Different Languages Wear Different Formal Attire

Perhaps a couple of formal pictures should go with this posting: A Three-piece Suit, a Grand Boubou, a Hakama. They are all radically different–foreign to one another. And yet they all mean about the same thing.

Structured text has form. And ancient languages utilize forms that are quite foreign to us. Just like a foreign word is not understood by someone, larger linguistic structures are also not understood. Or, sometimes, it’s worse. Sometimes they are misunderstood.

We use indentation and space between our paragraph units. It’s the form we use. People who lived and breathed the original languages were different. They used no space—even between words. They tie their paragraphing more tightly to the semantics of the paragraph. We rely more heavily on syntax. One such paragraphing technique they used was the chiasmus. I’ll use this specific formal structure to illustrate a point in just a moment.

Rarely do our translations translate these forms. They leave the larger formal structures largely untouched. When dealing at the word level, translations replace the original forms with ones appropriate to the destination language. But with the larger linguistic structures, at best, we do this replacement poorly.

The results are many: general misunderstanding of what the text says, a sense the text has a special, even secret, meaning, an unfounded assumption that the reason the text can be trusted is because it sounds special (in a novel way), the reader is not impacted by the text because he or she simply can’t understand it, the reader deems the text as irrelevant, they are frustrated, or they may even feel guilty. I think we could come up with more unwanted results.

The text of John 3:31 illustrates this. I’ve explicitly formatted it to show the original, formal structure.


ὁ ἄνωθεν ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν

ὁ ὢν ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐστιν


ἐκ τῆς γῆς λαλεῖ

ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν

ASV (I pick this translation since it provides for easier analysis to the English reader):

He that cometh from above is above all:

he that is of the earth is of the earth,


of the earth he speaketh:

he that cometh from heaven is above all.

As many of our readers will readily see, the structure is a chiasmus. Even those who do not know Greek, with a little effort, can pick out the repetition of various phrases. I’ll also point out that each Greek line ends with a verb. This is a very structured text. It reads quite nicely if you put in your Greek brain. It’s even quite amenable to analysis, even in literal English translation. However, to the English mind, it doesn’t read well.

While English has a form of chiastic structure, it is more stylistic than semantic. In the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Bible the authors use chiasm to convey characteristics of meaning such as emphasis, contrast, conjunction, and even to explicitly state the topic of a paragraph (or larger) unit of text. They utilize the symmetry to convey meaning. I’ve seen cases where the main referent of a paragraph can be easily seen in the central, hinge-point of the chiasmus which formed the immediately preceding paragraph. It’s as if the apex of the paragraph forms the jumping off point for the next paragraph. With our more linear processing of the Biblical text, I think we too often miss these observations. The English formal structures don’t use symmetry for semantic effect. So, we quite naturally don’t “see” the semantics of the larger text.

In the above example, as it folds around the middle, we can see that οὐρανός (“heaven”) makes more explicit the ἄνωθεν (“from above”). The first and last clauses form a strong and explicit statement that there is someone who has come from heaven. The folding of the text is as if the repeated text overlaps the text it repeats, and it therefore becomes bold.

The middle clause—in fact, two clauses joined with the conjunction καὶ (“and”)—appear to be in contrast to its wrapper. This contrast becomes much clearer when the bolded “from heaven” statement is placed along side the truism in the text: “that which is from the earth from the earth is.”

This structure forms a common chiasm with its semantic symmetry, in this case, a contrast. The semantic symmetry focuses the attention on the meaning intended by the author. In this case, the paragraph talks about one person who is both from heaven and from earth, but the one from earth speaks. The formal structure intertwines the contrastive concepts into one holistic statement. A statement which is both coherent and dialectic at the same time. It’s clever how John has formed it–even elegant.

Recently, I was somewhat surprised by the incarnational meaning of the text. I hadn’t seen it before. A small group of us men were going over the above text. And I saw the chiasmus. When that happened the incarnation jumped from the page. I suddenly realized that the next sentence, when connected with the chiasm just read, should be understood as saying, “What He [the one who is of the earth] has seen and heard [which can only be seen and heard by one who is from heaven], of that [these heavenly things] He testifies; and no one [on the earth] receives His testimony” (NASB). So, it turns out that John 3:31-36 is a recapitulation of John 3:11-18 and also, somewhat more abstractly, to John 1:1-18 and John 1:51. And note that the first “he” naturally refers back to the subject at the center of the chaismus–“he, the of-the-earth one” is the one who testifies.

Why was I surprised? I hadn’t seen it before, that’s why. You would think the meaning would have been obvious. In fact, I’m now a bit embarrassed to admit I hadn’t seen it before. And yet, that is unfair of me to judge myself like that. The formal structure in all of our translations is not an English form. How could I readily understand it? It takes quite a bit of processing until one arrives at the obvious. And then I went through this halting, second-guessing routine since the formal structure sounds so special. Well, it is special to the English mind–it’s Greek, it’s not English. The syntax sounded profound. But it’s the semantics which was (indeed, is) profound. Something that is so profound can’t sound simple! Can it? Sure it can!

Why does profound truth have to sound like I can’t understand it? What if profound truth really is simple? What if the profound beauty of heaven can be stated in simple “of this earth” language? Following Christ as our example, I think it not only must be done, but it can be done. That’s Jesus’ point, isn’t it? He speaks plain, human language and people just don’t get the concepts. There’s something profoundly broken about we human beings when we miss the concepts plainly stated. But what if our translations obscure the meaning by using non-English forms? Should we not make the profound clear?

So, how should we translate this text? Why don’t we replace the original form with a form suitable for the English reader?

