How do we say that in English?

Each language is unique. It has its own unique syntactic and lexical patterns. Often something said in one language is not said the same way in another language.

For instance, in Spanish if you want to ask someone their name, you say, “¿Cómo te llamas?” (informally) or “¿Cómo se llama? (formally). These both translate literally to English as “How do you call yourself?” But that isn’t how English speakers ask someone their name. The English translation equivalent of the Spanish question is “What’s your name?” Right? How would you be impacted if someone asked you in English, “How do you call yourself?”

We could come up with countless examples like this which demonstrate that the literal translation of something said in one language is not the natural translation equivalent in another language. People who learn to speak other languages come to understand this rather soon. If they don’t, then they soon find out that those whose language they are trying to speak think that they speak rather strangely. What they say is probably comprehensible, but it’s just not the way that native speakers of the language one is learning say things. And if we want to show respect to them, their language, and culture, we usually try to say things the way that they do.

Yet, this commonsense principle of natural translation equivalence is often disregarded when it comes to the Bible. We allow, and sometimes even prefer, that the Bible authors says things in English translation different from how we English speakers actually say those things.

I find this mismatch difficult to understand. If Jesus were speaking directly to us today, I suspect he would speak natural English. Why, then, should our translations of what he said (which are themselves translations of what he spoke in his mother tongue, Aramaic) in English not be natural English?

It baffles me. And I realize that it doesn’t baffle many readers of this blog. You’ve come to recognize that natural language translation is my soapbox. I am passionate about it, because I believe that it is proper to speak and write the way that native speakers do. Any other way of speaking and writing, in my opinion, and from my observations of cross-cultural and cross-language interactions, humors others at minimum, and offends them at worst.

Professional translators at the U.N. and in business are paid to translate accurately and naturally. Why do so many English Bible translators not do so, as well? Unnatural English Bible translations frustrate me. I am baffled why they don’t frustrate more people.

Yes, I know, I’m preaching the same theme as my preceding post and many other posts on this blog (after all, I started this blog to encourage revision of English Bikble translations to be more like the way we actually speak and write). But this post was prompted by my reading the Facebook status of a friend who quoted from the TNIV (which I think is far better than its critics have claimed):

I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. (Job 23:12).

We don’t say in English that we have not departed from the commands of someone’s lips. Instead, we say the same thing with wordings like “I have always done whatever he commanded.”

I can understand the TNIV wording. And it does have a kind of formal sound to it. But it’s just not the way we speak or write .

The God’s Word translation is often more natural, but it’s not on this verse either:

I have not left his commands behind.

Hey, here’s one that is worded as we naturally say it:

I always do what God commands. (GNB)

In the comments please quote from any other English Bible versions which express the same meaning the way that English speakers naturally say and write it.

40 thoughts on “How do we say that in English?

  1. Andrew says:

    I have never refused to follow any of his commands, and I have always treasured his teachings.
    (Job 23:11-12 CEV)

    (MSG) I’ve obeyed every word he’s spoken
    (NIrV) I haven’t disobeyed his commands.

  2. v02468 says:

    It really doesn’t frustrate or baffle me. I actually would prefer the opposite… that we would have more rugged and awkward translations. For one thing it reduces the amount of interpretation the linguist performs, and the second thing is that it makes it clearer that the Jesus WASN’T speaking to us today as His primary audience. That we need to filter it through culture and time.

  3. Will Fitzgerald says:

    I think if you think about “register,” your bafflement might lessen. When I ask someone their name, it makes a big difference whether I’m meeting them at a party (“What was your name, again?”) or whether I’m a judge in a case they’re a party to (“State your name.”) To mix up these registers is an error, too. “State your name” is just as ‘natural’ as “What was your name, again?” but imagine saying the former at a party or the later at a trial!

    Furthermore, in these oh-so-postmodern days, I think we are becoming more and more used to mix-and-matching registers and encountering new ways of saying things–some of which are just the old ways, of course. So, “I have not departed from the commands of his lips.” Not the way I’d usually say it, perhaps, but easy enough (in this case) to understand. And, with its formality and poetic register, probably closer to register equivalence.

  4. Bob MacDonald says:

    Hmmm – Jesus does speak to me today but not in natural language -rather it is like Hashem spoke to Job – in the language of creation and in the language of confrontation. How dare we reduce this to our ‘natural’ language, whatever that is. When we sing the psalms in plainchant, we pause between the stichoi. This gives us the space to hear what is not said. It is good that the poet forces us to slow down – awkwardness is a virtue when ‘hearing the silence’ is the requirement.

    Here is my translation of this verse from a few months ago

    the command of his lips – such I have not ignored
    from his statute I have treasured the words of his mouth

    There is a textual emendation here I suspect – ‘from his statute is translated in some versions as ‘more than my necessary [food]’. All it takes is a switch of a yod to a vav. I don’t have my commentaries here any more to see if the emendation is noted in one of them – the worst that happened to me while translating this elaborate parable of dust and ashes was that I had to pay a library fine!

    This was the only comment I wrote when I translated it:
    “I can scarcely believe what I am reading. …this is a difficult and slow process. But here as in chapters 10 and 14 – Job has more and more to say that is new and that extends his tender appreciation for God. Again he intimates the necessary character of God. And one can even feel a little sympathy for the dilemma of the Sufficient.

    The phrases of this chapter are almost unconnected – modalities are incomplete, prepositions and interjections lacking. Should I fill them in? Will you check my work? Will you see the new thing too or is it my imagination that Job has more to say that is worth hearing even given the state he is portrayed in?”

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Will wrote:

    I think if you think about “register,” your bafflement might lessen.

    Yes, Will, it’s good that you mention register. I thought about that after putting my post online. But it had probably already become too long.

    As I wrote in a comment on the preceding post and in many other posts on BBB, there is no one single “natural” way of saying something. There are a variety of ways which would all be considered natural. And one of the means by which those options differ is definitely register. Another is genre.

    Thanks for bringing it up.

  6. Bob MacDonald says:

    I am almost wondering if this should be a tri-colon
    the command of his lips –
    and I have not ignored – from the/my/his ? statutes
    I have treasured [to] the words of his mouth

    My grammar wonders if mahuqi might be an interrupted construct with ‘his mouth’. That would require a proleptic ellipsis – !

