Translating Punctuation when there is No Punctuation to Translate

Jonathan Morgan, on our share page, asks this,

One thing I have heard a number of times is the assertion that “Greek has no punctuation”, and that as a result we can choose to repunctuate the *English* in any way we like, because “it’s all just been added by the translator anyway”. I’ve never been entirely convinced by this…

First, good for you not being convinced by the apparent, and incorrect, logic of “no punctuation in the original means we can punctuate the translation any way we like.” We are never free to translate “any way we like.” The goal is accuracy. Secondly, there’s an underlying assumption (if I myself may assume such) in the “logic” that punctuating is not translation. The use of punctuation in the destination text most certainly is translation as is such things as paragraph breaks and section breaks.

English uses punctuation. So, punctuation is required in the translation, or it wouldn’t be clear and natural—it wouldn’t communicate to an English audience. However, just because there were no punctuation marks, per se in the original, does not mean the function of punctuation was not performed in the original. The function of punctuation is to generate meaning pauses for the reader so as to generate cognitive chunking (think of this as taking bites of the text with your mind). And so it is such a basic cognitive requirement that, as far as language goes, this function is a language universal. So, the function is there; we just need to determine how that function is formally captured in the original so we can accurately translate the meaning into a language that uses punctuation marks.

Before I give some explanation, I’ll point out that the web page you point us to gives a good explanation. The question the web page answers shows a wrong assumption about the translated text. It says, “Holman, CEV and others place the comma in a way that implies that Jesus had already risen, before the first day of the week,” citing Mark 16:9–“very early on the first day of the week, after Jesus had risen to life, he appeared…” While the translation might imply that Jesus had risen before the first day, the translation does not say that. It simply and only says that the resurrection happened before the appearance, and that Mary saw Jesus very early. Sometimes I think we judge a text by the cover we ourselves project on to it. While an important criteria for translation is to be unambiguous, we can’t prevent people from wrongly interpreting a text no matter how clearly we write it (see 2 Peter 3:15-16). I think there’s a tacit contract between translator and reader that each will do the best they can. There are no major translation publications where the translators have intended to lead the reader astray. I felt I had to get this out of the way.

I’m going to illustrate from the Greek. I assume Hebrew and Aramaic are analogous. Basically, the question is: What are some of the mechanisms ancient koine Greek used to “punctuate” the Biblical text?

Well, for example, Mark (and others) frequently used καί (KAI, ‘and’) to mark a sentence break.[1] Open an NASB to Mark 3:13-20 for a good illustration of this. The function καί brings to the text is to mark the closing and opening of two sentences. This “punctuation mark” (if you will) is much like our English period and a capital letter. Δέ (DE, ‘and’, ‘so’) frequently performs the same function.

Also, one should not think that the Gospel of Mark is rapid fire because he uses so many καί–“and this, and this, and this”. That’s not what is going on. That’s interpreting the Greek using an English idiom (ie. way of thinking with our language). Many times καί “provides” the punctuation between two sentences.

However, let me be clear here. Καί and δέ perform other functions, too; the ones we normally think of them doing. Καί connects two semantic items which are otherwise equal. Δέ adds supporting material to what has just been written. However, just like so many things in translation, there is no one-to-one mapping between the form in the original and its analog in the destination. The mapping between the languages is nearly always many-to-many. That is, the characteristics that a specific form brings to the text in the original will map to multiple forms in the destination and vice-versa.

This complexity is why the Tower of Babel was so successful, and it makes translation hard. I’ll also point out that translating punctuation is clearly one place where a naive adherence to a formal equivalent methodology breaks down. A naive adherence that no formally equivalent translation follows. Since there was no punctuation in the original, there’s no way to formally map it to the destination. The point being: Even the formal equivalent methodology must follow a functional equivalent methodology when it comes to punctuation.

So, there were no punctuation marks in the original; but that function is dispersed through many Greek forms. And one of the characteristics of those original forms (a punctuation function) maps to the many punctuation marks in English. So, it’s not arbitrary. But, nor is it formally equivalent.

Furthermore, Greek has flexible word order, but it is certainly common for the Greek sentence to either begin or end with a verb. This, too, tends to mark the breaks between sentences. Obviously, I’m not describing this in a mechanically precise way. Nor is its use or non-use determinative. To illustrate, I’m saying that the sentence in Acts 1:2 ends in a verb and the one in Acts 1:3 begins with one.

ἄχρι ἧς ἡμέρας … ἀνελήμφθη. οἷς καὶ παρέστησεν ἑαυτὸν ζῶντα…
“Until which day…he was taken up. To whom he also presented himself alive…

It’s very natural and expected to have the phrase οἷς καὶ pre-positional to the verb and still think of the verb as being “first” in the sentence. An author will vary the verb’s position for a variety of reasons. I believe “punctuation” to be one of those reasons. Again, there’s no, neat, sweat, simple one-to-one mapping.

There are other forms, too. I may be wrong, but I’ve often thought that one way of making direct speech very clear is the often used combination of two verbs of speaking used in close proximity. For example, ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς (Literally: “Answering, the Jesus said to-them.”) In English, we punctuate with double-quotes. In Greek, the ἀποκρίνομαι does more than just help fulfill this punctuation function, it also characterizes the way Jesus said what he said. Again, it’s many-to-many. An accurate translation is: Jesus answered, “…” or even Jesus responded, “…”. For our purposes here, note the quotation marks in the translation. They are not in the original, per se. But, their function is.

