John 4:16-18

In the previous post there were some good and insightful comments on how to translate emphasis, and I thought it worthwhile to take the example from John 4 out from the general thread on theory.

The text of these 3 verses is in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and an unnamed Samaritan woman. Jesus has the upper hand and is leading and directing the conversation. Jesus does not follow-up on the woman’s request in v. 15, but instead introduces a new twist.

Let’s start with v. 16:
Λέγει αὐτῇ, Ὕπαγε φώνησον τὸν ἄνδρα σου καὶ ἐλθὲ ἐνθάδε.
He-says to-her: “Go-away, call your husband and come here.

No matter what your translation theory is, you have to start with studying the original text in its context. Already the very literal translation above has made some choices. Compare with the KJV: Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither.

The Greek text above has no subject for the verb saying apart from the “he/she” embedded in the verbal suffix. It is normal in Greek discourse that the main character is often only referred to by a pronoun, rather than a name like Jesus. Many manuscripts clarified the speaker by adding “Jesus” and the KJV followed these later manuscripts. The first choice of a translator is which Greek text to follow.

In some languages, the person who has the upper hand in the conversation is to be mentioned by name, and it may also be more natural in English to introduce the name here, even if it may not have been in the original text. RSV did that: “Jesus said to her.”

How do you mark the shift in the conversation? Is it enough to start a new paragraph? Or would it help to say: “Then Jesus said to her,”?

Since it is in the middle of the conversation with only two people present, Jesus and the woman, do we really need to keep “to her”? If we translated it as “Jesus then said,” would it be less accurate? Is it not abundantly clear to the reader that Jesus still speaks to the woman even without saying “to her”?

Greek used present tense: “He-says”. Why? We now know that this so-called historical present when used in a speech introducer functions to highlight the unexpectedness of the speech itself. It tells the reader: Sit up and listen to what is coming now! English also uses the historical present. Could we say: “Then Jesus says to her,”? All English translations, whether formal or functional, have changed from present to past because the translators did not understand the rhetorical function of the present tense used here. Even the most literal versions lose part of the intended meaning.

The speech has three singular command forms. That is lost in English, since your language (it’s my second language) does not show the singular-plural distinction. So, again we lose something in the translation, but it can be understood from context, since Jesus is speaking to the woman. Even the word “come” is singular, although from the words “go and call your husband and come back” it is implied that she should bring her husband along. Some languages would require a plural subject for the return of the two.

The first word is literally “Go-away”. It means: remove yourself from here. But saying “Go away” in English seems too harsh as if he is chasing her away. That is not intended, so English versions chose to simply say “Go”. In American English, it may have been more natural to say “Why don’t you go and get your husband and then come back with him?” I would have expected something like that in the Message, which is very American, but it says “Go call your husband and then come back.” One has to make a decision about how harsh and commanding the command was originally and try to reflect that aspect also. Is it a strong command or simply a suggestion? What is the social context at the time of Jesus for a man to command a woman? How different is that from modern Western context? Should that be reflected in the translation or not?

Very often, different words in the original are used to express the same meaning, and the translation may need to use the same word. I already gave the example of “Go” in English which translates the Greek word for “go-away” rather than the normal Greek word for “go”. Similarly, one word in the original may cover several different senses where the translator must choose. Greek uses the same word for “man” and “husband”. The context indicates that in this case the appropriate word to use is “husband”, even though the speaker knew that the man referred to was not the woman’s actual husband, but the man she was living with. Even the Greek word here translated “come” can in some contexts best be translated by English “go”. (Last word in Heb 11:8 for instance.)

Now you are better prepared to produce an accurate, clear and natural translation of this verse in English. (It’s not my language, so I won’t try.)

Let’s go to 17a: ἀπεκρίθη ἡ γυνὴ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Οὐκ ἔχω ἄνδρα. Answered the woman/wife and said to-him, “Not I-have husband.”
The doublet “answered and said” reflects a pattern that is natural in Hebrew and it shows how the author uses Greek as his second language. A literal rendering will not communicate that, but only sound strange. Most versions reduce to one speech word, either “answered” (RSV, GNB) or “replied (NIV etc.) or “said” (Message). Do you answer to a command that is not a question? Wouldn’t “respond” be better? And where should the speech introducer come? Before or after the speech? It is normal in Greek to have it first, but it is common in Modern English to have it after as reflected in NIV, GNB, NLT etc. It makes no difference to the accuracy, but it is matter of naturalness.

The word order reflects that “have” is relatively more prominent than “husband”, and this could be indicated by italics in writing to show where the stress ought to be placed: “I don’t have a husband.” (She is not officially married). Or we could add “Actually, I don’t have a husband” or “I don’t actually have a husband.” This is where a functional equivalent translation has the freedom to be more accurate than a literal one, because there is freedom to add words in order to represent an emphasis that is lost in the literal ones.