    How much stuttering could we stand in a poem?

  7. Paul Franklyn says:


    I’ve been a lurker at this blog and value it highly. This is my first post to the blog. Your comments help us as we work on the forthcoming Common English Bible. We are committed to natural language with the translation, so I checked the current draft of Job, which was produced by James Crenshaw (OT emeritus from Duke). In addition to register, Crenshaw’s rendering also illustrates why literary context (theological and poetic parallelism) are crucial considerations for natural written language. If Job 23:12a is translated in context with 23:8-11, we begin to appreciate the parallel construction of the poetry and the evocative purpose of the metaphor: “commandments of his lips” is parallel with “foot has held in his tracks.” Let’s also see if the indenting or line breaks hold in this post, because indentation with poetic language is another trigger for readability.

    23:8Look, I go east, he’s not there,
    west, and don’t see him;
    23:9north in his activity, and don’t grasp him,
    he turns south, and I don’t see.
    23:10Surely he knows my way;
    when he tests me, I’ll emerge as gold.
    23:11My foot has held in his tracks;
    I’ve kept his way and not veered,
    23:12the commandments of his lips, and not left;
    I’ve valued the words of his mouth over my food.

    Contextually Job seems engaged in a frantic search for a hidden God. Should translators flatten poetic metaphors and syntax into propositional statements that sound natural or conversational to our ears? This is a very challenging problem with poetry. Perhaps it is most effective when one can find a comparable poetic metaphor (for “commandments of my lips”) that sustains the poetic and theological context. Poetry seem like one genre where we seek a dynamic equivalent more than a functional equivalent.

    Paul Franklyn, project director
    Common English Bible, engraved on my heart and mind

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Paul wrote:

    Should translators flatten poetic metaphors and syntax into propositional statements that sound natural or conversational to our ears?

    Absolutely not. And the CEV is guilty of much of this. It is possible to find natural translation equivalents of genre as well as register. It requires a scholarly approach to English, however, understanding the dynamics of English syntax as well as that of biblical language syntax. Often they differ, sometimes so much that if we try to match, for instance, poetic parallelism in the wrong way, the result is inaccurate translation in English. The way to produce *better Bibles* is to find out how to do poetic parallelism in English which maintaining accuracy. I would love to sit down with your team and have a workshop on the comparative linguistics of English and the biblical languages for English Bible translation. Cindy Westfall has a good start on this, already, of course.

    Let me give an example. Ps. 119:105 is typically translated:

    “Your word is a lamp for my feet
    and a light for my path.”

    The English translators diligently and sincerely retained the form of the Hebraic couplet. English also has poetic couplets, but there is at least one major difference. The English conjunctions “and” and “but” in poetic couplets cannot conjoin “synonymous” elements in the couplets; Hebrew waw could and often did conjoin synonymous or near-synonymous elements for poetic effect.

    As you know, I’m sure, lamp and light refer to the same item in the psalm. For that matter, my feet and my path refer to the same area where the illumination shines.

    There is no need to flatten out the Hebraic poetry in English. But there is a need to remove any element which communicates the original meaning inaccurately. All the field testing I have done demonstrates that normal speakers of English (those who don’t understand the Biblish dialect) understand lamp and light to refer to two different sources of illumination, BECAUSE they are connected by “and.”

    As soon as we delete the source of the inaccuracy, the English “and”, we get perfectly natural English syntax, the appositive construction, which is used *precisely* to indicate that the appositive says the “same thing” as what precedes it. It amplifies upon it. It beautifully emphasizes the teaching of the couplet. It slows down the pace. All of these may be functions of Semitic poetic parallelism.

    Now, English Bible translators know these facts *intuitively* and would be able to demonstrate that if I field tested them. But they typically forget these facts of English linguistics in their proper efforts to accurately convey propositional meaning as well as the beauty and aesthetic meaning of the original forms.

    There are hundreds of other examples where almost every English Bible version gets it wrong and new versions will also get them wrong, *unless* the translation team is trained in Bible translation principles and sensitized to what they intuitively know about their own language.

    We truly can have our cake and eat it, too. It’s often not a matter of losing original form. It’s a matter of making the necessary adjustments so that retaining original form does not communicate to readers inaccurately, or so that they don’t have to learn a new dialect of English, Biblish (appositive!! syntax here!!), to over-ride the normal rules of English.

    Finally (which should have been first), welcome to BBB. I’m glad you posted. I have been keenly interested in your translation project.

  9. Bob MacDonald says:

    Paul – thanks for your comment. The parallels in the prior verses both speed us up and slow us down. There is a franticness to the pace of his words. Can you explain how food fits? It really breaks the flow in my ear. It is scarcely a ‘normal’ gloss for חק – a word that appears again in verse 14. Surely when חֻקִּי appears twice within a few verses of each other, we are obliged to look not only for pace but also for recurrence.

    Hah – I rendered verse 14 as
    For he makes peace my statute
    and like these are many with him

    Now _that_ stops the pace – and presents the confrontation, the injustice, and the point of Job’s work. If we have peace – why is there so much turmoil?

    Rendering chuq as food is to me ignoring the words of the poem. Convince me otherwise and I will start to trust translators again.

  10. Paul Franklyn says:


    We’re on the same page about the linguistic issues. When translating metaphor, which is ambiguous by definition, as you know, sometimes we don’t encounter a black and white choice for any well-trained translator or linguist. Your post about the example in Job triggered an appreciative comment from me because Romans arrived yesterday. This text contains the notorious and ubiquitous Greek term sarx. We all know that translating this metaphor can result in significant perceptions of theological bias (such as the Calvinist understanding of sinful nature). In a compelling translation of Romans by Richard Hays (which measures 6th grade reading level on the Dale Chall scale), the first draft retained “flesh” throughout for sarx. So co-translator Beverley Gaventa now gets to wrestle with whether to make this Pauline thought more propositional and whether to keep the metaphor consistent. Meanwhile Cindy Westfall handled the problem of sarx in Galatians, which was retained in the first draft as “flesh” by Marion Soards. The CEB will go with a range of terms, including “selfishness.” Romans probably will too, and we will ponder whether “selfishness” or “weakness” are metaphors as much as “flesh” is.

