Bible Translations and the Christmas Story
This December I’m teaching a brief two-week study on Luke 1-2 for a local St. Louis congregation. Yesterday we got almost to the Magnificat (it looks, shockingly, like we won’t get both chapters done in two weeks.). We came across an interesting translation issue. I had the Greek, with an ESV open alongside. The participants all had the 1984 NIV. In Mary’s response to the angel’s words, she replies in v. 34 — here with a wooden Greek translation — “How will this be, since I am not knowing a husband [or "man"]. This is what is reflected in the older translations:
Old Latin and Vulgate: “quomodo fiet istud quoniam virum non cognosco”
Wycliffe “On what manner shall this thing be done, for I know not man?”
Tyndale “How shall this be, seeing that I know no man?”
KJV “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”
Luther 1545″ “Wie soll das zugehen, da ich von keinem Manne weiß?”
All these formally reflect the Greek, down to the present tense verb (though some Latin manuscripts read “cognovi” or “novi”, the perfect tense — something like “I have not known a husband”).
More recent “dynamic equivalent” “translations” (I’m hesitant to call The Message a “translation”) render the idiom “know” more graphically and, incidentally, prefer the perfect tense for the verb, like the Latin variants:
Message “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”
Beck/An American Translation “How can this be . . . I’ve had no relations with a husband.”
God’s Word “How can this be? I’ve never had sexual intercourse.”
The 20th century standard Protestant translations, though, do something very different in the “dynamic equivalent” renderings:
RSV ESV NIV NASB “How will/can this be . . . since I am a virgin?”
All these use “virgin” in place of “knowing a husband.” I question whether this is a good idea. The Message/AAT/God’s Word renderings are actually the English which most clearly renders the Greek idiom — even if they may be too “graphic” for most people’s tastes, that is what the Greek is saying. “Virgin,” however, matches neither the idiom nor does it formally correspond to the Greek. Furthermore, the angel’s response is to the fact that Mary is not–to euphemize–”now in a relationship that would result in conception”: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you . . .”, i.e., “you will conceive not in the normal way but in a unique, divinely originated way. So you don’t need to be in a ‘relationship’ right now.” The only reason I can think of for that “translation” choice is to emphasis the virgin birth. This is doctrinally true — and Luke describes Mary as “virgin” twice in 1:27, but he doesn’t in 1:34. I’d prefer that our translations be more hesitant to “ramp up” the gospel writers’ theology, especially when many critics these days assume a bit doctrinal “editing” throughout the history of the Bible, from the earliest manuscripts to the most recent translations. It appears that in this case we’d have to admit that its true. Even in the case of the “liberal” RSV/NRSV translation.
On a side note, my interest in these matters is the result of getting ready for a series of Bible studies on the history of Bible translation in English — 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the Authorized Version or King James Version. If you have any translation issues that you think would merit discussing I’d really like to hear them!