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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Be readers of this post!

Each Sunday we have a children's sermon in the middle of our church service. Often the children's sermon relates to the adult sermon which follows. Today during their sermon the children were asked if they knew what it meant to imitate someone. Someone gave a correct answer. Then they were asked to imitate a dog and a newborn baby. They got the sounds for both right.

But before that part of the children's sermon, this verse was read from our pew Bible, the NRSV:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children (Eph. 5:1)
I noticed that the lady who gave the children's sermon said that we are to "imitate God." I also noticed, during the adult sermon, that our senior pastor told us that we are to "imitate God."

Notice that neither person told their congregation to "be imitators of God"? Why did they change from "be imitators of God" to "imitate God"? The answer should be obvious: they made the change because "imitate God" is the natural way they express the meaning that is the same in both wordings.

The NRSV, like other (essentially) literal translations, including the ASV, RSV, NKJV, NWT, NASB, NAB, ESV, NIV, HCSB, and ISV, translate the underlying Greek word-for-word, except for rearranging the words to a more natural word order:
ginesthe oun mimetai tou theou
be therefore imitators the.of god.of
therefore be imitators of God (NRSV)
The parts of speech of the Greek words were retained in English, including the noun mimetai 'imitators'. The English translation was kept as close as possible to the form of the Greek, even though no one naturally says or writes "be imitators of God."

Many believe that retaining the forms of the biblical languages, including parts of speech, is the proper way for Bible translation to be done, even if the result is not the most natural English. Often a theological reason is given, namely, "God spoke/inspired each word as he wanted it to be. We must not change God's words."

It is laudable to want to follow God (or, if you prefer, to want to be imitators of God!) and his words in the translation of the Bible. But matching up God's words so literally makes a translation sound foreign, as if God can't or won't speak natural English in a translation. Some, of course, believe that it is important for an English Bible to have this foreign sound. The technical term used when promoting this belief is "foreignizing" a translation (as opposed to "domesticizing" it).

I disagree that a translation of the Bible should sound linguistically foreign to its hearers. Now, please hear me: I am not saying that foreign cultural concepts in the Bible, such a sacrificing meat to idols, women wearing a covering on their heads, counting days from sunset to sunset (instead of midnight to midnight), greeting each other with a holy kiss should be converted ("transculturated") to some modern equivalent. I am only talking about the language we use to express the concepts in the Bible.

There is no "foreign" concept in the Greek of Eph. 5:1 that requires us to use the unnatural "be imitators of God" instead of the natural "imitate God" when we translate. Whether or not we use the "nounier" syntax "be imitators of God" is no more sacred or theologically accurate than if we use the more natural (for English) "verbier" syntax "imitate God."

I have found only one English version which actually says "imitate God". It is the God's Word translation. Other idiomatic English translations, however, express the same meaning using other natural wordings, for example:
Do as God does. (CEV)
Follow God's example (NLT)
you must be like [God] (REB)
try to be like [God] (TEV, NCV)
The TNIV is usually just as literal (sometimes more so) than the NIV that it revises. However, it uses more natural English in Eph. 5:1:
Follow God's example (TNIV)
Be imitators of God (NIV)
Can God speak natural English? Of course. Would he approve of English translations being written in natural English? I believe so.

Oh, in case you wondered, I would never naturally say or write "Be readers of this post!" as I did in the title to this post. I just wanted to catch your attention. I hoped you would sense that there was something odd about that way I worded it.

God's written Word is not linguistically odd. Its expressions were, for the most part, natural for the languages in which they were written (1). Similarly, translations of the Bible into other languages, including English, can be just as natural, not more natural, but no less natural.

-----
(1) other than some Hebraisms literally imported to the Greek of the New Testament by the Jewish writers of the New Testament who were steeped in those Hebraisms, and I suspect that those Hebraisms were so much a part of the language of those authors that they sounded natural to them even in the Greek they wrote

28 Comments:

At Sun Feb 17, 03:36:00 PM, Blogger Garrett Ho said...

Certainly I wouldn't object between translations that said "be imitators of God" nor "imitate God." I think either is a fine translation.

However, I wouldn't spend much energy arguing for either wording. While the latter is more contemporary in style, the former is still understandable. The English language hasn't changed enough so as to necessitate the update. Furthermore, there *may* be a good reason to stay with the more literal wording.

Is there a Greek verb for imitate? Could the author have used it in its imperative in order to achieve the same purpose? Considering that the verb "be" comes first, perhaps there is an emphasis that falls upon it.