There’s much more that could be said. Hopefully, this provides enough meat so you and others will have confidence that punctuation is not arbitrarily decided. Punctuation, like every other form (or symbol as used in semiotics) signals something. The way at getting at that “signaling something” is to ask and answer, what function is it performing. Since the function punctuation performs is so cognitively basic, we expect the function to be in the original even when the English way of performing that function is no where to be found. I hope my start of an answer generates some further examples in the comments as well as some discussion.

[1] The so called definition that καί and δέ mean ‘and’ or ‘but’ is far too simplistic, and it is either wrong or at best an insufficient explanation. The continuity or discontinuity provided by the English ‘and’ or ‘but’ is provided in the Greek by the semantics of the sentence. Καί connects two equal items; δέ adds supporting material. Again, there’s a mapping between the original and the destination languages, but one cannot simply match the forms.

It is easier for a hippopotamus to…

I recently returned from Africa, where I was working with a translation of the Gospel of Luke into a language that has had no previous Bible translation and a culture that has had very little contact with Christianity. I was not responsible for producing the translation into this language, but I was responsible for evaluating the translation. This was a very isolated language group, geographically and culturally. But the people were not what I would consider primitive. They are sophisticated in their own way. The traditional language and culture provided some key language for the translation that I would not have expected, including words for “altar,” “priest,” “miracle,” “holy,” “spirit,” “disciple,” “righteous,” “grace,” “savior,” and even “synagogue” (literally, their word for a meeting house).

As to be expected, there were some translation challenges when it came to certain terms for flora and fauna and geography. Though there are sheep and cows, this group has no donkeys or camels, and no words for them. It is possible to say “east” (the side where the sun rises) and “west” (the side where the sun sets), but no simple way to say “north” or “south.” Some concepts in the Bibe have to be translated as a phrase, such as “people mouth of God” for “prophets” and “woman death of man” for “widow.” (I believe these phrases come off sounding better in this language than they do in English.) It is just a fact of translation that you cannot always expect to have a matching target language word for every source language word, but that doesn’t render translation impossible.

I was fascinated to find out that in this language group, people ride cows. And their translation of Jesus riding into Jerusalem had him riding in on a cow. Interesting! Unfortunately, this was not historically accurate. I would only resort to borrowing a word if there is no other good option, because if you are borrowing words, you aren’t translating. However, in this case, we borrowed a word for “donkey” to say what Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The story of the Good Samaritan still has the Samaritan putting the injured man on a cow to take him somewhere where he can be fixed up. Some English translations like the NIV, CEV and NLT have “donkey” there, but the Greek has a more generic word.

This brings us to the verse in Luke that reads, in this language, “It is more easy for a hippo to pass in the hole of a needle than a rich person to accept that God can be king over him.” This is the English backtranslation of Luke 18:25. Interesting! Is this legitimate, or, for the sake of accuracy, do you have to insist that a word for “camel” be borrowed into the language to translate this verse? I have a hard time saying that the translation is not accurate and legitimate. I kind of like it, really. Now, obviously, if you were looking for a match for the Greek word κάμηλος, this target language word backtranslated as “hippo” wouldn’t seem to be a good match. But if you widen your perspective a bit, and don’t just look at words but rather at meanings in context, then in this particular context, a target language word for “hippo” is arguably a good translation of Greek κάμηλος.

In Bible translation, as in any kind of translation, there are norms that govern acceptable behavior. The norms don’t answer the question of what is and is not legitimate translation, which is very elusive to try to answer, but rather what is and is not considered acceptable in a community of practice. Granted, there are different subgroups, and not all Bible translators adhere to the same set of norms. But one norm in Bible translation that is widely–though not necessarily universally–accepted is that it is possible to take a little more liberty in translating an idiom, metaphor, proverb or parable, because the meaning of those language units is more than just the sum of the parts. I would argue that, for a language group that knows about hippos but not about camels, and based on testing with representatives of the target audience, it might be more accurately meaningful to translate Luke 18:25 using a target language word that corresponds to our English “hippo” than to try to find some way to use a word that corresponds to our English word “camel” that is not naturally a part of that language.

Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (part II).

A frequent prayer of mine, for I don’t know how many years, is, “Lord, make me so I worship you in spirit and truth, whatever that might mean.” I know from John 4:24 that God wants that. If I don’t know what the prepositional phrase means, I want to know what it means in my life even more than I want to know what it means in my head. I want God to know that, too. And I know that God knows the meaning of the phrase. And, whether I understand the phrase or not, I know I’m still deeply dependent on his help to weave that meaning into my life, even into who I am. Still, I’ve wrestled with the meaning for a very long time.

I started out with Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (part I) and I’m heading to this result:

The worship of God by his worshippers must be spiritual and authentic.

How do I get there?

A.T. Robertson, in his BIG grammar says:

[Prepositions were originally adverbs]. This is now so well recognized that it seems strange to read in Winer that “prepositions e.g.often assume the nature of adverbs, and vice versa,” Giles puts the matter simply and clearly when he says: “Between adverbs and prepositions no distinct line can be drawn.”…Brugmann …adds that we cannot draw a sharp line between the use as adverb and the use as pre-verb or preposition. [pg 554]

Essentially, a preposition connects the phrase to something in the sentence adverbially—that is, it modifies it. The intent of using prepositions was to speak and write more clearly, to hone away any misunderstanding. Interestingly, even though he is speaking about Greek prepositions, Robertson points out that the Emperor Augustus was noted for his extensive use of Latin prepositions to increase clarity. He points out that one must first consider the grammatical case, then the preposition, then the context. The order is important.  He says the preposition was used to clarify the case meaning.

