God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

“Judge Not” And Preserving Poetry

Judge Not

“Judge not…” Most people are familiar with this famous verse from Matthew 7:1 (and the similar Luke 6:37), and know that the full line runs along the lines of “Judge not, that you be not judged” (ESV).

The content of the line is pretty easy to understand, but the poetry is very hard to convey in English, as evidenced by the wide variety of translations: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (NAB), “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (NIV), “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (NRSV), etc.

The Greek of Matthew 7:1

The Greek is a pithy five-word admonition: mi krinete ina mi krithite. The word mi means “not,” krinete means “judge,” ina means “so that,” and krithite means “be judged.” In addition to its brevity, the Greek offers a certain symmetry. The word ina sits nicely in the middle, with the two similar-sounding phrases mi krinete and mi krithite on either side. Except for the -ne- in the first part and the -thi- in the second, both sides are identical.

On Poetry and Symmetry

Similar in English is “you are what you eat,” where “what” fits nicely between the similar “you are” and “you eat.” (The original comes from German, where “are” and “eat” are both pronounced ist, so the similarity is even more pronounced: man ist vas man isst.)

Also similar in nature, if not in detail, is the English “no pain, no gain.” The phrase is successful because of the symmetry, and because “pain” and “gain” rhyme. This is why the phrase “without pain one is unlikely to achieve much” is unlikely to catch on as a training motto among athletes, even though it means the same thing as “no pain, no gain.”

Yet most translations of Matthew 7:1 are like “without pain one is unlikely to achieve much.” The translations miss the poetry.

Some people may dismiss the value of the poetry, but I disagree. I think that poetic phrasing is important. This is why so many of our proverbs either rhyme or otherwise “sound well” (as Mark Twain would say): “A stitch in time saves nine,” “no rhyme or reason,” “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” and many, many more. And even if the poetry isn’t as important as I think, it’s still part of the original. It seems to me that a good translation should convey it.

On Grammaticality

Furthermore, also like my poor paraphrase of “no pain, no gain,” translations of Matthew 7:1 tend to sound stilted and awkward. “Judge not,” for example, is no longer standard English. (Compare, “comment not that you be not flamed.”)

And I don’t think that “judge” without an object is particularly successful in English. At least in my dialect, “I saw the modern art paintings, and I couldn’t help but judge” doesn’t work as well as “…couldn’t help but judge them.” I understand why translators want to force the English construction “do not judge.” They want to make the first part sound like the second part, “do not be judged.” But their decision comes at the expense of English grammar. In English (unlike in Greek), the most common phrasing is “do not judge something,” as in “do not judge others” or “do not judge people.”

Again, not everyone thinks that a translation into Modern English has to be in Modern English (at the risk of prejudicing the issue), but I do.

Translating Matthew 7:1

So where does that leave us?

We need a translation that means “do not judge (other) people, so that you will not be judged.” It should be symmetrical, with the first and second parts sounding similar. It should be pithy. And it should be grammatical in English.

In general, I’m unwilling to compromise on grammaticality in English, at least when the original is grammatical (in the original language), and I’m unwilling to compromise on meaning. When it comes to poetry, I think poetic texts should be translated poetically, but the details of the poetry can differ. So in this case, I think the symmetry is important, but I think — if something has to go — we can do without the pithiness.

So the best I can come up with is this: “Do not judge others, so that others do not judge you.”

What do you think? And can you come up with something even closer to the original?

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April 15, 2011 - Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , ,

24 Comments »

  1. Avoiding the contraction feels a little stiff. How about “don’t judge others so you don’t get judged”, or maybe a pithier “don’t judge others, so others won’t judge you”? There’s no particular reason we need to keep the passive in English.

    Comment by Paul D. | April 15, 2011 | Reply

    • Interestingly, when you look at it all together with what follows that verse, it seems that He may not be telling us never to judge, but giving us warning about what might happen when we do. Here’s a paraphrase: If you don’t want to be judged, don’t judge. or (though I usually don’t like to use cliches), If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. This is because ye-judge in which judgement ye-will-be judged, and in which measure ye-measure it-will-be-measured-against you. Be careful about (however nicely) saying to others, let me take the twig out from your eye, when a log is in your own. He seems to say that when and if we get the logs out of our own eyes, then we may useful to someone else.

