How far can we trust our translations?

LNE ends his many questions by asking:

Are some things in Scripture inverted simply to make them theologically correct? Are there places in Scripture which should, simply based on the Greek language and not on theology or Church history, be changed?

That is a legitimate question from a “humble layman”. When Greek scholars and theologians disagree among themselves, who can we trust? There is no simple answer, but I do not recommend trying to find a solution in individual words in Greek. That is a dangerous path for the layman, when even scholars stumble. It is much better to read the Bible in several translations, for instance a very literal one like the ESV, a modified literal one like the NIV and an idiomatic one like the NLT. The better we know the Bible the better prepared we are to evaluate questionable theology. As a rule of thumb, if there is a majority opinion among translations, that majority is almost always correct. As another guide, look to the context rather than individual words out of context. You can get the context well enough from a translation without having to dig into Greek yourself.

Are some things inverted to make them theologically correct? A few things, maybe, especially where the original is not very clear. I think the ISV claims about a few passages where they disagree with the majority, is a good example of that. The problem is that when you have two theological camps with opposite interpretations of the same text, both will accuse the other of having changed the meaning of the text to fit their own theology. Both will claim that the other group has misunderstood the text and we know better.

Let me comment on the following from LNE:

Romans 2:3 – It’s made into a question in most Bibles it seems, but I see no indicators for such. If it is a declarative statement, then the “n” in Romans 2:4 negates the idea that the people will not come under judgement.

Romans 11:2 – Starts with “ouk” like many interrogative sentences from Paul, but it’s translated as a statement instead of a question here… and I don’t know why. If it was a question (the first half of the verse before the “n”), then the “n” would be negating “Has not God thrust away His own People who He foreknew?”

There is no doubt that Rom 2:3 is meant to be a question. There is a strong focus on “you”: “Do you really think, you (Jewish) fellow who condemn those who do such things (as described in chapter 1) and (at the same time) are doing them that you will escape the judgment of God?” It is clear judgment of the hypocrite.

The Greek word ἤ (H) which introduces verse 4 simply means “or”. It does not negate anything, but it indicates another step in the argumentation, another rhetorical question.

In Romans 11:2 we read “God has not pushed away his people whom he has known (and been with) from ancient time.” This is a restatement of what we read in verse 1: “Surely, God has not pushed aside his own people, has he?” A rhetorical question which demands the answer “No, of course he hasn’t!” The ἤ in the next sentence again does not negate anything, but simply introduces another step in the argumentation, this time with a rhetorical question: “Don’t you know what God said to Elijah in the following Scripture passage…?” What God said comes in verse 4, so we really must read the whole context and preferably the whole chapter if we want to understand individual words and sentences as they were intended.

A question in 1 Cor 11:14-15?

LNE asked on the SHARE page whether the question in these verses could be understood as a statement. The ISV translation takes it as a statement, but everybody else take it as a question. (The Wycliffe Bible is unclear, the only other contender to the statement option.)

It is quite true that it can be difficult at times to decide whether a Greek sentence is to be interpreted as a question or a statement. Question marks were not used, so it is a matter of context and common sense. It is theoretically possible that ISV is correct and all other translators are wrong, but I am always sceptical of people who claim to have discovered that everybody else is mistaken. At least, they must have very strong arguments for their position and some new insight that others have so far missed.

I am not familiar with the ISV, but thanks to LNE for the link to their website. I listened to how they praise their own translation. They claim to have discovered a new way of translating which they call literal-idiomatic. I have worked with both literal and idiomatic translations for 30 years, and I am familiar with the benefits and weaknesses of each of these two classical approaches to translation. Most translations are in the middle somewhere between the extremes, but some can be said to belong to the mostly literal camp while others belong to the mostly idiomatic camp. This new literal-idiomatic approach belongs to the literal camp, but it is claimed to have the benefits of the other approaches and none of the weaknesses. My reaction to that is the same as it would be to an architect who wants to build a round square. The ISV prouds itself of being original, and 1 Cor 11:14-15 is not the only place where they claim that they are right and more or less everybody else are mistaken.

ISV renders 1 Cor 11:14-15a as follows: “Nature itself teaches you neither that it is disgraceful for a man to have long hair nor that hair is a woman’s glory…” Is that a reasonable and accurate translation of the Greek text? I am afraid not.

