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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Isaiah 63:1 - when "in" is out

Many English Bible versions use the preposition "in" in odd ways, using non-standard English. (They import biblical language syntax, rather than using English syntax.) An email message on a Bible translation discussion list just tipped me off to the odd usage of "in" in several translations of Isaiah 63:1:
  • I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save. (KJV)
  • It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save. (ESV)
  • It is I who speak in righteousness, mighty to save. (NASB)
  • It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save. (NIV, TNIV)
I don't think I have ever heard or read a fluent speaker of English say "speak(ing) in righteousness". What is that wording intended to mean?

Oswalt in the NICOT commentary series answers:
One should not overlook the preposition B on [tsedakah]. It makes plain that righteousness is not what God speaks, but the manner in which he speaks.
The semantics of manner in English is typically worded with adverbs, not "in" phrases. I am suggesting to the TNIV team that they revise to:
It is I, speaking righteously ...
(On a side note, the wording "mighty to save" strikes my ear as non-standard English, as well. I have suggested to the TNIV team that they revise that to "having the power to save.")

Are there English versions that translate Is. 63:1 "speaking in righteousness" in more standard English? Yes, here are some:
  • It is I, announcing vindication (RSV, NRSV; note that the ESV (above) revises this to the more literal and non-standard English)
  • It is I, proclaiming victory (REB)
  • It is I, proclaiming vindication (HCSB)
  • It is I, the one who announces vindication (NET)
  • It is I, the LORD. I am coming to announce my victory. (GW)
  • I, the LORD, speak what is right. (NCV; note that this chooses the exegesis that Oswalt says is not in the Hebrew)


At Wed Dec 05, 12:28:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

This is a really difficult one. For what does "speak righteously" mean or imply in English, I suspect that here the צְדָקָה quality of the speaking is linked to the imagery or the (conquering?) king, and the only English usage of "righteous" which fits is dialectal (to at least Holywood African Americans)!

"Speak righteously" seems to me in English to carry all the wrong overtones of self-righteous priggery!

At Wed Dec 05, 12:29:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

PS: It is long-winded, but how about something like "with righteous authority"

At Wed Dec 05, 01:19:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tim suggested:

It is long-winded, but how about something like "with righteous authority"

It works for me, Tim. I will add it to my suggestion for that verse for the TNIV team.

At Wed Dec 05, 10:58:00 PM, Blogger 2close260 said...

When I first learnt Greek and Hebrew, I already had a close relationship with prepositions and accurately translating them (I learnt French and German at school). The first meaning of in is "within". If you are in the house, you are not near the house, not coming towards it or in the actual process of going into it. It's where you are. So "in righteousness" you are in the 'state' (house?) of righteousness - a normal position with God. For we Christians, our appropriation of God's righteousness is thru Christ's death and resurrection in our steads.

At Thu Dec 06, 05:39:00 AM, Blogger flacius1551 said...

Not sure I see the issue here. This is fairly common English usage for discussing a condition of mind, as in "speaking in anger," "speaking in joy," "speaking in sorrow," etc. It's not the most common usage, but it's not like I never heard it before. This is nitpicking.

At Thu Dec 06, 09:21:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Anger, joy and sorrow are all emotions, "righteousness" - whatever it means in this use, and that is open to some discussion - is not an emotion (unless you think it is self-righteousness, which might be though of as a quasi-emotion ;)

At Mon Dec 10, 10:43:00 AM, Blogger Mark O'Hearn said...

Let me first comment how much I enjoy the Better Bibles Blog and all the information it provides for folks like me interested in English Bible translations.

To be frank I only prefer (trust) more literal translations (presently NASB, NKJV, KJV, ESV & HCSB). Of course no English translation is without some degree of interpretation (and error for that matter), and why those in defence of more interpretative versions make mention of this reality in a derogatory manner more than puzzles me.

In any event, as a simple believer in Christ I fall back onto the sure promises of the Word of God in preserving the original words (Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek). I believe many Christians believe that only a focused attempt to translate those very words directly into modern English should be the goal of translation.

Of course this work does involve some degree of interpretation. However, there is a danger when we focus on what we believe we think these words/sentences/paragraphs mean instead of endeavouring as best as we can to simply translating them into modern English words.

It would be my opinion that we already have enough literal translations that provide sufficient interpretation to assist in our comprehension of God’s Word. Again as we move our focus from translating as literally as possible these preserved words to what we think they mean, we begin to rely more and more on the translators and less on what God has already provided to His Church.

Despite what some argue, words are vitally important and they of course convey meaning all by themselves. In order to truly understand the Bible one must be spiritual (born again) since it is a spiritual book. Also, while the Bible is not difficult to understand (though some certainly feel differently), it does take some real work on our part to mine the treasures that we have been given.

The precise use of words are critical when comparing certain passages from the Old and New Testaments. Word substitution makes this impossible. While I appreciate, and refer to a translation such as the NIV, it has often failed me many times when undertaking word studies. On the other hand, I do often appreciate it’s translation of certain idioms, but I believe these can be ascertain with careful study without the loss of word accuracy.

To conclude I do not questioned the ability or even the sincerity of those involved in producing so-called thought-for-thought translations, but I do believe the further our focus is from just translating the words that have been preserved instead of the thought behind them we increasingly place ourselves in greater danger on depending too much on work (and failings) of scholars.

The test of a translation should not be based upon its ease of reading, but on whether it has been faithful to the manuscripts. Perhaps for many we are just at the crossroad where this danger cannot be readily seen, especially in light of some of the strengths that such translations provide to the casual reader (i.e., idioms), but I fear it will become more of an issue as time goes on.

Already we are seeing changes made with regards to gender based on the thought approach. It is conceivable that as modern translators instil contemporary “spiritualism” into their translation works, even the pillars of the Christian faith could be eroded – but of course under the guise of easier reading for its readers.

Respectfully submitted for consideration.


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