  11. JKGayle says:

    Wayne says, “If Jesus were speaking directly to us today, I suspect he would speak natural English.”

    We feel your pain, your bafflement about the need for “natural” English. And I’m so glad for Will’s comment about register and your reply that accounts for the range of what you call “natural.”

    But I do have some questions related to your statement about Jesus. First, are you assuming that Mark, Matthew, John, and Luke are using “natural” Greek when they translate the spoken Aramaic of Jesus? They seem to have him quoting a literary Greek translation of the old literary (non-spoken) Hebrew (i.e., the LXX) a good bit, don’t they? Would you say that there’s any written Hebrew “language of the canonical texts” that is, as Robert Alter sees it, “not identical with the [spoken] vernacular”?

    Second, if Jesus did speak “natural” English to us, how would he state his name? How would we call his name? Isn’t wordplay, especially allusion and interplay, important in translation, even around names? Doesn’t Paul Franklyn make a good point about “metaphor, which is ambiguous by definition”? Granted, “Jesus” doesn’t have to “mean” in “natural English” exactly what Moses meant by it in “natural” Hebrew (i.e., Numbers 13:16, where it’s no long “Hosea” with a particular meaning but “Joshua” playing on the name of God); but doesn’t Joshua (in contrast to “Jesus” in English) still signal a number of different things? Isn’t Joshua more natural than Jesus? Isn’t the former not such a unique name after all? Isn’t it, rather, a very Jewish name of a very heroic Jew? How does that sound natural in 21st century Western English?

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk, thanks for your usual many questions. I am unable to answer them and I personally don’t know how they should relate to translation to English. Others more knowledgeable than I might be able to answer your questions as they might relate to Better English Bibles.

    I do believe that if Jesus were speaking directly to us today, he would use natural English, not liturgical or Biblish English. And I suspect that he spoke natural Aramaic in his conversations and public teaching.

    The questions you raise about the unnaturalness of the LXX and its effect on the Greek of the N.T. are relevant to something, but I personally don’t know what that is. It’s beyond my areas of expertise.

    I don’t think that the fact that the N.T. authors quoted from a Greek translation of varying quality should have much impact upon the *overall* principle of translation, that it should be in natural language, respecting, of course, each of the factors we try to always mention, register, genre, etc.

    The N.T. authors, presumably, intended what they wrote to be understood by their audiences. We should do no less when we translate to English. Part of being understood in translation is using the principles of professional translation, which calls for native speakers of the target language to do the translation into their own language and for them to have training in how to translate. Very, very few English Bible translators have had such training, and the awkward English that appears in their translations is proof of it. That awkward English is usually not the result of awkwardness in the original texts. Instead, it is the result of not using the principles of good English while translating from biblical languages. You are an English major and are able to recognize good English when you see it. Many Bible translators can if they are reading non-biblical literature or even, I suspect, translation of non-biblical literature. But that foundational principle is often neglected when it comes to translation from the Bible itself. Baffling. Strange. So very unprofessional.

    That’s my focus, my concern, Kurk. I consider it important for the English Bible-reading world. There are also other important concerns, including those that you raise. But if we don’t first get the foundation right, I’m not sure how well the superstructure can hold up.

  13. CD-Host says:

    Wayne —

    I’m into accuracy not naturalness. So I guess if you want a test case for someone who is relatively indifferent to natural, I’ll work. My feeling is that the bible (NT) is a Greek book, about Greek topics intended for a Greek audience. The ideas aren’t natural, they are foreign. The book is unavoidably foreign.

    Or take 2Cor 2:12. How do you naturally translate 3rd heaven? Venus? But when I think of Venus of 900 deg F sulfuric acid pressing down on me with 90 atmospheres of pressure. I don’t think of the world of mystery, Raphael’s domain and the tree of life. The problem is the concepts don’t exist in American English.

    How do you translate archons naturally, “sky demons”? Heck I have to spend pages explaining the procession of the equinoxes to explain aion at all. There is no word in modern lay American English that corresponds to this concept.

    To understand the very first passage in the bible you must abandon your notion of a spherical planet orbiting a sun made mostly of rock. Instead you have to take on a new picture of a an flat expanse of water land coming from that in the shape of a disk an over covering holding back the rain water.

    This is an alien conceptual world. If you want Jesus talking naturally right a play. The Jesus of John builds on of this main themes, light vs. darkness by using a metaphor based on the Greek notion of vision, that the eye emits light not reflects it. What’s the point of making Jesus’s speech too native when his ideas are completely foreign?

  14. Wayne Leman says:

    CD-Host, thank you for your comments. As I’ve stated before, I would agree with you: there are many foreign concepts in the Bible. But there is no logical reason for describing foreign concepts using unnatural or foreign English.

    I would still insist that Jesus most likely spoke natural Aramaic to his audiences. I see no reason that we should not, therefore, follow his example and use natural English in our translations, allowing, as I often point out, for natural variations that reflect differences in genre, register, author styles, LXX borrowings, etc.

    Your points are relevant to whether or not concepts themselves are foreign, not to whether or not a translation which describes those concepts should sound foreign.

    If Jesus did not sound like a foreigner to his audiences, then we have not translated *accurately* if we make him sound like he is speaking as a foreigner in English translation. I always resist the idea, as I’m sure you would, of transculturating, which is changing foreign concepts to modern or local concepts. That is inaccurate translation.

    I never promote transculturation for Bible translation. I only promote using grammatical and natural language when the original text was grammatical and natural. And when it was not, we do not even have free license to translate with any old foreign sound. Instead, we need to stay within the bounds of any unnaturalness reflected in the original texts.

    Yes, Jesus spoke of light and darkness throughout the Gospel of John. Therefore, so must our translation of what he said. We are not free, as translators, to transculturate Jesus’ light and darkness, to, for instance, freedom and slavery, or yin and yang. Concepts must remain in translation. But, by definition, translation (not transculturation, which is what I think you may be referring to) is expressed in a different language from that of an original text. And that different language needs to use its own syntax and lexical patterns so that those who read Bible versions can understand them accurately.