The Greek OUDE is made up of two parts, the negative particle OU (meaning not) and the discourse particle DE which can mean “but”, “or” or “and”, but often there is no direct English equivalent word for it. One has to look at the whole context. OUDE can also mean “not even”. Paul is here using a rhetorical question where the answer is assumed to be obvious: “And is it not the case that the nature of things teaches you that on the one hand if a man wears long hair it is a dishonor to him and/but on the other hand if a woman wears long hair, it is an honor to her?” Expected answer: Yes, it is obvious from the nature of how things are (we might call it current culture of that time and place).

English often indicates the statement/question dichotomy by word order, so if we were to change the question above to a statement, it would become: “And it is not the case that the nature of things teaches you that on the one hand if a man wears long hair it is a dishonor to him and/but on the other hand if a woman wears long hair, it is an honor to her.” Does that make sense to you? I cannot figure out what that is supposed to mean. Since the ISV translators apparently find the question option to go against their theology and culture, they have a problem. In order to make some sense out of the statement option, ISV moves the “and/or/even not” from the beginning of the main clause to the beginning of the dependent clause. They also introduce a “nor” to connect the two contrastively coordinated dependent clauses, but there is no “nor” in the Greek text, only the bare DE (and/or/but) without the “not” part. The DE here is the counterpart to the MEN in a common Greek contruction: “Man on one hand, woman on the other hand.”

So, to answer LNE’s question: No, based on what the Greek text is actually saying, you are not on the right track, and it is pity if ISV has led you and others to get off track.

Isaiah 7:14

Few verses have been disputed more that this verse when it comes to Bible translation and theology. I’ll try to keep myself to linguistics.

One of the ways to study the range of meaning of any word or phrase is to look at how it is used in context. When the dictionaries say one thing and the usage of the word suggests something else, I am not certain what to trust the most.
The Hebrew word ‘almah occurs the following places in the Hebrew OT. I’ll quote the RSV translation and indicate how the LXX translated the word:

Gen 24:43-44: behold, I am standing by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Pray give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also,” let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’
LXX: ἡ παρθένος – the young woman/virgin

Exo 2:8
So the girl went and called the child’s mother. LXX: ἡ νεᾶνις – the young woman/girl

Psa 86:26
the singers in front, the minstrels last, between them maidens playing timbrels
LXX: νεανίδων – of young women/girls

Pro 30:19
the way of a man with a maiden
LXX: ὁδοὺς ἀνδρὸς ἐν νεότητι – the way of a man in youth

Sng 1:3
the maidens love you LXX: νεάνιδες – young women/girls

Sng 6:8
There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number.
LXX: νεάνιδες – young women/girls

Isa 7:14
a young woman LXX: ἡ παρθένος – The young woman/virgin

In all cases the word refers to a young, unmarried woman, probably a teenager. From the cultural background they would all be virgins, but that aspect may not be in focus in each instance. In four cases, the LXX used the general Greek word for a young woman, but in two places the translators chose the more specific virgin. In these two cases, a marriage is imminent, so it was important for the LXX translators to emphasize that in their understanding of the Hebrew text this young woman was clearly a virgin.

Another Hebrew word, betulah, is related. It occurs 50 times in the OT, and the LXX always translates it by the specific word for virgin (parthenos), except in 3 cases where it is used as a metaphor for a city or a group of people. There the word is translated by “daughter.”

So, comparing the two words, we can conclude from the usage that their meanings overlap.
Betulah is more specific for virgin and implies the sense of an unmarried woman (usually, but not necessarily young).
‘almah is a young woman, who is also a virgin, but this aspect may or may not be in focus, depending on context. Someone might say that if Isa 7:14 was intended to convey the sense of virgin, it should have used betulah. That kind of argument is not based on linguistic reasoning, since ‘almah can also refer to a virgin, especially if she is soon to be married.

Now, I have heard that a related word in a related language may refer to a young, married woman, but I don’t remember the details. Is that really enough to overthrow the meaning established by usage in the Hebrew Bible as well as the LXX?

