Why translations need careful checking

The BBC reports:

A translation error at a UK prison labelled an exercise yard as an “execution yard” in the draft of an information booklet for Russian inmates.

An inspection report mentioned the faux pas at Lincoln Prison in a section on foreign prisoners.

The translation was spotted by a member of staff at the proof stage, the Ministry of Justice said. …

Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “This is an example where actually making sure prisoners have properly translated material is important.

“You could treat it as a bit of a joke unless you were that prisoner and you didn’t understand how the British prison service worked and came from a country that still had execution yards. It wouldn’t be a funny thing for him.”

Indeed. What is important for a matter of life and death in a prison on this earth is surely even more important for a Bible translation, which is about matters of eternal life and death.

But how many errors potentially just as serious as this have crept into published Bible translations?

The English word “execution” is a good example of why concordant translation is dangerous. In many contexts it means little more than carrying out an action. But if the same word is used in a different context it can have a completely unintended and misleading meaning. A similar example in a published Bible translation might be “charity” in Way’s translation of Paul’s letters, as I mentioned in a comment on a previous post. Can anyone think of examples of this in major modern Bible versions?

Semantics put to work on Galatians 5:6

There has been quite some discussion on various blogs over the post by Daniel Kirk (no relation of mine) suggesting that translations of Galatians 5:6 are “theologically manipulated”. First David Ker reported on it here at BBB. Then I posted about it on my own blog – and later corrected my post because I had taken David Ker’s summary of Daniel’s post as accurate, when in fact it wasn’t. Then Joel Hoffman posted twice on the same matter. See also interesting discussions in the comment threads.

But I still see something seriously lacking in all the discussion of this verse, and that is a proper understanding of the semantics here. Now I don’t claim to be an expert in semantics, or in how it can be applied to New Testament Greek. So what I write here should be taken as provisional, as a first attempt to find a proper semantic understanding of the phrase traditionally translated “faith working through love”.

We are looking in particular at the Greek verb, actually a participle, energoumene, a present participle, feminine singular nominative, of the middle or passive voice of the verb energeo.

One of the basics of semantics, of the kind I am considering, is that any action or state has various participants, and these participants fit into various roles. Typically but by no means always in actual language actions or states are represented by verbs and participants by nouns or pronouns. When the verb is a typical verb of action one of the participant roles is the agent, and this is usually represented by the subject of the active verb.

Let’s look at this first in English. Consider these example sentences (modified from “Syntax” by Van Valin and LaPolla, CUP 1997, p.87):

  1. Fred broke the window.
  2. Fred broke the window with a rock.
  3. The window was broken by Fred.
  4. The window was broken.
  5. The window broke.
  6. A rock broke the window.

In 1. there is an explicit agent, Fred, who is the subject of the active verb. There is also a patient, another semantic role, which is the window, and this is the grammatical object.

2. is the same as 1. except that an instrument is also specified, a rock, in a prepositional phrase.

3. is essentially synonymous with 1. (although it differs in its topic-focus structure), with agent and patient still specified. The verb is now passive and so the linguistic representation differs: the patient is the subject and the agent is in a prepositional phrase.

In 4. only the patient is specified, as the subject of the passive verb. But the English passive implies that there was actually some agent – or possibly a force, another semantic role, like the wind.

5. is almost synonymous with 4. except that it could also mean that there was no agent or force involved, that the window broke because of its own intrinsic weakness. But note how in English the verb is again active, but intransitive, with the patient as the subject. It is common in English, but not in many other languages, for active verbs to be used intransitively with a more or less passive meaning, with a patient as the subject. I note that one implication of the existence of this kind of sentence is that sentences like “*Fred broke” or “*A rock broke”, with “window” as an implicit patient, are not permitted in English – the object must be explicit, if only as “it” or “something”.

