James 2:23-24 uses the same root twice to highlight the point that Faith requires Works. But that important rhetorical device — duplication of the root — is lost in most translations. For example (NRSV):
(23) …”Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Genesis 15:6] … (24) You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
That translation, like most others, is ambiguous regarding the exact connection between Abraham’s belief (in James 2:23, which quotes Genesis 15:6) and faith (in James 2:24).
But in Greek, “believed” is pisteuo and “faith” is pistis. The text connects Abraham’s pistis with the general nature of pistis. It’s essentially a grammatical accident that we see a verb in Genesis 15:6 — so also in James 2:23 — and a noun in James 2:24.
Why do translations have such a hard time capturing this basic effect? The KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV all have “Abraham believed” here, instead of the obvious other choice: “Abraham had faith.”
(The NAB’s lapse is particularly surprising. In Genesis itself that translation reads, “put his faith.” The CEV opts for “had faith” in James 2:23, but then goes with “what we believe” in verse 24.)
I also think it’s no small matter that the same root appears twice, a topic I’ll turn to soon.
We see them both in Matthew 9:17 (as well as Mark 2:22 and Luke 5:37), where Jesus relates that people “pour new wine into new wineskins” (NIV). The problem is that this translation (along with the NLT, CEV, and others) wrongly makes it sound as if it is the newsness of the skins that makes them suitable for the new wine. That is, the translation seems to suggest that the wine and the skin should match.
But the Greek uses neos for the wine and kainos for the skins. So in Greek, the wine doesn’t match the skin. Rather, there are two kinds of skins (palaios and kainos) and the question is which is better for wine that is neos.
In other words, the original question is “should neos wine go in to kainos or palaios skins?” Some translations prejudice the issue by asking instead, “should new wine go in to new or old skins.”
Simply as a description of the skin, I’m not sure that “fresh wineskin” — the other common option, from the KJV, NAB, NRSV, etc. — is better than “new.” (This might because I get my wine from bottles, so in truth I’m not really sure what this wineskin [askos] is, and what a fresh one looks like.) But in the context of Matthew 9:17, I think it’s more important to convey the point of the lesson than to describe the exact quality of the skin.
I also think that this is a perfect demonstration of why translating each word is not enough to create a good translation.
Dr. Jim West’s comment that Jeremiah 25 is a good litmus test for translation — and his claim that the NLT doesn’t do badly — directed my attention to the NLT’s translation of Jeremiah 25. In light of some resent claims about the disaster in Haiti, Jeremiah 25:7 in the NLT jumped off the page at me:
“But you would not listen to me,” says the LORD. “You made me furious by worshiping your idols, bringing on yourselves all the disasters you now suffer.
I’ve bolded the part that struck me. The problem is that the Hebrew doesn’t say that. Here’s the original:
|“You didn’t listen to me,”||v’lo sh’matem eilai|
|says Adonai,||n’um adonai|
|“so that you angered me”||l’ma’an hach’isuni|
|with the works of your hands||b’ma’asei y’deichem|
|to harm you.”||l’ra lachem|
The verse follows up on the previous one, in which God warns, “do not pursue other gods and serve them and bow down to them, and do not anger me with the works of your hands, and I will not harm you.” The repetition in verses 25:6 and 25:7 of “anger,” “works of your hands” and “harm” tie the two together.
Verse 25:6 is classic Hebrew parallelism, in which “other gods” from the first part is like “works of your hands” in the second part. These are idols. More interestingly, Jeremiah juxtaposes “pursuing/serving/bowing down to [other gods]” with “angering [God].” So one message of verse 25:6 is that “serving other gods” is like “angering God,” just as “other gods” are like “works of [human] hands.”
It seems to me that at the very least a translation of these two verses should (a) convey the point of the passage, and only the point of the passage; and (b) preserve the connection between the two verses.
The NLT fails (a), because the original verses do not say “bringing on yourselves.” Does the original text imply that the false-god worshippers have brought about their own punishment? Maybe, if you think that failing to heed a warning is the same as bringing something on yourself. But even so, turning an implication of the text into the text is a mistake.
The NLT also misses the connection with the previous verse: “Do not make me angry by worshiping the idols you have made. Then I will not harm you” (Jer 25:6, NLT). The switch from “angry” to “furious” for the same Hebrew word is misleading. The NLT rewrite of 25:6 lacks the parellism of the original, but I think it still conveys the similarity of angering God and worshipping idols.
Other translations do a better with (a), generally sticking to the text and not editorializing, and most stick essentially with the KJV: “[Jer 25:6] And go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, and provoke me not to anger with the works of your hands; and I will do you no hurt. [25:7] Yet ye have not hearkened unto me, saith the LORD; that ye might provoke me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt.” The parallelism in 25:6 is preserved, as is the connection between the two verses, because both have “provoke me to anger,” “works of your hands,” and “hurt.”
On the other hand, “do you no hurt” and “to your own hurt” are barely English.
The ESV changes “hurt” to “harm,” updating the English a bit. The NRSV does the same.
The NAB fixes verse 25:6 with “bring evil upon you,” but then keeps “to your own harm” in the following verse, breaking the connection between the two.
The NIV fixes verse 25:6 with “then I will not harm you” and follows up with “and you have brought harm to yourselves,” again shifting the focus a little.
The CEV correctly preserves the neutrality of the Hebrew in 25:7: “you are the ones who were hurt by what you did,” but in 25:6 that version invents a new premise: “I don’t want to harm you.”
Though there are some interesting translation issues in Jeremiah 25:6-7, it’s among the more straightforward passages, and I’m a little surprised how far some versions stray in translating it.