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 | , , , | 5 Comments