  15. Wayne Leman says:

    Paul wrote and was cited by Kurk, saying:

    When translating metaphor, which is ambiguous by definition, as you know

    I disagree, Paul and Kurk, from the viewpoint of authorial intent. But perhaps both of you are speaking from the viewpoint of us who attempt to understand the biblical texts in their original languages. Metaphors are, in some sense, ambiguous for hearers who may analyze them and think both of their literal meaning (which was intended and they usually know that) and their figurative meaning. (But hearer almost never think of multiple possible meanings for metaphors, unlike with puns where people laugh because at some level of cognition they do recognize the play on the two possible meanings.)

    Metaphors have clear figurative meanings which those who use them intend. The meaning of metaphors has nothing to do with the literal meaning of their words and their syntax, so we are not, in actuality, facing an ambiguity between their literal meaning and figurative meaning.

    Ambiguity refers to having more than one possible meaning and a reader/listener is unsure which meaning was meant. I would claim that no such ambiguity existed for the original intended audiences of the biblical texts. Literal Bible translations confuse matters and introduce inaccuracy by sometimes translating biblical metaphors literally instead of accurately translating their figurative meanings.

    For instance, when Jesus uses a metaphor to refer to James and John as Sons of Thunder, there was no ambiguity. Jesus was not trying to have it both ways, linguistically. Jesus intended, and his hearers understood, a meaning that played off how people of his time perceived thunder, its characteristics. Jesus was saying that James and John acted that way. For sure Jesus was not promoting a Greek idea that these two of his disciples were some kind of human offspring of a Thunder god!

    Here is an ambiguous sentence in English:

    “Flying planes can be dangerous.”

    If we hear that sentence without a context we do not know if it refers to the danger that pilots face when flying planes, or that people on the ground face when planes fly overhead (or that flocks of birds face near airports!).

    There is very little ambiguity in the Bible, contrary to the claims of some. (Perhaps sometimes what people mean when they use the term ambiguity is actually lack of clarity.) One possible ambiguity comes to my mind and that is an ambiguity in the Greek translation of what Jesus told Nicodemus what he needed to do to see the Kingdom of God. We who analyze the Greek (which Jesus likely did not use when speaking to Nick) know that the Greek there can mean either “born again” or “born from above”. I don’t know what the Aramaic original might have been, but I doubt that it has the possible ambiguity that the Greek translation of it did (few languages, esp. those of different language families as Greek and Aramaic are share the same ambiguities). So exegetes have to decide which of the *Greek* ambiguity options is more likely what Jesus said in Aramaic and translate that. I would lean rather strongly toward the traditional rendering as “born again” because of Nick’s response. But for those who want to point out the ambiguity of the Greek translation of what Jesus said, a footnote is appropriate.

    There are some wonderful plays on words (which is a kind of ambiguity) in the Hebrew Bible. I personally believe that those who authored those word plays intended them. They add color and fun to the text. And who knows, perhaps they even had some more spiritual significance at times.

  16. Bob MacDonald says:

    Ambiguity? Natural? I have to confess I am not sure what you are saying. Natural is a slippery word and multiple possible meanings in a single phrase are legion. Natural is ambiguous. As to born again – I think that’s what Job is about – a parable of rebirth. He undoes his birth in chapter 3 and God shows him that undoing his birth is not sufficient to undo the births of others – creation, children of God, cosmos, beasts and monsters. And Job is born again – and so are his children – influenced by his confronting and being confronted. And so are all of us who struggle with his tale – Job suffers interminably under our reading! Have fun with that ambiguous statement. (See 34:36) My naive and crazy reading of this – he will suffer in perpetuity till all iniquitous mortals repent. Job is where Nicky should have learned about being born again – he was a teacher and he had not read the book.

  17. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wayne says: But there is no logical reason for describing foreign concepts using unnatural or foreign English… Metaphors have clear figurative meanings which those who use them intend… Ambiguity refers to having more than one possible meaning and a reader/listener is unsure which meaning was meant. I would claim that no such ambiguity existed for the original intended audiences of the biblical texts.

    It’s interesting that you bring up Mark’s Υἱοὶ Βροντῆς (Hioi Brontes) as his translation of Jesus’s Aramaic, which Mark has in 3:17 as “Βοανηργές” (B o a n E r g e s,). The Greek certainly seems metaphorical. But the Aramaic is vague at best, with conjectured ambiguity. Not only theologians but also etymologists and linguists have speculated. Given Mark’s Greek translation, his Greek-letter transliteration seems to refer to Jesus’s spoken bne, for “sons of” (the plural of bar), Aramaic (בני), plus EITHER rgas (“turbulence”), Aramaic (רגיש), OR rgaz (“fury”), Aramaic (רגז). Did Jesus “intend” this spoken ambiguity? Is Mark trying to disambiguate? If so, does the translator succeed or create more Greek ambiguity?

    I think Mark is playing with Greek too. First, Mark plays with (and has Jesus playfully renaming) another name, Peter’s (in Mark 3:16). Mary Ann Tolbert and, in his blog post this week, Mark Goodacre show how important this wordplay is to Mark’s translation of Jesus’s parable and explanation (in Mark chapter 4). See

    So the questions are: 1) what are the accurate and natural English translations of the ambiguous transliterated Aramaic in Mark 3:15? 2) can the translator who thinks “sons of thunder” is “natural English,” admit that he or she might be forgoing Greek ambiguity or metaphor in Mark’s own translation of the Aramaic as Υἱοὶ Βροντῆς? If we could assume Mark is translating into “natural Greek,” then does that preclude the possibility of a rich range of meanings of Βροντῆς that he might not have intended? And might the Greek extend meanings that the already-ambiguous Aramaic original doesn’t even have?

