God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Curious Case of the Withered Hand: A Translation Dilemma

Matthew 12:9-14

The parable in Matthew 12:9-14 demonstrates so many key translation points (many of which have already come up recently, in posts too numerous to mention) that I think it’s worth taking a systematic look at that text and the issues it raises.

The Plot

As I understand it, the general plot of the episode goes something like this:

[9] Jesus enters a synagogue. [10] There’s a man there with a withered hand. The people there goad Jesus and ask him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus addresses the group and tells them that if they had a sheep who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely they would rescue the sheep. [12] Because a man is worth more than a sheep, Jesus says it’s okay to heal the man on the Sabbath. [13] The man stretches out his hand and Jesus heals it. [14] The Pharisees leave and plot Jesus’ death.

Our first translation criterion is that the English convey the plot accurately and in a way that English speakers can understand.

The Rhetoric

The word anthropos is used throughout the parable. Here’s the paraphrase I just used, with the words for anthropos italicized:

[9] Jesus enters a synagogue. [10] There’s a man there with a withered hand. The people there goad Jesus and ask him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus addresses the group and tells them that if they had a sheep who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely they would rescue the sheep. [12] Because a man is worth more than a sheep, Jesus says it’s okay to heal the man on the Sabbath. [13] The man stretches out his hand and Jesus heals it. [14] The Pharisees leave and plot Jesus’ death.

Our second translation criterion is that we make the rhetorical style of the Greek available to the English reader. A paraphrase like this does the trick:

[9] Jesus entered a synagogue. [10] There was a man inside with a withered hand. The people in the synagogue goaded Jesus and asked him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus asked the group, “if one of you men had a sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you rescue it? [12] A man is worth more than a sheep. So it is permissible to heal someone on the Sabbath.” [13] The man stretched out his hand and Jesus healed it. [14] The Pharisees left and plotted Jesus’ death.

The Irony

In this particular case, the rhetorical repetition of anthropos to refer first to the man and then to the group is an interesting subtextual ironic message. The people don’t recognize how similar they (each being an anthropos) are to the man (anthropos) with the withered hand. This sub-theme meshes with the larger theme about the Sabbath.

One of the reasons the second translation criterion — capturing the rhetorical style — is important is that the irony in the story depends on it.

The Morals

The story has more than one moral. The most obvious seems to be that healing on the Sabbath is permissible. A second might be that we should identify with those in need of help. A third moral, from verse 12, is that people are more valuable than sheep. Because the Greek word anthropos means both “human” and “man,” it’s easy in Greek to shift seamlessly from using anthropos for “the man [with the withered hand]” to “all people.”

Our third translation criterion is that the English convey all of the morals of the story. It’s not hard to do that for verse 12 in isolation:

[12] …people are more valuable than sheep…

It’s particularly important to get verse 12 right because people want to be able to quote it out of context.

The Nuances

Even though the plot is straightforward, some nuances seem relevant. Jesus is asked if it’s permissible “to cure” someone on the Sabbath, while his answer is that it’s permissible “to do well” or “to do good” on the Sabbath. In answering the question, Jesus also shifts the focus of it.

Another nuance is lexical. Does the Greek word exestin mean “it is permissible” or “it is legal”? It’s an important distinction. There are times when it’s permissible to do what is not legal, and vice versa.

Similarly, does the Greek word xiros mean “withered” or something else? (The same adjective is used in Heb 11:29 to describe the condition of the Red Sea as the Israelites passed through it, suggesting that “dried up” or “withered” is right.)

A frequent translation error has the people asking Jesus if it’s permissible “to heal on the Sabbath.” At least in my dialect, “to heal on the Sabbath” could be sitting around passively. If I have the flu and I’m allowed to heal on the Sabbath, to me that means that I’m allowed to lie in bed all day and drink lots of liquids.

Our fourth translation criterion is get the details and nuances right.

The Conflicts

So here are the translation criteria:

1. Convey the plot.

2. Convey the rhetorical style, including the irony.

3. Convey all the morals.

4. Get the details right.

The problem, of course, is that they conflict. (2) requires the repetition of a word — probably “man” but maybe something else — first in verse 10 and then again in 11 and 12; it’s particularly important in 10 and 11 to get the irony right. But (3) requires “people” in verse 12 and, if I’m right about the Greek, (4) requires “man” in verse 10. Bit it’s hard to get “man” to work in verse 11 without sacrificing fluidity in English (“If any man among you…” barely sounds like English.)

We can’t use “person” in verse 10 because it’s less specific than (how I understand) the Greek, and we want to get the details right. Substituting “person” for “man” when a specific man is involved is like substituting “animal” for “sheep.” Even if I’m wrong about the Greek, “a person” won’t work in verse 10 because it’s awkward in English. We don’t usually start stories with “there was a person with a withered hand.” We use “there was someone with a withered hand.”

In fact, “someone” in verse 10 would be great for criteria (1) and (4), but then we get stuck on (2) and part of (3).

Solutions?

Any suggestions for a successful translation?

September 16, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 18 Comments

On Translation and Explanation

In a recent discussion here, Paula asks about where the line is drawn between “translation” and what I called “explanation.” It’s a really important question.

I don’t think I have an answer in terms of definitions, but I have a few examples, starting with just English. (It’s helpful to look at English to English “translations” and related “explanations” because this takes some of the uncertainty out of the data and helps us focus on the theory.)

The English “sofa” and “couch” are so close in meaning that “sofa” seams like a reasonable “translation” for “couch.” By this I mean that if we had a word in a foreign language that meant “couch,” and we translated it into English as “sofa,” we’d be doing pretty well.

By contrast, “piece of furniture with that seats two to three people” is a fairly accurate description, or explanation, of “couch,” but it’s certainly not a translation. If we had a foreign-language word “couch,” my long phrase here doesn’t seem like it would be the right translation.

Similarly: “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree.” Certainly part of the line’s charm is the rhyme and meter. I can’t think of another way of saying that in English that demonstrates the same rhyme and iambic tetrameter, so I can’t think of an English-to-English translation.

What are we to make of the following? “In my opinion, the asthetic beauty of nature is greater than that of human artifacts, and I choose to present my opinion in rhyming iambic tetrameter.” Surely that’s not a translation, but rather an explanation.

Moving away from just English and toward real translation, we might look at a discussion here about Matthew 12:10-12. The T-NIV translates anthropos in Matthew 12:10 as “man,” but in 12:12 as “person,” because the point of 12:12 is “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” However, that seems like an explanation in part, not a translation. The original text (“how much more valuable is a man…!”) specifically refers back to the man in need of healing in Matthew 12:10. The Message goes even further away from translation toward explanation: “Surely kindness to people is as legal as kindness to animals!”

In other words, Matthew 12:10-12 uses a parable that involves a man and a sheep to demonstrate a point (ultimately about the Sabbath, not about the value of people, as it happens). I think a translation should do the same thing: make the same overall and ancillary points using the same techniques. Anything else is explanation.

As a third and final example, we might consider the lyric beauty of almost any passage in Isaiah. Let’s take Isaiah 60:1. The Hebrew starts off with two verbs, kumi, from the root for “stand,” and ori, from the root for “light.” So most English translations begin, “Arise, shine….” So far, so good. But then we have a repetition of a word from the root for “light,” namely oreich, “your light.” Here English translations, however, substitute a new word (usually, “light”) rather than repeat “shine.” So where there is a repetition in Hebrew (“stand” … “light” … “light”), we find the poetry destroyed (“arise” … “shine” … “light”) in English.

This kind of error also strikes me as “explanation” instead of “translation.”

September 14, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 12 Comments