Of course, translation does not mean simply substituting one word in one language with a corresponding word in another language. One needs to look at how the words weave together an overall meaning in view of its cultural context.
A very literal rendering of the Hebrew text is something like:
Therefore the Lord himself, he will give you(plural) a sign: Look/Listen! The young woman/virgin pregnant and bearing a son and she will call his name “God with us!”
The predicates here are first an adjective (pregnant), then a participle (bearing/giving birth to) and then a verb that most people understand as future (she will name him). The Hebrew verb system is complex and somewhat disputed. Does the future sense of the last verb carry over to the adjective and participle? LXX obviously decided that it did, since they translate: “Therefore Lord himself he will give you(plural) a sign: Look/Listen! The virgin will have in stomach (she will become pregnant), and she will bear a son and you (Ahaz) will call his name Emmanuel.”
One question is why there is a definite article before “virgin”. I assume it means that the reference is to a young woman, not yet married, who is known to both the speaker and hearer, possibly present. Maybe a virgin to be married to the king?

The prophecy relates to future happenings, and if the woman was already pregnant, it does not need prophetic inspiration to predict that she will give birth. This reduces it to predicting that it will be a boy. Since the word apparently does refer to a virgin, a present tense does not fit. You cannot say: “The virgin is pregnant,” even though CEV did so! King Ahaz did not witness a virgin birth. That came later with Mary as a secondary fulfilment of this small part of the prophecy. One may argue that the lack of a verb implies a present tense in English, but I find this hard to accept for two reasons. It goes against the normal meaning of ‘almah, and it implies that we know Hebrew better than the LXX translators. I know that I do not.
Those were my thoughts from a linguistic and contextual viewpoint.

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.”

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.”

Measurements and money

Jonathan Morgan asked on the Share page:

Another thing I have noticed is the translation of weights and measures in Bibles. Some Bibles will try to stick to the original units (e.g. “cubits”, “talents”, “denarii”, “ephah”, “bath”, etc.). Others will try to render them into modern units. Both lead to problems. Any thoughts on which is the better way to do it? (Something Wayne particularly talks about) How would modern translators translating between modern languages handle differences in the units used?

Problem 1: Different English measurement systems
There are two major systems of units in use in the English speaking world (metric and imperial). I, along with I think most of the English speaking world, use metric, but a lot of translations come from the US and use imperial. If they published 100% correct* metric versions in metric countries I might care less… (and if they used the Biblical units both sides would be equally fogged 🙂 ).

Problem 2: Anachronistic readings from the translation
What really got me thinking about this was reading in the HCSB that distances between different parts of Ezekiel’s temple were “22 3/4 feet” apart, or “43 3/4 feet”. While these things make perfect sense as exact measurements if you have a long cubit of 21 inches, I just read it as an English speaker and think “Why is this so precise?” (whereas if I see a number like “10 cubits” I have no trouble at all understanding why that number is chosen). (I also wonder whether some of the original measurements were actually approximations, like we might say something was “10 metres across” or someone was “6 feet tall” (yes, we do use imperial for some isolated things) without meaning exactly 32 3/4 feet across or 183 centimetres tall. Similar thoughts apply to other units of measure – maybe we would be better rounding them rather than trying to represent exactly (a tenet I learnt in science was that it’s an error to represent your results after calculations as having more accuracy than the original source of the results – I loved adding lots of decimal places to prevent rounding errors, etc.).

In particular, if the quantity is 1 or 2 or something small, changing it to something different seems anachronistic. An example that occurs to me is the talent, which changes to 75 pounds in the HCSB. When we come to Gehazi asking Naaman for money in 2 Kings 5, we get the following dialog:
“Please give them [two sons of the prophets] 75 pounds of silver and two changes of clothes”
But Naaman insisted, “Please, accept 150 pounds”. He urged Gehazi and then packed 150 pounds of silver in two bags with two changes of clothes.

This feels very weird in English (why exactly did Gehazi ask for 75 pounds of silver? Why not 50 or 100? Why then did Naaman press him to take 150 pounds rather than say 100? And why then two bags?) This passage makes much more sense when we realise that he asked for 1 of something (1 talent), a very natural starting point to ask for, and Naaman suggests 2 (presumably 1 for each of the sons of the prophets). The record in talents inherently makes sense if I just treat a talent as “a unit of money” rather than “a weight which needs translating”. [I do note that “talents” is used in the parable of the talents, rather than translating it into a weight].

In a similar way, I haven’t changed “a miss is as good as a mile” to “a miss is as good as 1.6km” or even “a miss is as good as a kilometre”.

Problem 2: Comparisons between units losing power
I read in Isaiah 5:
For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.