    More interesting is the possibility that Mark does intend intertextuality, that he’s doing the kinds of things with Υἱοὶ Βροντῆς that Tolbert and Goodacre suggest he’s doing with Πέτρος. In my comment at Goodacre’s blogpost, I suggest further that Peter himself goes on to play with the name Jesus has given him – and yet he plays with not Jesus’s Aramaic (something like כיפא, transliterated as John does with Κηφᾶς (KEfas) but with Mark’s Greek. To translate his name with a “natural English” transliteration such as “P e t e r” loses the letter writer’s own Greek wordplay in I Peter 2. So to be clear with what I’m trying to say: Jesus intends one set of things with his renaming of the three disciples using ambiguous Aramaic; Mark intends another set of things with his Greek translation of Jesus’s wordplay; and at least one of these nicknamed disciples plays differently in Greek with Mark’s translation. (Peter, for example, reworks LXX Isaiah, as shown in my comment at Goodacre’s blog).

    I’ve already said too much. But I do think CD-Host makes an excellent point by saying, “Or take 2Cor 2:12 [sic –> 12:2]. How do you naturally translate 3rd heaven?” When Paul uses Greek like τρίτου οὐρανοῦ to readers in Greece, they invariably will read that with all kinds of cultural baggage, with Greek cosmology in the background. Paul may or may not mean all the meanings of his readers. But the good English translator will be aware of the range of meanings of οὐρανοῦ. John, like Paul, having Jesus speaking foreign Greek with Nicodemus speaking foreign Greek as well, opens up a new world of meanings with ἀναγινώσκηται in the context of οὐρανος. “Born again” is funny, a seeming confusion by Nicodemus playing with the ambiguity, a distracting from Jesus’s seeming allusions to the skies, the heavens “above.” You’ve already mentioned how “Jesus of John builds on of this main themes, light vs. darkness by using a metaphor based on the Greek notion of vision” – but John the translator is also bringing in Greek cosmology. Jesus is “light” and “life” but “of the world.” The Greek kosmos κόσμος is ambiguously “ornateness” or “order” or “the ornate orderings of the heavens [by god(s)].” An accurate, natural English translation does best if it includes more than the range of meanings that “world” does.

  18. Paul Franklyn says:

    “Metaphors are not ambiguous. They have clear figurative meanings which those who use them intend.”

    This view seems to draw from Aristotle’s theory of metaphor. For him metaphors were figures of speech that add color in an ornamental way to the rhetoric. While writing a dissertation on metaphor in Hosea in the 1980s I encountered the views of Ian Richards, Paul Ricoeur, and several others. They observe that live metaphors are sentences that transmit meaning through tension. When the Hebrew sentence says that “God is a lion,” we apprehend that this statement is simultaneously true and not true. To avoid the tension we often prefer to rob the metaphor of its power (and ambiguity) and either flatten it into a proposition (cf. the history of translating sarx in the NT) or morph the sentence into a simile or comparison: “God is like a lion.”

    I realize that these views on metaphor are open to very lengthy and fierce debate. Without having enough time for that, sorry, I mentioned the ambiguity because the translator’s theory of metaphor (if there is one) will influence how the text is read in the original language and then how it is rendered in natural English. Now that I am engaged in a very large translation project, this challenge has sharp teeth. It seems that the result in any Bible translation is not entirely consistent, because variation occurs among hundreds of collaborators who make thousands of judgment calls while rendering metaphors. The variation also occurs in the more paraphrastic translations by an individual or small group. We’re only humans struggling to understand God and translate what others said about God. We learn to see gray in a black and white world.

    In ancient Semitic religions the metaphors about God have serious consequences. Dagan is a fish. Baal is a bull. Yahweh is a lion. The prophetic sayings retain this tension and ambiguity within their extended metaphors. Perhaps they recognized the risk (idolatry) of describing the deity too literally.

    Back to work.


  19. CD-Host says:

    Wayne —

    OK good we agree on tranculturation issues (with the exception of paraphrases). It seems I think those drive a lot of the foreign sounding translation issues than you do though. The rest of what you are describing sounds to me like tone. Just to pick something recently blogged about “bloods” in John 1:13. I was looking for a good English word that is closest in meaning and the one I came up with is “fetoplacental circulation” which I dismissed immediately because of the massive tone change. And I often praise the Scholar’s Version for its focus on preserving tone.

    Since you are focusing on Jesus’ words lets go there.
    Matthew and Luke — I think you can translate Jesus naturally
    John — I’m not sure how you do that without doing a lot of violence to the text.
    and the Scholars Version that is exactly what they do. Jesus speaks real English in Mark, Matthew and Luke and speaks in a very unnatural way in John.

    So lets work a short example John 4:21-4.
    I could do something like, “Lady, you gotta believe me soon its not gonna matter whether you worship here on this mountain or at Jerusalem. Your people, the Samaritans, know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews got the dope on God because salvation comes through the Jews.” And I’ve screwed up already. “Know/truth(dope)” is something that happens in the head. oy’-da is something that happens in the eyes. Mount Gerizim vs. Jerusalem is visual based on geography and I’ve severed the connection between what she is seeing based on physical location and what she is knowing.
    I want to get unnatural there because I have to somehow get the reader to have thought occurring in their eyes. I can use something like Sarte and start translating in terms of reflected consciousness. I don’t see how I accomplish what you are aiming for.

    And if i lose the eyes, the physicality, in this verse then how do I preserve worship in spirit in the next verse? So I guess I’ll turn it over to you. I think you see the question.

  20. JKGayle says:

    I’d love to read your dissertation. Where can we find it? I recently completed one on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which as you know includes some of his theorizing of metaphor, and starts with an un-intended one: “Rhetoric IS antistrophos of Dialectic.” I. A. Richards would see “rhetoric” as Aristotle’s metaphorical tenor for the vehicle “antistrophos of Dialectic.” The importance of that is the tension, the simultaneity between the two.

    You may know that translator (practitioner / theorist/ historian) Willis Barnstone says (metaphorically) that “translation is metaphor.” I think he’s on to something. This way of looking at translation is some they way Lydia He Liu says many Chinese conceive of translation as one language hosting another as its guest. They see it that way because there’s a metaphorical process: “the process by which new words, meanings, discourses, and modes of representation arise circulate, and acquire legitimacy within the host language due to, or in spite of, the latter’s contact/collision with the guest language. Meanings, therefore, are not so much ‘transformed’ when concepts pass from the guest language to the host language as invented within the local environment of the latter” Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity–China, 1900-1937. This isn’t too unlike what you say, noting that “In ancient Semitic religions the metaphors about God have serious consequences… retain this tension and ambiguity within their extended metaphors.”