It’s when we transfer the result of that process over into English that we get into trouble.  We tend to think we have to “do it with a preposition.”  If the result is adverbial in nature, we have some leeway on our voyage to accuracy.

Generally, grammars convey that this adverbial function carried by the preposition is geometric. Many of us, I’m sure, have seen Machen’s diagram. Therefore, we very easily seek an analysis of ἐν which is always locative. Robertson’s discussion even supports this mindset. So, when considering the John 4:24 clause, we try to make worship occur in spirit and in truth. Therefore we go through extensive mental gymnastics to make sense of that. For me, that has never worked. I’ve tried.

Let’s look at some other examples (English text is from the NASB).

Matthew 11:21: πάλαι ἂν ἐν σάκκῳ καὶ σποδῷ μετενόησαν (“they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”). Does this repentance occur in the location of sackcloth and in ashes? Not really. The sackcloth and ashes are viewed as highly related to the repentance. This is the dative idea which the preposition strengthens and makes more clear. Compare Mat. 11:21 with the meaning of “repent in a car and the front seat” and you should see what I mean. This later is obviously speaking of location alone. Now, does that mean that the repentant person was not viewed as having put on the sackcloth? No, he or she was viewed that way—even though they might not have actually put on the sackcloth. The emphasis is not on the actual location; it’s on modifying the conceptual implications of the verb.

Luke 4:36: ὅτι ἐν ἐξουσίᾳ καὶ δυνάμει ἐπιτάσσει (“with authority and power he commands”). Is the power and authority in the commanding? Obviously not. The people were stunned by who this Jesus was. The power and authority are highly related to the commanding, but they did not exist in it; they existed in Jesus. Again, this is the dative idea strengthened by the preposition. There’s an adverbial relationship between the objects of the preposition and the verb.  In this case, the translators captured this by using ‘with’.

Luke 21:34: μήποτε βαρηθῶσιν ὑμῶν αἱ καρδίαι ἐν κραιπάλῃ καὶ μέθῃ καὶ μερίμναις βιωτικαῖς (“your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life”). Is the burdensome difficulty located in the drunken behavior and anxiety? Again, no. Though with some mental gymnastics you can make that work. It’s better to think of these occurrences in instrumental terms and not locative terms. I think it would be appropriate to translate this clause using ‘by’ instead of ‘with’.

To get a little closer to the words used in John 4, we can consider Luke 1:17: αὐτὸς προελεύσεται ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ ἐν πνεύματι καὶ δυνάμει Ἠλίου (“he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah”). This can be easily rendered as, “He will go…with the same spirit and power as Elijah.” If you think very carefully about what you mean when you say, “going in the spirit of” you can see that using the phrase ‘with the same’ means essentially the same thing.

How does one say worship with one’s spirit in English? One can say just that. However, one can say the exact same thing by saying worship spiritually or one can say, the worship must be spiritual. The adverbial nature of the relationship is more clear without the preposition.

There’s still a question of what worshipping spiritually refers to in the real world. I’ll address that in a moment. But, at least we now have a clause that is starting to look like English.

As an aside, I’ve wondered whether Matthew 11:21 should be “ash permeated sackcloth”, Luke 4:36 should be “powerful authority”, Luke 21:34 should be “anxiety filled drunken behavior” (recall a primary driver to drunkenness is depression), and Luke 1:17 should be “powerful spirit”. That is, the two joined objects of the preposition should be thought of as a single concept. But, I’m getting off track.  I just bring it up here since it rather surprises me how often it seems to work quite well.

Let’s move on to ἀλήθεια (“truth”). I’ll not spend as much effort here.  As I’ve been mentioning, we have to connect the concepts to the real world.  This intentionally considers the Pragmatic features of the text (that is, it considers the words as they relate to the communication context).  We have to work through the Pragmatics of the original as well as the Pragmatics of the destination.

Conceptually, truth, authenticity, and integrity are related. Truth is thought of as more theoretical, more ethereal, more abstract. Don’t misread me; it can be relied on and in my epistemology, must be. However it is cognitive; it can’t have flesh and bones, it can’t be seen unless embodied in something. However, integrity and authenticity are truth practiced. When truth becomes embodied, it becomes integrity. Integrity and authenticity refer to the pragmatic (ie. practical, not Pragmatic) side of truth. These are when we see truth.

In our language it is more natural to talk about truth in doctrine or to talk of an axiom or thought that is true. However, when we talk about an action or a person, we talk in terms of authentic behavior or having integrity. Even in Bible translation topics, when we talk about an authentic translation, we’re referring not to the doctrine contained in the text.  We’re talking about how faithfully the translation has reproduced the original content in our real textual world, the one we hold in our hands.

Here’s an example of these two types of “truth”.  In their world the two types can be referred to with one word.  In our world, they are different words.

