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.

Dynamic Equivalence re-visited

With the news of Eugene Nida’s passing, it’s worth revisiting the single biggest contribution of his thinking to the field of Bible translation.

Nida proposed that the basis of translation should be to replicate the meaning of the original and not necessarily the wording.

Dynamic equivalence (also known as functional equivalence) attempts to convey the thought expressed in a source text (if necessary, at the expense of literalness, original word order, the source text’s grammatical voice, etc.), while formal equivalence attempts to render the text word-for-word (if necessary, at the expense of natural expression in the target language). The two approaches represent emphasis, respectively, on readability and on literal fidelity to the source text. There is no sharp boundary between dynamic and formal equivalence. Broadly, the two represent a spectrum of translation approaches. (Wikipedia Dynamic and formal equivalence)

The idea of translating “the thought” behind a text rather than something more literally reflecting the wording of the original has been controversial since the time Nida first proposed it — not helped by an unfortunate choice of name. Presumably the dynamic part refers to the fact that more natural sounding translations are more emotionally engaging. Witness the popularity of The Message. Nida, himself, moved toward a more neutral terminology in response to controversy, re-labeling his approach function equivalence.

To many of us in the linguistics business the uproar makes little sense. After all, simultaneous translators translate functional equivalents all the time. Ditto the translators who deal with government and business documents. Anyone who seriously attempted a formal equivalence translation in such contexts would be fired by the end of the day.

And ditto, BTW, literary translators. Where there are bilinguals around to judge, it’s the meaning of the text, not its form that is the bottom line in the translation business. Literary translators get bonus points if they can find ways to mimic the form without sacrificing the meaning.

Why, then, did Nida get all the flak?

In large part, I’d say, because functional equivalence is really, really hard to define. It’s a lot like obscenity was to Justice Potter Stewart.

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. (Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers (Les Amants), a French film about adultery and the rediscovery of love. 1964)

Too often what passes for functional equivalence (like, say, The Message) overshoots the mark — sometimes quite considerably. On the low end of intrusion into the text Peterson makes the Bible sound slangy, and that’s not what the Greek reads like. On the high end he reads a lot of his theology back into the text. (But then that’s nothing new for the English Bible translation game.)

The missing piece of what functional equivalence is supposed to be is something that every linguist absorbs as part of his (her) training, but which is never really made explicit. There is a difference between the meanings of the words individually and the only slightly more abstract meanings that people understand when phrases and sentences are made up of those words. Formal semanticists stand on their heads trying to account for such differences. Cognitivists delight in pointing out the difficult cases that the formalists’ theories can’t handle. But the operative expression here is “slightly more abstract”. Functional equivalents might be worded in dramatically different ways, but in context the meanings have to be very close — if not absolutely identical.

Here’s a example from a recent comic strip that will help highlight the difference between the thing said and the meaning intended.

Wanda (the mother) intended that Hammie (the son) take a bath, but she said it in such a way that it required more cooperation in the communicative exchange than Hammie was ready to give. Here’s how it works:

Taking a bath is a complex frame, in this case it consists primarily of an action chain.

1) One fills the tub with water (and assures that the various soaps and shampoos are readily available).
2) One undresses,
3) gets in the tub,
4) uses the soap and shampoo to get oneself clean,
5) rinses oneself off,
6) gets out of the tub,
7) dries oneself off, and
8) gets dressed again (presumably in clean clothes).

Generally, this action chain is referred to as a whole by saying take a bath. But that’s not the only way to accomplish that communicative end. Wanda referred to one step in the action chain — the most salient step — and assumed a cooperative listener would provide the rest of the action chain by inference.

As is often the case failures give us the most insight into the way language works in general. Relative to the amount of information actually communicated, the amount of information conveyed is small. An important part of knowing a language is knowing how speakers of that language refer to a particular knowledge complex. Normally such reference is made at phrase or even sentence level not word by word.

Let’s take a Biblical example.

Throughout Scripture there are references to people who acted without regard for their own safety for someone else’s benefit, or for some higher cause. There are several expressions used in the NT to express this notion, but there is a common English expression to refer to that class of scenario, it is the word risk. Risk is a relatively new word in English. We got it from the French around the end of the 17th century, but it has become the standard way to express this idea now. In fact, attempting to express this meaning without using the word risk, risks misunderstanding.