Let’s move to 17b: λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Καλῶς εἶπας ὅτι Ἄνδρα οὐκ ἔχω· he-says to-her (the) Jesus, Well you spoke that husband not I-have.

We notice again the historical present which asks the hearer to sit up and listen to what unexpected turn the conversation now takes. Jesus is mentioned by name, but not emphasized. It could be for variation or to indicate that Jesus has the upper hand in and directs where the conversation is to go. Jesus now speaks as a prophet.

For the first two words, KJV has: “Thou hast well said”. Is it not more common nowadays to simply say: “Well said!”?

The next part is a semi-direct speech where Jesus appears to quote the words of the woman, but changes the order. Most English versions make it indirect, partly because this allows the translation to more accurately and naturally communicate the intention. The woman has subtly acknowledged that the man she is living with is not her legitimate husband, and Jesus commends her for that. It is OK to have “husband” last in English, since contrary to Greek, that is the most prominent position. So, we could say: “Well said! You don’t have a husband.” Or even: “Well said, because you don’t have a (real) husband.”

Verse 18: πέντε γὰρ ἄνδρας ἔσχες καὶ νῦν ὃν ἔχεις οὐκ ἔστιν σου ἀνήρ· τοῦτο ἀληθὲς εἴρηκας.
After-all five husbands you-have-had, and the man you now have is not your husband. That is-true you-have-said.

There is relative emphasis on the word “five”. To “have a man” in Greek can refer to living with a man without being married. It is most likely that the first “have” is in the context of five consecutive marriages, but it is a choice the translator has to make in choosing between men and husbands. The Greek connector γὰρ is not a logical reason connector, but a rhetorical and discourse explanatory connector, so it is usually best translated by “after all” or “you see”. I might venture a more dynamic version: “You see, you have already had no less than five husbands, and the man you are living with right now is not a husband to you. So, what you said before was really true.” This is not far from the Message: “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.”

8 thoughts on “John 4:16-18

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wonderful explication of the Greek!

    You have: “the woman/wife” for “ἡ γυνὴ” in John 4:17a.

    Why not also have the as-ambiguous “[a] man/husband” for “ἄνδρα” in 17a, 17b, and in 18?

    In v 18, you do show the important interplay of the ambiguity:

    After-all five husbands [ἄνδρας] you-have-had, and the man [ – 0 – ] you now have is not your husband [ἀνήρ].

    πέντε γὰρ ἄνδρας ἔσχες καὶ νῦν ὃν ἔχεις οὐκ ἔστιν σου ἀνήρ

    John (if not Jesus) is making something of the uncertainties in the Greek. They mirror the uncertainties that Jesus certainly perceives in the woman’s/this wife’s multiple relationships with different men/husbands.

    Ann Nyland gives this footnote, getting to the cultural pattern, that is helpful:

    “The ‘now’ [νῦν] is significant. The laws recognized several types of marriage. S.R. Llwewlyn states that the different legal systems ran in parallel and each did exert influence on the other, cf. ‘Jewish and Christian Marriage,’ NDIEC 6.14. One type of marriage was cohabite (unwritten marriage), which meant that if a man and a woman were living together or even had sex they were considered to be legally married. This form of marriage was common among the lowest classes, ibid, p. 16; H.J. Wolff, Written and Unwritten Marriages in Hellenistic and Postclassical Roman Law, (Haverford, PA: American Philological Association, 1939), pp. 48ff …. The Samaritan woman was not living with the sixth man, or he would legally be her husband. He may have been someone else’s husband, or a casual relationship.”

    Adam Clarke, in his commentary, notes how “Bishop Pearce would translate this clause in the following manner: There is no husband whom thou now hast-or, less literally, Thou hast no husband now: probably the meaning is, Thou art contracted to another, but not yet brought home: therefore he is not yet thy husband.”

    The point I’m trying to make (that you made with “woman/wife”) is that the Greek noun phrases for “husband” have a range of meanings including “a not-at-all-a-husband man.” John can flaunt that in this context with his written Greek translation of Jesus’s spoken Hebrew Aramaic. I’m not sure John was engaging in “either” literal translation of Jesus “or” functional translation of Jesus. Rather, I think John, the translator, was exploiting meanings, or at the very least allowing his not-very-natural Greek to give a range of meanings that the reader could enjoy variously. Not that “anything goes” with John’s Greek translation. Just the opposite. The ambiguities are constrained by the context. But the ambiguities, nonetheless, are still open to interpretation in ways that the English translator may just close down.

  2. Iver Larsen says:

    Thanks, Kurk,

    To your first question: I could as well have written man/husband, but I explained that range of meaning in my comments, whereas I did not elaborate on the same ambiguity with woman/wife.