    Linguists and linguistic translators often easily use the metaphor “translation is metaphor,” if unwittingly. I’m thinking now of George Lakoff’s cowritten Metaphors We Live By and his Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Nominal appositives and adjectives and other such classifiers in most languages, and across languages, play as metaphor with the ambiguous, simultaneous tensions you (and Liu) speak about.

    In such wordplay, there is hardly just one original referent despite a language user’s intention to lock down the only meaning (which is the game of ARistotle’s logic, why he tries to lock down the meaning of metaphor, the meaning of rhetoric, the supposed futility of translation into barbarian tongues, the ostensible weakness of parable, and so forth). Our discussion here can get jargony, and so can the biblish that Wayne seems to want to avoid (and I’m with him on that!). So, I just love your “sharp teeth” and “add color in an ornamental way” and “learn to see gray in a black and white world” and “transmit meaning” and “engaged in” and “rendered in” and “judgment calls” and “flatten it into” – what vividness as we all “struggle” with better Bible translation.

  21. Bob MacDonald says:

    Kurk’s host and guest are so different and much richer than source and target – lovely. Now no more is the metaphor aim, but it is transformed into unity. When I translate, I feel like I am hosting a guest and that the Guest is making his host. This in contrast to Herbert’s ‘Come my way, my truth, my life’ where the second verse ends with ‘Such a strength as makes his guest’. So I as translator could also be the guesting the host language, and the host language redrawing me into creation. – even as Job is so drawn.

  22. Wayne Leman says:

    Paul wrote:

    When the Hebrew sentence says that “God is a lion,” we apprehend that this statement is simultaneously true and not true.

    Thanks, Paul. I agree. And now I understand what you and Kurk mean by saying that metaphors are ambiguous. My statement that they are not was not based on Aristotle’s theory of metaphor or his logic. It was simply stating things from the viewpoint of modern linguistics. I explained, from that viewpoint, the technical linguistic definition of ambiguity and gave the example of “Flying planes can be dangerous”, which is syntactically ambiguous. I can see now that other disciples define ambiguity more broadly.

    I happen to love metaphors, always have, and I collect them in different languages. They make my day. They play with my brain and twitterpate different parts of it. Well, at the end of the day, the bottom line is that language without metaphor would be … (hmm, I can’t think of something to end the word play here… maybe someone else can!)


  23. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk began:

    It’s interesting that you bring up Mark’s Υἱοὶ Βροντῆς (Hioi Brontes) as his translation of Jesus’s Aramaic

    Kurk, I’ve never heard of this, so I could not bring it up. I was referring to my assumption that Jesus likely spoke originally in Aramaic but we do not have his original Aramaic words to check to see if there was the same ambiguity in John 3:3 in Aramaic as there is in the Greek, i.e. “born again” or “born from above”.

    Most of the time I have never heard of so many of the literary sources you refer to. My life has been spent in the Bible translation trenches, nuts-and-bolts work. I am well-trained for the work I do, but I am largely illiterate when it comes to so much of the literature you refer to. Maybe I should post two copies of each post, one for comments for you and others who are well read in philosophy and the classics and similar fields, and the other post for comments from people who, like me, are trying to deal with the nuts-and-bolts foundational business of Bible translation. What do you think? Would that give you a good outlet for your broad literary experience and creative juices, while allowing those of us whose experience is much narrower but who have had to dig deep within the narrow well of nuts-and-bolts translation, just getting the job done from what the text before us says.

    2,000 languages to go without the Bible! So little time, not enough workers!

  24. JKGayle says:

    Wayne exclaims, 2,000 languages to go without the Bible! So little time, not enough workers!

    Wayne, I’m really not wanting to slow your work or the work of new Bible translation! My sincere apologies for bogging down the conversation with literature (or pedantry of any sort). Most of your posts deal with what you call “natural English” as related to English bible translation. They seem an invitation to consider linguistics (as theory) and translation (also as theory and practice). Truly, I’m not sure how to draw the sharp distinct you’re drawing between “nuts-and-bolts translation” and things like how Mark translates the playful spoken Aramaic of Jesus into differently playful written Greek (in the same text). Perhaps my struggle is with the ambiguity of “better” as in better Bibles. Despite my own problems, Wayne, please feel free to bracket off my distracting comments or let me know by email even when they’re slowing the progress of this blog or the larger work it’s trying to encourage. (But do let me add that your brilliant questions and insights get me and many many of us thinking and talking in challenging ways!)

  25. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk began:

    Wayne, I’m really not wanting to slow your work or the work of new Bible translation!

    I’m sorry, Kurk. My final comment about 2,000 languages to go was an outburst from my heart about the passion behind my assigned work (this blog is not assigned work; it is an avocation for me, part of my recognition that English Bibles can be revised to be even better Bibles; I could give up on the English Bible reading world, but I don’t feel that I should; they deserve better Bibles just as the 2,000 remaining language groups do). My outburst had nothing to do with your comments on this blog. I should have made that clear. But at least we can clarify, something we are unable to do with our friends, Moses, Hosea, Peter, and Paul!


  26. CD-Host says:

    Though so far no one is swinging at me on this I don’t see any connection between the English bible translation issues and the obscure language issues. For obscure languages by and large the problem is one of interest, getting someone with the right skills the funding / time they need. Because of this efficiency for the translator is a major concern, you need to be careful about output per hour.

    For English funding is a non issue. Committees of 30 translators are always available. There are no less than 20 good quality exegetical commentaries written in the last century about any given book. There are dictionaries and lexicons. There is not a single verse that has not been poured over. The translator has an embarrassment of riches. Because of the size of the market the cost of translation is miniscule compared to the cost of: co-branding, advertising campaign, associated literature, being available in dozens of formats, creation of a full set of translation specific study tools…. Hire 3 full time literature specialists and you won’t dent the budget for the big translations.

    On the other hand the market is incredibly overcrowded. Fashion plays a huge role. Supporting materials matter much more than just the translation itself.

