God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: The Details of Matthew 26:52

Here’s another question from the About page:

Should English translations seek to retain subtle distinctions, such as the difference between dying and perishing?

Much to my surprise, the (T)NIV chose to say “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Since I grew up reading NIV, but have since become a pacifist, this editorializing is a shock and disappointment to me.

I see three questions here.

The first is a theoretical question: “Should English translations seek to retain subtle distinctions, such as the difference between dying and perishing?” I think that translations should absolutely try to retain subtle distinctions. For example, even though “perishing” and “dying” are similar, they are not the same, and where one is the right translation, the other is not. So my answer to the theoretical question is yes.

The second question is more difficult: Is it possible? In other words, can we discern the nuances in the ancient Greek (or Hebrew) with enough precision to know how to render the words in English? I think the general answer to this question is, unfortunately, no. By and large, nuances such as “die” versus “perish” are exceedingly difficult to tease apart even in one’s native language. So although there are exceptions, nuances are often impossible to analyze in ancient languages.

And even when we do have a good sense of what the ancient words implied, it’s often impossible to find parallel English words.

The third question relates particularly to Matthew 26:52. What’s the right translation? I see two main issues.

The first issue is the first verb (lambano). It doesn’t mean “live.” (I don’t think you’re remembering the NIV translation correctly.) “Take” is a pretty good choice, as is “accept” (e.g., in John 5). “Draw” might work here, because one “draws a sword” in English.

The second issue is the one you point out. What does apollumi mean? Having drawn the sword, will one “die” or “perish”? Based on other usages (Luke 5:37, just for example, or the LXX to Jeremiah 23:1), “die” seems too narrow. We also see that the active verb means something like “destroy” so the middle that we see here should be akin to “be destroyed” (or, if you think the verb means “kill” — which I don’t — “be killed”).

The active/passive/middle nuances here seem pretty important to me. To me, “…die by the sword” seems largely metaphorical, while “…be killed by the sword” leans toward more literal possibilitIes.

(A final question arises regarding how Matthew 26:52 might be relevant to pacifism, but that’s surely for another time.)

So the right translation is tricky. But in spite of the well-known saying, “live by the sword…die by the sword” seems wrong here.

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , | 4 Comments