I think the chiasmus needs unwrapped in order to bring it over into English. The formal structure of the original needs replaced with an English formal structure which accurately conveys the meaning. The meaning needs gently lifted from the original and masterfully molded into English.

I make no claims of master craftsmanship; but, might I suggest something like:

Even though the one who comes from above is from heaven and is above all, he is also of the earth and so speaks as one from the earth.

What a beautifully simple verse! And such power! The one who is from heaven speaks to me as if he were from earth. He takes what is beyond and packages it for me here. He speaks human.

Shouldn’t a good translation be characterized by the same?

8 thoughts on “Different Languages Wear Different Formal Attire

  1. Peter Holloway says:

    Thanks for the explanation, it’s very helpful. I agree that a good translation should as far as possible help us to understand the form as well as the words of the original. I’m not sure that we will ever get this in one simple readable package, which is why there will always be room for this sort of discussion and explanation of the nuances of the original. I’d much rather have it explained than lose something through translation.

    Thanks 🙂

  2. matthewsix says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for the insight here. Structures like these are even more argument for study of the original languages, something unfortunately shunned by a lot of Christianity.

  3. CD-Host says:

    Great article on the form. Gaus uses a translation similar to yours though he breaks a bit further with tradition, “The one who comes from above is above everything. Whoever comes from the earth is of the earth and talks of the earth; he who comes from the sky is above everything”.

  4. David Ker says:

    I’m not convinced that this is about the incarnate Christ. It could be contrasting Jesus with John the Baptist. Or possibly “earthly” people in comparison to “heavenly” Jesus.

    It’s tough to get my head around chiasmus. As a literary feature I can comprehend it being consciously constructed by the writer but it’s hard for my American mind to conceive how someone could use chiasmus in natural speech. Another reading could be that this is statement of thesis, followed by contrast and ending with recapitulation of the original thesis. After all, haven’t we been taught that chiasmus points to where X marks the spot? If that were so, John would be eager for us to focus on the word KAI. 🙂

  5. Rich Rhodes says:

    I’m with David on this one. It’s John the Baptist answering his disciples about Jesus identity. You have to at least include verse 30 and 32 to get all the referential connections and the structural parallels. Here it is in ASV (since that’s where you started), but broken up by sense rather than versification:

    30 He must increase, but I must decrease. 31 He that cometh from above is above all:

    he that is of the earth is of the earth, and of the earth he speaketh:

    he that cometh from heaven is above all. 32 What he hath seen and heard, of that he beareth witness;

    and no man receiveth his witness.

    I think the contrastive parallelism here is stronger than the chiasmus. he from earth speaks about earthly things vs. he from heaven speaks about heavenly things (of which he is a witness).

    John the Baptist (he of the earth) is saying people understand him because he speaks in earthly terms but they don’t get Jesus (him of the heavens) because Jesus is speaking of things that only he has seen. (Oh, and BTW, Jesus is above all and what he’s saying is completely reliable.)

    30 εκεινον δει αυξανειν εμε δε ελαττουσθαι 31 ο ανωθεν ερχομενος επανω παντων εστιν

    ο ων εκ της γης εκ της γης εστιν και εκ της γης λαλει
    ο εκ του ουρανου ερχομενος επανω παντων εστιν 32 ο εωρακεν και ηκουσεν τουτο μαρτυρει
    και την μαρτυριαν αυτου ουδεις λαμβανει

    I think the first reference to the one who comes from above is tied to verse 30. Here’s something between a translation and a paraphrase:

    He must increase and I must decrease [because, after all] he comes from above and he is above everything.

    [To be more precise,] he who is earthly [i.e., me] speaks in earthly terms [people may not like it, but they get it], but he who comes from heaven is preeminent [i.e., Jesus] and he explains things he knows first-hand. [That’s why] people don’t understand what he says.

  6. exegete77 says:

    Mike, thanks for raising some important points when considering translating. Obviously the chiasmus noticed in the parables (K. Bailey) and John 1:1-18, etc. require attention even from a translation perspective. It might even be worth considering format/layout to emphasize these points in translating something like chiasmus. GW does this occasionally.

    Rich, I agree that the context favors your approach. (Prior to your post, I had looked at the entire context up to v. 36 to see whether this was appropriate.) BTW, this shows that the NLT entirely misses the point when it translates v. 31 by switching to the first person plural:

    NLTse: He has come from above and is greater than anyone else. We are of the earth, and we speak of earthly things, but he has come from heaven and is greater than anyone else.

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    I think it was Galbraith that said, “If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.”

    I stand by everything I said up to the sentence, “the paragraph talks about one person who is both from heaven and from earth,…” The parts after that talking about the incarnation can’t be right given the context. It’s obviously contrasting John the Baptist and Jesus.

    Let me limit what I’ll say here so I don’t dig a deeper hole and simply say that I walked into the middle of a devotional right at John 3:31, and then trusting what was being said, miserably failed to even glance at the context.

    Thank you to those who responded–it was quite gentle. I especially recognize the gentleness of those who didn’t reply. All of you exhibited wonderful self-control.

    I’ve donned the attire of dust and ashes (which wouldn’t have the correct meaning in this modern Western culture). This failure on my part is so very frustrating to me since I think there is a great need to form a much more cohesive text in translation than anything we currently have. We need to consider the larger forms in order to accomplish that.

  8. jazzloonz says:

    ‘Why don’t we replace the original form with a form suitable for the English reader?’

    This is my recent problem with ‘literal translation’ of the Bible. I no longer believe it’s possible for much of anyone. But I do believe it’s possible for the text of the Bible to teach and inspire and help guide us. I personally find I need to rely much more on my walk with God through prayer and contemplation than when I used to think I could think my way into truth.

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