Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Translating συ λεγεις of Mark 15:2

Biblical scholars often wrestle with what is the communicative (rhetorical) meaning of Jesus' answer to Pilate, συ λεγεις (literally, "You say so") in Mark 15:2. Mark Goodacre, a Markan scholar, has just posted on what he thinks is the reason Jesus answers Pilate more enigmatically than he did the high priest in Mark 14:62. (Mark builds on a post by Phil Harland.)

If we can know, with a fair degree of certainty, the communicative meaning of Jesus' answer to Pilate, I believe that we should translate that meaning in any Bible version which attempts to include pragmatic meaning as well as lexical and syntactic meaning. I have never understood the communicative meaning of Jesus' answer just from the literal translation, "You say (so)." That is, what was Jesus communicating to Pilate by his answer? Was he saying, "You're the one who has said that, not me." Or was he indirectly affirming that the answer to Pilate's question, "Are you the king of the Jews?" was "Yes." Or maybe he meant something else.

Much of the time we don't mean what we actually say, in English or any other language, and this is quite possibly one of those utterances recorded in Greek. So how should we translate something that doesn't mean what it says? This is a difficult problem for translators, one which gets at the heart of how humans communicate with each other.

Here are some wordings from Bible versions which attempt to translate what Jesus actually meant when he said συ λεγεις to Pilate:
  • Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, I am,” Jesus answered him. (GW)
  • He asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Those are your words,” Jesus answered. (CEV)
  • Pilate questioned Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And He answered him, “It is as you say.” (NASB)
  • Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “Yes, it is as you say.” (NLT)
  • “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate. “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. (NIV; cf. TNIV, which is more literal than the NIV, as it is in several passages: “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate. “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.)
Notice the differences in communicative (rhetorical) meaning found among these different versions.

We may never know for sure what Jesus really meant by what he said to Pilate. I do believe, however, that it helps translation users to at least have access to footnotes which give the possible communicative meanings of συ λεγεις in this context.

UPDATE: Loren Rosson continues this discussion in his latest post.

Categories: , , , ,


At Sat Jan 28, 05:22:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

The answer must lie in texts that portray speech among the surrounding cultures. I always suspected that it may be an idiomatic way of speaking in the affirmative EVEN MORESO than just merely saying "Yes".

At Sat Jan 28, 06:06:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said... know, σὺ λέγεις can't mean, "Yes, I am." And I don't say that because of the specific words. I completely agree with you that some phrases--in certain contexts--mean something quite different, sometimes even the exact opposite, to what the words appear to say.

Notice what Mark is doing. Before the Pilate incident, the High Priest denies Jesus, then Peter denies he even knows Jesus, then Pilate, then Roman soldiers mock (ie act out their denial) of Jesus. It's all about denial of who he is.

Also, why would Pilate ask, "Aren't you going to answer me?" (vs 4) if, in fact, Jesus did answer? The GW, NASB, NLT, NIV and TNIV can't be right--the logic of the passage is broken by these translations. The CEV doesn't break the logic, but it also doesn't show that Pilate is really denying Jesus.

My take: σὺ λέγεις should be translated: "Do you, Pilate, say so?" That is, I would turn it into a question which then reflects Pilate's denial. I "added" Pilate since I think there might be some emphasis with the pronoun that needs to be brought out. This translation is quite consistent with John 18:33-36.

John 1:10-13 also comes immediately to mind.

Lastly, I did a study a while back on how ἀποκρίνομαι functions when introducing a quotation. I think we too quickly dismiss it since modern English readers find literal translation awkward (understandbly so). If I recall correctly I thought it had a pragmatic function (which I can't remember right now <grumble>, perhaps some thing like confrontation). This might help us to determine whether translating as a question would be best.

At Sat Jan 28, 07:03:00 AM, Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Wayne,

I wrote a blogpost on this today, though I attempted to answer your question from the more cultural than linguistic perspective.

At Sat Jan 28, 10:26:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Loren said:

I wrote a blogpost on this today, though I attempted to answer your question from the more cultural than linguistic perspective.

And it is that cultural perspective that is so often crucial to understanding the linguistic one, Loren. I appreciate your good followup. My latest training has been in functional linguistics which looks for triggers/causes for language variation outside of language itself, including looking to the sociological and anthropological context, politeness strategies (which vary from culture to culture, as your post mentions).

From my POV, many English Bibles suffer from inadequate attention paid to the original cultural context. Words and syntax are simply translated to English (or any other language) without taking into account the rhetorical meaning those words had within their original context. Translation users are left with a great deal of under-translation, and sometimes outright mistranslation due to lack of adequate interdisciplinary work between biblical exegesis, biblical anthropology, communication theory, etc.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home