John 8:44: ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ οὐκ ἔστηκεν ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν ἀλήθεια ἐν αὐτῷ (“[The devil] does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.”). Notice the two different phrases. One is “person in the truth.” The other is “truth in the person.” What does it mean to stand in the truth? And what does it mean to have truth in you?

Let me ever so slightly change the wording of the NLT in John 8:42-47 so you can get your mind around a larger context (a conceptual metaphor) within which these phrases are used. My change is underlined:

Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It’s because you can’t even hear me! For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has no authenticity, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe me! Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? Anyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God.”

The whole argument here revolves around who is authentic—Jesus or the Jewish leadership. The leadership said they were the authentic children of God. Jesus answers by saying the devil isn’t authentic because he’s a liar, and since the leadership can’t even understand Jesus (who speaks and lives only the truth), that makes them liars, too. Therefore, they can’t be authentic children.

This argument rests on the difference between two expressions: the person who is in the truth and the truth that is in the person. The later refers to one’s understanding of what is true. The former refers to how the person lives out what is true. In our words, the later refers to truth, the former refers to authenticity.

Dealing with such a difficult to translate text deserves a much more thorough explanation. Certainly, it needs more proof. My intent here is to give people some linguistic meat to chew on. We won’t solve all the issues here. I certainly haven’t. However, I think it’s very important to notice a translation which doesn’t communicate. If a translation doesn’t communicate, then any argument that it is accurate falls to the side—how can it be accurate when no-one knows what the translation means? Or, how can it be accurate when it can mean so many different things to different people?

Well, more needs to be done. However, for now I’ve arrived at: the worship of God by his worshippers must be spiritual and authentic.

Ok, I had asked above what it was in the real world that worshipping spiritually referred to. So, you’re probably wondering, what’s the real world referent of πνεύματι?

To clarify that is the preacher’s job. 🙂

Tell you what, I’ll address that in another, very short, installment. It will be short since I’m going to simply express my own view. The reality of it, however, is that spirituality is a big topic. And the disjunction between modern psychology and anthropology and the same of 2,000 years ago is quite substantial. There is simply no way to capture the reorientation via a single word (or two) in John 4:24.  Many Christians disagree what spirituality means (which is why the posting will be short 🙂 )

Lastly, consider what I’ve said above by comparing it to Peterson’s translation in The Message.  Personally, I find it rather satisfying since I hadn’t seen this before I started writing these posts.

“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.” [verses 23-24]

Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (Part I)

Worship in [the] [s/S]pirit and [in] [the] truth. John 4:24.


What does that mean? Don’t think of the Greek behind it. What does that “English” mean? Don’t analyze it, just read it. Doesn’t work does it?

Many translations have variations of the above. Some have one or both articles. Some capitalize ‘spirit’. Some provide only one preposition while others repeat it. But, basically, the clause is rendered something like, “Worship in spirit and truth.” But, what does it mean?

The problem is: it isn’t English. That conclusion comes easily to mother tongue English readers when they are asked to read it and then asked, “What are you to do?” Or, “What are you to be?” If the clause uses language that doesn’t connect the reader to the real world, then the clause isn’t using the real world language of the reader. It’s using something else. Ultimately, no author intended change in the reader can take place. By translating poorly—by not communicating clearly—(and to make use of an archaic, religious idiom) “the Word returns void.” To say it more clearly, the text does not achieve its author intended effect.

To me the clause, as translated, says, “Worship, blah, blah, blah, spirit, blah, blah, truth.” For me, it could be translated with all those “blahs” and would communicate the same “meaning” (other than the fact that the incomprehensibility would be, well, more clear with the “blahs”.)

I’d like to take us on a little journey exploring how to translate this clause. I want to focus on the linguistic process which supports the translation.

So, what does the Greek mean? The clause is: ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳ δεῖ προσκυνεῖν. Let’s pull it apart and put it back together.

Let’s start with the main verb: δέω (glosses: bind, imprison, compel, restrict, prohibit, cause illness; Louw and Nida; other lexicons offer similar glosses with a core sense of bind). However, when used with an infinitive, it forms a single, verbal, idiomatic construct.

Examples of this use of δέω are as follows (references are NIV):

John 3:7 δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν (“You must be born again.”)
John 3:14 οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (“the Son of Man must be lifted up”)
John 3:30 ἐκεῖνον δεῖ αὐξάνειν ἐμὲ δὲ ἐλαττοῦσθαι (“He must become greater”)
John 4:20 ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις ἐστὶν ὁ τόπος ὅπου προσκυνεῖν δεῖ (“we must worship in Jerusalem”)

The cognitive metaphor (ie. word picture) presented by the Greek δέω is formed in the mind by the sense of ‘binding’. So, the agent was thought of as bound by the activity expressed by the infinitive. In English we express the same sense by using the word ‘must’. Sometimes we emphasize the requirement by using the phrase “it is necessary that…” English grammars refer to must as an auxiliary verb. Truth is it works more like an adverb pre-positioned to the main verb much like some prepositions are attached to the end of verbs (eg “You brush off my objections too easily.”). ‘Must’ modifies the verb giving it a sense of necessity.

In other words, in English we don’t use a verb to express the activity of “must-ing.” We say, “Agent must action-word.” In Greek it’s a main verb (δέω) coupled with an infinitive. (BTW, there is nothing more Biblical—there is no deeper meaning—obtained by somehow capturing the cognitive metaphor of an ancient language. This observation of the use of δέω simply offers a more certain insight into the original meaning.)