Finally in 6. the grammatical subject is the instrument, and the object is the patient. As in 4. an agent is implied. While sentences of this kind are quite common, they do come across as somewhat anomalous, as everyone knows that an inanimate object like a rock cannot be an agent.

Now let’s look at this in Koine Greek. I won’t try to translate the example sentences, but I will look at how they would come out. There is no problem with 1. and 2., where Fred would be the subject of an active verb (nominative case), the window would be the object (accusative), and the instrument in 2. would probably be in the dative. Similarly there would be no problem with 3. and 4., where the verb would be passive, and the agent in 3. would be in a prepositional phrase probably introduced with hupo. I’m not sure if a sentence like 6., with an instrument as the subject, would be allowed in Koine.

The difference from English comes with 5., as in Greek an active verb cannot be used in this way. According to traditional Koine grammar, the verb form here would be in the middle voice, which is distinct from the passive voice used in 4. But there is a difference in form between these two only in some tenses, and it has recently been realised that it is rare, if not completely unknown, for any one verb to have both middle and passive forms used with any distinction of meaning. So it is better to say that in Koine Greek there is one combined medio-passive voice. This means that in that language there is no simple way to distinguish between the senses of 4. and 5.

So let’s put this understanding to work on Galatians 5:6. Now in semantic terms “faith” is not really a participant, but an action “someone believes something”, expressed as an abstract noun, as quite commonly with actions especially in Greek. But let’s treat it for now as a participant, and energeo as an action verb like “break” in my examples. What would be the semantic role of faith?

For this we really need to examine how energeo is used in the New Testament. Here are the 21 NT occurrences of energeo:

  • Mt 14:2 || Mk 6:14: active, intransitive, subject is “powers” (powerful spiritual beings?)
  • Rom 7:5: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is “sinful passions”
  • 1 Cor 12:6: active, transitive, subject is God, object is gifts of the Spirit
  • 1 Cor 12:11: active, transitive, subject is the Holy Spirit, object is gifts of the Spirit
  • 2 Cor 1:6: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is comfort
  • 2 Cor 4:12: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is death (and life)
  • Gal 2:8 (twice): active, intransitive, subject is God, indirect objects are Peter and Paul
  • Gal 3:5: active, transitive, subject is God, object is miracles
  • Gal 5:6: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is faith
  • Eph 1:11: active, transitive, subject is God, object is “all things”
  • Eph 1:20: active, intransitive, subject is God
  • Eph 2:2: active, intransitive, subject is the devil
  • Eph 3:20: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is power
  • Phil 2:13 (twice): active, intransitive, subject is God
  • Col 1:29: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is “energy” (energeia)
  • 1 Th 2:13: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is the word of God
  • 2 Th 2:7: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is “the mystery of lawlessness”
  • James 5:16: medio-passive, intransitive, subject is prayer

Here we see a consistent picture in the NT, and one which isn’t quite consistent with Joel’s suggestion that energeo is “a light verb — a verb that gets its semantic content largely from the words around it”. I accept that Joel wanted to avoid being too technical. But sometimes there is no alternative to going into technicalities, as I am here.

In every one of the 12 occurrences of the active verb, the subject, which is also the agent, is either God or a powerful spiritual being, acting in a way which might be called supernatural. When the verb is transitive, in just four of the 12 occurrences, the object is a work done by the powerful being – strictly an action rather than a participant, but if considered as a participant it would be called a patient.

By contrast, in the nine cases where the verb is medio-passive the subject is never a powerful being or any kind of person, but always an abstract noun representing an action, and in most cases the kind of action which only a powerful being would do. That strongly suggests that the medio-passive verbs are in fact more passive than middle or reflexive in meaning, and that their subjects have the same semantic role as the objects of the active transitive verbs – but not the same role as the subjects. In this case that means that they are pseudo-patients and express works done by powerful beings – in the various contexts, generally by God but in some cases by evil powers.

