God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: On Matthew 5:17-19

Cameron asks via the About page whether “until everything is accomplished” (eos an panta genetai) in Matthew 5:18 could be punctuated as part of Matthew 5:19, the original being unversified and unpunctuated. That is, could the text read:

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law. Until everything is accomplished, anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments…

instead of the usual:

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments…

This is really a question for someone who knows more about Greek phrasing than I do, but I believe that the word oun (“therefore”) at the beginning of 5:19 makes it pretty clear, even without punctuation, that the “until” phrase ends in 5:18. (The NIV, which Cameron quotes, doesn’t translate oun here. I don’t know why not.)

October 25, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 2 Comments

The Curious Case of the Withered Hand: A Translation Dilemma

Matthew 12:9-14

The parable in Matthew 12:9-14 demonstrates so many key translation points (many of which have already come up recently, in posts too numerous to mention) that I think it’s worth taking a systematic look at that text and the issues it raises.

The Plot

As I understand it, the general plot of the episode goes something like this:

[9] Jesus enters a synagogue. [10] There’s a man there with a withered hand. The people there goad Jesus and ask him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus addresses the group and tells them that if they had a sheep who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely they would rescue the sheep. [12] Because a man is worth more than a sheep, Jesus says it’s okay to heal the man on the Sabbath. [13] The man stretches out his hand and Jesus heals it. [14] The Pharisees leave and plot Jesus’ death.

Our first translation criterion is that the English convey the plot accurately and in a way that English speakers can understand.

The Rhetoric

The word anthropos is used throughout the parable. Here’s the paraphrase I just used, with the words for anthropos italicized:

[9] Jesus enters a synagogue. [10] There’s a man there with a withered hand. The people there goad Jesus and ask him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus addresses the group and tells them that if they had a sheep who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely they would rescue the sheep. [12] Because a man is worth more than a sheep, Jesus says it’s okay to heal the man on the Sabbath. [13] The man stretches out his hand and Jesus heals it. [14] The Pharisees leave and plot Jesus’ death.

Our second translation criterion is that we make the rhetorical style of the Greek available to the English reader. A paraphrase like this does the trick:

[9] Jesus entered a synagogue. [10] There was a man inside with a withered hand. The people in the synagogue goaded Jesus and asked him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus asked the group, “if one of you men had a sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you rescue it? [12] A man is worth more than a sheep. So it is permissible to heal someone on the Sabbath.” [13] The man stretched out his hand and Jesus healed it. [14] The Pharisees left and plotted Jesus’ death.

The Irony

In this particular case, the rhetorical repetition of anthropos to refer first to the man and then to the group is an interesting subtextual ironic message. The people don’t recognize how similar they (each being an anthropos) are to the man (anthropos) with the withered hand. This sub-theme meshes with the larger theme about the Sabbath.

One of the reasons the second translation criterion — capturing the rhetorical style — is important is that the irony in the story depends on it.

The Morals

The story has more than one moral. The most obvious seems to be that healing on the Sabbath is permissible. A second might be that we should identify with those in need of help. A third moral, from verse 12, is that people are more valuable than sheep. Because the Greek word anthropos means both “human” and “man,” it’s easy in Greek to shift seamlessly from using anthropos for “the man [with the withered hand]” to “all people.”

Our third translation criterion is that the English convey all of the morals of the story. It’s not hard to do that for verse 12 in isolation:

[12] …people are more valuable than sheep…

It’s particularly important to get verse 12 right because people want to be able to quote it out of context.

The Nuances

Even though the plot is straightforward, some nuances seem relevant. Jesus is asked if it’s permissible “to cure” someone on the Sabbath, while his answer is that it’s permissible “to do well” or “to do good” on the Sabbath. In answering the question, Jesus also shifts the focus of it.

Another nuance is lexical. Does the Greek word exestin mean “it is permissible” or “it is legal”? It’s an important distinction. There are times when it’s permissible to do what is not legal, and vice versa.

Similarly, does the Greek word xiros mean “withered” or something else? (The same adjective is used in Heb 11:29 to describe the condition of the Red Sea as the Israelites passed through it, suggesting that “dried up” or “withered” is right.)

A frequent translation error has the people asking Jesus if it’s permissible “to heal on the Sabbath.” At least in my dialect, “to heal on the Sabbath” could be sitting around passively. If I have the flu and I’m allowed to heal on the Sabbath, to me that means that I’m allowed to lie in bed all day and drink lots of liquids.

Our fourth translation criterion is get the details and nuances right.

The Conflicts

So here are the translation criteria:

1. Convey the plot.

2. Convey the rhetorical style, including the irony.

3. Convey all the morals.

4. Get the details right.

The problem, of course, is that they conflict. (2) requires the repetition of a word — probably “man” but maybe something else — first in verse 10 and then again in 11 and 12; it’s particularly important in 10 and 11 to get the irony right. But (3) requires “people” in verse 12 and, if I’m right about the Greek, (4) requires “man” in verse 10. Bit it’s hard to get “man” to work in verse 11 without sacrificing fluidity in English (“If any man among you…” barely sounds like English.)

