futile translation

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

Say what?

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?

(UPDATE: 

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.”

or

“… you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, thinking in a futile way”

or

“… 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?

20 thoughts on “futile translation

  1. Tim Chesterton says:

    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.

    Pardon?

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Pardon?

    English prepositional phrases beginning with “in” are often not translation equivalents for Greek adverbial phrases beginning with the preposition en. The prepositions match but the function of the prepositional phrases they introduce do not.

    Most native speakers of English do not say the following sentences with “in” phrases. Instead they would express the adverbial idea with English adverbial syntax, in parentheses. There *are* some natural “in” English adverbial phrases (e.g. “in earnest”). That is why I used the word “often” in the blog post. Examples:

    1. He lives in truth. (He lives truthfully, or, He lives in a truthful way)
    2. She speaks in wisdom. (She speaks wisely.)
    3. He walks in righteousness. (He walks righteously.)
    4. She sings in joy. (She sings joyfully.)

    I hesitated including any reference to this mismatch of forms between Greek and English because it is not central to the main point of the blog post. But I also realized that alert readers might question why the “in … futility of … thinking” was not good English. The issue, there, is not the “futility” phrase but the problem with trying to make English “in” serve to introduce adverbial phrases when other forms are closer translation equivalents.

    Really, this is not central to the post. I have, I believe, posted on the problem of “in” with English adverbial phrases before.

  3. Tim Chesterton says:

    Wayne, the point of my comment is this. In your post you included a certain amount of technical linguistic-speak and grammatical jargon. You expected your readers to be able to understand such jargon. And yet you do not expect Bible-readers to have to learn any jargon in order to understand English Bible translation.

    Furthermore, I would submit to you that the sentence I questioned in your post above is in fact ‘not normal English’, according to your normal criteria expressed on this blog. Clauses like ‘adverbial manner phrase’ are not normal English usage. I consider myself to be a reasonably well-informed person but I had to look that one up to see what it meant – which is precisely what you want readers of ‘Better Bibles’ not to have to do.

  4. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    In your sensical translation examples, I’m not convinced that “worthless” is an equivalent meaning of “futile”. I’ve always regarded futile as meaning effort that doesn’t produce anything, not effort that produces something without worth. So perhaps something more like this:

    So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, whose thoughts bear no fruit.

    I’m sure that the KJV is also casting a literary eye back to Ecclesiastes, where a life spent in vanity is more fully described.

  5. Joel H. says:

    Thanks, Wayne, for another clear and well-researched post.

    I see two issues.

    The first — a recurring theme at BBB (and on my site) — is the incoherence of some translations. In this case, Ephesians 4:17 had a point to it, and, as you point out, the English of the NRSV does not. (The fact that some people prefer the NRSV may go back to what I’ve called the blank slate of incoherence.) You ask “how did this happen?” I think two contributing factors are familiarity with the Greek (which skews the translators’ ability to judge English) and familiarity with bad translations (which does the same).

    Secondly, in this particular case, the word mataiotes is used consistently for the Hebrew hevel, most familiar as the main theme of Ecclesiastes. (The character starts the book with the line: “Hevel of hevels. Hevel of hevels. Everything is hevel.”) Even though we don’t know for sure what the word means — as highlighted by the fact that translations range from “vanity” to “futility” to “meaningless” — I would think that the words should at the very least be translated the same way in both places. But most translations use different words for Ecclesiastes and Ephesians. (The word also appears in Romans, where it’s usually translated the same way as in Ephesians. But the word appears in 2 Peter, too, where the NRSV goes with “nonsense.”)

  6. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    > Secondly, in this particular case, the word mataiotes is used consistently for the Hebrew hevel, most familiar as the main theme of Ecclesiastes.

    @Joel – we might add 1 Tim 1:6 to the mix as well, with Paul’s use of mataiologia, e.g. meaningless discussion or vain talking.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Tim wrote:

    Wayne, the point of my comment is this. In your post you included a certain amount of technical linguistic-speak and grammatical jargon. You expected your readers to be able to understand such jargon. And yet you do not expect Bible-readers to have to learn any jargon in order to understand English Bible translation.

    Thank you, Tim. Your point is well taken. I was so caught up in the passion of my frustration with non-English English Bibles that I allowed the jargon of my own technical field to get into my blog post without thinking better of the needs of my audience. I’m sorry. I really don’t expect my blog audience to know grammatical or linguistic jargon. I just didn’t pay adequate attention this time.

    As for learning jargon to understand English Bibles, it’s actually a different matter. With the Bible we don’t have a choice. We only have the original text. If it uses a jargon, technical term which its audience did not understand, then we should not dumb down that term in our translation. On the other hand, if the original words were *not* jargon or technical, and if they *were* understood (linguistically, if not always conceptually), then we have not translated properly by using jargon, rare, obscure, or unnatural English. On the whole (there are a few exceptions), the original biblical texts were not written for those who were highly educated and/or who were familiar with theological jargon. Even the letters of the rabbinically trained Paul were written using ordinary Koine (common-language) Greek. It was the vocabulary and syntax used as the common language of communication throughout the Roman Empire. It was understood by servants as well as those who were higher class and/or had higher education.