It’s worth noting that that fact was not lost on the RSV translation team, as shown by the differences between the 1946 RSV translations (continued in the 2001 ESV) and the 1611 KJV and the 1901 ASV.

ἀνθρώποις παραδεδωκόσι τὰς ψυχὰς αὐτῶν ὑπὲρ τοῦ ὀνόματος τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Acts 15:26)

‘Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’(KJV)
‘Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’(ASV)
‘men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (RSV)
‘men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (ESV)

οἵτινες ὑπὲρ τῆς ψυχῆς μου τὸν ἑαυτῶν τράχηλον ὑπέθηκαν (Rom 16:4)

‘… Who have for my life laid down their own necks, …’ (KJV)
‘… who for my life laid down their own necks; …’ (ASV)
‘… who risked their necks for my life, …’ (RSV)
‘… who risked their necks for my life, …’ (ESV)

ὅτι διὰ τὸ ἔργον Χριστοῦ μέχρι θανάτου ἤγγισεν, παραβολευσάμενος τῇ ψυχῇ ἵνα ἀναπληρώσῃ τὸ ὑμῶν ὑστέρημα τῆς πρός με λειτουργίας. (Phil. 2:30)

‘Because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me.’ (KJV)
‘because for the work of Christ he came nigh unto death, hazarding his life to supply that which was lacking in your service toward me.’ (ASV)
‘for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete your service to me.’ (RSV)
‘For he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.’ (ESV)

The Greek expressions are like the indirect reference in the cartoon above, they refer to part of the scenario to express the meaning of the whole.

παραδεδωκόσι τὰς ψυχὰς αὐτῶν  lit. ‘handing over his life’
τὸν ἑαυτῶν τράχηλον ὑπέθηκαν lit. ‘they have laid down their necks’
παραβολευσάμενος τῇ ψυχῇ lit. ‘making a throw with one’s life’

The difference between the indirect expressions in Koine and the direct expressions in the RSV demonstrates the proper application of functional equivalence. Between the time of the KJV (1611) and the RSV (1946) there was a shift in English usage making the word risk all but obligatory for referring to scenarios of risk.[1] That shift made expressions with risk the functional equivalent of the various Koine expressions.

That’s functional equivalence — née dynamic equivalence — properly understood.

[1] The ASV was behind the curve. Risk was already in wide use by the end of the 19th century.

classy translation

Over the years I have read statements by English Bible translators that one should keep word classes in a translation the same as those in the original text. You may be more familiar with the term parts of speech for word classes. So, if a word is a noun in a biblical language text, according to the claim, it should also be translated by a noun in the target language.

I was reminded of this claim recently when I suggested a change to an English Bible translation which would have resulted in better English. I was told, however, something to the effect that “translation policy tells us not to change word classes.”

Let’s examine this claim to determine if it is a valid translation principle.

Think about trying to find out from someone what their name is. How would we get the desired information from them, using a typical utterance of native speakers of whatever language is being used?

In English one would ask: “What’s your name?” (or in a more formal register, “What is your name?”)

In Spanish one would ask: “¿Cómo se llama?” to someone who you has a higher social status than you or to whom you are showing respect.

In Cheyenne one would ask: “Netoneshevehe?”

In Biblical Hebrew one  asked: מִי שְׁמֶךָ

In Koine Greek one asked: Τί ὄνομά σοι

To compare the forms of these questions, here are the glosses and “word” classes of the meaning parts (morphemes) of the English, Spanish, Cheyenne, Hebrew, and Greek:

English: what be.3PERSON your name (INTERROGATIVE.PRONOUN VERB-PERSON POSSESSIVE.PRONOUN VERB) (i.e. What’s your name?)

Spanish: how self call-you (INTERROGATIVE REFLEX PRONOMINAL.SUFFIX) (i.e. How do you call yourself?)

Cheyenne: you-how-named (PRONOMINAL.PREFIX-INTERROGATIVE.PREVERB-VERB.STEM) (i.e. How are you named?)

Hebrew: your-name what (INTERROGATIVE POSSESSIVE.PREFIX NOUN) (i.e. What (is) your name?)

Greek: what name your (INTERROGATIVE NOUN POSSESSIVE.PRONOUN) (i.e. What (is) your name?)

