translation problems poll results (cont’d)

Last week I began discussing the results of the blue translation problems poll results in the margin of this blog. This post concludes that discussion.

57 respondents spotted a problem with this verse wording:

I am astonished you are deserting the one who called you … to follow a different gospel (Gal 1:6)

This wording has syntactic ambiguity that was not part of the Greek text. In the one reading of the ambiguity is the original meaning, that Paul was astonished that the Galatians are following a different teaching about the gospel as they quit following God who called them to be followers of Christ. The other reading is that the call of God was for them to follow a different gospel. It is obvious from the context of this verse that this second reading was not intended, but it is still there as a potential meaning of this particular wording. To allow the number of words for this verse to fit within the blog template I had to ellipsize some words which did not affect the ambiguity. For those interested, here is the entire verse, as it is found in the ISV:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ to follow a different gospel.

The next verse, 1 John 3:18, is not worded properly in a number of English translations. The wording used in the poll was:

Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.

The problem here is that the wordings “love with word” and “love … with tongue” are not sanctioned by the lexical collocation rules of English. In other words, native speakers of English do not express the intended meaning with either of those word combinations. As I have tested this verse with others in the past, some respondents have noted that “love with tongue” sounds like French kissing. This may sound ridiculous to some who know what this verse is supposed to mean. But it really is not ridiculous. English speakers, as well as speakers of others languages, start with the assumption that utterances are intended to make sense. If something sounds unusual it is normal for people to try to figure out some meaning from the words which makes some sense to them. This shows us why it is so important to use wordings in English Bibles which are sanctioned both by English syntax and the rules of the English lexicon. We must pay as must respect to the rules of English as we translate into it, as we do to the rules of the biblical languages, as we study the biblical texts to try to determine what those texts mean so that we can translate their meaning. The test wording for this verse is from the NASB, and the wording of the NET Bible is identical except for lacking the second comma.

Some translations of 1 John 3:18 which do follow the appropriate English lexical rules are:

  1. Children, love must not be a matter of theory or talk; it must be true love which shows itself in action. (REB)
  2. My children, our love should not be just words and talk (TEV)
  3. Children, you show love for others by truly helping them, and not merely by talking about it. (CEV)
  4. Dear children, we must show love through actions that are sincere, not through empty words. (GW)
  5. Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. (NET)

The problem with the wording of the last verse of this poll, Ps. 37:21, from the RSV, is that it (unintentionally) contains ungrammatical English:

The wicked borrows, and cannot pay back, but the righteous is generous and gives

In English adjectival substantives, that is noun phrases which consist of a definite pronoun plus an adjective but no noun, refer to plural entities. Most English speakers intuitively know this, and can say that the following even numbered examples sound “odd” or “ungrammatical”:

  1. The poor are with you always.
  2. The poor is with you always.
  3. The obedient please the Lord.
  4. The obedient pleases the Lord.
  5. The diligent have enough to eat.
  6. The diligent has enough to eat.

Unlike English, Biblical Hebrew can have either singular or plural referents for adjectival substantives and both are found in the Old and New Testaments. If we try to match the number of referents from Hebrew to English without any other adjustments, those Hebrew adjectival substantives which refer to singular referents will be ungrammatical. There are solutions for retaining the form of the Biblical Hebrew as closely as one desires while also wording the English translation of it grammatically. One of the simplest is to include the English word “one” or “person” as part of the English noun phrase when it refers to a single person. Another is to change the number of the noun from singular to plural, which is done by some translation teams for statements that are indefinite (generic), not referring to a specific individual. Some are not comfortable changing such singulars to plurals. Others recognize that using singulars or plurals in generic statements results in essentially the same generic meaning.

Each of the following translations wordings of Ps. 37:21 are (“is”, according to many grammar teachers!) grammatical:

  1. The wicked borrow, and do not pay back,
    but the righteous are generous and keep giving (NRSV)
  2. The wicked borrow and do not repay,
    but the righteous give generously (NIV, TNIV)
  3. The wicked borrow and do not repay;
    the righteous give generously. (REB)
  4. Evil men borrow, but do not repay their debt,
    but the godly show compassion and are generous. (NET)
  5. The wicked borrow and never pay back,
    but good people are generous with their gifts. (TEV)
  6. An evil person borrows
    and never pays back;
    a good person is generous
    and never stops giving. (CEV)
  7. A wicked person borrows, but he does not repay.
    A righteous person is generous and giving. (GW)
  8. The wicked borrow and don’t pay back,
    but those who do right give freely to others. (NCV)
  9. The wicked borrow and never repay,
    but the godly are generous givers. (NLT)

Further comments on the poll questions and results are welcome. Thank you to each person who responded to this poll. It will shortly be removed from the margin of this blog.

4 thoughts on “translation problems poll results (cont’d)

  1. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    I find the discussion of “with word and with tongue” interesting – it seems that some of the other translations here interpret this as a phrase – “empty words” and “sincere actions”. I think Hebrew works like that sometimes, joining two nouns as a phrase, one modifying the other. This seems like a Hebraism, since Greek had a wealth of adjectives and Hebrw, not so much.

    How about “not expressed in speech but sincerely acted out”?

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    I find the discussion of “with word and with tongue” interesting – it seems that some of the other translations here interpret this as a phrase – “empty words” and “sincere actions”. I think Hebrew works like that sometimes, joining two nouns as a phrase, one modifying the other. This seems like a Hebraism, since Greek had a wealth of adjectives and Hebrew, not so much.

    Greek uses hendiadys where two nouns are joined by kai but one modifies the other. It would be interesting to find out if there is Hebraic influence in hendiadys or if it is a longterm feature of Greek, predating Koine (Hellenistic) Greek.

    How about “not expressed in speech but sincerely acted out”?

    That works for me. I would probably like to add “just” or “simply” after “not” since it is also biblical teaching that we express our love with words. But, as James points out, we have to “walk the talk”. (Oh?! You didn’t know that James said that in English? It’s been recently discovered in an Olde, Olde Greek manuscript that the Roman soldiers took with them to the British Isles.)

  3. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    English has hendiadys and so does Greek but I distinctly feel that it is more extensive in Hebrew. Typically Greek would use a noun and adjective in this context. So, overall, I would see this as influenced by Hebrew.

    That’s my guess.

  4. John Radcliffe says:


    Two minor points:

    (1) Example 5 under 1 John 3:18 is from NLT not NET.

    (2) I’m surprised to find you using “each” as a plural (and reporting that at least some grammar teachers say this is OK). It certainly seems to be illogical, if not ungrammatical. If we supply the implied noun after “each” it would have to be singular: “Each translation of the following …” (not “Each translations …”). Of course “are” may sound OK if we mistakenly think that “translations”, not “each”, is subject of the verb.

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