Each Sunday we have a children’s sermon in the middle of our church service. Often the children’s sermon relates to the adult sermon which follows. Today during their sermon the children were asked if they knew what it meant to imitate someone. Someone gave a correct answer. Then they were asked to imitate a dog and a newborn baby. They got the sounds for both right.
But before that part of the children’s sermon, this verse was read from our pew Bible, the NRSV:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children (Eph. 5:1)
I noticed that the lady who gave the children’s sermon said that we are to “imitate God.” I also noticed, during the adult sermon, that our senior pastor told us that we are to “imitate God.”
Notice that neither person told their congregation to “be imitators of God”? Why did they change from “be imitators of God” to “imitate God”? The answer should be obvious: they made the change because “imitate God” is the natural way they express the meaning that is the same in both wordings.
The NRSV, like other (essentially) literal translations, including the ASV, RSV, NKJV, NWT, NASB, NAB, ESV, NIV, HCSB, and ISV, translate the underlying Greek word-for-word, except for rearranging the words to a more natural word order:
ginesthe oun mimetai tou theou
be therefore imitators the.of god.of
therefore be imitators of God (NRSV)
The parts of speech of the Greek words were retained in English, including the noun mimetai ‘imitators’. The English translation was kept as close as possible to the form of the Greek, even though no one naturally says or writes “be imitators of God.”
Many believe that retaining the forms of the biblical languages, including parts of speech, is the proper way for Bible translation to be done, even if the result is not the most natural English. Often a theological reason is given, namely, “God spoke/inspired each word as he wanted it to be. We must not change God’s words.”
It is laudable to want to follow God (or, if you prefer, to want to be imitators of God!) and his words in the translation of the Bible. But matching up God’s words so literally makes a translation sound foreign, as if God can’t or won’t speak natural English in a translation. Some, of course, believe that it is important for an English Bible to have this foreign sound. The technical term used when promoting this belief is “foreignizing” a translation (as opposed to “domesticizing” it).
I disagree that a translation of the Bible should sound linguistically foreign to its hearers. Now, please hear me: I am not saying that foreign cultural concepts in the Bible, such a sacrificing meat to idols, women wearing a covering on their heads, counting days from sunset to sunset (instead of midnight to midnight), greeting each other with a holy kiss should be converted (“transculturated”) to some modern equivalent. I am only talking about the language we use to express the concepts in the Bible.
There is no “foreign” concept in the Greek of Eph. 5:1 that requires us to use the unnatural “be imitators of God” instead of the natural “imitate God” when we translate. Whether or not we use the “nounier” syntax “be imitators of God” is no more sacred or theologically accurate than if we use the more natural (for English) “verbier” syntax “imitate God.”
I have found only one English version which actually says “imitate God”. It is the God’s Word translation. Other idiomatic English translations, however, express the same meaning using other natural wordings, for example:
Do as God does. (CEV)
Follow God’s example (NLT)
you must be like [God] (REB)
try to be like [God] (TEV, NCV)
The TNIV is usually just as literal (sometimes more so) than the NIV that it revises. However, it uses more natural English in Eph. 5:1:
Follow God’s example (TNIV)
Be imitators of God (NIV)
Can God speak natural English? Of course. Would he approve of English translations being written in natural English? I believe so.
Oh, in case you wondered, I would never naturally say or write “Be readers of this post!” as I did in the title to this post. I just wanted to catch your attention. I hoped you would sense that there was something odd about that way I worded it.
God’s written Word is not linguistically odd. Its expressions were, for the most part, natural for the languages in which they were written (1). Similarly, translations of the Bible into other languages, including English, can be just as natural, not more natural, but no less natural.
(1) other than some Hebraisms literally imported to the Greek of the New Testament by the Jewish writers of the New Testament who were steeped in those Hebraisms, and I suspect that those Hebraisms were so much a part of the language of those authors that they sounded natural to them even in the Greek they wrote