The word (or morpheme) classes used are different in each of these four examples. If we had the time and space, we could have hundreds of more examples showing that the word classes vary in the question asked from one language to another. But the meaning remains the same from one language to another. In each language we are trying to find out from someone what their name is. The examples are accurate translations of each other.

Logically, it requires only a single counter-example to disprove the claim that in Bible translation word classes must be retained. The Hebrew and Greek examples already given are taken from the biblical language texts, Gen. 32:27 (28) and Mark 5:9, respectively. The Hebrew example uses an interrogative pronoun and a noun which consists of a possessive pronominal prefix and a noun stem. Already, we can see a difference in the classes from the English question (“What’s your name?”) which uses an interrogative pronoun, a verb (contracted to a possessive clitic suffix to the end of the pronoun, and a noun. And the classes are different, again, in the Greek which has an interroative pronoun followed by a noun followed by a possessive pronoun. Some might suggest that these differences, such as the pronominal meaning being expressed by a full word pronoun versus a pronominal affix, are not sufficient to disprove the claim that word classes should be retained in translation.

So let’s look at one more biblical example. Here is the Greek of Phil. 1:3 with word/morpheme classes and lexical glosses noted:

Εὐχαριστῶ τῷ
thank-I the-of.GENITIVE

θεῷ μου ἐπὶ
god me-OF.GENITIVE at


τῇ μνείᾳ


A rough literal gloss of this sentence to English would be: “I thank the God of mine at every remembrance of you.” But no native speaker of English says this, either today or in a past stage of English. We could smooth up the rough gloss a little to: “I thank my God at every remembrance of you.” I doubt that native speakers of English have ever written this, either.

Instead, to communicate the meaning of the Greek, native speakers of English say something close to this: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Notice that the Greek noun μνείᾳ in this original sentence is translated by an English verb when the sentence is spoken or written by native speakers. Is this English an accurate translation of the Greek? Yes. There are no meaning parts of the Greek that have been changed or left out. The translation is accurate and natural, or at least as natural as I can think of right now without the possibility of changing meaning, however slightly.

Can the principle of not changing the classes of words (or morphemes) be maintained while translating, whether from the Bible or any other utterance or document? No. As far as I know, such a principle is never taught in professional translation training programs. There is no logical reason why English Bible translators should follow such a principle, either, even as a basic guide which would have exceptions.

The more important principle for any translators, including Bible translators, to follow is to use translation equivalents which are normally used by native speakers in any particular context. As always, this context is subject to its pragmatics which may call for change from usual (“unmarked”) forms due to some rhetorical (including oratorical) effect found in the context.
UPDATE May 14: Comments about acceptance of the NRSV were off-topic for this post. They have been moved to their own post where you are welcome to add other comments on that topic. Please read the introductory comments on the post about following BBB’s guidelines for commenting on NRSV acceptance.

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.

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!

Reflections on the nature of Bible translation

I have been strangely quiet on this blog for a long time now. Part of the problem is that I don’t have much that I want to say about the particular wording of English Bible translations. I am much more interested in the bigger issues, like the philosophical, theological, theoretical, cultural and sociological dimensions of translation.

I see trust and competency as huge issues in Bible translation. The average Bible user has to trust that those who produced a certain translation are trustworthy and competent. And in fact, without an expert knowledge of biblical languages and textual criticism, the average reader of the Bible does put a great deal of trust in whoever provided the Bible version that their church recommends. That’s good. It makes sense. Trust is a good thing, assuming you trust in something that is trustworthy.

It is also easy to see a lot of mistrust these days, which is sad. Factionalism seems to be on the rise with respect to Bible translations, as it is with respect to politics. “You can trust the translation that we endorse, but don’t trust that other one. They have an agenda.” Regardless of whether I can be happy that a translation I like is at the top of the best-sellers list, or whether I can be disappointed that a translation that I wouldn’t endorse is at the top of the list, the bigger issue for me is the distrust and factionalism.

A recent development that prompts me to write is a report I heard, that seminaries are starting to develop translation courses that support their distinctive views on translation. I should be happy that translation is being taught in seminaries, but the impression I get is that these new study programs are intended to support a word-for-word approach to translation that I think is misinformed. I heard this from a colleague who is an ordained minister in one of these denominations and who is better informed about seminary and denominational trends than I am.

It looks like, rather than leading to a common understanding on the nature of Bible translation, the trend in the seminaries will lead to further factionalism. I am not an ecumenist, necessarily, but I would hope that Christians could at least agree we are all reading essentially the same Bible, even if it is in different forms.

