Once upon a time …

George (a fictitious name) is translating the Bible to English. He is starting to translate John 3. In the Bible translation classes he has taken he learned that different languages introduce new characters into a discourse in different ways. George remembers that his grandmother used to introduce him to a new character in bedtime stories by saying, “Once upon a time there was a man named …”

Should George begin the translation of John 3 with “Once upon a time there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus”?

Why or why not?

What would sound to you like an accurate and natural way of introducing Nicodemus to English readers of John’s gospel?

28 thoughts on “Once upon a time …

  1. Kevin Sam says:

    Wayne, Technicallytspeaking, “Once upon a time” can also be used to refer to a factual/historical person. But if what you are getting at is that “Once upon a time” could leave the reader/hearer wondering if the character is fictitious, then I would disagree with using “Once upon a time.”

  2. Jake says:

    I agree that most people consider “once upon a time” to be the start of fiction. However, I do not think that it is bad to start an introduction somehow different in a less literal translation. I actually kind of like how TLB starts this by combining the first two verses (I just got the translation in a parallel Bible and have barely looked at it):

    “After dark one night a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, a member of the sect of the Pharisees, came for an interview with Jesus…” -John 3:1-2 (TLB)

  3. Rich says:

    Instead of “Once upon a time…”, how about something like, “Then there was the time…” or “Have you heard about the time..”

  4. Nik says:

    To dive right in, and start the John 3 translation with “Once upon a time…” would imply that George did not even glance at the original text that he was supposed to be translating from. It would seem that he just pulled some colloqialism out of his memory, which had originally been tossed in there by grandma. In that sense, I think translator George would be off to a bad start.

    Then there was a man who came from among the Pharisees, who was himself known by the name of Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.

    Think I ended up with a more accurate/less natural translation. Lack of training and experience forces me to slavishly remain close to each Greek definition.

  5. dgoepfrich says:

    In speaking with people normally, I would say something like, “So there was this guy, Nicodemus. He was a leading Pharisee, but he came to Jesus one night…”

    This is how my mind hears the narrative, as is someone were telling me the story.

  6. Mike Sangrey says:

    For me, “Once upon a time…” signals fiction. I’ve often used that expression to illustrate how a literal understanding can convey the opposite of its natural meaning. That is, “Once upon a time…” introduces a story that never happened in time.

    However, I DO like the idea of a “story feel”, if you like. Especially when read out loud. I think that brings the reader into the real-life story.

    I’ve also wondered if there is chiasmus going on in this introductory sentence, and therefore an accurate translation could unwrap it.

    ἦν δὲ ἄνθρωπος
    A: ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων
    B: Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ
    A' ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων

    So, we would have: There was this person, one of the Pharisees and a member of the Jewish ruling Council. His name was Nicodemus.

    dgoepfrich’s rendering is pretty close to what I initially thought of. I had to argue with myself for a little while before I came to a slightly different conclusion. However, I still think it captures the “feeling” of what John is doing in this introductory sentence.

    I think this type of accuracy in translation is too often compromised. And, it doesn’t need to be, since I think we can retain the accurate propositional content and still deliver the text approximately the same as originally intended.

  7. Brant says:

    To an acculturated reader of English, the phrase “once upon a time” signals not only fiction, but a specific kind of fiction, i.e. a fairy tale. Fairy tales are children’s stories with elements of fantasy and magic. To translate John 3:1 with the phrase “once upon a time” would suggest that what follows is childish, ahistorical and fantastic. In other words, it would undermine the credibility and seriousness of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

    I would suggest a translation that followed the conventions for introducing new characters in contemporary English narrative, something like:

    “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Judeans, who came to Jesus at night and said….”

    Or perhaps:

    “A Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Judeans, came to Jesus one night. He said….”

  8. Nik says:

    wondering about that Greek word de, which could either be continuative or adversative.

    John 2 ends with: He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.

    Nicodemus: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

    Considering how Nicodemus was sure that God was with Jesus, compared to the men in John 2 who seemed to regard Jesus as a mere man, perhaps de should be adversative.

    Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.

    Moreover, the men in John 2 believed in his name after witnessing miracles. What if Nicodemus believed without having seen a miracle himself? Is there an antithesis between the chapters? Nicodemus seems to have been doing something right.

    Leaning adversatively: But then there was a man who came from among the Pharisees…

  9. Mike Sangrey says:

    I don’t want to move away from Wayne’s desire for this posting. I want to say, though, that Nik raises an interesting question about δὲ when it comes to rendering this sentence. So, I’ll just place some other observations on the table:

    1. Current research indicates δὲ carries with it a meaning other than continuative or adversative. It appears to mark an expansion of the current topic. The majority of the time this is at the sentence or clause level.
    2. Typically, the continuative or adversative meaning is obtained by the surrounding text and not with δὲ.
    3. We do have a significant paragraph or section break at the beginning of chapter three. We know that since a new participant, a different time, and a different place are all introduced.

    So, the question the exegete needs to answer is: what was the topic of the previous section/paragraph and how does δὲ relate the current topic to the previous one. I suggest the whole of chapter two has everything to do with Jesus establishing for his audience, or his revealing, who he is.

    We wouldn’t want to go overboard, however. We could start the sentence with “To further explain…, but, that is way too much. ‘So‘ might get us pretty close. ‘Now‘ would also work.

    Does anyone have any research telling us what so or now indicate when they start an English sentence?

    So, there was this person, one of the Pharisees and a member of the Jewish ruling Council. His name was Nicodemus.

  10. Dru says:

    I agree that ‘once upon a time’ = ‘I’m about to tell you a story that isn’t true’.

    ‘There was this man’ in whatever format one uses it, is spoken English, not written. In a book, it grates. It says to me, ‘this is someone who for some reason is trying to be more colloquial than they would naturally be’.

    What’s wrong with the various ways most of the existing translations introduce this passage. Quite a lot of them seem to start with an interjectory ‘now’.

  11. Brant says:

    In my suggested translations, I intentionally did not translate the δὲ. In NT Greek conjunctions often stand at the beginning of sentences. In written English, not so much. A sense of continuity or disjunction can be inferred from context. I don’t object to the interjectory “now” used in some translations, but I ask, what does it add to the sentence? How does it enhance the meaning? What nuance of the Greek original does express?

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    Brant wrote:

    To an acculturated reader of English, the phrase “once upon a time” signals not only fiction, but a specific kind of fiction, i.e. a fairy tale. Fairy tales are children’s stories with elements of fantasy and magic. To translate John 3:1 with the phrase “once upon a time” would suggest that what follows is childish, ahistorical and fantastic. In other words, it would undermine the credibility and seriousness of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

    Good, Brant. I could not agree with you more. It’s interesting how a certain language formula can communicate such a wrong meaning, isn’t it?

  13. Nik says:

    Considering that interjectory now, what if de was included in the original language simply to grab the attention of the reader, or used in a way similar to how Paul seems to use therefore below? As a way to place an emphasis on the message that follows.

    Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…

    Is de ever used in such a way?

  14. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    That is, “Once upon a time…” introduces a story that never happened in time.

    Ooooh! In that case, I’d love a translation of Genesis 1 that began:

    “Once upon a time God created the heavens and the earth.”

    😉

  15. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    Interestingly, the NEB used “once upon a time” twice in the OT: Genesis 11:1 and Judges 9:8, while Job 1:1 begins with “There lived in the land of Uz…”, which also seems in this vein, albeit a little limericky.

    If I may channel David Ker, this all brings to mind my “Bulwer-Lytton” translation of Genesis 1:1-2:

    Once upon a time God created the heavens and the earth. It was a dark and stormy night and the earth was a formless abyss.

  16. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    The REB is more consistent with the majority of other translations I use. It kept the Judges example of “Once upon a time” above, but revised Genesis 11 to “There was a time…”, probably for many of the reasons discussed above. I agree that John 1:1 would be an odd place to find “Once upon a time..”, even though the NEB/REB have their own unique renderings of this verse:

    NEB: When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was.