From that, I could guess that this was a bad thing (they weren’t yielding what they were supposed to). I couldn’t get any numbers on it though (I can never remember whether it’s 1 to ten or ten to 1, and I don’t know how many baths ten acres should make or even really what a bath is). I wondered how the HCSB would translate it (hoping desperately it would not be 22 litres produces 2.2 litres), and was glad to see the kind of translation I had thought would be good myself: “10 bushels of seed will yield only one bushel”, which is probably completely off in raw numbers but gives the meaning of the text – you aren’t even recouping your expenditure, let alone growing more. [I note that the NIV text gives the homer and ephah with footnotes, while the NIV Study Bible notes gives the (more logical?) 10:1 explanation].

(I wondered how “an omer is the tenth part of an ephah” would be translated – obviously we can’t translate both of them. It turned out to be in the HCSB “Two quarts are a tenth of an ephah”.)

Problem 3: Trying to represent the real value of money.
I have seen translations that try to translate money into the current value of that money. As the translation gets older and inflation continues, this becomes less and less representative. For example, I have seen translations that replaced “denarius” with $20 in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now $20 may have been a day’s wages then, but now it most certainly isn’t and would change the meaning of how much the samaritan was giving for his “neighbour” and how much trouble it caused him. Saying “a day’s wages” might be more accurate. Leaving it at denarius might also be accurate [if I’m reading a book about India I see no problem using “rupees” rather than “dollars” because that’s what they use – I don’t think denarius needs to be different]. (on a related note, our perceptions of value may have changed enough that directly converting from a weight of gold/silver to a value today doesn’t necessarily give an accurate representation of what the money was worth then. For example, I have read that silver was much closer to the value of gold then than it is now. If that is true, just using the silver price now to estimate a value will be even less useful).

Anyway, I’ve given lots of examples of problems and gone on longer than I expected, but the original question still stands: Are there good guidelines on how to translate units, and if there are what do you think they are, and how does that relate to modern translation practices?

* I have seen an NIV that was obviously changed from imperial to metric with a quick search and replace, and any numeric references that didn’t have the unit afterwards were not converted. This turns the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16 into something quite different:
“How much do you owe my master?” “3 kilolitres of wheat” “Well, take your bill and write 400″.

Consulting an imperial NIV showed that it was actually meant to go from 800 gallons to 400 gallons, which made some amount of sense.
I’d also add that we here at least would rarely use kilolitres in ordinary speech, and would probably say 3,000 litres of wheat (if we even measured wheat in litres). You may well use 3,000 and 1,500 in preference to 3 and 1.5 anyway.

Jonathan, you have obviously given a lot of thought to a problem that is a cause of headaches to Bible translators.

Your first question was how modern translators would handle this. In my experience, modern translators would adapt and convert into what is used in the language and culture they are translating into. Fahrenheit becomes celsius, miles becomes kilometres, gallons becomes litres, etc. In the case of money the original amount and currency is sometimes given in a parenthesis after the converted amount.

For Bible translation, we have the traditional approach where the foreign terms would be transliterated and kept. That is where you find your homers, and omers, and ephas and baths. Where this approach is still used today, an equivalent is usually given in a footnote. The other approach (preferred by linguists and professional translators) is to follow what is normally done in translation outside the Bible. So, the first question for the Bible translator is: What style do you want to settle on, the traditional one or the modern, linguistic one, or maybe a mixture? The choice depends on who your intended audience is.

The solution to your problem 1 is in principle very easy. Americans should as soon as possible adopt the metric system that is used in the rest of the world. 🙂

Your problem 2 is a challenge. The most common length measurement in the Bible is the cubit, which is the distance from your elbow to your fingertip. Since it is close to 1½ feet, it works quite well to change to feet for the longer measurements. Noah’s ark was 300 x 50 x 30 cubits. When this is changed to 450 x 75 x 45 feet we still have the fairly round numbers. It does not work quite so well when it is changed to 133 x 32 x 13 metres. The problem becomes much worse when the measurements are ½ cubit, 1 cubit or 1½ cubit. In the British GNB, a cubit is normally given as 45 cm and half a cubit as 22 cm. The first edition of the NLT had 3 3/4 feet and 2 1/4 feet in Exo 37:6, but this was changed to 45 inches and 27 inches in the revised NLT. They could have said 3′ 9″ and 2′ 3″. In cubits it would be 2½ and 1½. An added problem is that there were different lengths for the cubit in different times and cultures. Because of that we chose in our Danish translation to use an old term of approximately the same length. Most people would not know the exact length since it is no longer used. It would correspond to the English cubit, so I’ll translate it into the English term cubit (from the latin word for elbow). The advantage was that then we could keep the same numbers as the original. When this term was first used in Gen 6:15 we had a footnote: “The cubit used here is either the Babylonian cubit of 50.3 cm, the Egyptian cubit of 52.5 cm, or the old royal Hebrew cubit of 7 handbreaths or 51.8 cm. Later a shorter cubit became the norm. It was 6 handbreaths or 44.5 cm.” The first time it occurred in Exodus we again had a footnote, but a much shorter one. So, if I was doing an English translation, I would probably use the cubit with footnotes, but as you say there are pros and cons for each choice.