On this basis we are led to the conclusion that in Galatians 5:6 “faith” is a work which God is doing, through love. Or perhaps there is a link with the previous verse and it is the Holy Spirit who is working here, causing believers to have the faith to wait. This goes against my Arminian theology, but it is what the text seems to say! On that basis I might suggest a rendering something like “faith put to work through love” (compare my post title), but perhaps it is necessary to make more explicit that it is not believers who are putting faith to work.

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.

Why would 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 be an interpolation?

There has been quite a lot of discussion on this blog in the past on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, see for example this post. Basically two arguments have been put forward for not understanding it as literal teaching for women to be completely silent in church meetings.

One is to understand that it cannot mean that because that would contradict another part of the same letter, 11:5, and so the meaning must be something like that women should not chatter or ask questions out of turn.

The other argument, originally popularised by Gordon Fee in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, is that these verses are not an original part of Paul’s letter, but an interpolation originally written in the margin.

Today on the Koinonia blog Philip B. Payne has posted Why would 1 Cor 14:34-35 be an interpolation? This is a powerful expression of the second argument, including scholarly references to manuscripts demonstrating that these two verses were long ago recognised as an interpolation. Payne also links to his personal website which has further links to several of his scholarly papers on this subject. Sadly the photographs of manuscripts which he mentions in his Koinonia post are not in the online versions of the papers.

Payne also links to his forthcoming book Man and Woman, One in Christ.

Peter’s pun: “Christ” in 1 Peter 2:3

It is quite rare that new textual evidence is published which could make a significant difference to how a New Testament passage is translated. Peter Rodgers, writing at Evangelical Textual Criticism, seems to have found a possible example.

It seems that a newly published papyrus fragment, P125, includes at 1 Peter 2:3 the reading christos “Christ, Messiah”, where the standard critical text has chrēstos “good, kind”. The fragment is significant because it is one of the oldest surviving for this passage, from the late third or early fourth century. The reading christos is found in some quite late manuscripts and in the one other papyrus witness for this text, P72, from the same period as P125. But the great uncial codices of the late fourth and fifth centuries (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus and Alexandrinus) agree with the Byzantine majority text in reading chrēstos.

One thing to note here is that the words christos and chrēstos were very often confused because in the New Testament and later periods they were pronounced almost identically. Secular authors may have misunderstood the religious term christos as chrēstos, but Christian copyists would have tended to replace chrēstos with christos. Textual critics used to judge that the latter is what had happened to late manuscripts with christos. The reading later discovered in P72, published in 1959, was presumably considered to be an oddity. But now it has been confirmed, as there are, in Rodgers’ words,

two papyri from different places in Egypt [which] give different abbreviations of Christos.

And so a strong argument can now be made that christos is the original reading.

Part of that argument would have to be that the uncial and Byzantine reading chrēstos has been harmonised with the Greek version of Psalm 34:8 (numbered 33:9 in LXX). This has chrēstos, as an accurate rendering of Hebrew tov “good”. Copyists could easily have assumed that the Apostle Peter was simply quoting LXX, or providing his own accurate translation of the psalm into Greek, and so corrected christos to chrēstos.

But there was something more going on here. The apostle was surely aware of the similarity in sound between christos and chrēstos, and deliberately making use of this in his letter As Rodgers writes,

Christos in 1 Peter 2:3 is not a patristic but a petrine pun.

Peter surely noticed that the words in the psalm, read out in Greek, sounded just like christos ho kurios, meaning “the Lord is Christ”, a variant of the basic Christian confession “Christ is Lord” which had just been made by the new believers he was addressing. So, very likely, he deliberately adapted his psalm quotation to bring this out. We cannot be sure which of the words Peter actually wrote down, but it does at least seem clear that he intended to make a pun here.

So, how should we see this reflected in translations? The new evidence Rodgers quotes might be enough to justify a change in this verse to “you have tasted that the Lord is Christ”. But that rendering obscures the pun just as much as the more traditional “… the Lord is good”. There is no one English word which even by according to its sound means both “Christ” and “good”. So this is a case where translators really need to choose one rendering for the text and mention the other in a footnote.

