Three Translation Titbits

1. 1 Peter 2:17

I thank Danny Silk, whose material on honour I linked to in a post on my own blog, for pointing out that something rather strange has happened in many translations of this verse. The verse starts with pantas timesate, and ends with ton basilea timate. That is, the same verb is used in the first and the last of the four clauses. The first is an aorist imperative and the last is a present imperative, but the significance, if any, of that difference is unclear.

So it is interesting to see how different versions have rendered this verse. NIV, TNIV and The Message have different renderings for the first and last clauses (I am taking most of these texts from Bible Gateway, hence the mostly American spellings):

Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (NIV)

Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the emperor. (TNIV)

Treat everyone you meet with dignity. Love your spiritual family. Revere God. Respect the government. (MSG)

All the other versions I looked at use the same verb in the two clauses:

Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king. (KJV)

Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (RSV)

Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (NRSV)

Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (NASB)

Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. (NKJV)

Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (ESV = HCSB)

Respect everyone, and love your Christian brothers and sisters. Fear God, and respect the king. (NLT)

Respect everyone and show special love for God’s people. Honor God and respect the Emperor. (CEV)

So, are NIV, TNIV and The Message justified in using a different verb here? They might claim that it is not good English style to repeat the same verb so quickly. Then it probably wasn’t good Greek style either, but that is what the author did – with a variation in verb form which might have been stylistic, to avoid exact repetition. Or the translators might claim that the difference reflects their interpretation of the different verb forms – but it is unlikely that the author intended such a significant difference between them.

I am not one to press for complete concordance in rendering Greek verbs. But in cases like this it probably is best to translate concordantly. I can hear in my mind preachers trying to explain the difference between the “honour” we are to give to kings and the (perhaps lesser) “respect” we are to give to all people. But that was surely not Peter’s point in this verse, which is obscured if different verbs are used.

The NIV (but not TNIV) punctuation at least is good here. The first of the four commands is surely the generic one, to honour everyone, human and divine. (There is no word for “men” or “people” in the text.) Then Peter gives three examples of how this is to be put into practice. Fellow Christians are to be honoured by showing agape love to them. God is to be feared. And even the emperor, the feared persecutor, is to be honoured like everyone else.

So this is a clear place where NIV and TNIV need to be updated, if only back to the wording of older translations. Unfortunately it is too late to present this as a formal submission for the NIV 2011 update, but maybe the suggestion can still be slipped in somehow.

2. John 13:12

There is an interesting variation in how Jesus’ words in this verse have been translated, in more literal versions:

Do you understand what I have done for you? (NIV = TNIV)

Know ye what I have done to you? (KJV)

Do you know what I have done to you? (RSV = NASB = NKJV = NRSV)

Do you understand what I have done to you? (ESV = MSG)

Do you know what I have done for you? (HCSB)

(Emphasis added to all of these)

Consider the difference in English between doing something to someone and doing something for someone. The latter is always for their benefit. The former carries the clear implication that what was done brings them harm or disadvantage.

Is what Jesus did in the previous verses, washing the disciples’ feet, to be understood as for their benefit or for their disadvantage? The Greek in this verse, a simple dative, is ambiguous (it could be a dative of advantage or a dative of disadvantage, for those who understand this kind of classification and find it meaningful – I’m not sure if I do). But in the wider context it is clear (or at least I think it is) that Jesus’ action was for his disciples’ benefit.

Now in English in this place, as in so many other cases, it is impossible to preserve every possible ambiguity in the original Greek. That causes a difficulty where in context the Greek is really ambiguous. But many of the supposed ambiguities, like this one, can be resolved with a little thought. Unfortunately in this case most of the translators don’t seem to have given that little thought to their rendering, but have mindlessly rendered the Greek dative with English “to”.

So this time three cheers to NIV and TNIV (also to HCSB, although “understand” makes much more sense than “know” here) for getting this one right.

3. Matthew 18:21

This one is a bit of light relief, which I could call “Out of the Mouths of Babes and Sucklings”. In this verse the Greek adelphos is clearly intended to refer to men as well as women. Does anyone question that? But Tominthebox News Network reports how Brother Cites Matthew 18 – Intends to Never Forgive Sister Again:

“Ha! It doesn’t say anything in the Bible about forgiving your sister!” screamed an excited Jared. “I’m so glad we went to church. It was awesome. She has to forgive me because I’m her brother, but I don’t have to forgive her for anything, because she’s a girl!”

It seems that small children understand that “brother” in English does not include sisters. So why don’t some translators understand this?

Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? (NIV)

Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? (TNIV)

This is a clear example of when TNIV is a great improvement on NIV, and that improvement needs to be preserved in the 2011 update.

12 thoughts on “Three Translation Titbits

  1. Tim Archer says:

    Similar to #1, I find it strange that few versions show that the same verb is used in 1 Corinthians 11:29 and 11:31. “diakrino” is often translated “recognize” or “discern” in verse 29 and “judge” in verse 31. Seems to me that some attempt should be made to show that it is the same verb.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. Gary Simmons says:

    On the other hand, Peter, a child’s internal lexicon only contains singular definitions. When I was very little, I felt betrayed when I realized my mother’s best friend, whom I had always called “Aunt Diana,” was really not my aunt as in my mother’s sister. Children just take things at face value. Including or sister for clarity here would not change the fact that the children would still only limit it to blood family relations. Even that gloss (which I do find helpful and necessary) would not make it clear who a brother or sister is in the family of faith.

    And then there’s the seven and seventy-seven issue… 264 down, 226 left. That’s hilarious, really.

    Peter, what are your thoughts on the ten “these are the generations of” in Genesis? I belatedly submitted to the revision committee that these should be revised as “this is the legacy of…”

  3. Kirsty says:

    Totally agree about “brother” being wrong in many contexts – and probably here (tho’ maybe Peter was actually talking about Andrew?)

