might do with the Greek here. But I regret that it is off my radar for the moment to actually provide English glosses.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | June 28, 2010

    • Here is the LXX of Ex 34:6b


      οικτιρμων και ελεημων
      μακροθυμος και πολυελεος
      και αληθινος

      I don’t think it has enough in common to see it as an allusion.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | June 29, 2010

  4. We do have a verb phrase for “be patient.” Chill out.

    Comment by bloggingjesus | December 11, 2011

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