So, that means we need to consider δεῖ προσκυνεῖν together as unit.

Προσκυνέω is the word which refers to “prostrating oneself.” When one prostrates oneself before a deity (or a deity surrogate), the word takes on the sense of “worship.” When used in this latter sense, I don’t think the word loses its core sense of prostration. In English we think of these two senses as unrelated. How do I know that? When was the last time you saw someone prostrate themselves in a typical worship service? We don’t associate prostration with worship. Προσκυνέω (that is, prostrating oneself) was much more common-place in their culture; even used in cases where one simply showed extraordinary respect. They thought of the senses as close together. We think of the them as quite separate. A translator must decide which effect the author intended and translate accordingly.

So, we have “must worship.”

Lastly, δέω is 3rd person, singular. The uses of the verb are almost always singular. Interestingly, here the antecedent is plural. So, did δέω simply gravitate toward its more normal, idiomatic use, or did Jesus (and John) intend a more precise meaning? Since “δεῖ infinitive” is an idiomatic unit, I believe it is highly likely the former is the more true. So, 3rd person plural is the more accurate translation in English.

So, summing up what we’ve done so far, we have “they must worship.” We have arrived at this translation by “substituting” an adverb (auxiliary verb) for a verb and a main verb for an infinitive. We have also replaced the singular suffix with a plural pronoun. In doing these so-called “substitutions” we’ve arrived at an accurate rendering in English of the meaning expressed by the Greek. We’ve supported these “substitutions” with a linguistic rationale.

The rendering of δεῖ προσκυνεῖν is very non-literal (it’s not morpho-syntactic) in nearly all the translations. A rendering which follows the English idiom stands as quite accepted. Even the ASV has “must worship.” Ironically, we will see that the prepositional phrase, the one which is inextricably associated with the phrase we’ve just translated, is not rendered idiomatically.

The next posting will deal with the prepositional phrase. There’s also a followup at Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (Addendum).

In which I ask if there’s any value to conveying morphosyntax

There are many things people to use describe translations: literal, formal, functional, dynamic, idiomatic, figurative, literary, interpretative, accurate, thought-for-though, word-for-word, relevant, paraphrase.

Most of these suck. Most of them are almost entirely useless in my opinion. They get so misused and everyone uses them in their own subtly different way.

Instead I think it’s much better to ask what a translation is attempting to convey from its source. It might try to convey the meaning (semantics) of the source. It might try to convey the purpose of the author (pragmatics, broadly.)

When people talk about a literal, formal, non-interpretative or word-for-word translation, they usually mean that it attempts to convey the morphology and syntax of the source into the target language. So my question to BBB’s readers is: is there any value in conveying morphosyntax? If you believe there is, put your best case forward and convince me!

In which is all in all

I almost made a pretty big mistake the other day, because of a poor translation choice. Imagine you read the following somewhere, perhaps on a billboard, or a coffee mug:

Brahman is all in all

What would you think? Would there be much question as to what it meant?

The problem I faced was that I read in the Bible that God is all in all. I almost made the mistake of thinking the Bible taught pantheism. But no, I knew that could not be the case, and this phrase must have been used to mean something else.

This phrase occurs a couple of times in the NT. I read it in 1 Corinthians 15:28 in the ESV, though most English translations use the phrase. It’s pretty clear why they do, for it’s a simple literal translation of the Greek (παντα εν πασιν).

Is this good enough? I don’t think so. When a Bible translation like this could be mistaken for teaching pantheism it is a poor translation. It seems especially poor considering the context, where everything is put in subjection to God.

I’m not sure what the best translation would be. I’m not sure if this was a Greek idiom, or just a phrase Paul made up. But there are people who do know those things, and they have probably been involved in the creation of these translations. Lets just hope any future translations will find these flaws before they are published.

Here’s the NLT:

[God] will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere.

Now that is a much better translation. It doesn’t suggest heresy and it actually fits with the preceeding verses. I won’t say the NLT is necessarily correct, but at least they tried. The NCV isn’t too bad either.

For those interested in meaningless stats, Jesus does beat Brahman in the battle of Google search results, but not by much. Surprisingly Allah smashes them both, but I think that means something different again.

This is definitely about Bible translation

Thanks for all the comments on my preceding post. You are alert readers. You caught that the issue had to do with whether or not I was referring to a specific tree in my made-up paragraph. (BTW, I did go moose-hunting with my father. I forget how old I was the last time he took me. I know I was big enough to help him pack out the carcass. But I was still fairly small, so I couldn’t carry a very big load.)

The usual pattern for well-formed discourses in English is, as some of you noted, to introduce an item first before we can refer to it with the definite article “the”. For instance, I could have included the following sentence in my moose-hunting story:

There was a tree where we always stopped when we were moose-hunting. It had large branches which could shelter us if there was a sudden downpour of rain.

However, as some of you also noted, English allows for “the” to precede certain other nouns under special conditions. One is if the speaker can assume that the hearer already knows which thing is being talked about, perhaps from previous conversations, or because it is common public knowledge, such as commonly known to everyone who lived in our village.

We properly ask each other in English, “How’s the weather?” We don’t ask, “How’s a weather?” We can safely assume that everyone else knows what we mean by weather.

These days, especially, we may fairly safely talk to someone about “the” national debt, without having to introduce the concept of a national debt.

