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Friday, August 11, 2006

British TNIV: "empathize" becomes "feel sympathy"

When preparing my latest posting on my own blog, I had a surprise in TNIV. I copied Hebrews 4:15 from the TNIV website:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
But when proofreading the post I spotted the American spelling "empathize" (with "z" not "s") and so checked with my British edition of TNIV. There I found:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
The team who prepared the British edition did not simply change to British spelling, they changed the actual wording here. This was a surprise to me, because the only change of wording usually made in British editions of recent Bible translations is to replace the American word "rooster" with the four letter word which was good enough for the KJV translators and is still in regular and polite use here in Britain.

I think it is good that a change was made here in TNIV, for although here in England we understand "empathise", it is not a word we empathise with! Indeed it is one which we would tend to dislike as an Americanism. But "feel sympathy for" is not an improvement. I guess that NIV's "sympathize" (American; British is "sympathise"; this is also the RSV reading, and in fact a transliteration of the Greek word used here, sumpatheō) was changed to "empathize" because the primary current sense of "sympathize", according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is an inappropriate one: "To feel or express compassion, as for another's suffering; commiserate." The real meaning of the passage should surely be more like the second and probably original sense of "sympathize": "To share or understand the feelings or ideas of another". This meaning is brought out more clearly with "empathize". But the British TNIV reading "feel sympathy for" seems to me a reversion to the first sense of "sympathize": "To feel... compassion, as for another's suffering".

I must say I am disappointed to find in this key passage the British edition of TNIV has introduced an unfortunate and theologically significant change of meaning. For the important point in this passage is that Jesus understands what we are going through when we are weak and tempted, because he has himself been tempted while living in a weak human body. Yes, he feels compassion for us as well, but the meaning of this verse is far more than that.

I am also puzzled at why, if the British TNIV editors were free to make changes of this kind, they did not change the blatant Americanism "garbage" in Philippians 3:8 back to NIV's "rubbish", the normal British word.

12 Comments:

At Fri Aug 11, 04:22:00 PM, Blogger Rey said...

Is it standard American I'm snickering at that whole Rooster bit?

 
At Fri Aug 11, 04:23:00 PM, Blogger Rey said...

(i being american and also the one snickering)

 
At Fri Aug 11, 04:52:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Peter, I double-checked my TNIV Study Bible--the newest TNIV printing--to make sure they hadn't secretly introduced an altered TNIV text, but we still have "empathize" over here.

 
At Fri Aug 11, 05:25:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I have also checked the TNIV New Testament Preview Edition, which I downloaded in 2004 but is probably the original 2001 edition, and that also has "empathize". So it doesn't look as if the British edition is based on a different American original.

 
At Fri Aug 11, 06:48:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Here's a question for you, Peter. I've known for a while that there were different British and American versions of major translations like the NIV & TNIV. And I knew that it was primarily spelling, punctuation and the occasional rooster.

But I'm curious about Bible software. For instance, I use Accordance and have the TNIV in it. Of course it has "empathize." But do you, as a British user, have any options for British versions of translations in software?

 
At Sat Aug 12, 12:03:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Peter said, ..."rooster" with the four letter word which was good enough for the KJV translators and is still in regular and polite use here in Britain.

Yes, this word has become MOST unfortunate in common American English. It really is terrible how these things become dirty slang so easily. I think America has a history of turning common words into dirty slang... is this true of all countries or are we worse than others?

As an American, it is hard for me to tell, having never been immersed in a different society.

 
At Sat Aug 12, 02:11:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Since we're on the subject (sort of) it's worth mentioning that Peter used the "b-word" in the Cows, Dogs and Men post which is for Americans an absolutely shocking word. I can't even bring myself to say it out loud.

But Brits seem offended by a perfectly innocuous word like "bum" so it looks like this goes both ways.

The American edition of the CEV for Acts 17:5 has:

"The Jewish leaders were jealous and got some worthless bums who hung around the marketplace to start a riot in the city."

When I read this one morning at our family devotion, my children burst out laughing. Despite being Americans, they've grown up surrounded by many "Englishes." In fact, ironically, the Bible I was reading from was purchased in South Africa.

I think the UK edition has "worthless fellows."

But since the real point of this post is about the difference between "feel sympathy" and "empathize," I have to agree as a Yank that the British TNIV "feel sympathy" seems to be a weak translation.

 
At Sat Aug 12, 04:49:00 AM, Blogger DavidR said...

While being in full sympathy :) with the main point of Peter's post, just one thing.... This ise v. ize business... it's not that the "z" spelling is American! In fact, it is very "Oxford" (as in O.U.P.) (yes, the one in Oxfordshire, not New York!).

When one writes for OUP, you watch your "z" and "s" forms with care! An accessible account can be found here and here.

David Reimer

 
At Sat Aug 12, 05:02:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I would consider "bum" to be a slightly rude word, the kind I would expect children to snicker at and perhaps not suitable for a Bible translation. It is basically the British equivalent of the word used in KJV for "donkey". British editions don't change this as the KJV word is not used at all in modern British English, except as a vulgar Americanism, even more vulgar than other Americanisms!

As for the other b- word, here in England this is the perfectly acceptable word for a female canine, and not rude at all unless applied to a woman (just as "dog" is when applied to any person) or prefixed with "son of a". I apologise if I caused offence, but I did so entirely in ignorance. I was of course quoting from my fellow Brit Adrian in the first place I used this word. In the other places, I did not need to use this word, and so I have edited the posting to remove it.

Rick asked about British English Bible software. I am not really the person to ask as the only Bible software I use is in-house software for Bible translators. The UBS Paratext program comes with optional British editions of CEV and GNT (TEV), also REB which is British only, also an Australian edition of CEV. I don't know of any other electronic British editions. But for most electronic users, who tend to be more than averagely familiar with American English, this is not a big deal. And few people care much about "honor", "worshiped" instead of "honour", "worshipped" etc. However, a version with "rooster", "empathize" and "garbage" would not be very acceptable for general church use over here.

 
At Sat Aug 12, 05:10:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, David, for your comments about -ise and -ize. It is ironically the American corporation Microsoft which has recently done most to promote -ise spellings in British English - by distributing a spelling checker which marks -ize as an error!

Maybe this is just something recent, but to me "sympathize" and "organization" immediately strike me as Americanisms. And the same seems to have been true, already more than 20 years ago, of the team who prepared the British NIV and changed "symapthize" to "sympathise" in Hebrews 4:15, also "baptize" to "baptise" in Matthew 3:11 and presumably many other places. Like "honor" and "worshiped", these are not a big deal to most of us but are often taken as a sign of the American origin of a text.

 
At Sat Aug 12, 07:30:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

I guess this just shows the power of words. Here we are supposedly sophisticated adults unable to bring ourselves to say certain words because they are "naughty!" Sounds like the b-dog work has more emotive force for an American than the b-backside word does for a Brit.

 
At Sat Aug 12, 09:12:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

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