      Comment by Diane Galvacky | February 20, 2012 | Reply

  2. “judging is as judger does”, but that would probably invoke too many pop culture references.

    Comment by Justin Tungate | April 15, 2011 | Reply

  3. Just a note: This verse is what James refers to as “the perfect law of liberty” in James 1:25.

    I think the KJV is pretty classy on this one. Happy 400th!

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 15, 2011 | Reply

  4. “Do not judge, since judgers are judged.”

    Comment by John | April 15, 2011 | Reply

  5. How about:
    “Do not judge so that you are not judged.”

    “Others” seems problematic in the second half, because the referent there may be divine judgment (making this the inverse of “blessed are the merciful . . .”).

    Comment by Nate | April 15, 2011 | Reply

  6. “… so that others do not judge you.”

    Ah, but should that be “others”, or should it be “God”? The original leaves the matter open, probably deliberately. A translation should also try to do so, surely.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | April 16, 2011 | Reply

    • This is most interesting – in the original no pronouns are used. The context of v. 1-5 seems to suggest that it is so that ‘others’ don’t judge us. Of course, we would say anyway that God does use ‘others’ to judge us since He is always working behind the scenes, but what does the text really convey? It’s a bit like: Don’t criticize others so that you don’t get criticized. Or: Don’t put others down, so that you don’t get put down. Because what goes around comes around.

      In any case, this verse is not suggesting that we simply escape God’s judgment altogether because we refrain from criticism and lead a quite life. So by implication, the object would be ‘others’ rather than ‘God’. I think this is well supported by the immediate context as well as an understanding of the nature of God’s judgment.

      Comment by Robert Kan | April 18, 2011 | Reply

      • Robert, this is a difficult one, and maybe deliberately ambiguous as I suggested. Verses 3-6 indeed suggest that this could be about others. But in the broader context of the Sermon on the Mount there are many clear divine passives, where God is the implied agent. For example, bracketing this verse, we find them in 6:33 and 7:7. And I would see 7:1 as more than advice on how to get on with others; rather, this sermon is about how to live a life which pleases God, which is more or less equivalent to one which does not attract his judgment. So I continue to prefer a divine passive interpretation of 7:1.

        Comment by Peter Kirk | April 18, 2011

  7. Peter, yes, I agree with your big picture interpretation – everything ultimately points to divine judgment. This belief is not in question. We can prove this from other verses.

    The judgment here however relates to the plank, beam or log in our own eyes compared with the speck in our brother’s eye. The implication I think is quite clear: Don’t judge your brother’s speck, and he won’t point out your log. Such is the humiliation if we don’t heed this warning. It doesn’t mean that the log is not there or we won’t one day be judged for it.

    The context is really about double-standards, finger-pointing and making accusations that put others down. Jesus leaves us in no doubt about the consequences of having such a self-righteous and ungodly attitude.

    Comment by Robert Kan | April 18, 2011 | Reply

    • So is this verse merely “sentimental” or is it actually teaching that not judging another person will leave one justified, with no day in court? In other words, if someone is merciful, will they receive mercy? Or should we merely take this all as an empty promise that is intended only to motivate? What think ye?

      Comment by WoundedEgo | April 18, 2011 | Reply

      • There is just something really ugly about casting judgment on others, which according to Jesus needed its own special treatment. There is nothing sentimental here – the directive given is not to merely overlook our brother’s speck, rather, Jesus said that there is a right way to deal with this, and that is to deal with our own log first, and then we will see clearly to ‘remove’ our brother’s speck (ignoring our own logs will invariably still see us judged on that Day.) It’s a whole perspective approach, as well as doing things in a manner that is conducive to everyone’s spiritual development, including our own.

        The problem with pride is that we like to magnify ourselves and sometimes so at the expense of others, but in exalting ourselves we will eventually be abased. So yes, there is a retributive element when we heap self-righteous judgment on others (a sin in its own right), regardless of whether it happens to be technically correct or not.

        Comment by Robert Kan | April 18, 2011

      • So can one evade their day in court by not passing judgment on the behavior of others?

        Comment by WoundedEgo | April 19, 2011

      • For one thing, we know that if we don’t forgive others then we will not receive the Father’s forgiveness.

        As for merely not judging being sufficient, Jesus did say at the end of his sermon that he who hears and does all the things he says will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock.