For those BBB readers who live under the British monarchy, it is perfectly good English for them to refer to “the queen,” without having to first introduce into their discourse a person who is the current monarch of the U.K. There is only one monarch at a time and it is currently a queen. Presumably any resident of the U.K. knows this. Nouns which refer to entities which are assumed to be known as common knowledge can be referred to as definites.

Now, what does this discussion about English “the” have to do with Bible translation? It is on my mind these days because I am nearing the end of my check of the CEB sampler of the Gospel of Matthew. It has impressed me how often in the CEB a noun is marked with “the” as definite (already known to the author and assumed by the author to be known by his audience) when I am unable to find evidence that that noun was introduced yet in the discourse (typically the length of an episode). That clashes with my understanding of the use of English “the”. But it aligns word-for-word with the presence of the Greek definite article before its noun.

Usually this phenomenon occurs with the noun phrase “the house”, as in CEB Matt. 9:28, 13:36, 17:25, 24:43 (UPDATE: only the first instance in CEB 24:43 of “the house”). Notice how 9:27-28 reads:

“As Jesus departed, two blind men followed him, crying out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” When he came into the house, the blind men approached him.”

I don’t know which house in all of Palestine Jesus entered on this occasion, or any of the other occasions I have listed where a problematical “the house” occurs. (The issue is not for every instance of “the house” in Matthew, only where a specific house has not yet been introduced into the discourse).

The Greek text has ten okian, for which the default literal translation would be “the house,” and so the CEB translation has “the house.” I have checked other English versions and several follow the same practice of translating the Greek noun phrase with the definite article with an English noun phrase with the definite article “the.” (For Matt. 9:28 these other versions include KJV, RSV, ESV, NASB, and NET.)  Matching the Greek definite article with the English definite article makes sense for doing word-for-word translation. But it needs to be questioned if we are attempting to translate all levels of meaning, including pragmatic meaning, discourse meaning, referential meaning, etc.

I have been wondering why Matthew marked these instances of “house” with a definite article. I have not come up with any satisfactory answer. I am assuming that in all of Jesus travels around Palestine while he was teaching, he did not always teach in the same house, a house whose identity was known to Matthew and assumed by Matthew to also be known to his readers.

If I were translating the particular passages in question in Matthew, I would have to translate the phrases with “house” as “a house”, following English rules of introduction of new entities in discourse, in the absence of any other evidence to cause me to believe that it was a specific house known to the author and his hearers.

Note how the translators of the following versions handle this issue of definiteness or indefiniteness of the house mentioned (Matt. 9:27-28):

When Jesus left that place, two blind men followed him. They shouted, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” Jesus went into a house (GW)

When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him (NIV, TNIV)

Jesus left that place, and as he walked along, two blind men started following him. “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” they shouted. When Jesus had gone indoors, the two blind men came to him (TEV/GNB)

As Jesus was walking along, two blind men began following him and shouting, “Son of David, have pity on us!” After Jesus had gone indoors (CEV)

As he went on from there Jesus was followed by two blind men, shouting, ‘Have pity on us, Son of David!’ When he had gone indoors they came to him, and Jesus asked, ‘Do you (REB)

When Jesus was leaving there, two blind men followed him. They cried out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” After Jesus went inside, the blind men went with him. (NCV)

After Jesus left the girl’s home, two blind men followed along behind him, shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” They went right into the house where he was staying (NLT)

By the way, it is well known to students of Greek that Greek marks more nouns with the definite article than English does. One of the most famous instances, one which is debated by theologians, is John 1:1 where a rigorous word-for-word kind of translation would require a wording like:

In beginning was the god and the word was with the god and god was the word.

Since Greek word order is pragmatically determined, not syntactically determined, as is much of English,, the final clause can be re-ordered as “the word was god” or “the word was a god” or “the word was divine”. (Please, this is not the place to argue about the divinity of Christ from this verse. I can assure you who wonder, from what I have just written, that I do believe in the divinity of Christ. I am only referring objectively here to legitimate translation possibilities for the Greek. Please do not address the issue of the divinity of Christ in the Comments to this blog post. Such comments will be off-topic for this post and I will have to delete them.)

The point of referring to the Greek of John 1:1 is that the words for “god” (“God) as well as the word for “word” (Word, Logos) are marked as with the Greek definite articles, except, of course, for the final instance of “god”. Yet we never find word-for-word English Bible versions translating the word for “God” for this verse as “the god”. I assume that Greek theos is marked with the definite article because Matthew is a monotheist and assumes that his readers are, as well. In other words, there is for them, just one “god” (God). (Yes, I am a monotheist, as well!)

Again, in summary, I do not know why Matthew refers to “the” house several times in his gospel. Perhaps some of you might know why and can comment on this. I do know that if Jesus stayed and/or taught in more than one house and if this plurality of houses is noted throughout Matthew’s gospel, there is a mismatch between the Greek and English discourse patterns for marking definiteness.

I guess, in conclusion, I would have to say that I am indefinite about the Greek definite in some cases! How about you?

The Exceptional Translations

We talk a lot about word-for-word translation. In a previous posting, Wayne points out “[a] truly word-for-word translation would be an interlinear translation,” So, it seems to me, no translation would then be truly word-for-word. Wayne goes on to offer three possible explanations for what ESV proponents might mean by the phrase as they compare their preferred translation with those translations felt to not be word-for-word:

  1. There is greater concordance of words…
  2. There is a higher degree of formal equivalence…
  3. There is an attempt to translate each word of the original biblical text with some word or words in English.