    I am not convinced that the lady did not actually live with this sixth man, since she “had” him. The question is whether in the mouth of Jesus, these words express what the Jews would consider a proper marriage, regardless of the common-law “marriage”. It is possible, though, that she had a regular relationship with a married man. One could argue that the word order: οὐκ ἔστιν σου ἀνήρ, where “your” is fronted before “husband” might indicate that he was husband to another woman. But one has to be careful with word order arguments in John. In any case, the relationship seems illegitimate from Jesus’ perspective, and he had a gentle way of pointing it out.

  3. J. K. Gayle says:

    The next part is a semi-direct speech where Jesus appears to quote the words of the woman, but changes the order….

    The question is whether in the mouth of Jesus, these words express what the Jews would consider a proper marriage, regardless of the common-law “marriage”.

    You’re doing a couple of very important things by making such statements. First and foremost, you’re assuming the “cultural pattern” of Jewishness of Jesus. Is this something that Eugene Nida advised? Isn’t the receptor of the DE translation of John not required to regard the culture that the structure of the untranslated text might mirror?

    Second, you’re bringing to our attention (in your post) the fact that the words in the mouth of Jesus are not necessarily the words from the pen of John. It really could be John who is having Jesus change the order of the words of the wife/woman. This matters because John’s Hellene text is Hebraic. This matters because John’s Greek is also participating in the long Greek-cultural battles over “the logos.” The wordplay, the structured syntax and even phonology, flaunts and guides the ambiguities in the Greek text. The discourse, of course, reads much more like Plato than like Aristotle. But the socratic dialectic used by John comes across more like an argument made by Gorgias himself than by Plato’s disparaging caricature of Gorgias as a mere, slimy rhetorician. The woman/wife (in John’s representation of her) seems to get the sophisticated dialectic of Jesus. Your conclusion in your comment above gets into both how the Greek syntax (i.e., that ἀνήρ is fronted peculiarly as a reversal) is significant in the Koine Language culture, and also the way of Jesus additionally conveyed by the structure (i.e., as “gentleness”). Does DE translation in your training and experience get at these things? Are you suggesting that The Message does?

  4. Daniel Buck says:

    I would translate καὶ νῦν ὃν ἔχεις οὐκ ἔστιν σου ἀνήρ· as “and the man you have now isn’t even your husband.” The implication being that he is someone else’s.

  5. Iver Larsen says:


    First, I have no idea why you think that the receptor of a DE translation is not supposed to regard the culture of the original text and setting. Culture and language are inseparable, and DE translators must spend much more time studying cultural issues bound up with the text than non-DE translators, if they are to be faithful to the meaning of the original as spoken in its cultural context and its own time. We are not negating that the original content is bound to a different culture. However, I tend to put most cultural background information in introductions and footnotes in my translations.

    I should probably have said that it was John in his re-telling of the story who changed the order. When we speak, we rarely spell everything out in detail. We do not have direct access to the words of Jesus, and to what degree John’s words reflect Jesus’ actual words is a matter of conjecture.

    Second, I am afraid I don’t clearly understand your last question and the unwritten assumptions behind it. What you call my “DE training” is only a very small part of my training. I was never taught by Nida, have not read much of what he has written and only listened to him speak once, where he said things I strongly disagreed with. The basic tenets of DE is that a translation should be accurate in terms of communicating the same meaning as the original as far as possible and at all levels of genre. But this is a meaning-based definition of accuracy rather than a form-based definition. DE does not accept that literalness in itself promotes or guarantees accuracy. Too often a literal translation loses the emphasis or nuances of the original text. Sometimes it is incomprehensible.

    To get at accuracy we look at the original text in the original languages in its original cultural and religious context with all the tools available, including discourse linguistics, Relevance Theory, computer tools and much more.

    The reason for clarity and naturalness is to communicate as accurately as possible the meaning derived from the original text. That is why we often talk about two separate steps in translation. The first step is looking at the original text in order to get at the meaning the writer tried to communicate to the original audience (exegesis). The second step is trying to get the same meaning across to the intended audience. This second step is focused on the new audience and the present time and culture, but it is based on a prior exegesis that is ideally not dependent on the new audience and the present time and culture.

    Acceptability is solely focused on the reactions of the intended audience and not on accuracy or clear and natural communication. In fact, gaining acceptability sometimes means losing clarity and naturalness. It all depends on the intended audience.

  6. Looking Towards Home says:

    Your blog posts provide me with a window into the life of a Bible translator. For many years I have had a ‘favourite’ translation or preferred one over the other, but I have spent much less time thinking about the work that has gone into each.

    Thank you for sharing the troubles and successes involved in Biblical translation!

    – Neil

  7. Tokin Noah Thomas says:

    Could John 4:18t mean that the woman has (and not has had) five current husbands, but the one she is was with was not one of her five husbands? Logically speaking it still would hold true that she answered wisley and truthfully when she said I have no (one) husband because she has five?

  8. Daniel Buck says:

    Tokin, that’s not feasible, because simultaneous polyandry wasn’t possible in that culture. –Daniel Buck, author of And the Two Shall Be One

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