Certain other religions and worldviews hold that holy scriptures are not translatable. For Christians, translation is integral to our view of the Bible, God, salvation and Christianity in general. The words of the scriptures are not like an incantation. It is the message the words convey that is important. As Lamin Sanneh said in his 2003 book Whose Religion is Christianity? (p. 97), “Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their Scripture well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark: the church would be unrecognizable or unsustainable without it.”

I read a story a few days ago that I can’t properly document right now, and it might not even be true, but it was about a woman who was so mad at her husband over their disagreement concerning the interpretation of a verse from the Bible, she scalded him with hot water while he was sleeping. Obviously, in this story, somebody’s missing the bigger picture.

As a professional linguist, I could tell you that one of the most basic things about language is that it both underspecifies meaning, and at the same time is redundant. There is more than one way to say the same thing. The redundancy and the contextual information help make up for the underspecification. There is no perfect language and there is no perfect translation. We would all be better communicators if we made an effort to understand, and didn’t use (one’s favorite translation of) the Bible as something to beat each other over the head with.

The absence of the historical present in translations of John 13

In the samples below I’ve colored the verbs in order to show how different verb tenses are being used by John.

I’m only focusing on three verb tenses:


This opening section contains background information, so most of the verbs are PERFECT and AORIST. One thing I notice here is that there seems to be a pattern of PURPLE – RED – RED … I would expect this in a background section where the PERFECT sets the time with relation to the main event, and the AORIST continues within the timeframe of the PERFECT.

john13 1-3

In this next section, the action proper begins. The narrative begins with PRESENT and then AORIST. The pattern here is GREEN – GREEN – RED – RED … This pattern seems to reflect the narrative structure in which event complexes are being grouped together using PRESENT and AORIST. This PRESENT should strike you as slightly strange. If you have a look at the English glosses you can see that it looks like the narrator is talking about something in the present moment. But we know that this is referring to something in the past. This is a marked usage of the present tense, usually referred to as “historical present.” Historical present is often said to add vividness or immediacy to a narrative. I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems that if you didn’t know these verbs were in “present” tense you would think they were just in another form of past tense.

john13 4-7

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on here. The interaction between “says” and “answered” is more complex than it seems on the surface.  Verse six is especially interesting. Jesus “comes” and then Peter “says.” After that Peter is PRESENT and Jesus is AORIST. What’s going on there? I suspect it has something to do with activation of participants. In verse six, the major participant switches from Jesus to Peter. Only in verse ten does Jesus take control of the conversation again, signaled by the historical present. That’s just my theory. I welcome any more reasonable explanations.

john13 9'10

Now, my question is, “How do English translations handle the historical present?” You’ll have to go back to the King James to find evidence of the historical present although the translators missed one of the historical presents:

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.

To be consistent, “laid aside” should be “lays aside.”

Here are several other translations of verse four:

1 2 3 4 5

rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.

So he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron.

rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.

As you can see, none of the other translations seems to reflect the historical present. In fact, with the exception of “taking a towel” in translation 1, all the translations just use a flat narrative past tense. I suspect there is no error here, only a reflection of common English usage. Still I’d be curious if anyone could argue for a more complex narrative structure in English in order to bring out something of the drama of this text in Greek.

I’ve looked at historical present for John 4, 9 and 13 and the results seem to generally line up with what I’ve shown here.

What do you think about the historical present? Are we missing something in our English translations by not reflecting this feature of the source text?

Note 1: If you are color blind or reading this in black and white you should be able to pick out the different verb tenses based on the English glosses.

Note 2: For the purpose of our discussion I have ignored the verb tenses within speech.

Note 3: The Greek texts were produced using BART. A helpful online site for Greek analysis is Greek & Hebrew Reader’s Bible (although it doesn’t let you color individual verb tenses).

