Hearts and minds

Mark 6:45-52 is the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water, which comes right after the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The narrator in v. 52 concludes that the disciples might have understood how Jesus could walk on the water if they had been able to really understand that he was able to feed the five thousand. In the Authorized Version, verse 52 reads, “For they considered not [the miracle] of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.” Is that a good translation? Well, we all know the language of the KJV is archaic, so let’s look at the RSV: “For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Okay, we know that the RSV is a faithfully literal translation, so we can be assured that the original really does say here something about hearts and about hardness. (A look at the wording of the Greek original confirms that fact.) That must be a good translation, right? Because it reflects what the original says. The NIV (both the 1984  and 2011 versions) says, “For they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” Looking also at the New Living Translation, we see “For they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.”

So, what does that mean? My understanding of the expression “hard-hearted” is that it means that someone is callous toward other people’s feelings. Huh? Is this saying that the disciples were insensitive to Jesus’ feelings? Or was it someone else, to whom their insensitivity was directed? To confirm my understanding of the expression, I looked it up, and according to the Random House Dictionary, hard-hearted means unfeeling, unmerciful, pitiless, heartless, merciless, mean, unforgiving, from Middle English hard herted. This means that the disciples couldn’t accept what was going on because they were pitiless, mean, and insensitive. Right?

Compare this with a set of other English Bible translations that do not use the word “heart” in Mark 6:52. Is it possible that these could be correct, accurate, even if they are missing a word that is in the original?

TEV: “because they had not understood the real meaning of the feeding of the five thousand; their minds could not grasp it.”

CEV: “Their minds were closed, and they could not understand the true meaning of the loaves of bread.”

GW: “They didn’t understand what had happened with the loaves of bread. Instead, their minds were closed.”

JB: “because they had not seen what the miracle of the loaves meant; their minds were closed.”

Here is what one commentary says about this expression: “This hardness of heart is something quite different from our use of the same words, denoting blunted feelings and moral sensiblities. The Biblical καρδία denotes the general inner man, and here especially the mind, which is represented as so calloused as to be incapable of receiving mental impressions.” If this commenary is right, and I believe it is, based on my own studies, then it is possible that a translation that translates καρδία into English as “mind(s)” is more accurate than a translation of “heart(s)” in this context. Or maybe an analogous idiom like “thick-headed” would be appropriate. Along those lines, we translated this verse into Saint Lucian French Creole (1999) as “paski yo p’òkò té konpwann miwak-la Jézi té fè èk sé pen-an. Tèt yo té wèd toujou.” (I’ll leave it to you to figure out that one.)

The problem, of course, is that in different cultures, different qualities are attributed to different body parts. That’s a simple way of putting it. The translation problem is cultural and linguistic. In this case, it might not be so bad if the resulting translation resulted in no meaning, such that the reader/listener might realize that a proper understanding is lacking and go looking for it. But what is worse here is that a literal translation involving “hardness of heart” would prompt a wrong interpretation without the reader/listener being aware of it. This may be debatable, but I believe that a translation cannot be accurate if does not prompt, or at least allow, a proper interpretation in the mind/heart of the reader.

Now let me back up and qualify that a little. There are different kinds of translations. There are what I consider normal, good translations, suitable for lectionary or devotional purposes or personal reading, and then there are special purpose translations, such as quite literal ones. A literal translation has a purpose of giving a word-for-word rendering, and if this results in an incomplete or inaccurate understanding, that is not their problem. The RSV falls into this category, and I appreciate the RSV a great deal. It is very dependable for certain purposes. I use it for study purposes, to get at the forms of the underlying original texts. But it is a special purpose kind of translation that I would use for study but not for general use. So I am not criticizing the RSV, considering its special purpose, and when it first came out, it was one of the few Bibles available that did not use the archaic language of the King James. What I am saying is that a normal translation is not so tied to the words of the original that it does not take responsibility for accuracy of understanding on the part of the reader, and that accuracy in a translation is tied to an accurate understanding on the part of the reader/hearer. Of course, no translation is perfect.