I think the last is the most likely. And, to be more specific, I think the term word-for-word, as it is used by its proponents, refers to the translation method. I think it has less to do with concordance and/or formal equivalence. These first two explanations appear to me to form metrics which measure the word-for-word quality of the translation. The later, however, is the kernel.

I think this would explain why ESV’s translation of Hebrews, when compared to other NT books, is less conformable to the word-for-word norm. Hebrews doesn’t measure up as well to the “matching a word in the original with a word in the translation” metric. Even though it is still thought of as word-for-word, it evidences exceptions to the method.

Wayne’s use of comparative terms (greater concordance, higher degree) in his assessment of what the ESV team means by word-for-word translation also indicates there are exceptions to the word-for-word rule when this method is followed.  The word attempt in the last explanation clearly shows that exceptions are required.

And this brings us closer to the point of this post.  I think there is a deeper reason word-for-word proponents allow for, even require, exceptions to their otherwise word-for-word method.  And that’s my question:  When following a word-for-word method to translations, why are there exceptions?

Whenever we discuss a translation choice according to a word-for-word perspective, we invariably run head-first into the list of exceptions. Word order is an obvious problem. So, we have to handle that exception. Metaphors sometimes don’t work. Though, thankfully, many Biblical metaphors are quite basic to human life and they tend to work in Western, civilized cultures.  But it’s still true that as the translation process progresses, each metaphor is considered for its value within the destination culture—that is, should an exception be made?  Within the word-for-word perspective there’s hesitancy to translate an original word with more than one destination word. Doing so would also be an exception. However, it is necessary to do so in many cases; so, the exception is allowed. Translating with less words is also frowned on—it is exceptional. John 3:27 presents a common case. The KJV and NKJV (as well as other word-for-word translations such as NASB and ASV) render it “John answered and said…” The ESV allows (rightfully, I think) the exception, ”John answered,” rendering with two words what is four in the original. Puns and other purposeful ambiguities are not even thought of as exceptional. They’re just not handled at all. Admittedly, these communication devices are very difficult to handle by any translation method. They lay outside the purview of the current science of translation. In fact, all these exceptions seem to reside outside of the linguistic theory which supports word-for-word translation.


Why the exceptions? Why are they even viewed as exceptions? Why doesn’t the theory supporting the word-for-word translation methodology explain these practical, common artifacts of the text? And do so, not as exceptions, but as part and parcel of how the language works?

William James said:

Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there ever floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to… Anyone will renovate his science who will steadily look after the irregular phenomena, and when science is renewed, its new formulas often have more of the voice of the exceptions in them than of what were supposed to be the rules.

I suggest the reason for the exceptions is because the linguistic theory underlying the word-for-word translation method is inherently broken. A renewed translation method will incorporate the exceptional into the norm as, in fact, normal. As I see it, the theory supporting word-for-word translation does not have the explanatory power to incorporate the exceptions into the norm.  It has to handle them as exceptions.  And worse, while William James refers to exceptions “minute and seldom seen,” the exceptions met with in word-for-word Bible translation are significant and frequent.

The problem is: the normal, communicating human being doesn’t view as exceptional the kinds of exceptions required by a word-for-word method. Language simply doesn’t work that way. They think of these artifacts as just normal and natural.  That is, a language provides to the language user a rather coherent system.  And the language user processes a text written in that language in a rather unexceptional way–the user doesn’t have to start, stop, and stutter their way through a text.  This is not to say that authors can’t use the language in creative ways.  It’s to say that the creative ways don’t require exceptional ways of processing them.

But, word-for-word translation method does view them as exceptional?  So, why doesn’t the method sync-up with the normal way language works?  Why are word-for-word translations so exceptional?

Beating a dead metaphor

Here’s an email I received from one of the readers of my Lingamish blog [Some details removed]:

Dear Friend in Christ, Greetings in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ! I have been going through the studies at your web site, and I am deeply inspired with all of the teachings and studies thereon like Bible studies, sermons, children’s sermons and other teaching materials on our Web site. This is such a wonderful studies you have arranged for all the nations, in the long run of your service for the nations of the all the world. I am from [a politically/religiously repressive country] where it is difficult to have Radio and TV channel for preaching purposes. They would not allow us to do that here; the Satan has real strong hold over everything. I often say that we are living in the land of the enemy. Friend, I humbly request you to expand your outreach your program in [a language] and [another] language. […]I would ask you to pray and share it among the brethren. I would offer my services for being translator, recorder and distribution/sales. I pray that your consideration will have His mark over your decision. May God bless you abundantly! May His perfect will be done! Grace and Peace be with you, all brethrens. Yours brother in Christ, [Name removed]

Notice anything wrong here? While you can only applaud this man’s desire to translate my witty blog into the languages of his home country, I can guarantee that the result wouldn’t be anything like my blog. It is entirely possible that this isn’t just some devious huckster trying to flatter me and then make a buck. Maybe he did read my blog and see nothing but spiritually uplifting “Bible studies, sermons, children’s sermons and other teaching materials.” But the truth is he missed the point. He didn’t get the joke.