That being said, there is no individual Bible translation that is best for all people. But just as it holds true for literal translations, I just write to remind that it holds equally true for dynamic translations as well. Praise the Lord for both!

 
At Sun Feb 17, 03:53:00 PM, Blogger mike said...

Wayne, in light of recent comments on my TNIV/NIV comparisons, its a breath of fresh air to read your sane words concerning translation.

 
At Sun Feb 17, 03:56:00 PM, Blogger ScriptureZealot said...

When the kids imitated the dog and the baby they were doing "imitations" of sounds as opposed to thinking and then acting like them. To me, to "imitate God" can be like a comedian being an impressionist, mimic or doing impersonations of a famous person. But the word be adds more meaning to me.

As far as my personal favorite translation it would be:
you must be like [God] (REB)

Many can imitate, resemble or mimic without really being like Him.
Jeff

 
At Sun Feb 17, 08:05:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

This seems to be a case similar to the "mysterious" translation in which there is an association between the Greek term and a word in English that no longer carries the same connotations. But the translators take a step away from saying "mime God!"

My kids were really found it interesting that the Greek word for "witchcraft" is related to our word for "pharmacy."

"Do as God does", "follow God's example" and "be like God" are all quite different when you think about it.

 
At Mon Feb 18, 03:02:00 AM, Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

I keep trying to get you to read the New Jerusalem Bible, and here I go again:
"As God's dear children, then, take him as your pattern"

 
At Mon Feb 18, 04:28:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Make yourselves imitators of God as beloved children,
--Richmond Lattimore

Imitate God, since you are the children he loves.
--God’s Word

As children copy their fathers you, as God's children, are to copy him.
--J. B. Philips

You are dearly loved children of God. Imitate him,
--Ann Nyland

 
At Mon Feb 18, 09:01:00 AM, Blogger Charity said...

I agree that "be imitators" doesn't sound very natural in English. However I'm not sure that "imitate" would convey all the meaning. This can be seen strangely enough in the humourous title of your post "be readers...".

It seems to me that "read this post" means you're just going to read it once. "Be readers..." would mean spending your life reading it again and again.

So you could just imitate God once, but "be imitators" suggests that we are to spend our lives imitating him.

I quite like the J.B. Philips translation posted by j.k. gayle

 
At Mon Feb 18, 11:39:00 AM, Blogger Peter said...

"God's written Word is not linguistically odd. Its expressions were, for the most part, natural for the languages in which they were written"

Sorry if this is an ignorant question, but how do we know that? For example, I understand that one of the Qumran scrolls has provided text similar in form to the beatitudes - does that show it was a common linguistic form, or confirm that it was a religious language form?

 
At Mon Feb 18, 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter asked:

Sorry if this is an ignorant question, but how do we know that?

Many manuscripts with the same dialect of Greek as that of the New Testament have been found. These manuscripts confirm that the language of the N.T. is natural. It was a common language of the time period when Jesus was on earth and when the N.T. was being written. All this shows that the N.T. was not written in a special sacred dialect (or "Holy Ghost language"), as some had previously claimed.

We would do well to have our translations in English in corresponding common language dialects of English. There is no precedent in the N.T. nor in most of the Hebrew Bible for the Bible being written in any obsolete, unnatural, or awkward language as is found in many English Bible versions.

 
At Mon Feb 18, 01:40:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

There is no precedent in the N.T. nor in most of the Hebrew Bible for the Bible being written in any obsolete, unnatural, or awkward language as is found in many English Bible versions.

Is "most of the Hebrew Bible" a hedging for the possibility that the LXX translators created some "obsolete, unnatural, or awkward" Greek when trying to bring across the Hebrew words/meanings?

 
At Mon Feb 18, 01:45:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

>Charity,
I like the way you get us thinking about the different meanings of an English phrase.

>Charity and Wayne,
You've prompted me playfully to ask, Can any of us translate and also talk about translation? Here, I'm issuing a fun challenge or two to any of you. There will be prizes for the winner! :)

 
At Mon Feb 18, 01:55:00 PM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

This points out one of the problems with children's sermons. Taken in context this is about loving others as God/Christ loves us, not about either miming or acting like. My guess is the average kid thinks of a guy in a white robe walking around with his hands together in a prayerful pose. One needs to be careful with focusing on one word to the exclusion of the rest of the sentence much less the preceding paragraph, very careful with this with kids. Do we really want a kid giving himself up as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God, much less understand it. It is the rest of the sentence. Or do they think that they aren't supposed to do anything bad because God is perfect, which they aren't. Does this benefit our children or ourselves in a 5 minutes or less exposition.
Also this looks like it should go more with 4:29 not as 5 the lead in to sexual immorality.

