Breaking things apart

Translation has two separate steps. One: interpretation, i.e. studying the original text in its linguistic and cultural context. Two: translation, i.e. choose words in another language and put those words together in a certain order with the intention of communicating as clearly and accurately as possible the assumed intended meaning to a new audience.

The interpretation process requires a good understanding of the source language, but also of the cultural and religious context of the writer as well as the originally intended audience. The translation process requires that assumptions are made about the expectations and Biblical knowledge of the new audience. It is because of those varying expectations (and varying interpretations) that different translations are made of the same original text.

In this post I want to limit myself to how one breaks things apart. In the early Greek manuscripts words were not separated by spaces, and sentences were not marked by punctuation. Paragraph breaks were not indicated. An extreme postion of “translating without interpretation” would be to NOT usewordbreaksin English and never use any punctuationbutwhatwou ldpeoplesaytothat. We are so used to such breaks as well as punctuation, that such a translation would be considered unreadable. No translation has gone to that extreme, so every translator MUST interpret how to break up the original text before a translation can be attempted.

There are many examples where it is a matter of interpretation whether a sentence is to be interpreted as a statement or a question. It is also a matter of interpretation where a speech quotation ends. I won’t mention them here.

Sometimes it is not clear whether there should be one or two sentences. For instance, John 14:1b could be one sentence: Trust in God and trust also in me. Or it could be two sentences: You are trusting in God. Trust also in me. Apart from lack of punctuation, the Greek language does not differentiate between the present command form “Trust” and the indicative present “You are trusting”. NIV said: “Trust in God; trust also in me.” This was changed in NIV2011 to: “You believe in God; believe also in me.” The change is reasonable, since it would be a given that the disciples already believed in God. But at the same time it is a choice whether to say “trust” or “believe” in English. When the belief is directed towards a person rather than a statement or doctrine, the sense is more of trust than simply believe. The Greek text has an emphasis on also in me in the second part. Because of that it is more likely that the first part is a given and the second part is an addition to the first part, i.e. you already trust in God. Since you do that, (and since I have come from God,) you should also put the same trust in me. A third option, then, which is neither the old or new NIV could be: “You have already put your trust in God. Trust me, too.” Translation involves many choices. In many cases it is not simply a matter of right or wrong, but a relative degree of clarity and accuracy.

A different issue is found in Rom 7:14. There is a Greek word here which could be οἴδαμεν, meaning “we know”. However, it is quite possible that it should be broken apart into two words: οἴδα μὲν, which means “while I know”. Both options fit the context, and both options have been employed in translation. Which is correct? I don’t know. We don’t know. I lean towards “I know”, but the tradition leans towards “we know”.

The Greek text had no paragraph breaks, so again it is a matter of interpretation. As an illustration, let me discuss 1 Cor 14:33-36. The NET, RSV and others chose to have a paragraph from 33b-36. The old NIV had a paragraph from 33b-35. The new NIV and NLT have a paragraph from 34-35. So, it is a matter of interpretation both where to begin and where to end this paragraph. Most of the arguments for one or the other are underlyingly theological, although the translators and commentators usually deny that. I’ll try to steer clear of theology.

First, a few manuscripts in the Western tradition do not even have verses 34-35, but put them after v. 40, where they do not fit very well. G. Fee is one of the very few who argue that these verses were not original at this place. The manuscript data is stongly in favour of these verses being at this place.

Second, is the phrase “As in all the congregations of the saints” to be attached to the preceding sentence: “After all, God is not a God of anarchy, but of peace.” This last sentence explains and gives background for v. 32 where Paul said that “the spirits of prophets are subordinated to prophets.” The IVP Bible Background Commentary has a useful note about this: “In most contemporary Jewish teaching, prophecy involved complete possession by the Spirit; one dare not seek to control one’s utterance. For Paul, however, inspiration can be regulated, and regulating the timing and manner of one’s utterance is not the same as quenching it altogether. On regulating one’s spirit, cf. Proverbs 16:32 and 25:28.” Some Corinthians may also have been comparing with ecstatic spiritual activity in contemporary pagan culture, but a true Christian prophet decides when and where to bring the word he or she has received. There is no force or ecstacy involved, although it does feel like a burden to share. Our God is a God of peace, not of anarchy, insurrection, rebellion and confusion (Greek: ἀκαταστασία). It would be very strange to add “as in all the churches” to this final statement as if God was only a God of peace in the churches. Verses 32 ands 33a are general statements. Both the NA and UBS Greek texts introduce a paragraph break before 33b. If this comparative phrase is moved away from 34, we lose the introductory background to and logical basis for 34. Paul is correcting a misbehavior in Corinthian congregations that did not take place in other church congregations in other cities. It was apparently caused by Greek culture and tradition. So, Paul appeals to the Corinthians to follow the practice that is found in all the other churches. This ties in well with the final sentence in the paragraph, namely v. 36: “Or did the word of God originate from YOU? Or are YOU the only ones who have received it?” These final rhetorical questions indicate a rebuke and also an admonition to the Corinthians to not think that they are unique and different from all other churches in other places. I won’t discuss the controversial verses 34-35 except to quote from the IVP Background Commentary: “Informed listeners customarily asked questions during lectures, but it was considered rude for the ignorant to do so. Although by modern standards literacy was generally low in antiquity (less so in the cities), women were far less trained in the Scriptures and public reasoning than men were. Paul does not expect these uneducated women to refrain from learning (indeed, that most of their culture had kept them from learning was the problem). Instead he provides the most progressive model of his day: their husbands are to respect their intellectual capabilities and give them private instruction. He wants them to stop interrupting the teaching period of the church service, however, because until they know more, they are distracting everyone and disrupting church order.”

4 thoughts on “Breaking things apart

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    So, Iver, would you go along with the interpretation of this as not allowing women to chatter and disturb others, rather than not allowing them to be one of the main speakers from the front? Does lalein imply “chatter” but not “address the congregation”? But I still think a strong case can be made that these verses are not written by Paul.

  2. David Frank says:

    Iver, you use an interesting metaphor to describe translation, going back to something I wrote recently about “What is Your Translation Metaphor?” You use the analogy of breaking something apart (which is in one language) and then rebuilding it (in another language). That’s good. On recent reflection, I realized it was also a common metaphor to talk about translation in terms of “taking” something from one language and “putting” it into another language.

    I completely agree with your main point, that it is impossible to translate without interpreting. It isn’t just inadvisable to do so, it is really impossible. To translate something you have to understand it, which is the same thing as interpreting it. You cannot translate what you cannot understand; you can just transliterate what you don’t understand, but that isn’t translating.

  3. Iver Larsen says:


    The IVP background commentary suggested how the situation probably was in Corinth at the time of writing. How this applies today is in my view an entirely different matter, so I am not going to use present tense about what may or may not be allowed today. It is difficult to speculate on exactly what was the problem in Corinth, so I am hesitant to do that. However, I do think we need to be careful not to project a common non-charismatic church meeting today back to the very charismatic Corinthian church at the time of Paul. We do know from verse 26 that Paul expected active participation from the church members as long as it happened in an orderly and edifying fashion.

  4. Peter Kirk says:

    Iver, I am trying not to project too much on to Corinth. But I would hope that even in the most charismatic meeting there is a distinction between people taking a proper and orderly part and people having distracting side conversations. Could Paul be stopping women doing the latter? We seem to know from 11:5 that he didn’t prohibit the former.

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