    It is Bible translators who change the text during translation when they use uncommon, strange English, rather than reflecting the level of biblical language used in the original texts. That language was not dumbed down language. But neither was it so elevated that it was inaccessible to the people who were part of the communities of faith in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc.

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks for your contribution, ElShaddai. I don’t have a problem with use of the word “futile” or even “futility”. Those are standard English words, of a slightly higher register than some other English words, but still accessible, I think, to most English speakers.

    The problem is that the odd English translations don’t use these words in natural ways. They complicate them with rare or imported Greek syntax, rather than standard English syntax. It is possible for those with the capacity to do so to make sense of some of these convoluted phrasings, such as those of the NIV, but the processing load becomes so great that the natural flow of Paul’s logic gets lost in the muddle of words. Paul didn’t write Eph. 4:17 in a muddle way. His Greek is OK. It’s the attempt to make the English as close as possible to the Greek that prevents us from understanding the English as well as Greek speakers would have understood the Greek.

    We should not dumb down the Bible in translation. Neither should we dumb it up, if we can say it that way. The versions using more natural English syntax to translate the natural Greek syntax show that. It’s fine for us to debate which English words to use, such as “worthless” vs. “hopeless”. And one of my hopes for this blog was that we would do so. That is when we get into the area of accuracy, trying to find the closest English equivalents, both for vocabulary and syntax.

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    I have added some suggestions to my post for translations that stay close to the forms of the Greek, for those who wish that, while using natural English syntax.

  10. trierr says:

    I personally like the word ‘absurd’ for hevel. It would make an interesting translation to talk about the absurdity of their thinking.

  11. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    I find myself preferring the NJB rendering, though perhaps substituting “futile” for “empty-headed”. Obviously abandoning the Greek form, but more focused on describing the type of life that the Gentiles are living, rather than a quality of thinking.

  12. Dru says:

    If one wants to keep ‘mind’ and some formation of ‘futile’, how about “with their minds given over to futility”?

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Dru asked:

    If one wants to keep ‘mind’ and some formation of ‘futile’, how about “with their minds given over to futility”?

    I don’t think that would be what a native speaker of English would say or write, Dru. I don’t think we normally speak of someone of something being “given over to” something or someone. I’ve been wrong many times before, however. So if you can locate a quote from anyone or any literature which was naturally composed by a native speaker, I’ll have to reconsider.

  14. Dru says:

    I’d be quite likely to write that, though it’s possibly slightly too formal for spoken use. I wouldn’t think it sounded odd if I found myself reading it aloud. Perhaps my style is bad, or perhaps there’s a dialect difference.

  15. Adrian R. says:

    Wayne, your post illustrates my frustration with Bible translation very well. Your “thinking futile thoughts” suggestion seems perfectly appropriate (and nicely succinct) to me, but why don’t we see it in any of the less literal translations?

    I think it’s because the committees for these translations consider a word like ‘futile’ to be too demanding for their readers. That is why it is replaced with “worthless” in almost all the examples above (I agree with ElShaddai, it doesn’t mean the same thing).

    In my opinion, there seems to be a Bible translation missing: it’s the one which is translated into genuinely natural English without resorting to lower-grade vocabulary and simplified sentences. If anyone knows of such a translation, please tell me!

    By the way, can anyone report how the REB translates this verse? That translation sometimes gets this sort of thing right.

  16. Wayne Leman says:

    Adrian, I appreciate your comment. Here’s the REB translation of Eph. 4:17:

    Here then is my word to you, and I urge it on you in the Lord’s name: give up living as pagans do with their futile notions.

  17. Charles says:

    Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. (NRSV)

    I don’t know what the original author/s were thinking, but I believe that there is a difference and benefit to also considering the connotation, vs denotation.

    For me, I often live in the futility of my mind as opposed to the sunlight of the Spirit. Where I come from, my friends often say that thinking too much is consorting with the enemy!

    So, I kinda like that version………

  18. Paul Franklyn says:

    I’ll drop in another rendering of this text, for feedback if you like. The forthcoming Common English Bible renders Ephesians 4:17-18a as follows: 17 So I’m telling you this, and I insist on it in the Lord: you shouldn’t live your life like the Gentiles any more. They base their life on pointless thinking, 18 and they are in the dark in their reasoning.

    The translators of Ephesians are Pheme Perkins, John Fitzgerald, and Cindy Westfall.

  19. Wayne Leman says:

    Paul, “pointless thinking” sure seems reasonable to me. And it is very understandable, as well as natural English.

    The phrase “in the Lord” is not natural English but it has almost become a necessary technical term in most English Bible versions. Only a few versions translate the underlying Greek to natural English.

    Good job from the CEB team!

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