Norms and accuracy

I’ve been absent for quite a while here. I’m on sabbatical and trying to finish not one, but two, books. Since I last posted I’ve been to India on a spur of the moment trip.

One of my wife’s work colleagues got married and invited us to the wedding. So we went. I have for years been telling my wife that I wanted to visit India some day. Seeing the Taj Mahal was on my bucket list. So she called my bluff.

Anyway, we also got to visit some longtime friends in Tamil Nadu as well. Mary met them in Ethiopa in the 60’s. They are a family of polyglots. They speak excellent English in addition to their native Tamil. From their years in Ethiopia, they speak Amharic. Their son, who has had a most interesting work history, went back to Africa to work so he speaks Swahili as well as Hindi and all the major Dravidian languages (Kannada, Malayalam, and Telegu). This is an example of something we linguists say over and over. Much of the world is multilingual. People who speak only one language are the exception, not the rule. And Vinod didn’t learn his languages by studying them in school for years. Rather he picked them up mostly in the context of living and working in places where he needed to have them. Needless to say, he thinks about language and translation in a very different way from you and me. To him language is the tool you use to communicate with.

That’s a position I’ve been arguing for in this blog for years.

If you think it’s the words of the original that are important and that wording must be preserved up to the limits of intelligibility, then you have to be willing to distort the meaning because no two languages work the same way — even if they are closely related.

Let’s look at a subtle example where Koine and English match in categorial distinctions but the where the norms of usage are different, and see what the distortion of meaning is.

The words in question are man, woman, and person on the English side and ἀνήρ, γυνή, and ἄνθρωπος on the Koine side. The categories match.

man = [adult male human]
ἀνήρ = [adult male human]

woman = [adult female human]
γυνή = [adult female human]

person = [human being]
ἄνθρωπος = [human being]

The difference I want to focus on is a subtle one.

In English one normally includes the gender of the referent unless there is reason not to. As a result man is about four times as frequent as person in running text, and woman is about three times as frequent.

But in Koine, it’s the other way around. You don’t use the gender based term unless there’s a reason to.  So ἄνθρωπος is a little more than twice as common as ἀνήρ, and in one in eight of those cases, ἀνήρ means ‘husband’, not ‘man’. The patterns are similar for woman.  Ἄνθρωπος is a more than four times as common as γυνή, and in half of the cases, γυνή means ‘wife’, not ‘woman’.

If you saw a man standing on the corner and you say (1), it is not just a simple report. You imply something more.

(1)  I saw a person standing on the corner.

Because (2) is what we normally say, unless there’s a reason to withhold the gender of the referent.

(2)  I saw a man standing on the corner.

For that reason alone, translations that try to push the gender neutrality of  ἄνθρωπος often sound odd in English. Here are some examples.

καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπός εἰμι ὑπὸ ἐξουσίαν, … (Matt. 8:9a)
The Source: I, too, am a person under authority, …
Stylistically better: I, too, am a man under authority, …

Ἄνθρωπός τις ἦν πλούσιος ὃς εἶχεν οἰκονόμον, καὶ οὗτος διεβλήθη αὐτῷ ὡς διασκορπίζων τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ. (Luke 16:1)
The Source: There was a certain rich person whose manager was accused of wasting money.
Stylistically better: There was a certain rich man whose manager was accused of wasting money.

Δεῦτε ἴδετε ἄνθρωπον ὃς εἶπέ μοι πάντα ὅσα ἐποίησα· … (John 4:29)
The Source: Come see a person who told me everything I ever did!
Stylistically better: Come see a man who told me everything I ever did!

In these cases ἄνθρωπος is best translated man. That choice isn’t driven by sexism, but by the norms of English usage.

But then that knife cuts two ways.

There are places where translations in the King James line say man (for ἄνθρωπος) where person, someone, or human or some kind of indefinite is a more accurate translation, both referentially and stylistically.

τί γὰρ ὠφελεῖται ἄνθρωπος κερδήσας τὸν κόσμον ὅλον ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἀπολέσας ἢ ζημιωθείς; (Lk 9:25)
ESV:For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
Stylistically better: What will you gain, if you own the whole world but ruin yourself or waste your life?

