periphrastic Bible translation

Periphrase is not a very familiar term to most people. It is not the same as paraphrase. To remember the difference between them, remember that the Greek prefix peri- means ‘around’ as in the English word “perimeter.” Here is a helpful, humorous, way to remember what periphrase is: you can think of it as “Beating around the bush.” Periphrase is using more words than is necessary. Sometimes periphrase is a necessary or useful verbal tool in communication.

Periphrase occurs in both literal as well as idiomatic translations. It even occurs in the biblical language texts themselves.

In Phil. 4.5 the Greek text says gnwsqhtw pasin anqrwpoiV, literally “let it (your gentleness) be known to all people.” This is not referring to a verbal telling so that others will know how kind we are, but, rather, to demonstrating our kindness by our actions. The Greek uses a periphrastic construction with the verb “know” to simply tell us to be kind to others. Paul could have used a more concise wording in the Greek of Phil. 4:5 but one some reason he did not.

Some English versions translate the meaning of this periphrastic phrase of Phil. 4:5 using a more concise wording:

TEV: Show a gentle attitude toward everyone.

CEV: Always be gentle with others.

Most English versions retain the periphrastic form of the Greek:

KJV: Let your moderation be known unto all men.

RSV: Let all men know your forbearance.

NRSV: Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

ESV: Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.

NKJV: Let your gentleness be known to all men.

NET: Let everyone see your gentleness.

NASB: Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men.

REB: Be known to everyone for your consideration of others.

NIV/TNIV: Let your gentleness be evident to all.

NCV: Let everyone see that you are gentle and kind.

LB: Let everyone see that you are unselfish and considerate in all you do.

NLT: Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do.

An unfortunate periphrastic translation is that of God’s Word:

GW: Let everyone know how considerate you are.

Field testing has shown that this can be understood this to mean “Tell everyone how considerate you are.” (Note that what I have just put in double quotes is a paraphrase, not a periphrase!)

Jer. 9:20 is translated periphrastically in the ISV:

let your ears receive the word of his mouth

If you were revising the ISV wording to more natural, concise English, what might that be?

What are advantages and disadvantages of translating periphrastically?

One thought on “periphrastic Bible translation

  1. Jim Swindle says:

    If we eliminate periphrasis that is in the original just because it is periphrasis, we make the language more boring, less memorable, less likely to become food for meditation. If you took all periphrasis out of Song of Solomon or out of the Psalms, you’d have a very different (and inferior) piece of literature.

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