In a book like Revelation, we have the added problem that numbers were meant to be symbolic. In Rev 14:20 we have 1600 stadia. It is symbolically significant that 16 = 4×4, since 4 is the number for humans. That is lost when we read 180 miles (NLT) or 200 miles (GNB-US) or 300 kilometres (GNB-UK). As long as there is a footnote, not all is lost. The same applies to the 12,000 stadia (furlongs) in Rev 21:16. 12 is an important symbolic number (pointing to the people of God). One has to choose whether to focus on communicating a more understandable length or a symbolic number.

When it comes to weights we have similar problems. One is that actual weights varied over time and we are not sure of the exact measurement at different times. The other is that the conversion process may introduce an accuracy perception that was not part of the original. You mention 2 Kings 5:5. In our Danish version we translated as 10 sacks of silver, 2 sacks of gold and 10 sets of beautiful clothes. A donkey would normally carry two sacks, one on each side. The original terms of talent and shekel were put in a footnote with approximate metric equivalents.

In your problem 2 you mention Isa 5:10, and I agree with your sentiments. In Danish we used a common, but old way of referring to the size of land, literally one barrel of land. (The idea is that it would require one barrel of seed to plant that size of land.) For the wine we used the kind of word that is often used for wine and beer (an anker), somewhat like the English cask. So we said: A vinefield/vineyard of 10 barrels of land will only give one cask of wine. (A barrel of land corresponds to 1,363 acres, and an anker of wine is about 40 litres, but the exact measurements are not important here.) For the second half of the verse we said: 10 sacks of seeds will only produce one sack of corn (that is wheat or barley, not maize).

Your problem 3 is money, again quite a challenge for the reasons you mention. I would say the solution depends on the context. Is the exact amount important or not? At Exo 30:13, we used ½ shekel with a footnote. The additional information about gerahs were placed in the footnote. I think the GW rendering of “one fifth of an ounce of silver” is too complex, and the concept of a half shekel in temple tax occurs other places in the Bible. Because of that, we chose not to leave it out completely as the GNB did (the required amount of money).

In Gen 24:22 we said a nose-ring of gold and two heavy gold bracelets (with a footnote giving the original terms of bekah and shekels).

In Exo 38:24 we used 900 kilos (rather than 2193 pounds) with a footnote about the 29 talents and 730 shekels. In the next 2 verses we said: “More than 3 tons of silver was used corresponding to the personal tax of registered people over 20 years of age, that is a ½ shekel from 603,550 people.” The footnote said: “In Hebrew 100 talents and 1775 shekel, the same as 301,775 shekel or about 3018 kgs.” The mathematically inclined reader can divide the 603,550 with 2.

For the NT denarius we would sometimes keep the foreign word “denar” but usually clarified with a day’s wages. For instance, in Mat 20:2 we said: “He agreed with them that they would be paid the normal daily wage of one denar.” In this way we can easily use the denar as a back reference in v. 9 and 13. The KJV does sound funny today: “a penny a day.” In the case of Matt 18:24 we said: “The first one owed him millions” (Footnote: Literally 10,000 talents. It is probably a symbolic number for the greatest imaginable amount of money at the time. It would be about 20 tons of gold. A talent was 6000 denars, and a denar was a normal day’s wages.) Then in 18:28 we said “who owed him a few thousand”. Now, the reader would think of a few thousand kroners, and that is fine compare to millions. The footnote here says: “Literally 100 denars. This is 600,000 times less than the previous amount.”

Much more could be said, but I hope this gives a feel for the kind of challenges translators need to grapple with.

1 Cor 13:7 – the language of love

One of the most famous and beloved passages in the NT is 1 Cor 13. I have been digging into the Greek text of verse 7 recently and thought I might share my thoughts with you.