Of course, we’ve heard enough sermons now to know what Matt. 15:9 means, but apart from Biblish (or in fixed phrases) we don’t use a nominal construction with man when we mean to highlight humanness.

Human nature does not mean the same as the nature of man.

This is especially when we want to highlight the distinction between human and divine.

To err is of man, to forgive is of God.


8 Ὁ λαὸς οὗτος τοῖς χείλεσίν με τιμᾷ,
ἡ δὲ καρδία αὐτῶν πόρρω ἀπέχει ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ·
μάτην δὲ σέβονταί με,
διδάσκοντες διδασκαλίας ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων. (Matt. 15:8-9)
ESV: 8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Stylistically better: “‘These people honor me with their words,
but their hearts are far from me;
9 their worship is useless,
they teach human commandments as doctrine.’”

None of our translations even begin to grapple with questions of style beyond the frequently cited argument that Biblish sounds like better English. (A point I roundly dispute.)

But, I fear, that by pointing out the stylistic problems associated with the use of gendered terms, I may have stepped into a mine field.

So let me affirm that I’m saying there are specific passages (and not a few of them) where using man makes for better English than using person or human (being). In asserting that I’m responding to stylistic concerns, not pushing an anti-feminist or complementarian agenda. I’m certainly not a feminist, but I am egalitarian. So if I say there are places where ἄνθρωπος is better glossed man, it’s not because I have a theological ax to grind.

(WARNING: If the comments start to wander off into a debate, theological or otherwise, about men’s and women’s roles, I’ll moderate with a heavy hand.)

Does ὑποτασσω mean ‘respect’ in Ephesians 5?

It’s not often that a political event provides fodder for a BBB post. But I’m going to take fodder from Iowa (a lot of fodder is harvested there) where the Republican candidates for President of the U.S. debated each other last night and turn it into grist for this BBB post.

Michelle Bachman, an evangelical Christian and the only Republican woman candidate, was reminded by co-moderator Byron York:

about her 2006 remark that her “husband said you should study for a degree in tax law. You said you hated the idea. And then you explained, ‘But the Lord said, ‘Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.'”

Then York asked Bachmann:

As president, would you be submissive to your husband?”

Bachmann answered:

“Marcus and I will be married for 33 years this September 10. I’m in love with him. I’m so proud of him. What submission means to us, it means respect. I respect my husband. He’s a wonderful godly man and great father.

“He respects me as his wife; that’s how we operate our marriage,” she continued. “We respect each other; we love each other. I’ve been so grateful we’ve been able to build a home together. We have wonderful children and 20 foster children. We’ve built a business and life together, and I’m very proud of him.”

News commentators, and news and religious bloggers have been having a hayday (hay is also grown in Iowa) commenting on this exchange.

And now we at BBB get our chance to weigh in on the translation question which is related to that exchange:

Does the Greek word ὑποτασσω in Ephesians 5:21–and assumed by almost all Bible translators to be implied in the next verse–mean ‘respect’ or something else?

Last night Bachmann did not quote from Ephesians 5 as she did in 2006. Instead she said that submission means ‘respect’ within her marriage to Marcus Bachmann.

Will Bachmann’s definition of submission be satisfactory to those who emphasize wives submitting to their husbands today? Does it bring home the bacon (a lot of hogs are raised in Iowa) for you, as you understand the meaning of ὑποτασσω?

All comments on this post will be moderated. Only those which address the meaning of the Greek word ὑποτασσω will be approved for posting. No comments will be permitted which address any other gender questions in Bible translation, unless they directly relate to the translation of ὑποτασσω. This is not an attempt to censor BBB comments, but, rather, to keep the comments from flaming or attacking any Bible translators or anyone else. Some got the mistaken notion from a recent BBB prohibition on discussion of gender on the WELS post on the NIV2011 that gender issues in Bible translation could not be discussed on BBB. We BBB bloggers did not intend any such prohibition. Gender is a topic critical to current English Bible translation and must be discussed. But there must be boundaries on how we discuss it and what is discussed at any one time, so that comments can stay on-topic for each post.