And if the joke’s on him, I’m afraid that the same can be said of some of us Bible bloggers who have been blogging ourselves blue in the face on 1 Corinthians 9:27. If the first rule of the Hippocratic Oath is “Do no harm” then the first rule of translation should be George Orwell’s: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Yet most of the suggestions I’m seeing so far are barbarous. And  barbarous for the simple reason that they’re mixing dead metaphors.

The word in question is this one: ὑπωπιάζω. (hupopiazo) This word has a fantastic etymology: hupo-op-piazo “hit under the eye.” Unfortunately we only have two occurrences of the word in the New Testament:

For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” (Luke 18:4-5, NRSV)

So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:26-27, NRSV)

The reason this word gets used in such different contexts is that the word is a dead metaphor, or “semantically bleached” (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase on a blog). And further proof of this is that Paul collocates it with “body” which would really be strange: “I hit myself on the face my body.” Finally, this is just a small word in a big mixed metaphor that rambles through chapters 9 and 10 and includes slavery, boxing, athletic training and yoga. Well, maybe not yoga. But I hear John Hobbins found some yoga in this passage so it must be there.

This is one of those cases where we as translators just have to laugh at ourselves and say, “Gee, I don’t really know how to bring in the meaning of ὑπωπιάζω into my translation, but I can at least make sure I don’t say anything barbarous.” And that is what English translators have been doing far into the distant past when they all walked around wearing powdered wigs. KJV and all the rest simply say “discipline” and who am I to contradict such an illustrious crowd?

For another example of Paul’s use of mixed metaphors, see 1 Timothy 1:18-20.

Well, this is my first ever post on BBB and I deserve a good beating for it I’m sure. But right now I’m hungry so I’m going to head over to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Essentially Literal

This is a follow up to All things are lawful 2. I had been trying to think of how to define “essentially literal”. Does it mean being faithful to the grammatical structure versus the semantic structure? In other words, does it mean to defer to word order or word count instead of word choice? Does it mean representing the morphology faithfully, ie, if Elohim is plural then the English word for God should be plural, if the spirit is neuter, use “it” instead of “he” for the Holy Spirit?

Let’s look at an awkward examples. Here is 1 Cor. 14:20,

    Αδελφοι, μη παιδια γινεσθε ταις φρεσιν, αλλα τη κακια νηπιαζετε, ταις δε φρεσιν τελειοι γινεσθε

    Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. ESV

What is this word φρην? According to the lexicon it means the diaphragm. From this it can also mean “the seat of passions, the heart, mind, understanding and reason,” take your pick. In this verse, one cannot preserve morphological number, ie the plural, or semantic reference either.

But semantics, on the one hand, and morphology and syntax, on the other are often in conflict. In translation one might be able to preserve one at the expense of the other. But, preserving both. Hmm. This is difficult.

However, just recently, the ESV site provided an explanation of their term ‘essentially literal’ in this post which is interesting for other reasons as well.

    At the same time, in accord with its “essentially literal” translation philosophy, the ESV has retained consistency and concordance in the translation of Christos (“Christ”) throughout the New Testament.


    we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original (ESV Preface)

Let’s look at the ESV and see how it abides by its intention of maintaining concordance. I thought I would choose the word εξουσια and the English word authority for example.

Here is εξουσια and its various translations into English. And then I will present those same English words with their various Greek equivalents.

I English equivalents for εξουσια in the ESV

Matt. 7:29 authority (and many other places)

Acts 8:19 power (and many other places)

1 Cor. 8:9 right

1 Cor. 11:10 symbol of authority (only this once)

Rev. 13:17 strength

II Now let’s go in the other direction.

a) authority

In most places -εξουσια

1 Tim. 2:13 – αυθεντειν (a one off)

b) power

Luke 22:69 – δυναμις

Acts 8:19 – εξουσια

c) right

John 18:23 – καλως

Acts 2:33 – δεξια

Acts 4:19 – δικαιον

Acts 6:2 – αρεστον

Acts 10:35 – δικαιοσυνην

1 Cοr. 8:9 – εξουσια

1 Cor. 9:15 (no Greek found for ‘right’ in this verse)

d) symbol of authority

1 Cor. 11:10 – εξουσια (found only this once – strange how men have ‘rights’ and women have a ‘symbol of authority’ – and then they call this constancy and concordance!)

e) strength

Mark 5:4 – ισχυεν

Luke 1:51 – κρατος

Acts 9:22 – ενεδυναμουτο

Acts 14:22 – επιστηριζοντες

2 Cor. 1:8 – δυναμιν

Okay, this is what I think. The ESV only occasionally wanders right off course in its translation. However, if the ESV blog identifies ‘essentially literal’ with concordance, then it needs to reconsider. I have asked the editor about this, does he really think the ESV provides concordance, and he said “That is what we set out to do.”

The problem is that when I complete a study like this I remember that the ESV translators have these notions about men and women,

    God gave men, in general, a disposition that is better suited to teaching and governing in the church, a disposition that inclines more to the rational, logical analysis of doctrine and a desire to protect the doctrinal purity of the church, and God gave women, in general, a disposition that inclines more toward a relational, nurturing emphasis that places a higher value on unity and community in the church

so they won’t actually consider a study like mine as having validity. The ESV translators will persist in their belief that they have produced concordance. Or maybe they simply mean that authority is not an important concept. I can handle that.