The Greek words are: πάντα στέγει, πάντα πιστεύει, πάντα ἐλπίζει, πάντα ὑπομένει.
RSV provides a fairly literal translation: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

The verse is poetic in two ways: the rhetorical repetition of πάντα (panta) – all things or everything or all the way and a chiasm. Let me explain the chiasm.
The Greek word στέγει (stegei) is very close in meaning to ὑπομένει (hupomenei), so the first and last words are close. Similarly the word for believe and hope are close in meaning, so the two middle words correspond to each other.

στέγω only occurs 4 times in the NT and all in Paul’s letters. Let us look at them:
1 Cor 9:12 – we endure everything (NET), we put up with anything (NIV)
1 Cor 13:7 – bears all things (NET), always protects (NIV)
1 Th 3:1 – we could bear it no longer (NET), we could stand it no longer (NIV)
1 Th 3:5 – I could bear it no longer (NET), I could stand it no longer (NIV)

I like the NIV idiom ”I cannot stand it”. This idiom is mainly used in a negative construction, I believe, so for the positive usage NIV says ”we put up with anything.” Why NIV did not also say ”Love puts up with anything” in v. 7 I do not know. It would be consistent with 9:12 and give the meaning nicely. Why did they use ”protect” and why say ”always” instead of ”everything” or “anything”? Paul commonly used the standard word for always (pantote). I can only guess the reason for the NIV rendering. My guess is that it was to forestall possible misuses of the text. Because we have a long tradition of pretty unreadable Bible translations, Bible readers, including pastors, cannot stand to read many verses at a go before they get tired. Maybe that is one reason for their habit to take one or two verses out of context and meditate or preach on them. The result is often some strange teaching and ideas. Of course, we are not to ”put up with everything” in every situation. But this text talks about the characteristics of love. It must be set in the context of a relationship between people, especially the context of a natural and spiritual family. PANTA – everything/all things is a rhetorical hyperbole, it does not literally and absolutely mean everything, but it does mean a lot. A loving person puts up with a lot that an unloving person would not put up with. Another reason for the NIV may be that a text is supposed to be read aloud, and ”Love bears everything” might possibly be understood when spoken as ”Love bares everything.” Or maybe ”bear” is just too old-fashioned English?

The final word ὑπομένω (hupomenw) means to endure something, to stay put when others might have left. These words describe love very well, including the relationship between husband and wife. If I have love, I can put up with (almost) everything in my spouse, and I will stay put in the relationship through difficult times.

The two middle words are πιστεύω (pisteuw) and ἐλπίζω (elpizw). PISTEUW can have a semantic frame with three participants or with two. When pisteuw has three participants, it means that A entrusts P to G.
We see this in John 2:24 IHSOUS OUK EPISTEUEN AUTON AUTOIS – Jesus was not entrusting him(self) to them. Jesus is Agent, him(self) is Patient and AUTOIS is the Goal/Direction. It is normal for the semantic Patient to be encoded with the accusative case and the Goal with the Dative case or a preposition such as EIS and occasionally EN or EPI, and this is how PISTEUW is used.

In many instances of this verb, the Patient is not expressed openly, but assumed, and in that case it refers to the same person as the Agent. In John 3:15 we find hO PISTEUWN EN AUTWi and the next verse has the variation with the same meaning hO PISTEUWN EIS AUTON. John 4:21 has PISTEUE MOI – entrust (yourself) to me. This is the same as “put your trust in me” or “believe in me.”

This tri-valent APG verb is sometimes used in the middle-passive. One of the functions of passive is to make the Agent (or Goal) implicit. Usually the Patient takes over the subject slot in a passive construction, but in some cases the Goal can also be subject in Greek.
1 Cor 9:17 OIKONOMIAN PEPISTEUMAI – a stewardship has been entrusted to me or: I have been entrusted with a stewardship. Implied/assumed Agent is God, Patient (accusative) is OIKONOMIAN and Goal is me, expressed as subject.
Gal 2:7 PEPISTEUMAI TO EUAGGELION – the gospel has been entrusted to me (also 1 Th 2:4)
1 Tim 1:11 TO EUAGGELION…hO EPISTEUQHN EGW – the gospel which has been entrusted to me. (also Tit 1:3)
Rom 3:2 EPISTEUQHSAN TA LOGIA TOU QEOU – The words of God were entrusted to them. The implicit Agent is God, the Patient is TA LOGIA TOU QEOU and the Goal is represented by the plural subject – they/them.