    However, “someone” loses the ‘brother’ aspect altogether. What is he meaning by “brother”? Does he really mean “everyone”? – if so, why did he not say so?

    It could have been translated as “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” (of course, this would still not make sense to small children, but not every translation can be aimed at them)

  4. iver larsen says:

    Thanks, Peter.

    Whenever I see a translation challenge, I always look back and say: How did we handle that in our Danish version? Sometimes, it results in: “Oops, we need to improve here.” But most of the time I am satisfied.

    For 1 Peter 2:17 we did use the same word at the beginning and end, and I agree that the sense is the same, so we should try to use the same word. As you said, it is probably the common Hebrew practice of first giving a general statement and then some details about it.

    For John 13:12 Neither “to” nor “for” would work in Danish. Jesus is driving at the implication of his action, not whether it was done to or for them. We said: “Do you know why I did this?”

    On Mat 18:21, we obviously could not say “brother” in Danish, so we did say “one who sins against me.” Although “one” is probably broader than the intention of “brother”, I would think that the context is enough to suggest that this “one” is a person that you have a relationship with, since “he” goes on sinning.
    When Jesus says “77 times” the focus is not on the number, but on the allusion to Gen 4:24 which has a similar interplay between “7” and “77”. The implication is that revenge should be changed to mercy, but don’t count the number of times. I am happy that most English versions today give the correct number “77” rather than the mistaken “70 times 7”, because it helps to make the connection to the 77 in Gen 4. (This is an example of “weak communication”.)

  5. John Hobbins says:

    Good to have you back blogging like this, Peter.

    NIV = TNIV John 13:12 clearly is superior. I take it you would like the new TNIV to go something like this in 1 Peter:

    Honor all people, love the brethren, fear God, honor the king.

    Although I suspect you would rather do without a generic use of “brethren.” But there is no pithy alternative.

    With respect to Matthew 18:21, the trouble with TNIV’s “someone” is that Jesus did not have any old someone, but a member of the faith community, in mind.

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Gary, indeed children take things at face value, but then so do very many adults, when they don’t already know not to. How many adults, strangers, would assume that your “Aunt Diana” was actually related to you, unless you spelled it out? How many adult Bible readers, who don’t already know the book backwards, will assume “brother” refers to a real, literal male sibling, unless the true meaning is made clear in the text?

    John, my reply to Gary can also be part of my reply to you. Yes, by “brother” Jesus, and Peter, meant “fellow member of the faith community”. So it is just as wrong to use a word whose primary meaning is “male sibling” as it is to use a word which means “any old someone”. So of the renderings of 1 Peter 2:17 which I listed, I think my favourite is that of NRSV. But for the revised (T)NIV I would suggest a smaller change (note the punctuation):

    Honour everyone: love your fellow believers, fear God, honour the emperor.

  7. Gary Simmons says:

    Peter, you’re spot on about adults, too. Many do take things at face value, and so we can’t afford to be technically correct yet misleading. That would not be faithful. While still imperfect, “brothers and sisters” is preferable.

    I apologize if this is an elementary question of a non sequitor, but is it right to translate the perfect in John 13:12 as an English perfect? I remember Wallace’s grammar warning about this, and I quite honestly don’t grasp the use of the perfect in Johannine literature well enough to make (or to have made) heads or tails of it. Should it instead be a simple past tense, as Iver has it?

  8. John Hobbins says:

    Brother Peter, I will still call you such even if you think it’s wrong, if not for Jesus and your namesake Peter, for you and I, to use sibling terms as a metaphor of affiliation.

    I strongly disagree. I would be happy to vote with you on gender issues if you vote with me against de-metaphorizing. A compromise might look something like this:

    Honor all people,
    love your fellow brothers and sisters,
    fear God,
    honor the emperor.

    This is called horse-trading in American parlance.

  9. iver larsen says:

    A small comment to John.
    Although I am not an American and don’t trade in horses, I much prefer Peter’s “fellow believers” for “brothers and sisters”. In Danish we said “Show respect towards all people, and show your love to all the Christians. Fear God and respect the king (emperor in footnote.)” I am not saying that this is the best in English, but only indicating in a back translation how it came out in Danish.
    To Gary I would say: What is more important to me than translating a Greek perfect with a Danish/English perfect is what sounds natural in the context. The nuance between aorist and perfect in this context is so small that I think it is insignificant. In Danish, if we were to say “What I have done”, the expectation is that I have done something I should not have done, and we don’t want to raise such expectations. Using the simple past tense invites the disciples to reflect on what Jesus did. I cannot say what is best in English, but I noticed that NLT has: “Do you understand what I was doing?”

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    Well, John, I could object to your “de-metaphorizing” by adding “people” in the first clause, when as I suggested the intended referent might include God, and perhaps angels – compare Jude 9 where even the devil needs to be honoured. As for the horse trading, I will leave that for Iver and yourself.

    Gary, I would suggest using the tense which sounds most natural in English in the context. I’m not sure if that is the English perfect.

  11. John Hobbins says:

    Peter, I agree with you; that adding “people,” while not a case of de-metaphorization, is nonetheless to be avoided for the reasons you state. I hadn’t thought of that.

    But you have yet to justify your de-metaphorization of familial affiliation language.

    For the rest, you might not like horse-trading, but give-and-take as in I accept this if you accept that is not that unusual in committee decision-making. Not unusual at all.

  12. Peter Kirk says:

    John, I don’t insist on “de-metaphorization of familial affiliation language”. I would accept “siblings” or “brothers and sisters”. What I do object to is mistranslation of familial affiliation language such as to exclude 50% of the family when this was not in the original.

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