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!





5 responses to “Bible Translations and the Christmas Story”

  1. John Avatar

    That’s very interesting, especially for the ESV. I checked it in both the HCSB (which I use quite a bit) and the NET (which I use for the translator notes) and they both seem to get the translation right. Thanks for pointing that out.

  2. Nathan Esala Avatar

    Dr. Kloha,
    One area that does not get enough discussion is what is translation itself? What are the implicit theories of translation that govern our judgments of whether this or that translation “got it right.” I don’t know whether this is appropriate for your presentation, but there are two theoretical perspectives that are getting a lot of discussion among Bible translation practitioners. One is skopos theory and another is relevance theory.

    I have found the book Translating as a Purposeful Activity by Christiane Nord (St. Jerome 1997) very helpful in regard to skopos theory which is a functional approach. She was involved a recent German Bible translation. The concept of the Translation Brief for me is very helpful (p. 30). A Translation Brief is a document that states who commissioned this translation and for whom and for what purpose and what principles are used in translating toward what end. This has often been done implicitly. The Brief makes the implicit more explicit and then provides a measure by which a translation can be judged. Has the translation lived up to the principle of its own Brief? The Brief itself of course may indicate in what form a translation was intended and for whom and thus it needs to be judged and used in that light. Sometimes this can be determined by the introductions and comments of the editors at the preface of a Bible. I think that your criticism of NIV/ ESV in Luke 1 and 2 is a fair critique in that ‘since I am a virgin’ is not a form equivalent, and if it was argued that the form equivalent expression was too antiquated, it does not get the modern idiom right either. So unless there is a principle of ‘ramping up the original text’s theology’ it can fairly be criticized as not living up to its own principles at this point.

    Another thing, Nord discusses is translation text types. What type of a text are we translating? I think this is very helpful for Bible translation practitioners and consumers because we are translating an ancient and sacred book (sacred for ancients and moderns). Nord does not give a theological emphasis of a ‘sacred text’ – at least I have not found it yet in this particular book, but I have been told that she does this elsewhere in relation to the German Bible translation that she was a part of.

    The foundational book on relevance theory is Relevance: Communication and Cognition by Sperber and Wilson (Oxford 1995). I am less familiar with the theoretical intricacies of Relevance theory, but have seen how many translation practitioners from Wycliffe Bible Translators/ SIL are using it in Bible translation. Additionally there is an article in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research( vol 34 No. 4 Oct 2010) that uses relevance theory as the basis for a new model of Missiology. The article is by Dan Shaw.

    My suspicion is that on some level these theories are not necessarily competing but could be understood complementarily.

    Another Lutheran writer (WELS) from the United Bible Societies is Dr. Ernst Wendland. He is an excellent exegete and a great practitioner of Translation. He is a prolific author. Two texts that discuss his takes on translation are Translating the Literature of Scripture: A Literary-Rhetorical Approach to Bible Translation (SIL: 2004). Another related to orality that is more recent is Finding and Translating the Oral-Aural Elements in Written Language (the Edwin Mellen Press: 2008). Both of these books reflect the skopos theoretical background for translation. Simplistically, he advocates consideration of a type of translation (toward the end of greater rhetorical impact) that takes more seriously the source language genre forms and the functionally appropriate receptor genre forms.

    1. tim saleska Avatar
      tim saleska

      Hey Nathan!
      thanks for your post. when you mentioned relevance theory, my ears perked up because i am pretty familiar with it. i have sperber-wilson book (both editions) and have carefully read it several times. i also have some of the ubs and sil works that talk about translation theory. it is helpful because it helps understand the nature of the assumptions that are at work in any communication between people (though sperber-wilson deal mostly with verbal communication). there are one or two books that have applied the theory to NT books (Revelation is one I can think of off the top of my head).

      Ultimately, I have found that while their explanations about communication are insightful and helpful, they still operate with some modernist assumptions (even as they try to distance themselves from them). also, theories like this inevitably–to me at least–start to make translation and interpretive decisions sound like a “mechanical process” that doesn’t quite fit what actually happens. Also, theories that attempt to be all encompassing explanations usually don’t help when you are in the actual concrete situation of having to translate/interpret a passage.

      As you can tell, i affirm that translation is interpretation from the get go. no part of it is not interpretive. you can’t avoid interpretive labor at all. thus, i am “Against Theory” (see Against Theory 1 and 2 by Steven Knapp, Walter-benn Michaels et. al.) and an anti-foundationalist. (Hence other then helping you become aware of the assumptions that shape your interpretation and providing an (ultimately less than satisfying account) of how metaphors and figurative language might work, relevance theory doesn’t actually help you with what direction you will go in any given translation.) anyway, thanks for your post. it is really cool to hear how you think through translation/interpretation issues such as the one raised by Jeff. Go with the Lord.

  3. Nathan Esala Avatar

    One more direction that is a necessary component is what is
    the purpose for translating the Bible at all? Dr. James Maxey
    addresses this in his PhD dissertation. He argues for
    contextualized theology. (The weblink is listed at the bottom of my
    post.) And what is the means of communication? We have assumed
    print. But performance studies have shown that our modern concept
    of how a book is read is not necessarily how a Biblical scroll
    would have been read and delivered. The concept of the oral
    performance or the oral recitation of a text is an important thing
    to consider. And too often we have read our post – Gutenberg
    experience with print back onto the ancient environment. Jumping
    back to the modern world then, what medium of translation are we
    using in contexts where reading is not the norm or at least not the
    only way to experience a text.

  4. Nathan Esala Avatar

    Dr. Saleska,
    I appreciate your critique of relevance theory. In what I have seen in its application to Bible Translation I agree that it appears to have modernist assumptions, so what you are saying confirms my suspicion. I am a little more familiar with skopostheorie in relation to translation. It is much more sensitive to translators as interpreters and text creators. I’ll need to check out ‘Against Theory’. Merry Christmas.

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