UPDATE (Aug. 15): Comments which are non-translational but otherwise pass BBB gudelines now appear on a spillover blog:


Additional details about this new blog appear as a comment from me today on this post.

a translation opening

For my real job I am currently checking a translation of Psalms in a tribal language of South America. Last December I asked the translation team a question about Psalm 18.9:

wl-12/13/10: How natural is it for [the X speakers] to refer to the sky “opening up”

Yesterday I read the team’s response:

One [translator] says that it is natural to say: ‘The sky is open this morning’, meaning that there are no clouds, just a big expanse. The other [Mother Tongue Translator] says that they use this expression when after it rains, the sun comes out or when after there are a lot of clouds the sky clears.

After this response, in terms of the CANA parameters described in my preceding post, I now believe that the translation for this verse is natural. The translators appear to have an important spiritual leadership role in their tribe, so the translation seems to be acceptable. The translation seems to be understood readily, so it seems to be clear.

But is it accurate? If you question its accuracy, what do you suggest might be inaccurate about it?

CANA translation

Remember the first recorded miracle of Jesus? That’s right. He turned water into wine when the wine ran out at a wedding feast.

Good Bible translation is like that miracle wine. Such translation can take words that are like water, good for you, adequate for understanding, but without much flavor, and make a miracle out of them, impacting you, leaving you with a taste in your mouth that you cannot forget.

CAN has been a traditional acronym among missionary Bible translators. It stands for Clear, Accurate, Natural. Those are the qualities that our Bible translation courses have taught that a good Bible translation should have. Such a translation should be as Clear as the original (but no clearer and certainly not more obscure). Above all, it must be Accurate. And it should follow the Natural patterns of the target language, at least as much as the original biblical texts followed the natural patterns of their languages. (And, yes, there were times when for poetic effect or authorial lapses, natural patterns were not followed but they are in the minority not the majority of biblical text passages.)

For years missionary Bible translators were taught the CAN approach. It was good. It produced translations which were of high quality. But sometimes the translations were not used much. Sometimes they languished in warehouses. Reasons for the lack of use have been numerous, including people’s feeling of inferiority about their own language in contrast to a higher prestige LWC (language of wider communication), such as Spanish, English, or French.

But in more recent decades, those who care about unused translations have noted another important reason why translations are not used, Acceptability. No matter how Clear, Accurate, and Natural a Bible translation might be, if church gatekeepers and parishioners do not like a translation it will not be used.

There are many reasons why a translation may not be liked. The reasons are often discussed on this blog. One that is very important to many Bible users is that a Bible translation may not sound the way people think a Bible should sound. If there has been one or more Bible translations already in the language which have gained a prestige status, they will not be displaced by a newer Bible translation unless the newer translation also has the traditional sound. For such Bible users, for any new translation to replace an older one, the new one has to be “traditioned” (a verb used by John Hobbins).

Bible version acceptance is a point that John Hobbins keeps repeating in his posts and comments and it is a point which can make or break a new translation. Hobbins, like other ministers, may personally prefer some other Bible translation(s), but he knows that if the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t sound like the Lord’s Prayer to his congregation, he might just as well leave the prayer out of the liturgy than to try to have it prayed in clearer, more accurate, or more natural English. [John, I hope I’m not putting words in your mouth here. If I am, we can change your name to Pastor John Doe since the principle remains: people don’t want anyone to “mess” (another of John’s terms about Bible versions!!) with their Bible.]

I don’t have a favorite English Bible version. Instead, I have several favorites which serve me well, often for different purposes.

I can’t say which is the most accurate English Bible versions. A few days ago I was again asked by someone which is the most accurate English Bible version. I answered honestly, “It is not possible to say. There are many accurate English Bible versions. Almost every English Bible translation team has attempted to make translation accuracy their highest goal.”