  27. Gary Geier says:

    I found your website, or “blog” and am happy that I did. I was researching as to why one particular Preacher/Author made the following statement in a book I have been reading: ” The Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing the word of Christ… ‘I know that in most of your Bible translations, it says that faith comes by hearing “the word of God.” But if you study the original Greek word for “God” here, it is not theos for “God” but, but rather Christos for “Christ. ‘ ” – So, I did just that. I looked up the greek using The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament. Well, it does not use the word Christos as the author stated. In the Interlinear Greek English New Testament Volume IV, it uses the word theos. This lead me to the question, how many different Greek translations are there? And how would anyone ever write or publish a more “natural” english bible if there is more than one greek translation?

    With Brotherly Love,

    In Christ Jesus,


  28. Webb Mealy says:


    You’ve run up here against a text-critical problem. Long before printing presses were invented, the scriptures were copied word-by-word with pen and ink. If a fly landed on a scribe’s nose right when he was in the middle of copying the sentence you quote, he could easily have forgotten whether it was “Christ” or “God”, since both make sense. The phrase “the word of God” is so common to people of Christian faith that it is tempting to suspect that “Christ” was original, and that somebody sneezed or something right when they were in the middle of copying the sentence, and they unintentionally slipped into the groove of the familiar phrase. I see, looking at the text-critical notes in my Greek New Testament that the original copyists of some of our best and most reliable early manuscripts (e.g. Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Bezae, and P46) and most of our earliest versions (translations of the Greek NT into other languages) appear to have had “Christ” in front of them. The King James (Authorized) Version was made before some of these older manuscripts were discovered, and depends on a text that has “God”.

    Hope this helps,

    Webb Mealy
    (randomly dropping in)

  29. Andy Centek says:

    I think it best that I state rigt from the start that I have no degree in from on my name; although I am working on a Bacelor’s in Theology.

    Man’s degrees means little in the eyes of God however. Did his disciples have man’s degree ?

    I have studied the Scriptures and other religious writings for about 50 yrs. now; this means little also; for all knowlege is a given from The Creator. So to study in only the original language certainly has advantages, it alone, is not what it takes to have understanding of the word of God.

    We have through prayer and hard study come to understand a lot of what the Scripture has to say. At the same time, I know little !

    Me thinks that the desire to seek and the prayer and the handing down from above, will take many far . What though do I know; for His ways are not our ways .

    Andy Centek

  30. Andy Centek says:

    Part 1
    As to which is correct; Christ or God. Aren’t they both correct when kept in the proper context ?

    Christ, the anointed Son of God (Elohim) came to speak His Father’s word . How did He obtain this word which He spoke ?

    Isa 6:6 Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:
    Isa 6:7 And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.
    Isa 6:8-9 Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.

    I am well aware of the usual view that this was Isiah that this was talking about. However, let me continue.

    Joh 17:14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

    Here Jesus is speaking directly to His disciples; He is however, telling them that He gave to them His Father’s word. He came to do that very thing in Israel; more properly, Judeah.

  31. Andy Centek says:

    Part II

    Mat 15:24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

    So then, Jesus came to preach His Father’s word to Israel and they rejected Him and the kingdom He was offering to set up.

    Christ having the meaning of anointed one or anointing show Him as the anointed One of God. He, the anointed One taught the word of God (Elohim His Father) ; are not then both correct in the proper context ?

    Blessing in The Christ

  32. woofin says:


    This is my first comment to this site. I think the idea of “natural English” isn’t a simple one, and I suspect that your use of it conceals something important, namely, a historic shift in the audience for Bible translations into English.

    A propos of this, I recently ran across a copy of Dag Hammarskold’s “Markings,” tr. Leif Sjoberg and W. H. Auden (1964), which has an interesting introduction by Auden specifically on translation issues. One minor point Auden discusses is how to deal with Hammarskjold’s quotations from European literature, which the Swedish editors of the original book didn’t translate: “I am sure that the average British or American reader would have no difficulty with the French quotations, but I am less confidant about his command of German…” Thus says Auden. (He goes on to say if he has to translate some of the quotations, for uniformity he’d best translate all of them.)

    Now the audience for this book was probably pretty similar to the audience assumed for Bible translations at that time: in possession of a good, old-fashioned American secondary education, with Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson and Milton, with Dickens and Sir Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorne, with memorization of New England literature such as Whittier’s “Snowbound”; one or two foreign languages; and also probably some college work when many fewer people attended college. By 1964, probably also some reading of the Big Four American novelists, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe. Probably a member of Book-of-the-Month club, with an Encyclopedia Britannica in the den and an unabridged dictionary on its own stand next to the piano. Very print-oriented, and no problem tracking subordinate clauses.

    I submit that this hypothetical “average” reader from 1964 found a much, much wider range of English usage, tone, and structure “natural” than does the target audience that Better Bibles seems to have in mind. Not that Auden translated “Markings” into Biblish! Far from it! But he certainly (like, say, Walt Whitman) had Biblish available if he needed it for some special purpose, and I have little doubt that as I read this book, I’ll find short examples of it.

    So, as interesting and challenging as I’ve found Better Bibles, I have to confess I sometimes get the frustrated feeling, “Why don’t they just work on improving people’s knowledge of the traditional English literary canon, which would solve half their problems?” Then reality snaps back in on me.

    That said, this hypothetical audience may actually not include me! Even though I was a kid in 1964 and well remember Dag Hammarskjold as a name from the news, I’m not in the generation that Auden was thinking of, but in next one after, at least. I’ve benefited from streamlined and simplified literary resources as much as anyone, though I have tried to hang on to the older tradition as well. I’ve used both the NLT and the CEV with pleasure and profit. (I was sold on the CEV because the story of Jephthah’s daughter was so clearly told that I recognized it might have started out as the explanation of some local ritual in part of Canaan, or as a way of “naturalizing” a local petty goddess into the Hebrew tradition, or the like… With the KJV, I’d probably have got lost in the rhythm of the words and missed the point.)

    Anyhow, much too long-winded. The point is, what’s “natural”? Doesn’t this concept conceal the operation of targeting a specific audience? Won’t well-read people simply care less what’s “natural”? And this is leaving totally aside the people who jump-started literary Modern English like Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Sidneys, Shakespeare himself, etc., who were to some extent creating the language… What was “natural” to them?