Note 4: The English translations cited were: 1=ESV, 2=Message, 3=RSV, 4=NLT, 5=NIV

Obligatory possession and Bible translation

Each translation has its particular approach, and should have an audience in mind. The translators have to ask, “Who is going to read this translation, and how can we render the source text in a way that is suitable for them?” We are blessed in English to have a number of different translations of the Scriptures, and where there are differences among those translations, the differences can be attributable to different approaches, and perhaps different audiences in mind. A big part of this is the translators’ conception of what translation really is, and that leads to different choices in how to approach translation. We can criticize particular “faults” of different translations, but generally translations are the way they are because of the translators’ different conceptions of what is most important to focus on and preserve in translation. In analyzing the differences in translations, rather than focus on perceived flaws, I prefer to deal on the philosophical level, where the real differences lie. I’m fascinated by the question, “What is translation, really?” There certainly isn’t universal agreement on the answer to that question. Once you identify a philosophy of translation, that goes a long way towards explaining why a particular translation is the way it is. I have to add, though, that even if a body of translators shared a common philosophy of translation, they could still produce different translations if they have different subgroups in mind as their audience, and different purposes in mind for the translation, e.g. meditation, study, liturgical use.

In order to talk about what translation is, I want to start by talking about the nature of meaning. Everybody should agree that meaning is a central concern in translation. You want to produce a translation that has the same meaning as the original text from another language. I hope I’m not overstating the situation when I suggest that meaning is universally understood as the bottom line in translation. This is sometimes explained in terms of equivalence. You want a translation that is in some important way — in fact, in every way possible — equivalent to the source text. You want a translation that enables the reader to plumb the depth of meaning in the source text in all its richness.

So here I’m just going to meditate some on the meaning of meaning, and later I can go on to make more explicit the implications for how we translate. In order to consider this very deep subject, I’m going to start with the topic of obligatory possession in Bible translation, and use that as a basis for thinking about the nature of meaning.

Obligatory possession. This is a topic that Bible translators need to understand before working on a translation into a language that doesn’t yet have the Bible. I’m not talking about English here, but the concept is interesting and worth considering. The fact is that sometimes, when one is translating, one needs to actually make the translation more specific, in certain ways, than the source text. It’s not that it is desirable to do that, but rather that it simply isn’t avoidable sometimes. That fact is true even with respect to translation into English in certain cases. But it is most obvious when one is translating into another language that forces choices that the translator may not be prepared for. You may have heard of languages that don’t have a single word for ‘brother,’ for example, but rather words meaning specifically ‘younger brother’ or ‘older brother.’ The translator has to figure out which word is the best choice in each context, and the choice can’t be avoided. More relevant for today’s topic, there are languages that have obligatory possession for certain categories of noun, particularly body parts and kinship terms.

In The Bible Translator 1.4.166-69 (1950), William Thompson describes the Guajiro language in which one can’t talk in detached ways about eyes, arms, legs, fathers, sons, etc. Obviously, each of these things has a possessor, semantically-speaking, and in Guajiro, one can’t talk about these concepts as if they weren’t possessed — though one can in English and in Greek. In languages like this, you can’t just talk about “the heart,” “an eye,” “a father,” “sons,” and so forth, but instead you have to specify “a person’s heart” or “your eye” or “the boy’s father” or “our sons.” It only makes sense, when you think about it, because each of these things naturally has a possessor. Some languages just don’t allow for discussing naturally-possessed things in abstract ways. So the translator has to do some thinking to translate, for example, Matthew 6:22a, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” Fortunately, vv. 22b and 23 do get more specific: “So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness” (RSV). Matthew 7:3 wouldn’t be a problem: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV). But what about Luke 10:23, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see,” or I Cor. 12:14-26, with language like “The eye cannot say to the hand“? Or when it comes to kinship terms, how do you translate Gal. 4:2-6, with language like “…until the date set by the father” (RSV; NIV specifies “his father” for Greek τοῦ πατρός) and “because you are sons” ?

When you think about it, all body parts and all kinship terms are possessed. In English and Greek, we can talk about eyes and hands and bodies in abstract ways, but each of these things is possessed, implicitly if not explicitly. Even if you see a detached hand, you know it came from a body. You can’t have a daughter without having a parent. The point I wanted to get to is that, even though we may talk about meaning in abstract terms, it, too, is something obligatorily possessed. That’s true semantically speaking — just not grammatically speaking. We can talk about “the meaning (of a text),” but that meaning must be in relation to a person. A text means something to a person. Meanings cannot be disembodied. They must go along with a mind, or they don’t exist at all. (I’m going to address the theological side of this shortly.)

