Our sermon reading this morning was from Ephesians 4. My mind got bogged down on the wording of the first verse of the sermon passage:
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. (NRSV)
If we temporarily shuffle things a bit to get at the syntactic basics, the final clause of this verse is essentially:
they live in the futility of their minds
Did any stylist or proofreader or English scholar check whether or not “live in the futility of their minds” is English? What possibly could “the futility of their minds” mean? It’s meaningless to me and I’ve been memorizing and studying the Bible all my life (well, at least since about age 4 or so). I can’t even make sense out of a phrase “futile mind.” I do get sense out of “futile thinking.”
And the version read this morning is the NRSV, highly respected by biblical scholars. If this is the kind of English that Bible scholars like, then some basic English points of English grammar were forgotten by these scholars and the translators whose work they are reading. I’m sorry for sounding so negative but we really are doing a disservice to Bible readers giving them word sequences like this.
I have checked several other English versions and quite a few are no better:
- This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind (KJV)
- Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. (ESV)
- So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind (NASB)
- So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. (NIV, TNIV)
- So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. (NET)
- So I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds (NAB)
- So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. (HCSB)
The NIV/TNIV, NET, and HCSB wordings are marginally better with the word “thinking” rather than “mind.” But they still are not normal English due to the adverbial manner phrase being introduced by the preposition “in” which often is not a translation equivalent for the Greek preposition en in adverbial phrases. (The Greek phrase is ἐν ματαιότητι τοῦ νοὸς αὐτῶν.)
Are there any versions that make sense in their translation of this verse? Thankfully, yes:
- So this I say to you and attest to you in the Lord, do not go on living the empty-headed life that the gentiles live. (NJB)
- With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. (NLT)
- Therefore, I tell you and insist on in the Lord not to live any longer like the gentiles live, thinking worthless thoughts. (ISV)
- In the Lord’s name, then, I warn you: do not continue to live like the heathen, whose thoughts are worthless (GNB/TEV)
- In the Lord’s name, I tell you this. Do not continue living like those who do not believe. Their thoughts are worth nothing. (NCV)
- So I tell you and encourage you in the Lord’s name not to live any longer like other people in the world. Their minds are set on worthless things. (GW)
Are meaningful phrases like “thinking worthless thoughts” and “hopelessly confused” any less “accurate” than the strange English wordings found in the first set of versions I have quoted? Isn’t it actually more accurate to convey the meaning of the original Greek text in such a way that the reader can understand precisely what Paul was writing in Eph. 4:17?
Adverbs modify verbs and adjectives. Manner adverbs tell how the action of a verb is done. The Greek en phrase of Eph. 4:17 tells how the Gentiles think as they live.
Is we want to stay as close to the Greek forms as possible while trying to use natural English syntax, how about these attempts:
“… you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, thinking futile thoughts.”
“… you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, thinking in a futile way”
“… you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, with futile ways of thinking”)
What do you think can be done to help English Bible translation teams from including odd English word sequences, which are meaningless to many people, from appearing in their published translations? How can we help Bible translators be alert to how their own languages actually work when they are translating into their own languages? How can we help Bible translators think critically about how they have phrased translations?