Now, the verb PISTEUW can also have only two participants with the meaning “accept as true”. In this case, we have the Agent (or Experiencer) and the Patient (object). The Patient can be in the form of a clause introduced by hOTI (that) or it can be an infinitive (or participle) with accusative or it can be a noun that stands for a statement.
Mat 9:28 PISTEUTE hOTI DUNAMAI TOUTO POIHSAI – Do you accept as true that I am able to do this?
John17:9 (+21) EPISTEUSAN hOTI SU ME APESTEILAS – They accepted as true that you have sent me.
John 11:27 EGW PEPISTEUKA hOTI SU EI hO CRISTOS hO hUIOS TOU QEOU – I have accepted as true that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.
Acts 8:37b (v.l.) PISTEUW TON hUION TOU QEOU EINAI TON IHSOUN CRISTON – I accept as true that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Jn 11:26 PISTEUEIS TOUTO – Do you accept this as true?
Rom 14:2 hOS PISTEUEI FAGEIN PANTA – he who accepts as true that he can eat anything.
1 Cor 13:7 PANTA PISTEUEI – it (love) accepts all things as true

Quite often the verb is used without any object or prepositional phrases, and in such cases there is no way to know whether it is the tri-valent verb “entrust” or the di-valent verb “accept as true”. Context will usually clarify it, but not always.

So, “accept everything as true” shows the attitude of love. You accept that this other person (husband, wife, child, etc.) speaks the truth and can be trusted. It does not mean that we are to accept and believe every wind of doctrine that comes our way. The accusative object “everything” indicates that this is not a matter of believing in God or Jesus, but of accepting as true what the other person is saying.

ἐλπίζω (elpizw – hope) can be used with a semantic Goal in the dative case or a preposition like EIS (towards), e.g. John 5:45 ”Moses, in whom you have placed your hope.” (NET). Also 2 Cor 1:10, 1 Pet 3:5. Sometimes EPI (on) is used as in Rom 15:12 ”The root of Jesse will come, and the one who rises to rule over the Gentiles, in (EPI) him will the Gentiles hope.” (NET). Also 1 Tim 4:10, 5:5, 6:17, 1 Pet 1:13. Or an EN (in) can be used as in 1 Cor 15:19 and Php 2:19 ”I hope in the Lord Jesus” (KJV has trust here – I place my hope and trust in Jesus).

However, in most cases ἐλπίζω (elpizw) has the two semantic participants Agent and Patient (object). This object may be a clause introduced by hOTI (that) or it may be a noun that stands for something that you can hope and expect will happen.

In 1 Cor 13:7, the two words hope and believe are parallel in the sense that they are both used with an object (Patient). Love accepts everything as true and hopes for everything. A relationship has hopes and aspirations, but these hopes require acceptance and love to be realized.

2 Thessalonians 2:6-7

How does one go about interpreting such a difficult passage?

I suggest that the best way is to look at context, first in this chapter, secondly in the whole of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and thirdly in other NT passages that appear to touch on the same topic.

Rather than quote the Greek text, I’ll make a literal rendering of the two verses:

And you-all know what is holding down (the man of lawlessness) until he is uncovered in his own time. You see, the secret of lawlessness is already at work. It is just that there is an agent holding him down now (and he/it will continue to do so) until (that agent) is taken away.

The initial ”and” links to the previous verse where Paul is reminding them that he has already told them about the events of the last times before the return of Jesus. We cannot know what Paul told them, but the closest we can get is to look at what he just reminded them about in the previous verses. The topic is introduced in v. 1, namely ”the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him.” Paul covered the same topic in 1 Thess 4:13-17, where in v. 17 we read ”we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

Now, in 2:2 Paul is telling his audience not to be alarmed by rumours that the ”coming of the Lord and our gathering to him”, or the ”day of the Lord” as he calls it here, has already taken place (and therefore they were left behind). It doesn’t matter whether such rumours or false teaching have come through a ”spirit” (meaning a prophecy), or a word (probably a word of knowledge), or a letter purported to be written by ”us” (Paul or other apostles).

In 2:3 he continues to tell them that they should not be deceived to believe such rumours/teaching. Why? Because something has not yet happened, namely the rebellion/apostasy and the uncovering/revealing of the man of lawlessness. This topic is similar to 1 John 2:18 ”you all have heard that antichrist shall come.” Not only is he coming, but ”even now is already in the world.” It is reasonable to equate the man of lawlessness with antichrist.