It is common to think and talk about words and texts as though they have meaning, and in a sense, this is right. But in a deeper sense, the meanings aren’t really in the language itself, but in the minds of the people who are using that language as a medium of communication. Language is a systematic, socially-agreed-upon way of expressing meaning among individuals. We use language because we want to influence each other, whether it be in the way of informing, comforting, exhorting, bonding, warning, and so forth. Much of language has to do with informing, namely, I have something in my head that I want you to get into yours, so we use the medium of language to do that. Words and grammatical constructions have meanings because we attribute meanings to them.

My position is that all meanings are localized. None are disembodied. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as absolute truth. I’m talking about meaning, not truth. But I equate absolute truth with God’s truth, and we as people should want to get our truth in line with God’s truth. That isn’t always easy, because we are limited in our understanding. Similarly, the closest thing to objective meaning is God’s meaning. It is not impersonal; it is God’s. Let’s not quibble about the fact that God doesn’t have a body. He has a mind, and thoughts. He is infinite, while we are limited in our understanding and perspective. The Scriptures are God’s message, God’s communication to us, and as I have argued before, their meaning is even above and beyond the individual humans who wrote them. Yet God uses human vessels and a human means of communication to express His knowledge and love and will to us.

There are implications of this for translation, but I’ll write more about that soon. This is all part of an overall philosophy of language and meaning and communication and translation that can guide us in how we seek to spread God’s message through translation. Once you have a sound philosophy of translation, choices in how you translate flow out of that.

Do we need Biblish?

As everyone knows, I’m against Biblish in Bible translations — with one exception which I will address here.

It has always been my contention that all English translations, from at least the KJV on, are monotonic. It doesn’t matter if they are essentially literal, dynamic equivalent, or paraphrase. By monotonic I mean that a single kind of English used is the same from cover to cover; the style is uniform.

But that’s a mistake. That’s not how the NT reads in the original. Most of it is unpretentious, plain talk — not too formal, not slangy at all. (Very unlike Biblish on the one hand and The Message on the other.) Paul’s letters are downright colloquial. Hebrews is literary. Luke is conscious of what good written Greek should sound like. John speaks a simplified second language speaker’s Greek. And the whole NT is also peppered with quotes from the OT in an Attic Greek more archaic than Koine.

This is a good reason to think that a fully accurate translation would reflect such differences. The quotes in the NT are mostly from the LXX. But in this post I’ll talk about Jude 1:9, which is a quote from an older religious work, just not from the LXX. But it has the advantage that it is one of the places where you can easily prove you need a contrast between ordinary Koine and LXX era Attic.

The passage in question is this.

ὁ δὲ Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἀρχάγγελος ὅτε τῷ διαβόλῳ διακρινόμενος διελέγετο περὶ τοῦ Μωϋσέως σώματος οὐκ ἐτόλμησεν κρίσιν ἐπενεγκεῖν βλασφημίας ἀλλὰ εἶπεν ἐπιτιμήσαι σοι κύριος (Jude 1:9)

But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (TNIV)

According to Origen, the quote is from the apocryphal Assumption of Moses although the surviving (partial) manuscript doesn’t contain the passage.

Ignoring the theological question of an apocryphal source being quoted in the Biblical canon, what’s interesting here is the use of ἐπιτιμάω. As I have shown in great detail in a series of posts a couple years back (here, here, here, here, and here), the Koine meaning of ἐπιτιμάω is

‘ask (or tell) [someone] to stop [doing something], esp. ask (or tell) [someone] to stop talking [about something]’.

That sense is unambiguous in 27 of the 28 places it occurs in the NT. A good example is

καί τινες τῶν Φαρισαίων ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄχλου εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτόν διδάσκαλε ἐπιτίμησον τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου (Luke 19:39)

Then some of the Pharisees in the crowd spoke to Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “command your disciples to be quiet!” (GNB)

(Notice that the Greek does not have anything corresponding to “be quiet”.)

The fact that the dictionaries gloss ἐπιτιμάω ‘rebuke’ only means that they didn’t notice that it had changed meaning from the early Attic use, when it did mean ‘yell at’ (or in Biblish ‘rebuke’), i.e. ‘say something negative to [someone] harshly’. That usage is well attested in the LXX: Gen. 37:10, Ps. 9:5, Ps. 118(119):21, Zech. 3:2. (All glosses TNIV.)