        Comment by Robert Kan | April 19, 2011

      • >>>For one thing, we know that if we don’t forgive others then we will not receive the Father’s forgiveness.

        Or as Jesus says, forfeit that forgiveness, if we fail to forgive in response.

        >>>As for merely not judging being sufficient, Jesus did say at the end of his sermon that he who hears and does all the things he says will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock.

        Indeed.

        I was recently struck by “Matthew’s” appraisal of Joseph, that he was “righteous” and, rather than do as Moses commanded, he opted to “cover” the multitude of the sins of his fiance:

        Mat 1:19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

        Matthew also has Jesus saying that the “law” [sic] is fulfilled by acting lovingly. This is simply setting aside all of the dietary, seventh day and other clearly more specific “non-love” issues.

        And this about escaping judgment by mercy.

        These are, to my view, neither in line with Moses, nor with Paul.

        We have another example in Luke:

        Luk 18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

        Humility is rewarded by God with justification. “Blessed are the meek.”

        Do we misunderstand Paul’s narrow definition of “faith” to involve only belief in the resurrection of Jesus? Or should we say that these “liberal views” are to be taken as only *seeming* to suggest that what counts is the “heart” [sic], complete on its own, rather than “belief” on its own, evidenced by appropriate actions?

        Comment by WoundedEgo | April 19, 2011

      • Perhaps our misunderstanding comes when we think that the bible is directed at saying everything about a particular subject in a given instance??

        Comment by Robert Kan | April 19, 2011

      • The “as it is written” approach is, well, somewhat “Biblical” no?

        But this is my “point”… One, apparently, must feel free to ignore any specific assertion, in order to defer to one’s favorite macro-position.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | April 19, 2011

      • >>>The “as it is written” approach is, well, somewhat “Biblical” no?

        I would say so.

        >>>But this is my “point”… One, apparently, must feel free to ignore any specific assertion, in order to defer to one’s favorite macro-position.

        Understanding requires that the meaning of one statement should not be extrapolated at the expense of the meaning of another. Therefore, rather than allowing the meaning of one position to be diminished, the full meaning of both positions should be held together in tension.

        Comment by Robert Kan | April 19, 2011

      • Would you opine that an assertion is either true or false, and if true, excludes the possibility of its opposite?

        http://logictutorial.com/logicexclusion.html

        Comment by WoundedEgo | April 20, 2011

      • Yep, provided there are no parts missing and all terms are properly defined….

        Comment by Robert Kan | April 20, 2011

  8. Is judge necessarily the best word to use here? Common English usage of judge seems to include merely evaluating the behavior of someone else rather than passing judgment or sentencing in court. Is it the intent of this admonition to prohibit such evaluation? Would condemn be more descriptive or am I missing the meaning of the original word?

    Comment by BradK | April 19, 2011 | Reply

  9. Something’s burning. It’s Ole Ben-Ennah. I guess he was right. He said everyone was headed for Gehenna.

    Comment by bloggingjesus | December 11, 2011 | Reply

  10. “Don’t condemn so you don’t get condemned.”
    “Judge” is not the right way to translate, rather “condemn”. Judgement is a two part process, 1) discernment of right/wrong, good/evil, holy/wicked, just/corrupt, 2) exhoneration or sentencing (which means a) condemnation or mercy, b) reconciliation or grace). The first part is an examination of truth and is required of every Christian by Jesus, lest we be swept away in sin by friendship with the world. Only 15 verses later Jesus teaches us to use judgement without condemnation to discern which people are false Christians, professors, teachers (aka: false prophets). To say we should not judge would be a contradiction of the rest of Jesus’ teachings (even teachings in the same chapter!). To say we should not condemn would be consistent with everything else He ever said. Without judgement, there can be no accountability at all, which Jesus has commanded of Christians in order to go after straying brethren (ie: Matt 18). The confusion and contradictory meaning produced by the translation of this word in this verse has dealt a crippling blow to the church for too long. It simply must be revised in order to convey its true meaning, which is in no way contradictory to any part of Jesus’ teachings.

    Comment by John | June 25, 2013 | Reply

    • A slight improvement on John’s I think is in order:

      Don’t give judgement, don’t get judgement.

      (Or, “don’t give condemnation, don’t get condementation.”)

      It’s pithy and parallely and the sides differ by only “et” verses “ive”.

      Comment by Felix Alexander | October 13, 2013 | Reply


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