I can tell you which Bible versions impact me the most spiritually. I hope that is one of the criteria that pastors and congregations use to evaluate which version to use as pulpit and pew Bibles. But I don’t know that it is.

I do know that people want their Bible to sound like a Bible. If we honestly believe that people would get a more accurate, clearer understanding of the Bible through some non-traditional sounding Bible, we have to be willing to set an example to others of the benefits that can come from CAN Bible translations. If we do, and if some people gain spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually from a Bible version outside a traditional mold, it requires a miracle that helps people Accept the newer version.

Such acceptance is a CANA miracle. The miracle at Cana was only one of Jesus’ miracles. And Bible miracles still take place through traditional sounding Bible versions. But there is something special about “the taste of new wine” (that would make a good book title, eh?!!) that satisfies the celebrants at CANA.

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).

Accurate but not Clear?

A standard that most of us who are involved in Bible translation hold to is that a translation must strive to be clear, accurate and natural. That is the ideal, though sometimes a trade-off is involved. These are the three criteria for a good Bible translation. Sometimes acceptability is added as a fourth criterion.

I want to examine the relationship between clarity and accuracy. When there have to be trade-offs in how to translate the scriptures, I believe most people would say that accuracy is the highest goal. It is possible for a translation to be clear and accurate but not natural. It is possible for a translation to be clear, accurate and natural but not acceptable (perhaps because the audience expects and wants a translation that resembles another one that they perceive as trustworthy). But I want to challenge the idea that a translation can be accurate but not clear.

I see accuracy and clarity as two sides of the same coin. Clarity always has to be with respect to someone, as in “It wasn’t clear to me.” A text, such as a Bible translation, cannot be objectively clear. The clarity always has to be with respect to a certain audience. A Bible translation might be clear, for example, with respect to an audience of Biblical scholars, but not with respect to an audience of construction workers. So to say that a translation is clear, you have to state what kind of audience it is clear to.

Communication is a two-way street, and Bible translation is a type of communication. If the intended meaning is not understood, then the communication fails. That is why we firmly believe that a translation must be tested, to ensure that the intended meaning is communicated. And to be worthwhile, the testing process requires the further step of refining the translation to the point where the intended meaning gets across.

If a translation is not understood properly by the target audience, then can it be acccurate? I would say no, because in this case the meaning that the audience gets from the translation is not accurate and complete. (Someone could say, I suppose, that a certain translation is accurate to the extent that I understand it.) When you analyze how people use the term “accuracy,” you realize that it is used to denote that what is considered the proper meaning is clear to those who are qualified to judge the validity of  a translation. “Clarity” is used to denote that that proper meaning is accessible to the target audience.

So, really, both accuracy and clarity have to do with the proper meaning being accessible in the text, but accuracy focuses on the meaning that people on the production end see in the translation (including translators and consultants and third-party critics who consider themselves competent to judge a translation), while clarity has to do with the meaning that people on the receiving end see in it. A successful translation is one where the translators’ intended meaning and the audience’s perceived meaning are in agreement, where all parties are on the same page, literally, seeing the same thing in the text.

It would be good to avoid saying of certain translations that they are accurate but not clear. If they are not clear, that means that the translation has not accomplished its purpose in getting the audience to understand the translation the way the translators intended, and that is not good. It means that the communicative purposes have not been realized. The translation then is accurate only for the translators, and not accurate for the audience.

Similarly, it is certainly problematic to say that a translation is clear but not accurate. Something in the text may be clear, but if it is not the meaning that the translators were trying to convey, then communication has broken down, and the translators and audience are seeing two different things in the text.

So accuracy and clarity are the same thing viewed from different perspectives. Let’s avoid saying that certain translations are accurate but not clear. What that really means is that the translators are confident about what the translation they produced means, but other important partners in the translation process, namely the target audience, don’t grasp the intended meaning. Maybe the audience could get the meaning of an unclear translation if it is explained to them, but then in that case you can’t say that the translation itself that is clear and accurate with respect to the target audience, but rather it is something outside the translation, such as footnotes and teaching, that fill in the communicative gaps left by the translation.