    REB: In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God’s presence, and what God was, the Word was.

  17. Wayne Leman says:

    It was a dark and stormy night and the earth was a formless abyss.

    Now *that* sounds poetic, dark poetry, like something Edgar A. Poe would write. Spooky.

  18. David Ker says:

    I’ll disagree with you here, ESE. I am positive the author of Gen 1 and 2 did not think they were writing fiction. Rather it is a stylized or poetic reference to the real (in their mind) event.

    Same thing goes with Nicodemus. John didn’t write that as a fairy tale.

    The formula “Once upon a time” might work for some parables but I think in English usage it is restricted to fairy tales for children.

    Great post, Wayne!

  19. David Ker says:

    My first intuition would be that DE is being used at the discourse level to signal the beginning of a new unit. Does John do that a lot? I can’t remember?

    I wrote a NUN post a while back talking about “now” in English. It can be temporal. But in this context it signals a parenthetical so maybe is not ideal for this case (unless I’m wrong and you’re right) 🙂

  20. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    Yes, of course – I was only playing off Mike’s comment about the relationship of “Once upon a time” in time, and the general notion that the act of Creation signals the beginning of time.

  21. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wayne, Yes a great post (to pile on to David’s comment).

    Mike, I love your translation:

    So, there was this person, one of the Pharisees and a member of the Jewish ruling Council. His name was Nicodemus.

    So, I’m not sure this unnatural chapter break is even a paragraph break at all. John seems to be elaborating on what we call chapter 2:23,24,25. Check the lexical (definite and indefinite) interplays of predications:

    ὡς δὲ ἦν . . . πολλοὶ ἐπίστευσαν
    αὐτὸς δὲ Ἰησοῦς οὐκ ἐπίστευεν
    ἦν δὲ ἄνθρωπος . . . (3:1)

    In lining up these clauses, I’ve ignored their transitivies. The verbal objects of course help with the chiasmus you’ve alluded to earlier. But note: starting in 3:1, John only implies [but leaves for the reader to supply] whether “this person (one of the Pharisees) as one of the many (πολλοὶ ἐπίστευσαν), was like Jesus (οὐκ ἐπίστευεν – not believing humans but believing God). The whole dialectic between Nicodemus and Jesus dramatizes the sorts of conversations the many “believing” (πολλοὶ ἐπίστευσαν) must have been having among themselves. John doesn’t tell us whether or how this one person “believed.” Rather, he let’s Jesus get into a discussion with him on the imperative importance of believing.

    —-

    Note also the parallels between what John does in 1:6 and what he does in 3:1. Does this help with whether to do “once upon a time” in the translation?

    ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης
    ἦν δὲ ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων

  22. Dru says:

    “It was a dark and stormy night’ unfortunately makes me think of the children’s joke tale.

    “It was a dark and stormy night, and the captain said to the second mate ‘tell us a story’ and the story was as follows.
    ‘It was a dark and stormy night and the captain said to the second mate …… and so on ad infinitum ….’ “

  23. Mike Sangrey says:

    The terrene a telluric darkness, cradled in a formless sea.
    The heaven a watery wasteland, hovered by Spirit to be.

  24. Nik says:

    Though most of what J.K. shared went right over my head, noticed the changes: between John 2:22 and 2:23, John 2:25 and 3:1; and now again, think I’m starting to see the light of de.

    Not knowing any better, all along just didn’t feel right about leaving out de, no matter how insignificant de may seem. Because the smallest word in the Bible seems much bigger than the longest word in War and Peace.

  25. Ben Mordecai says:

    Absolutely not. First of all, it isn’t want the passage says. Second of all, that makes it sound like it is fiction.

    We shouldn’t begin a true story with “once upon a time” because that is reserved for fairy tales. The Bible differs stylistically from mythology because it refers to events in ways like, “in the days of _____ in the 3rd year of the reign of ______ there was a certain man of the town of _______ named ______.”

    The world is on a quest to make the Bible seem like mythology, we shouldn’t insert phrases to help them.

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