God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Please take those quotation marks off your interpretation

Rick Warren tweeted:

To see consumerism on steroids, come here to Tokyo. “Life is not measured by how much one owns.” Luke 12:15

But neither Luke nor Jesus said that. Rick Warren did. (To be fair, so did the New Century Version translation.) The original Greek reads, “life is not estin…,” and estin just means “is.” So the phrase means, “life isn’t how much one owns.” (The meaning of the verb is not generally a disputed point.)

The translators of the NCV, though, decided to interpret Luke by adding the word “measured.” Maybe they’re right, maybe not, but either way, it seems to me that the quotation marks have to go.

I suppose there’s a theoretical sense in which quotation marks never belong around a translation (unless it’s the translation that’s being quoted). What was said in Greek can’t literally be directly quoted in English. But as a matter of practicality, most people know the difference between what someone said and what someone implied. And only the former gets quotation marks.

“Wherefore art thou Romeo?” It’s a quotation. The subtext is, “why aren’t you someone I can marry? Why are you Romeo?” But to put quotations around my interpretation is simply to misquote and mislead. Even if I’m right, I’m wrong if I claim: Shakespeare wrote, “Why can’t I marry you?”

Similarly, even if Jesus meant that “life isn’t measured…” to put quotation marks around what he meant is to misquote and mislead.

I think we see the same sort of thing in Bill Mounce’s claim today that “the nuance of autos is […] they alone” in the beatitudes in Matthew. (His post appears here, too.) Dr. Mounce’s point is that, for example, in saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs [autin] is the kingdom of heaven”:

Jesus is not saying that the poor in spirit, among others, are blessed. He is saying that they and they alone will inherit the kingdom.

Probably. But when Dr. Mounce adds:

[T]he fact of the matter is that this is what the Greek text says. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs, and theirs alone, is the kingdom of God.”

he is confusing what the text means and what the speaker (may have) implied. The Greek is no more or less ambiguous than the English, “…theirs is the kingdom of God” (though I might quibble about the English grammar.) And by putting quotation marks around his (probably correct) interpretation, it seems to me that Dr. Mounce is misquoting and misleading.

There’s an important place for interpretation. But I think part of its value lies in being distinguished from translation.

So, please — Pastor Warren, Dr. Mounce, and so many others — take those quotation marks off of your interpretations.


December 14, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments