The Translator’s Dilemma

Sometimes we can’t duplicate in English the literary depth of the Biblical writers.

William Tyndale (1494-1536), one of the greatest English translators of the Bible.

Bible translators have their challenges. How do you put into English a pun in the original Hebrew or a Greek word with a double meaning? That may be impossible. The English translation necessarily loses something of the cleverness or depth of the original Hebrew or Greek. Let me illustrate with three examples.

In Amos 8:1-3, the prophet pronounces God’s doom upon the kingdom of Israel. The proclamation opens with the lines:

This is what the LORD God showed me–a basket of summer fruit.

He said, “Amos, what do you see?”

And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

Then the word from God goes on:

“The end has come upon my people Israel;

            I will never again pass them by.

The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord GOD;

            “the dead bodies shall be many,

            cast out in every place. Be silent!” 

What logical connection does summer fruit have with the end of the kingdom? You would never catch it in an English translation. In the Hebrew the connection hinges on a pun. The Hebrew word for summer fruit is qayits, for end is qets.

Missing the pun is not going to undermine the theological message of the oracle. But the English reader is going to miss the pun. As a result we don’t appreciate how clever the prophet–or God–has been in making his message memorable. (We must always remember that prophetic utterances were given orally. Listeners preserved them by memorization.) It helps us understand how the Biblical writers are not just great theologians, but also great communicators.

Double Meanings in the Dialogue with Nicodemus

Equally challenging is translating words that have double meanings, and the author may deliberately intend that both meanings apply to his message. There are two outstanding examples in the gospels.

In the famous dialogue scene between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3:1-21, Jesus says to Nicodemus: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen. This Greek word anothen has a dual meaning. It can mean anew or again. If the translator chooses this meaning, then we get the translation of John 3:7 so hallowed in Evangelical church circles: Ye must be born again (King James Version).

Anothen, however, has an alternative meaning: from above. If the translator opts for this meaning, then John 3:7 reads in the New Revised Standard Version: You must be born from above. No English translation can convey both meanings at the same time as the Greek does.

The Greek text seems to be purposely ambiguous because Jesus wants to hold both meanings together in his discussion of spiritual rebirth. The rebirth of which he speaks is not just a second birth, but a birth that is effected by the Holy Spirit.

If you are going to understand Jesus’ teaching, you must hold both meanings together. But there is no English word that holds those two meanings together like the Greek anothen. The translator must choose one translation over the other, thus risking watering down the fullness of what Jesus is saying.

Two Dimensions of the Kingdom of God

Another saying of Jesus also hinges on the word he uses having a double meaning. This occurs in a passage where Jesus is responding to the Pharisees and their question when the kingdom of God is coming (Luke 17:20-21). Jesus responds:

The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.

 A critical Greek word with a double meaning appears in the last sentence. The translators of the New Revised Standard Version translate it as among. The Greek word is entos. And it can indeed mean among. The NRSV translators probably translated it that way because the you in the sentence is plural in the Greek. This gives a strong communal cast to Jesus’ saying.

But entos can also mean within. If a translator chooses this translation (as does the King James Version), he is giving Jesus’ saying a more interior cast. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is to be found within yourselves. Here the focus is more on the believer’s inner disposition.

Once again the use of the Greek entos with its dual meaning seems to be deliberate. For a full understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God means we must perceive both its inner psychological and its communal dimensions.

The call to enter the Kingdom is a call to an inner journey, a journey that will take us deep into spiritual practices and disciplines. But the call to enter the Kingdom will also call us out of our individual selves into working for and living in the renewed society that is noted by its qualities of harmony, service, and peace. The inner journey and the outer journey must go hand in hand if we are to enter fully into that earthly, yet simultaneously transcendent reality that Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.

But how is a translator to hold on to both meanings in an English translation? It’s probably impossible. That’s why responsible translations will alert their readers to the alternate translations in a footnote (as does the NRSV). But it takes a reader paying close attention to footnotes if he or she is to grasp the richness of the Biblical text. Bible study takes work.

A cautionary note: The two examples I give of the double meanings to words Jesus uses applies to the Greek words in which the gospels are written. Jesus, however, presumably spoke Aramaic when he taught. Could the same double meanings be duplicated in the Aramaic vocabulary he used? I don’t know Aramaic, but I would hazard a guess that the answer is probably not. This highlights the critical importance of the Greek language as a vehicle of revelation in the writing of the gospels.


Be Mature Like God

A sensitive translation turns a bad-news message into a good-news message in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Maui flowers
Blooming flowers on the island of Maui

Good writers and speakers know that words can be tricky things. When we use a specific word in our speech, we first of all have in mind its explicit or primary meaning. That meaning would be expressed in its dictionary definition.

But words also carry an aura of emotional associations that you may not find expressed in the dictionary definition. Those associations, however, affect how other people hear the word and how they react to it.

Let me give an example. When I was in the army, I was being trained to do counter-intelligence work. Our schooling involved training in conducting interviews as part of security checks we might pursue in determining whether a specific person should be given clearance to classified material.

When you conduct those interviews, the instructor told us, never open the conversation with the question: What is your relationship to so-and-so? If we did, we ran the risk of the interviewee clamming up. Why? Because the English word relationship is the word we usually use in referring to a romantic or sexual connection. If we use the word relationship, the interviewee is likely to get defensive and say little. They will feel we are prying into something very intimate.

Instead the instructor taught us to use the word association. What is your association with so-and-so? This question will likely get the interviewee to open up and talk freely. Why? Because the word association is a more neutral and less intimate way of describing a personal connection. A sensitivity to the choice of word we use is critical to the effect we want to make.

This sensitivity is also important to translators, especially Bible translators. Translators have to be aware of both the denotative and the connotative meaning of words both in the original language and in the receptor language. Carelessness here can end up in a Bible translation saying something very different than what the original Hebrew or Greek wants to say.

Translating the Sermon on the Mount

One clear example is a famous sentence from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus gives his famous (or infamous, depending upon your point of view) counsel that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We usually find it one of the most difficult things Jesus ever taught.

He ends his discussion with a sentence in verse 48 that reads in the Kings James Version: Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. This classic phrasing has been preserved in later English translations, including the modern New Revised Standard Version which I customarily use.

The Greek word that is translated perfect is the word teleios. One of its meanings is perfect in the sense of complete or having fulfilled its purpose. But in English, the word perfect has the connotations of something that is statically flawless but also lifeless, like a diamond without any imperfections.

That translation, however, makes this verse in Jesus’ teaching off-putting for the average reader and the average person sitting in a church pew. We think Jesus is advocating something impossible. None of us is flawless in our personalities or our actions. To be human is to be imperfect. And if to be perfect is to be statically lifeless, who wants to be perfect? So we are inclined to brush off Jesus at this point.

An Alternate Translation

But there are other legitimate translations for the word teleios. When it is used in association with persons, its meaning can be full-grown or mature. If we translate the sentence using this choice of word, then Jesus is saying Be mature, therefore, as your heavenly Father is mature.

Now to my book, that gives the sentence is totally different emotional flavor. When we use the word mature, it conveys less the sense of flawlessness, but more an association with the process of growing up. There is nothing of the static about growing mature. It is a journey. It bubbles with life and life-shaping experiences.

This translation is fully consistent, I contend, with its context. In 5:43-48, Jesus is teaching his disciples to love their enemies. The rationale he gives for this counsel is that that is how God loves humanity. God makes his sun shine on both the evil and the good. He sends rain on both the righteousness and unrighteous. God loves even those who hate him.

This is the model for how Jesus’ disciples are to live. But obviously none of us reach that standard instantaneously. We grow into that standard, almost always through a process that involves many failures and setbacks. But if we are serious about growing up, we hang in there with all our failures trusting that God’s Spirit will continue to work a slow transformation within us.

So with this choice of translation, Jesus is commanding us to grow up so that our lives come ever closer to exemplifying the example of maturity set by God. Now that for me is good news counsel, not bad news. And it all hinges on the choice of wording that the translator chooses.