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.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Charis and shalom

I have often thought about the absolute impossibility of translating the typical greeting in the epistles into English.

    χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν
I am not sure it is worth translating at all. Why not simply write,

    charis and shalom
and let people do their own work to find out what it means. I have been struggling with how to translate χαριζόμενοι in Colossians 3:13 ever since I wrote this post, and then I read an email this morning from the president of the seminary nearest me; he closed with 'Shalom'. So charis and shalom have been on my mind all day. Not to mention that today is niched between this Monday and next Monday, Yom Kippur and Canadian Thanksgiving!

Here is a definition of each. (Excuse the sources of these definitions, I won't argue that they are authoritative, but this is at least a place to start. Other definitions are welcome.)


    1. grace
    a - that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness: grace of speech

    2. good will, loving-kindness, favour
    a - of the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues

    3. what is due to grace
    a - the spiritual condition of one governed by the power of divine grace
    b - the token or proof of grace, benefit
    i. a gift of grace
    ii. benefit, bounty

    4. thanks, (for benefits, services, favours), recompense, reward The NT Greek Lexicon


    Shalom gives us the core biblical meaning of peace. It means being intact or whole and evokes the entirety of a person or thing. Considered as a quality of the personal, shalom implies the wholeness, integrity and well-being of a person. Considered socially, shalom implies social well-being and relational health, as in a whole community and the wholeness of humanity. The wholeness of shalom can also be considered as the process of being alive and healthy individually and together. In its biblical senses, shalom includes meanings of welfare, shared prosperity, salvation, reconciliation, satisfaction, contentment and a state of being safe and unharmed. Shalom therefore implies the absence of war but is not defined as this or limited to it.

    A 'whole' person or community is one that flourishes, as opposed to an oppressed or fragmented one. A state of shalom is with us now insofar as we flourish as persons, communities, humanity and the ecosphere; it is absent insofar as we do not so flourish and are oppressed. Unlike pax, which is defined in the negative and as a static state, shalom's peace is positive and dynamic, suggesting a state of flourishing in relation to one another. The term 'peace' is used in this sense throughout this series of articles; that is, quite differently from how it is often used to mean the absence of war alone.

    As well as thinking of shalom as a state of relational health, we can also think of it as a process, by which we come to flourish and become 'whole'. As a process, peace implies personal and social growth and, where there has been suffering, the particular type of growth that is healing, often facilitated by forgiveness. Quakers in Britain

Charis and shalom. Two good reasons why a Bible translator might just give up in despair.

    χάρις & שָׁלוֹם
Note: I am sadly aware that this does not do justice to either word. The entry for χάρις in the Liddell Scott Lexicon is about 2000 words long!


At Thu Oct 05, 06:23:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

This is the sort of thing that led W.V.O. Quine to argue that translation is in principle impossible, since the exact meaning of any word in one language isn't going to line up with the exact meaning of any word in another language.

Surely we can't adopt such incredibly high standards. At the very least Christians shouldn't do so if we accept the New Testament as God's word, since the New Testament authors quote freely from the LXX, which does not translate the Hebrew exactly even in the cases the NT authors quote.

At Thu Oct 05, 09:54:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Suzanne, your post does present a difficult challenge for Bible translation. I agree with Jeremy that we can't accept the impossible standard of Quine. Translation *is* possible, although things often never exactly match up between the source and target languages. But the main message should come through very clearly and accurately.

One of the big challenges for these salutations is that they were a frozen expression, at least in N.T. epistles, and quite possibly among early Christians, and maybe even more widely in society.

We could transculturate to some English common greeting such as "Hi!" But I suspect that the writers of the N.T. epistles truly intended some of the original semantic content of the words used in the greetings to come across ni the greetings.

For myself, I'd try to find some English equivalent of charis since a "literal" translation of that word, "grace," is not used in contemporary English as it is used in the Bible.

I think "peace" is still understood with much (but not all) of the original biblical meaning, although few people get much of the Hebrew meaning of "shalom". I think they do a better job getting the meaning of Greek eirene.

I don't know what would be a contemporary English equivalent of Greek charis, but I do think it is an important enough issue that we need to put our heads together to try to think of possibilities.

Nice post!

At Thu Oct 05, 09:32:00 PM, Blogger bulbul said...