    I’ll stop now.

  33. GARY GEIER says:

    My dear Brother Andy,

    I think you have judged correctly. I love you in the Lord my friend and I hope you will keep me in your prayers. I am at one of the most difficult times of my life.

    John 1:1-3 (New International Version)

    John 1

    1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.
    3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

    With all of the blessings in Christ Jesus,
    Your Friend,

    Gary G Geier

  34. Andy Centek says:

    Gary Feier

    Gary,I too have a had a couple of bad thinks happen the past few months. After the initial schook I said as Job: should I accept only the good things from God and not the trials ?

    So I began to consider that closely and it has helped MUCH. Praise to to Him and His Christ. He grants help before we are able to see or understand it !

    Blessing In The Christ

  35. Michael Nicholls says:

    woofin said:
    I think the idea of “natural English” isn’t a simple one

    Nay, it behooves me to disagree. Cast thine eyes above at thine own post and thou shalt see language of naturalness; neither language of expressions uncommon, nor language employed of yesteryear.

    Hasn’t pretty much everyone in this post used natural language for this register – a blog post?

    Shouldn’t the registers of the Bible follow the appropriate natural language use of that register?

    We’re talking about things like using ‘of’ for normal adjectival phrases in English, when we don’t ‘noramlly’ do that – “language of naturalness” vs. “natural language”, “word of power” vs. “powerful word”. How would you normally say something in English? That’s how you translate.

    Yes, there are registers; yes, there’s poetry; yes, there are difficult concepts!!! We need to deal with them with natural language, not language that is only used to sound like an old Bible. All sorts of books today deal with difficult concepts, in different genres, but we don’t read them and think “that’s foreign!” or “no one says it like that”.

    CD-Host wrote:
    I’m into accuracy not naturalness

    But if it was natural in the original language it needs to be natural in the target language, otherwise it’s not accurate. ‘Accuracy’ and ‘naturalness’ shouldn’t really be seen as opposing or exclusive views.

    Ok Wayne, you can have your soap-box back now. 😉

  36. CD-Host says:

    Michael —

    You quoted me a bit out of context by when using me next to an example that does translate into English easily, your “of” example. As an aside, I would support powerful word over word of power for dynamic and mediating translations and word of power for formal so we aren’t disagreeing there. But… the issue is where isn’t an obvious way to translate into English. Where the natural translation is in fact misleading. I gave a half dozen examples of situations more complex than just “word of power”, where being more natural means being more misleading.

  37. Michael Nicholls says:

    Sorry if I misquoted you. Here’s what I was responding to:

    I’m into accuracy not naturalness. So I guess if you want a test case for someone who is relatively indifferent to natural, I’ll work. My feeling is that the bible (NT) is a Greek book, about Greek topics intended for a Greek audience. The ideas aren’t natural, they are foreign. The book is unavoidably foreign.

    Or take 2Cor 2:12. How do you naturally translate 3rd heaven? Venus? But when I think of Venus of 900 deg F sulfuric acid pressing down on me with 90 atmospheres of pressure. I don’t think of the world of mystery, Raphael’s domain and the tree of life. The problem is the concepts don’t exist in American English.

    How do you translate archons naturally, “sky demons”? Heck I have to spend pages explaining the procession of the equinoxes to explain aion at all. There is no word in modern lay American English that corresponds to this concept.

    The point I wanted to make was that ‘terms’, such as ‘archons’ and ‘3rd heaven’ aren’t really issues of natural language. They’re difficult concepts that we need to find appropriate ways to translate. But we should use natural language to surround and discuss those concepts, not biblish language. We should pluralize those concepts in the same way we pluralize words today. We should modify and possess and decline and sytactecize and emphasize them the same way we do today – the same way we all do in our posts.

    And now I will intentionally take you out of context just to bring up a side point ;):

    I don’t see any connection between the English bible translation issues and the obscure language issues.

    Although you weren’t referring to this, one of the big differences between English Bible translations and translations for minority/obscure languages, is that most speakers/users of minority/obscure languages don’t have access to tools that inform them that the stilted, formal equivalent translation they’re using didn’t actually sound like that in the original. They read a literal translation and assume that that’s just what the Bible sounds like, and Jesus spoke strangely. If we translate that way into their language, they thing that Jesus is just a foreigner with strange religious words. If you put it into their natural language, they immediately grab the meaning and understand what God wrote to all people.

    At least many English speakers have a little bit of access to commentaries and tools that explain what ‘word of power’ really means, but minority language speakers just assume it’s a difficult, strange sounding religious phrase, and that’s as far as they get.

    In Tanzania we have national translators wanting to pull all sorts of linguistic gymnastics when translating into their mother tongue because that’s what the Swahili Bible does (relative clauses are a classic example – they hardly exist in Bantu languages, but Swahili Bibles have them everywhere thanks to literal translation from Greek/English etc). When we show them their own stories and writings they’re often shocked that they don’t actually do it that way in their ‘natural’ language. That’s what we’re trying to get at.

  38. Michael Nicholls says:

    I made a formatting error if someone can fix that and delete this post.

    And now I will intentionally take you out of context just to bring up a side point 😉 :

    That shouldn’t be italicized. Thanks.

  39. Andy Centek says:

    “I am a christian”; some says .The first question that must be asked here is; oh, which one ?

    There are twenty seven major denominations claiming to be christians ! Are they all right OR wrong ? The anser to this depends on which one you ask this question of .

    Paul said: Eph 4:1-6 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all.

    Does he say; be as many as you wish with as many ideas as you desire ? No, he does not.

    Then comes along men with their ideas of who is really right and wrong. The problem is, they don’t know themselves. So all this leads to more confusion and more troubles among mankind.

    How do I know this ? Ask me, I;ll tell you! My way is the right way; honest.

    Yes this is how bad it is today. Each seeking a way that suits them best; not what is best or what we have been instructed to do by the word of God and the Spirit of Christ. This is what got Israel in trouble and certainly is getting us into more trouble also.

    Each one must seek God within themselves; for God is within you !

    Andy Centek

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