God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

In Christ, In Love, In Translation

Being “in Christ” (en christo) is one of Paul’s central themes. Romans 8:1 is a good example: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). But it’s a tricky phrase.

The Greek work en, like its English translation “in,” is what linguists call a “light” preposition, that is, one that usually has little or no meaning on its own. Prepositions (“in,” “on,” “about,” “with” etc.) are notoriously idiosyncratic, and so are light words, so it’s not surprising that the light preposition en is difficult to translate correctly.

Some examples in English help demonstrate the range of issues with light prepositions. There’s air “in an airplane,” but the people breathing that air are “on the plane,” not in it. English speakers disagree about whether one stands “in” or “on” line. Prepositions like “in,” “for,” etc. are sometimes optional: “He’s lived (in) more places than I know,” “I’ve been working here (for) three years,” etc. Books are written “on” a computer but “with” pencil and paper. Friends can talk “to” each other or “with” each other, but they can’t chat “to” each other, only “with.”

In some of those examples, we see a single meaning that requires different prepositions in different contexts. The reverse is also common: a single preposition can express different meanings. The “in” of “in love” doesn’t have anything to do with the “in” of “in translation,” for instance.

Obviously, the details are different in other languages. In Modern Hebrew, unlike in English, books are written “in” a computer and also “in” paper and pencil.

Equally obviously, for speakers of Modern Hebrew and English, it’s a mistake to translate the “in” of “in a computer” literally from Hebrew into English. Rather than “in a computer,” English demands “on a computer.”

More generally, the way to translate prepositions (like everything, really) is to determine what the preposition means in one language, and then find a way of expressing the same thing in another.

And this is the crux of the problem with Romans 8:1, and all of the other places we find “in Christ,” because that phrase in English doesn’t mean anything. (Some people might think it means something, but only because they already have a sense of what Paul meant.) We might compare, for instance, “citizens of the U.S. should be in the President.” It’s impossible to agree or disagree, because it doesn’t mean anything.

Translators already know that the Greek en doesn’t have to be “in” in English. In I Cor 4:21, we find, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with [en]a stick, or with [en] love…?” (NRSV, my emphasis). English demands “with a stick” instead of the nonsensical “in a stick.” The translation “in love” is more tempting for en agape, because it does mean something in English, but it doesn’t mean the right thing. Almost all translations get this line right. Translators do their job and find the right preposition in English.

But when it comes to “in Christ,” translations mimic the Greek instead of translating it.

Sometimes no obvious choice for en presents itself, but often English simply demands “with.”

Knowing what you do about the overall meaning of the text, how would you translate Romans 8:1?

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February 26, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , | 6 Comments