NIV “flesh” or “sinful nature”

Thanks to Doug Chaplin, Mark Goodacre and Matthew Montonini for providing a chain of links to a paper by Douglas Moo, chairman of the CBT, the group charged with the revision of the NIV, entitled Flesh in Romans: A Challenge for the Translator.

The NIV has long been criticised for its rendering of the Greek word sarx, as used by Paul in his letters, as “sinful nature”, rather than the traditional “flesh”. In his paper, on the first page, Moo reveals that after 1995, so presumably in the preparation of TNIV, this translation choice was reviewed, but

The committee as a whole decided in the end to retain “sinful nature” as the usual rendering for the negative use of sarx in Paul. I am not sure that I agree with this decision … in all thirty places where the NIV translates sarx “sinful nature” the TNIV has done the same …

The remainder of the paper is an in depth analysis of how Paul has used sarx in Romans and of the translation options for this word. As far as I can tell from a skim read, this is a model example of how to approach this kind of difficult exegetical and translational issue, and provides useful insight into how the CBT and other translators go about their work.

Moo concludes:

The decision on whether to pursue a generally concordant translation or a dynamically equivalent translation of sarx depends, in the last analysis, on translation philosophy and intended audience. Neither decision is right or wrong apart from such variable considerations. …  If we are to hope for a Bible which an entire congregation can use, the readability of a more contextually nuanced translation such as the TNIV may be the best option.

Nevertheless this is an issue which the CBT is bound to revisit in their renewed discussions in preparation for the NIV 2011 update. And since their chairman is “not sure that [he] agree[s]” with the NIV and TNIV renderings, this is one place where we may well see a change in 2011. While I’m sure they will genuinely welcome any contributions to this debate, they may well have seen them all before.

BREAKING NEWS: NIV to be updated!

I just received from Zondervan a letter announcing that the NIV Bible is to be updated in 2011. The announcement is at this website. Here are some extracts from the full text of the announcement:

The global board of Biblica today announced its intention to update the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, the first time it has been revised since 1984. The Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), the independent body of global biblical scholars solely responsible for the translation of the world’s most popular Bible, is slated to finish its revision late next year, with publication in 2011. …

“We want to reach English speakers across the globe with a Bible that is accurate, accessible and that speaks to its readers in a language they can understand,” said Keith Danby, Global President and CEO of Biblica. …

“As time passes and English changes, the NIV we have at present is becoming increasingly dated. If we want a Bible that English speakers around the world can understand, we have to listen to, and respect, the vocabulary they are using today.”

BBB readers and friends have their opportunity to contribute to the new edition, as explained by Douglas Moo, chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation:

The CBT also reiterated its longstanding openness to receiving input from both external scholars and regular Bible readers.
“The CBT has always proactively sought peer review from qualified biblical scholars, linguists and English stylists and it continues to do so,” said Moo. “Every suggestion presented in writing to the CBT before the end of this calendar year will be considered for the 2011 edition of the NIV Bible. The CBT also values the feedback it receives from NIV Bible readers – be they scholars or not – on the comprehensibility of the text as we continue in our efforts to create a translation that offers English speakers across the world accurate understanding and unobstructed access to God’s unchanging word.”

I understand that this new edition is intended to replace both the 1984 NIV and the 2005 TNIV. I hope to be able to confirm this soon.

UPDATE: There is also an article about this in USA Today, a rather strange article I thought, which concludes with the following:

The T-NIV will be taken off the market when the new Bible is released.

For the 2011 edition, more than a dozen scholars will “review every single gender-related decision we have made and make sure we are putting God’s unchanging word into English people are actually using,” says Douglas Moo, chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation.

