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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Can you stomach translation of Matt. 1:18?

(Sorry for the bad pun in the title, but I'm not so sorry that I restrained myself from using it!)

The Greek of Matthew 1:18 is:
Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν. μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ Μαρίας τῷ Ἰωσήφ, πρὶν συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου.
Word-for-word translation to English is:
but Jesus Christ-of the birth thus was.
betrothed the mother of-him Mary the-to
Joseph-to, before they.came.together was.found in
belly having by spirit holy.
The Greek that we want to focus on in this post is ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα (en gastri exousa), translated literally, word-for-word, as "in belly having" or, rearranged closer to English word order, "having in belly." This is how the meaning for 'be pregnant' was expressed in the Greek of the New Testament.

For a number of months there has been a poll (red background) in the right margin of this blog which has asked how you would express that Greek meaning of being pregnant in English "As you normally speak and write..." Many of you have responded and I thank you for that. It is time to discuss the results (and shortly remove the poll):

(There was a typo in the poll introduction in the reference. It should have been Matt. 1:18 instead of 1:28, but that typo should not have influenced the poll itself, and I believe we may have discussed the typo soon after the poll was posted on this blog.)

Nearly one half of the total of 413 respondents indicated they they would "normally speak and write" the Greek meaning of being pregnant with the English words "was pregnant." So for Matt. 1:18, these respondents would, presumably, translate all of the Greek of this verse similar to this:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. (NET)
35% of respondents answered that their normal way of speaking or writing the meaning of the Greek would be to say that Mary "was with child." I find this answer interesting as well as surprising. I say surprising because I have never heard anyone "normally speak or write" that someone was pregnant by saying that they were "with child." But perhaps there are more than a third of the visitors to this blog who do normally speak or write that way. Or, maybe my instructions for the poll were not clear enough when I wrote that responses should be "As you normally speak and write..." Or, perhaps my instructions were clear, but the fact that the poll referred to a Bible verse may have had more influence over poll results than the instruction to answer "As you normally speak and write..." It may be that many of you who answered "was with child" did so based on your familiarity with one or more Bible versions which use that wording, rather than "As you normally speak and write..."

For those who are interested in the issue of literal or essentially literal or word-for-word translation, we should note that "was with child" is not translated according to any of these translation approaches. English "was with child" is no closer in form to literal "having in the belly" than is English "was expecting" or "was pregnant." Each of the English translations refers to the same thing. They all mean the same except that wordings such as "was in a family way," "was expecting," and "was with child" are euphemisms, less direct than "was pregnant." There used to be a cultural taboo against English speakers using the word "pregnant" publicly. That taboo seems to be gone today.

I would invite comments from you all on the poll results. Do you feel you answered the poll "As you normally speak and write..." or did you answer more according to how you remember some Bible version has translated the Greek for being pregnant?

If you did not respond with "with child" you are still welcome to comment on the poll results.

Another question which could be discussed is: How might we write the instructions for poll questions more clearly when we desire to know how people normally speak and write, if that is different from how they speak or write when using Bible English?

Perhaps someone might want to comment on any literary superiority that any of the poll answer options might have over any other options.

The floor is now open to discussion. As always, let's please keep our comments gracious. There were no right or wrong answers for this poll, so there is no need to criticize anyone for their answers in the poll (or even their comments to this post).

Yet, as we think about what kind of language to use in Bible translations, it is appropriate to ask how people normally speak and write and try to determine if this is the same as or different from how they speak and write within the context of a religious community. We can even ask what the advantages and disadvantages are of having a special religious dialect different from how people normally speak and write. Such questions are not intended to criticize anyone.

Language study is simply that, study of observations of how people speak and/or write. And Bible translation uses language which can be studied. Bible translators choose what kind of language to use in their translations. By discussing observations of language usage and advantages and disadvantages of using different kinds of dialects in Bible translations, we may be able to contribute to the effort to make better Bibles, including the effort being made today from some Bible translations teams (such as TNIV, NET, ESV, and ISV) to improve their translations. Click on links to those translations in the right margin of this blog, if you wish information on how you can submit suggestions for improvements for them. And if you don't find the information you are looking for, ask in a comment.


At Thu Feb 22, 03:29:00 AM, Blogger Carl W. Conrad said...

Wayne, I am astounded that you do an "interlinear" sort of version at all (it's a pretty good caricature of the word-form by word-form notion of how sentence-meaning emerges), but what disturbs me most about your initial version is not the "having in belly) part but rather the "they" in your "they was found" for εὑρέθη. Since the subject is obviously not neuter plural. Ohhhhhhh ... I see: "they" goes with "came together" rather than 'was found." This is an awfully tricky new kind of ἀπὸ κοινοῦ construction suitable for use in "interlinear" type versions.
So I ask: "Is it a matter of 'in belly having' or 'in cheek tongue'"?

"but Jesus Christ-of the birth thus was. betrothed the mother of him Mary to the Joseph-to, before came together they was found in belly having by spirit holy."

At Thu Feb 22, 07:19:00 AM, Blogger BruceA said...

Re: "with child," I have some southern relatives who use that phrase. It may be a regional thing, or they may use it because of their familiarity with a particular Bible translation.

At Thu Feb 22, 07:56:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Carl asked:

This is an awfully tricky new kind of ἀπὸ κοινοῦ construction suitable for use in "interlinear" type versions.
So I ask: "Is it a matter of 'in belly having' or 'in cheek tongue'"?

My interlinear was rather bad in spots, wasn't it? You're right about "they"; I had noticed the problem also but had a mental lapse over a solution. We linguists often use periods to join English words that correspond to a single word in another language. I think I'll do that here, as well. So, here goes a touch up (or is that touch.up?!) of my interlinear.


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