This is one of those moments that make me quite glad I mostly translate technical stuff and legislation these days. A terryfing thought...
While I certainly agree with Jeremy and Wayne, I cannot help but wonder whether those greetings really were frozen expressions to the recipients, let alone to the writer. It reminds me of the old exercise back at the college where we were given the full form of the standard muslim greeting and asked to translate it. Transculturating it to "good day" did work (and earned an A), but there is more to "as-salaamu alaykum wa rahmatu 'llahi wa barakatuhu" than just "Hi". Among other things, it serves to identify the speaker as a member of a particular (religious) group and so I wonder whether the same could apply to αρις υμιν και ειρηνη απο θεου πατρος ημων.
As for the "contemporary English equivalent", I'm afraid there are too many options. The most common greeting seems to be "Hello, how are you" which, as a non-native speaker of English, I must confess I've always found irritating. If anything, this is a perfect example of a frozen expression - after all, the speaker really does not express any interest in the other's emotional/physical state or well-being. It's just something we say. Call me crazy, but I can't imagine St. Paul being that - forgive the implication I'm making here - shallow. In fact I'd bet he meant every word he said or wrote.

At Thu Oct 05, 11:55:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I was thinking that Paul was identifying himself as both Jewish and Christian. That was my first inference.

At Fri Oct 06, 12:27:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

What about Aloha?

Just kidding.

But there's more to that than just a joke. The world is much flatter now than it's ever been. Suzanne writes from Vancouver. Jeremy comments from New York. Wayne chimes in from Washington (state). Bulbul comments from Slovakia, and I respond from Austria.

In this cosmopolitan age we are aware that other people in other places have customs and rituals that we can appreciate -- however shallowly. So we may not always have to insist that greeting/leave taking formulas be fully transculturated.

This line of thinking is also in the work of Ortega y Gasset which I've referenced before. His essay "The Misery and Splendor of Translation" is a must read for any translator. (Find a good English translation in The Translation Studies Reader, Venuti (ed.), Routledge 2000. It was originally written in Spanish.) Ortega y Gasset takes the position that translation is in principle impossible, although his life and work actually show just the opposite. He was a philosopher so he thought the issues through thoroughly. You'll find all the problems regarding translatability laid out there.

On a philosophical note, I have to disagree with bulbul that Paul meant everything he wrote. It is actually impossible for words that are parts of rituals to mean what they normally mean.

If you say, "Hi, how are you?" and the person actually tells you how they are, you won't be happy. "How are you?" is not a literal request for that information. That's the way ritual formulas work.

When xaris and shalom are part of an opening ritual, they mean less than they do elsewhere. (Bleached is the technical term.)

At Fri Oct 06, 08:21:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I am commenting from further east than Richard or Bulbul (from a country where the latter's name means "nightingale", and it's not Iran). Here "Salam aleyküm" (as spelled locally) or just "Salam" is the common greeting (the former formal, the latter informal), a loan from Arabic (and cognate of the Hebrew), without religious connotations and used also by Christians. But I know that in Turkey "Selâm" does have religious connotations, as it does among Arabs, and Christians in these areas tend to prefer alternative greetings like "Merhaba". I suppose my point is that such connotations are very flexible and localised, and we might expect the same in New Testament times - which might mean that evidence we can find for connotations in a different part of the Greek speaking world might in fact be rather misleading.

At Fri Oct 06, 09:36:00 AM, Blogger bulbul said...

What about Aloha?
The first thing that popped up to my mind when reading שָׁלוֹם was actually "Peace, yo!" (acompanied by the appropriate hand gesture) :o)

If you say, "Hi, how are you?" and the person actually tells you how they are, you won't be happy. "How are you?" is not a literal request for that information. That's the way ritual formulas work.
My point exactly. I suspect that these words which some may have treated as ritual formulas were anything but St. Paul. Just like with agapé and adelphos, he took the common words and transformed or adapted their meaning.

His essay "The Misery and Splendor of Translation" is a must read for any translator
Thank you for the recommendation, Richard, I will get right on it.

At Fri Oct 06, 10:34:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

I'll give the coveted Baloney Badge to anyone who can track down the Ortega y Gasset work online in English and Spanish, por favor.

Before reading these comments, I leaned toward Wayne's "frozen" take, although I'd like to call them "fossilized" or if I was feeling especially linguistically geeky, "semantically bleached." Such greetings could have retained a hint of their original meaning, though. But when I think of other examples like Goodbye and adios it seems probable that the greetings in Greek and Hebrew were just social formula lacking semantic intent.

Now, what is really fun, is Dr. Rich's aloha and the president of the seminary's shalom. These are in fact more semantically rich for non-native speakers than for native speakers! So for that reason it might be a mistranslation to transliterate greetings in the Bible since they would be more meaningful in translation than they were in the original.

Finally, after reading Suzanne's post I really and truly wish Shalom to all of you my multi-cultural friends. And my great hope is that when the Prince of Peace establishes his rule that we will truly experience global shalom.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home