We can’t use “person” in verse 10 because it’s less specific than (how I understand) the Greek, and we want to get the details right. Substituting “person” for “man” when a specific man is involved is like substituting “animal” for “sheep.” Even if I’m wrong about the Greek, “a person” won’t work in verse 10 because it’s awkward in English. We don’t usually start stories with “there was a person with a withered hand.” We use “there was someone with a withered hand.”

In fact, “someone” in verse 10 would be great for criteria (1) and (4), but then we get stuck on (2) and part of (3).

Solutions?

Any suggestions for a successful translation?

September 16, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 18 Comments

On Translation and Explanation

In a recent discussion here, Paula asks about where the line is drawn between “translation” and what I called “explanation.” It’s a really important question.

I don’t think I have an answer in terms of definitions, but I have a few examples, starting with just English. (It’s helpful to look at English to English “translations” and related “explanations” because this takes some of the uncertainty out of the data and helps us focus on the theory.)

The English “sofa” and “couch” are so close in meaning that “sofa” seams like a reasonable “translation” for “couch.” By this I mean that if we had a word in a foreign language that meant “couch,” and we translated it into English as “sofa,” we’d be doing pretty well.

By contrast, “piece of furniture with that seats two to three people” is a fairly accurate description, or explanation, of “couch,” but it’s certainly not a translation. If we had a foreign-language word “couch,” my long phrase here doesn’t seem like it would be the right translation.

Similarly: “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree.” Certainly part of the line’s charm is the rhyme and meter. I can’t think of another way of saying that in English that demonstrates the same rhyme and iambic tetrameter, so I can’t think of an English-to-English translation.

What are we to make of the following? “In my opinion, the asthetic beauty of nature is greater than that of human artifacts, and I choose to present my opinion in rhyming iambic tetrameter.” Surely that’s not a translation, but rather an explanation.

Moving away from just English and toward real translation, we might look at a discussion here about Matthew 12:10-12. The T-NIV translates anthropos in Matthew 12:10 as “man,” but in 12:12 as “person,” because the point of 12:12 is “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” However, that seems like an explanation in part, not a translation. The original text (“how much more valuable is a man…!”) specifically refers back to the man in need of healing in Matthew 12:10. The Message goes even further away from translation toward explanation: “Surely kindness to people is as legal as kindness to animals!”

In other words, Matthew 12:10-12 uses a parable that involves a man and a sheep to demonstrate a point (ultimately about the Sabbath, not about the value of people, as it happens). I think a translation should do the same thing: make the same overall and ancillary points using the same techniques. Anything else is explanation.

As a third and final example, we might consider the lyric beauty of almost any passage in Isaiah. Let’s take Isaiah 60:1. The Hebrew starts off with two verbs, kumi, from the root for “stand,” and ori, from the root for “light.” So most English translations begin, “Arise, shine….” So far, so good. But then we have a repetition of a word from the root for “light,” namely oreich, “your light.” Here English translations, however, substitute a new word (usually, “light”) rather than repeat “shine.” So where there is a repetition in Hebrew (“stand” … “light” … “light”), we find the poetry destroyed (“arise” … “shine” … “light”) in English.

This kind of error also strikes me as “explanation” instead of “translation.”

September 14, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 12 Comments

Preserving Parallel Passages

John Hobbins has an interesting analysis of near-parallel passages in Mark 1:16-18 and Matthew 4:18-20.

I’m struck by the fact that I can’t find a translation that makes it possible to follow along in English. (I have a table below.)

The KJV, for reasons I can’t fathom, adds the word “Jesus” to Matthew, and it misses the different wording (“trap-throwing” vs. “throwing a trap net”) between the two passages.

The NAB does better, only missing the different wording for “make you [to be] fishers of men.”

The NLT almost completely masks the differences between the passages.

The NRSV adds the word “Jesus” to Mark, and otherwise masks the differences between the passages.

The NIV adds the word “Jesus” to both Mark and Matthew, and it, too, nearly completely masks the differences between the passages.

Thse are, of course, not trivial passages, and they must have received a good deal of attention. How, then, do all of the translations so poorly match the Greek?

(Regarding “fishermen”/”fishers of men” etc., see our discussion in Scripture Zealot.)

Comparison of Translations

Mark 1:16-18 Matthew 4:18-20
J. Hobins: And while passing along the sea of Galilee he saw Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew trap-throwing at sea for they were fisherman, and Jesus said to them, “Come, after me, and I’ll make you to be fishers of men.” And leaving the nets right then they followed him. While walking along the sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon known as Peter and his brother Andrew throwing a trap net into the sea for they were fishermen, and he says to them, “Come, after me, and I’ll make you fishers of men.” Leaving the nets right then, they followed him.
KJV Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him. And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.
NAB As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
NLT One day as Jesus was walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother, Andrew, fishing with a net, for they were commercial fishermen. Jesus called out to them, “Come, be my disciples, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and went with him. One day as Jesus was walking along the shore beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers — Simon, also called Peter, and Andrew — fishing with a net, for they were commercial fishermen. Jesus called out to them, “Come, be my disciples, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and went with him.
NRSV As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
NIV As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
NAB As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
ESV Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

More on Gender

Jeff also has a post on his Scripture Zealot blog about Matthew 4:18-19 and 5:22-24. Take a look for another peek at the issue of gender and translation.

September 1, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , | Leave a comment