καὶ ἐπετίμησεν αὐτῷ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ τί τὸ ἐνύπνιον τοῦτο ὃ ἐνυπνιάσθης ἆρά γε ἐλθόντες ἐλευσόμεθα ἐγώ τε καὶ ἡ μήτηρ σου καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί σου προσκυνῆσαί σοι ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν (Gen 37:10)

[When he told his father as well as his brothers,] his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?”

ὅτι ἐποίησας τὴν κρίσιν μου καὶ τὴν δίκην μου ἐκάθισας ἐπὶ θρόνου ὁ κρίνων δικαιοσύνην (Ps. 9:5)

You have rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked;
you have blotted out their name for ever and ever.

ἐπετίμησας ὑπερηφάνοις ἐπικατάρατοι οἱ ἐκκλίνοντες ἀπὸ τῶν ἐντολῶν σου (Ps. 118:21)

You rebuke the arrogant, who are accursed,
those who stray from your commands.

καὶ εἶπεν κύριος πρὸς τὸν διάβολον ἐπιτιμήσαι κύριος ἐν σοί διάβολε καὶ ἐπιτιμήσαι κύριος ἐν σοὶ ὁ ἐκλεξάμενος τὴν Ιερουσαλημ οὐκ ἰδοὺ τοῦτο ὡς δαλὸς ἐξεσπασμένος ἐκ πυρός (Zech. 3:2)

The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”

As I pointed out in the ἐπιτιμάω series, ἐπιτιμάω is pragmatically neutral in Koine usage. That means that, although in most cases getting someone to stop doing something is inherently negative, there are two good cases in the NT that show that the word itself must not be a pragmatically negative word.

First, the disciples are unfailingly deferential to Jesus, but Peter is described as doing this to Jesus.

καὶ προσλαβόμενος αὐτὸν ὁ Πέτρος ἤρξατο ἐπιτιμᾶν αὐτῷ λέγων ἵλεώς σοι κύριε οὐ μὴ ἔσται σοι τοῦτο (Matt . 16:22)

Peter took him aside and began to [ἐπιτιμᾶν] him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Second, Paul used ἐπιτιμάω speaking to Timothy in a verse so familiar that we fail to recognize that it makes no sense with ἐπιτιμάω translated as ‘rebuke’.

κήρυξον τὸν λόγον ἐπίστηθι εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως ἔλεγξον ἐπιτίμησον παρακάλεσον ἐν πάσῃ μακροθυμίᾳ καὶ διδαχῇ (2 Tim. 4:2)

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

While one can correct and encourage with great patience, one can’t rebuke with great patience, but one can patiently ask someone to stop behaving a certain way. (Later in this post I’ll provide a proposal for how this verse should read.)

So it is clear that the Jude 1:9 use of ἐπιτιμάω matches LXX usage in contrast to the use of ἐπιτιμάω elsewhere in the NT. I would argue that that constitutes Biblish usage in Koine, so the appropriate translation should have the quote in Biblish as compared to the norm of the NT.

ὁ δὲ Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἀρχάγγελος ὅτε τῷ διαβόλῳ διακρινόμενος διελέγετο περὶ τοῦ Μωϋσέως σώματος οὐκ ἐτόλμησεν κρίσιν ἐπενεγκεῖν βλασφημίας ἀλλὰ εἶπεν ἐπιτιμήσαι σοι κύριος (Jude 1:9)

But the archangel Michael, when he was arguing with the devil over Moses’ body, didn’t dare condemn him for blasphemy himself but said, “The LORD rebuke you!”

The point of this post is simple. If the whole NT is translated into Biblish, then there’s no contrastive Biblish available when you need it.


2 Tim. 4:2 should read something like the following, taking into account the Koine (as opposed to Attic) meanings of ἐλέγχω and ἐπιτιμάω:

κήρυξον τὸν λόγον ἐπίστηθι εὐκαίρως ἀκαίρως ἔλεγξον ἐπιτίμησον παρακάλεσον ἐν πάσῃ μακροθυμίᾳ καὶ διδαχῇ (2 Tim. 4:2)

Preach the Word; be prepared to do so no matter how inconvenient; with the utmost patience and care teach  people what they are doing wrong and get them to stop and encourage them.

The difference in translation here is important because pastors have long used this verse a license to yell at their congregations, forgetting that Jesus, who did a lot of yelling at folks, yelled at religious leaders, not at ordinary folks.