Gender issues aren’t the only areas for re-examination, says Moo. “In the 1984 NIV when Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 11:25) ‘I was stoned,’ we changed it to ‘pelted with stones’ to avoid the laughter in the junior high row of the church.”

While the committee has always called on scholars from numerous faiths and disciplines, they’re also now calling for input from the general public at a special new website, NIVBible2011.com.

“I can’t predict what will happen with gender usage. My guess would be we made a lot of the right decisions for the T-NIV but every one of those is open for consideration. We may even be returning to what we had in the 1984 NIV,” says Moo.

Well, I certainly hope they don’t return to what was in the 1984 NIV, which includes clear gender-related errors like this one. But I would be very surprised if they do. Nevertheless I’m sure there will be a lot of wrangling over the next two years about whether to follow NIV or TNIV on debatable matters.

Translations of the Byzantine text

Because comments had to be closed on a previous post, I am making a new post to correct an important factual omission in that comment thread.

Codepoke wrote:

Is there ANY translation of the bible anywhere that’s based on the Byzantine MSS?

CD-Host replied:

Yes the EMTV. http://stores.lulu.com/elected

Well, even if we restrict our consideration to English translations (as Theophrastus noted), there is still another significant candidate, the World English Bible (WEB), described as

a Public Domain (no copyright) Modern English translation of the Holy Bible. … The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible first published in 1901, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament.

The meaning of the last part may seem confusing, but I understand it to be that the ASV text has been revised not only to update the language but also such that the New Testament conforms to the Majority Text, i.e. the Byzantine Text. WEB is not yet in print, but the New Testament is complete and almost finalised, and available online. The lead translator, Michael Johnson, is also a co-worker of some of us BBB contributors.

Wayne posted briefly about this version in 2005, and David mentioned it in 2008.

Meanwhile I note that Suzanne McCarthy was also unhappy to be denied the chance to join in the discussion on the previous post, and so posted what she wanted to comment in a post on her blog, with the provocative but well justified title ESV says Christ is not a mediator between God and women. If you wish to respond to what she has written, please do so on her blog, not here.

The Word: he, she or it?

My new post The Word: he, she or it? may be of interest to some readers here – but not to those who are irritated by discussions of how gender relates to translation. I discuss what Suzanne McCarthy has found, that the Word in John 1:1-14 has been referred to as “it”, and in French even as “she” (elle). I conclude as follows:

I would suggest that better Bibles in modern English should return to a modernised version of the reading in Matthew’s Bible, as here in verse 3:

All thinges were made by it
and wythout it
was made nothynge that was made.

The PR Bible: Genesis

For some light relief (not intended as a serious translation), see this version of Genesis 1:1-8 in “PR jargon”, from Simon Titley of Liberal Democrat Voice (hat tip David Keen and Eddie Arthur):

1. At the outset, God’s agenda was to basically focus on his core deliverables, namely two leading-edge products, (a) heaven and (b) earth.
2. However, the earth lacked an overall concept, and had a low profile in terms of its key audiences. Obviously the Spirit of God had to step back and benchmark the existing waters before his game plan could get the green light.
3. And God’s key message was that light was a strategic objective, and it was covered-off.
4. And God’s perception of the light was that it was fit for purpose. However, his desired goal was that light and darkness should be differentiated in the marketplace.
5. So God branded the light ‘Day’, and the darkness he branded ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Light’. And the evening session and morning session made up Day One.
6. Then God set out with the object of factoring-in a firmament to interface with the existing generic waters, to bring to the party two segmented brands.
7. So God tasked himself with the job of rolling-out a firmament, to supply a proactive vehicle for launching his two distinct waters products, and it was up and running.
8. And God branded the firmament ‘heaven’. And at close of play, the prioritised actions for Day Two were ticked off.

Before anyone tries to use this as ammunition against the Liberal Democrats, the party of which I am a member, read the post, and Titley’s 1996 article in which this text was originally published, to see what his view of this version is.