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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Translating Hebrews 11:1

I am currently keyboarding the translation of Hebrews 11 into the Cheyenne language. Typing verse 1 reminded me that I have not understood a number of English translations of this verse. Let me explain. Here is the KJV and NKJV rendering:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
I memorized that wording 50 years ago. There are no obsolete words or syntax. Yet, when the words and syntax are all put together, I don't understand what they mean. For me, they lack coherence.

I know what "substance" means. I know what something "hoped for" means. But I do not know what "substance of things hoped for" means.

I know what "evidence" means. I can get meaning from "things not seen" and can imagine some things that might qualify. But when the words are put together as "the evidence of things not seen," I don't know what those words mean.

Let's see if I do any better with another translation of Heb. 11:1, found in at least four English versions:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (RSV, NRSV, ESV, NASB)
This wording doesn't make sense to me either. I don't know what "assurance of things hoped for" is. Something is missing, for me, for this to be coherent English. It would make sense to me if, for instance, we filled in some missing semantic elements, such as saying:
Now faith means that we are assured that things we hope for are going to happen
I am not suggesting that this is a better translation, only that this wording is now coherent.

Similarly, I do not know what "conviction of things hoped for" means. I know what "conviction" is, but when we combine it with "of things hoped for", the result does not make sense. Again, we can tweak it to make sense if we added some implicit semantic elements, such as saying:
the conviction that things not seen actually do exist
I do not understand the HCSB translation of Heb. 11:1:
Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.
As with the preceding wordings, there are semantic elements missing here required for the sentence to be coherent for me.

Surprisingly, the TEV/GNT, an idiomatic translation, has a wording which does not make sense for me, either:
To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see.
That sentence is almost coherent for me, but not quite. Something is still missing for it to make sense to me.

Similarly, the following translations are almost coherent for me, but not quite:
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (NIV, TNIV)

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. (NET)
The second clause of the God's Word translation makes sense to me, but the first clause does not:
Faith assures us of things we expect and convinces us of the existence of things we cannot see. (GW)
The first clause would make sense to me if it were worded:
Faith assures us that things we expect are going to happen
The reverse is true for the NLT:
What is faith? It is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see.
I understand the first sentence following the introductory question. But I do not understand the second sentence. Something is missing.

The same is true for the CEV, which, overall, is one of the most coherent English translations to me:
Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we cannot see.
I do not understand what it means for something to give us "proof of what we cannot see". I would understand it if it were worded:
proof that what we cannot see exists
When I began this post, I assumed that I would find some English translations of Heb. 11:1 which made sense to me, but, so far, I have not found any which make sense for both of the clauses in the original Greek. Perhaps the REB, which takes a different tack with "substance," does:
FAITH gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of realities we do not see.
Maybe I am asking too much. Or perhaps English translators do not ask enough, such as whether or not every sentence they translate makes sense to their audiences. And how can they find out whether or not they make sense? By asking well formed field test questions of individuals in their audience.

Please remember, this post is only about coherence, that is, whether or not a wording makes sense. It is not about accuracy. That is a separate, and critically important, translation issue. And I am only speaking about what makes sense to me. Your mileage (or kilometrage!) may vary!


At Thu Dec 14, 12:19:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Wayne, your NLT quote is from the first edition (1996).

Is the NLTse (2004) any better in your estimation?

Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.

At Thu Dec 14, 12:39:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rick asked:

Is the NLTse (2004) any better in your estimation?

Yes, Rick. It is all coherent to me in NLT2. Thanks. I didn't realize I was copying from a NLT1 database.

At Fri Dec 15, 01:34:00 PM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Wayne, I wrestled with this text, too, trying to understand what it meant within its context. I finally decided to render verseS 1-3 this way in The Better Life Bible:

"Our ancestors demonstrated long ago that following God’s advice is the only way the world can be restored to the way it was when God originally created it."

This reflects the view that faith involves appropriate behavior (following God's advice). The idea of restoring the world comes from KATARTIZW TOUS AIWNAS in verse three, a very Jewish concept and appropriate for the book of Hebrews.

At Fri Dec 15, 08:28:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...


Thanks for bringing up the subject of coherence. I found the glossary at the bible translation site had some helpful info on coherence (although the second link was broken).

When I first started getting the hang of your thesis I thought, "Maybe if these words are looked at in context they will make more sense." But on closer inspection that isn't the case. It looks to me like the word de is a development particle here indicating that the writer is beginning a new section of the discourse. It's strange that a number of the translations use "now." In this usage, it indicates a sort of parenthetical aside made by the writer. Now, I could be wrong here but that's the way it seems to me! :)

Another interesting question is the relation of the two clauses. I favor the translations that join them with "and." This is certainly stylized language and probably just poetic parallelism rather than an assertion that faith is two different things. Now, I could be wrong; my morning coffee hasn't quite hit me yet.

At Sat Dec 16, 12:36:00 PM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Lingamish, I agree that the two clauses appear to convey the same idea. In "Doublets in the New Testament", Bruce Moore lists them as a synonymous doublet.


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