In 2:4 Paul explains how the activities of this evil person will become more and more rebellious against God and end in him exalting himself to be God. This is a process from the initial uncovering to the final height of rebellion followed by judgment, a process that covers many chapters in Revelation, although the focus there is on judgment.

In 2:5 there is a break, and in 2:6 Paul returns to the topic of verse 3, namely that something needs to happen before the coming of Jesus (in the air) and the gathering of the believers with him. That this man of lawlessness is to be revealed does not mean that his evil acts have reached the end point. It is a process that has already started, although in a hidden and secret way as verse 7 tells us. Satan and this man of lawlessness that he controls love to conceal their wickedness under an enticing cloak of light. But at a time set by God his wickedness is to be revealed. It appears that this revealing will be immediately or soon followed by the ”gathering up”, which again will open the door for an increase of wickedness.

There is little doubt that ”what is holding him down” in v. 6 refers to the same entity as ”the agent who is holding him down” in v. 7. The word ”hold down” can also mean ”restrain, suppress” like when you hold down a violent man or hold on to a wild dog in a leash. The dog may be growling and snarling, but until it is released or unleashed, it cannot fully do what it wants to do. The question is what is this entity. A good commentary will list the various suggested options, but most of them are unlikely to be correct. Some have suggested that it might refer to the Holy Spirit. I don’t think this is correct. Morris says about this suggestion:

It seems definite enough to exclude some suggestions as to the identity of the restrainer, for example, that which views him as the Holy Spirit (so the Scofield Reference Bible). While it would be easy to think of the Spirit as restraining the forces of evil, it is impossible to envisage him as being “taken out of the way.” Such an idea does not appear in Scripture.

If we look again at the main topic from verse 1, there is an entity that will be ”taken out of the way”, namely the believers which is also described as ”the body of Christ”. It seems to me to be the best solution to an enigmatic passage. The body of Christ has a restraining effect on the evil in this world, both by actions and prayers, and only when that Body is removed does the antichrist have no opposition left here on earth. Or said differently, God has allowed him to be unleashed.

As with most eschatological concepts, there is not likely to be consensus or agreement. It is just that I wanted to suggest something that I have not seen very often in commentaries, but an option that in my view fits the context of the chapter.


Shoeb Raza asked on the Share page:

I would like to know [your] opinion on the word “bank” & “bankers” used in various english versions of the Bible; is this usage anachronistic? By this word one might take as we deposit in banks nowadays, same were the practice back then. How would a common person secure his/her money and earn interest on them.

Strictly speaking it is anachronistic. The “bankers” in Matt 25:27 were individual money changers. They sat at a table with piles of coins. As they exchanged money, they secured a profit for themselves. Apparently, they would also accept deposits and loan out money against interest.

The problem for translators is that it is not easy to find another suitable word without going into a long explanation about how one could earn interest from one’s money in those days. Doing that would draw undue attention to such differences. Translators often accept to use such minor anachronisms in order to communicate the basic idea of the text. In transferring a text across a hugh cultural and time gap, one has to weigh the pros and cons of the various options.

In a way, it is worse that the KJV said that people “sat at table” in John 12:2 where Mary anointed Jesus’ feet. The text says that they reclined (see NIV). It refers to lying on the side with the bare feet sticking out behind them. Mary was not crawling under the table to reach the feet of Jesus.

Use of footnotes

Russell Allen asked on the Share page: What is the proper role for footnotes in a translation?

Since I presented an article  last year on how we used footnotes in our Danish Bible translation, let me just copy the 10 usages we had:

  1. When terms for measurements or money are used in the translation which are not in common use among the receptor audience.
  2. When the meaning of a word or expression is unknown or very questionable.
  3. When the word chosen did not quite cover the range of meaning.
  4. When a wordplay is used in the original in such a way that it needs explanation.
  5. When there are several options for the translation, especially if the passage is theologically significant and the exegesis not agreed-upon by commentators.
  6. When different denominations have significant differences in terms of interpretation.
  7. When a Biblical word is used which non-church goers may not be familiar with.
  8. When some cultural background may help in a fuller understanding of the translation.
  9. When there is a significant textual problem.
  10. When the NT quotes the OT or when the OT has significant reference to a NT theme.