God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

“Judge Not” And Preserving Poetry

Judge Not

“Judge not…” Most people are familiar with this famous verse from Matthew 7:1 (and the similar Luke 6:37), and know that the full line runs along the lines of “Judge not, that you be not judged” (ESV).

The content of the line is pretty easy to understand, but the poetry is very hard to convey in English, as evidenced by the wide variety of translations: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (NAB), “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (NIV), “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (NRSV), etc.

The Greek of Matthew 7:1

The Greek is a pithy five-word admonition: mi krinete ina mi krithite. The word mi means “not,” krinete means “judge,” ina means “so that,” and krithite means “be judged.” In addition to its brevity, the Greek offers a certain symmetry. The word ina sits nicely in the middle, with the two similar-sounding phrases mi krinete and mi krithite on either side. Except for the -ne- in the first part and the -thi- in the second, both sides are identical.

On Poetry and Symmetry

Similar in English is “you are what you eat,” where “what” fits nicely between the similar “you are” and “you eat.” (The original comes from German, where “are” and “eat” are both pronounced ist, so the similarity is even more pronounced: man ist vas man isst.)

Also similar in nature, if not in detail, is the English “no pain, no gain.” The phrase is successful because of the symmetry, and because “pain” and “gain” rhyme. This is why the phrase “without pain one is unlikely to achieve much” is unlikely to catch on as a training motto among athletes, even though it means the same thing as “no pain, no gain.”

Yet most translations of Matthew 7:1 are like “without pain one is unlikely to achieve much.” The translations miss the poetry.

Some people may dismiss the value of the poetry, but I disagree. I think that poetic phrasing is important. This is why so many of our proverbs either rhyme or otherwise “sound well” (as Mark Twain would say): “A stitch in time saves nine,” “no rhyme or reason,” “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” and many, many more. And even if the poetry isn’t as important as I think, it’s still part of the original. It seems to me that a good translation should convey it.

On Grammaticality

Furthermore, also like my poor paraphrase of “no pain, no gain,” translations of Matthew 7:1 tend to sound stilted and awkward. “Judge not,” for example, is no longer standard English. (Compare, “comment not that you be not flamed.”)

And I don’t think that “judge” without an object is particularly successful in English. At least in my dialect, “I saw the modern art paintings, and I couldn’t help but judge” doesn’t work as well as “…couldn’t help but judge them.” I understand why translators want to force the English construction “do not judge.” They want to make the first part sound like the second part, “do not be judged.” But their decision comes at the expense of English grammar. In English (unlike in Greek), the most common phrasing is “do not judge something,” as in “do not judge others” or “do not judge people.”

Again, not everyone thinks that a translation into Modern English has to be in Modern English (at the risk of prejudicing the issue), but I do.

Translating Matthew 7:1

So where does that leave us?

We need a translation that means “do not judge (other) people, so that you will not be judged.” It should be symmetrical, with the first and second parts sounding similar. It should be pithy. And it should be grammatical in English.

In general, I’m unwilling to compromise on grammaticality in English, at least when the original is grammatical (in the original language), and I’m unwilling to compromise on meaning. When it comes to poetry, I think poetic texts should be translated poetically, but the details of the poetry can differ. So in this case, I think the symmetry is important, but I think — if something has to go — we can do without the pithiness.

So the best I can come up with is this: “Do not judge others, so that others do not judge you.”

What do you think? And can you come up with something even closer to the original?

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April 15, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 24 Comments