Every language is different from every other language. One of the principles of translation from one language to another is that the linguistic patterns (lexical, syntactic, pragmatic, etc.) used in the translation should be those of the target language, rather than the source language. If linguistic patterns of the source language are used, there is a very good chance that those who use the translation will not be able to understand it.
Formal equivalence can only accurately communicate the original message in translation if the language form used in the biblical language already exists in the target language. (The claim of the last sentence can be nuanced if we engineer new forms in the the target language which match forms in the biblical language texts and teach the meanings of the new forms to its speakers. But, to my mind, anyway, this defeats the purpose of translation, which is, again, to allow speakers of one language to understand a message first produced in another language.)
These facts are true whether the source language is Spanish, Navajo, Japanese, or one of the biblical languages. Translating the Bible does not give us the privilege of importing biblical language patterns to English if our aim is to accurately communicate the biblical language message to those who use the target language translation.
The longer I have been working as a Bible translator and Bible translation consultant, the more I have come to realize that many of the English Bible phrases I was raised on are not part of the English language. Many such problem phrases are prepositional phrases which begin with the preposition “in”. I have written about this issue a number of times in the past, but I want to do so again, because this week I found that one English version does a good job of avoiding the non-English “in” phrases.
I grew up reading Romans 8:1 like this:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
Notice the phrase “in Christ Jesus”. Notice also that the verb which “controls” it is “are,” a form of the verb “be”.
If we listen to English speakers, or study what they have written (or if we simply want to remember what our English teachers taught us), we can discover that English speakers have a linguistic rule that allows for “in” to be used with an object that states a location, for example:
- John is in Madison.
- Mary lives in Dallas.
- The bees are making honey in their hive.
- We ate supper in the dining room.
- The surgeon’s hands are in Ralph right now.
There are a few other grammatical uses of “in” where the object is not a location, as in:
- John and Mary are in love.
- Elmer is in trouble.
As far as I have been able to determine, observing “in” usage for many years, the only time English speakers use the preposition “in” with the name of a person is when that person is a location, as in my somewhat odd sentence #5, above. Fluent English speakers do not speak or write sentences with the “in” phrase found quoted in Romans 8:1 at the beginning of this post. That usage of “in” has been imported to English from the Greek source text, which has the Greek preposition en followed by the name Christ Jesus. Greek en does properly translate to English “in” in locative phrases. But the Greek of Romans 8:1 does not have a locative phrase. Christ Jesus is not a location where a person can be “in”. Here we see that Greek and English differ in how what they allow as the object of a preposition, Greek en or English “in”. Prepositional phrases in Greek and English with these prepositions are sometimes formal equivalents and sometimes they are not. In other words, the proper translation equivalent in English to a Greek phrase beginning with en sometimes is an English phrase beginning with “in” and sometimes it is not.
This week I noticed that the NLT translates Romans 8:1 as
So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.
Now, for the moment setting aside the question of translation accuracy, is this sentence grammatical English? It seems so to me. The phrase “belong to Christ Jesus” is intended to translate the meaning of the Greek phrase beginning with en.
Now, does “those who belong to Christ Jesus” mean the same as the intended meaning of the non-English prepositional phrase “those who are in Christ Jesus”? My understanding, from reading theological explanations of the intended meaning of phrases like “BE in the Lord”, “BE in Christ,” “BE in Christ Jesus,” and “BE in God,” is that “those who belong to Christ Jesus” is a good translation equivalent to the original Greek phrases. Clearly (at least to me!), if we say that someone belongs to Christ Jesus, that communicates meaning to more English speakers than does saying that someone is “in Christ Jesus.”
The NLT includes a footnote in a parallel passage, 1 Cor. 1:4, to help those who might question the accuracy of a translation which does not use “in” to translate the Greek phrase en + Christ Jesus:
now that you belong to Christ Jesus (literally in Christ Jesus): Paul frequently uses the phrase in Christ Jesus to refer to the saving relationship believers have with Christ (e.g., Rom 3:24; Gal 2:4; Eph 3:6).
Are there other English Bible versions which avoid using the non-English phrasing “in Christ Jesus”? Yes, there are a few but not many. Most English versions import the form of the Greek prepositional phrase to English and supplement it with teaching to explain its meaning. But teaching does not transform the phrase into a genuine English, unless so many speakers of the language are taught the meaning of the phrase and so many speakers decide that they will add “in” plus Christ or God to their list of grammatical prepositional phrases. When that happens, language change will have occurred and teaching will not be required to understand the “in” phrase of Rom. 8:1.
Here are some other versions which attempt to use genuine English forms as translation equivalents of the Greek prepositional phrase for Rom. 8:1:
There is no condemnation now for those who live in union with Christ Jesus. (TEV)
If you belong to Christ Jesus, you won’t be punished. (CEV)
So those who are believers in Christ Jesus can no longer be condemned. (God’s Word)
It follows that there is now no condemnation for those who are united with Christ Jesus. (REB)
There is much more that could be added in a larger study of translation equivalence to the Greek phrase en + name for God or Christ, but this should be enough to introduce us to the issue and some genuine English solutions.