 
At Mon Feb 18, 02:20:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kurk asked:

Is "most of the Hebrew Bible" a hedging for the possibility that the LXX translators created some "obsolete, unnatural, or awkward" Greek when trying to bring across the Hebrew words/meanings?

No, it doesn't refer to the LXX. It refers to the Hebrew Bible only, and is intended to allow for the possibility--which some scholars suggest--that some of the Hebrew Bible was written in a higher register of Hebrew than that spoken or written more commonly.

Your point is well taken about the translation of the LXX, but that is a different matter, of course. The translation approach taken by the LXX translators and translation issues found in the LXX deserve many blog posts of their own.

 
At Mon Feb 18, 02:54:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

"(1) other than some Hebraisms literally imported to the Greek of the New Testament by the Jewish writers of the New Testament who were steeped in those Hebraisms, and I suspect that those Hebraisms were so much a part of the language of those authors that they sounded natural to them even in the Greek they wrote."

Wayne,

The real question in this is not whether or not such Hebraisms were "part of the language of those authors" but whether or not such Hebraisms were part of the language of their readers. That is an entirely different question that remains open in my mind. Moreover, it more accurately represents the matter in question here.

Jeremy

 
At Mon Feb 18, 03:25:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Jeremy commented:

The real question in this is not whether or not such Hebraisms were "part of the language of those authors" but whether or not such Hebraisms were part of the language of their readers. That is an entirely different question that remains open in my mind. Moreover, it more accurately represents the matter in question here.

I agree that yours is an important question, Jeremy. But for composition of a text, our initial questions are about the authors. We assume, correctly, I believe, that the authors *assume* that their readers will understand their Hebraisms. But an author can use borrowed terms with the assumption of hearer understanding, where that assumption is not valid. I hope that most Hebraisms in the Greek of the N.T. were understood by readers of that Greek, but we don't really know. All we have is the data that the authors wrote and we can assume, accurately, I believe, some things about which languages those authors knew. In the case of the N.T. authors I assume that all of the, except perhaps for the Gentile doctor Luke, were conversant in both Aramaic and Hellenistic Greek. Most, if not all, may also have at least been able to read Biblical Hebrew.

Am I missing anything in the question you are asking?

 
At Mon Feb 18, 03:32:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Steve Cat commented:

Taken in context this is about loving others as God/Christ loves us, not about either miming or acting like.

Steve, are you suggesting that the context of the Greek of Eph. 5:1 that I wrote about is limited to loving others as God/Christ loves us? If so, what evidence do you have for this. Note that there is a kai which follows the command of 5:1a. It could conceivably be an ascensive kai which would support your suggestion. But I'm not sure that we can definitively call this an ascensive kai.

I agree with you that verses, and even parts of verses, are often pulled out of context and so misinterpreted. But please do share with us your evidence for believing that that was done in the children's sermon. I'm always eager to understand Bible passages more accurately.

 
At Mon Feb 18, 06:25:00 PM, Blogger Steve Cat said...

Interesting point, don't know anything about ascensive kai. Just as I said the context of the paragraph beginning with 4:29, and ending with sexual immorality is about this love.

I guess you are looking at a much finer word/language based analysis.

We are not gods of any kind. To truly imitate the mind and manner of God in all things is not only ego/self centric it is impossible.

It assumes some sort of works based redemption and to me is counter to what Christ's grace was all about. Love your neighbor as yourself as I have loved you seem more intuitive to me.

I think I'm in the wrong place for this kind of discussion, which is certainly not to imply I think you are wrong.

 
At Mon Feb 18, 06:36:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Wayne replies:
Your point is well taken about the translation of the LXX, but that is a different matter, of course. The translation approach taken by the LXX translators and translation issues found in the LXX deserve many blog posts of their own.

But Matthew (19:4-6) and Mark (or Peter in Mark 10:5-9) complicate things. They're translating the spoken Aramaic words of Jesus as he also quotes the old Hebrew scriptures.

A number questions follow from this:

1. When Jesus is NOT quoting the scriptures, do Matthew and Mark use odd Greek to imitate the syntax (or some word play) of Jesus's Aramaic?

2. When Jesus is quoting the scriptures (what we mark as Genesis 1:27, 5:2, & 2:24), is HE quoting the LXX, with the paraphrasing we must note?

3. Or is Jesus possibly quoting the old Hebrew verbatim, and then Matthew and Mark are translating that into Greek? (This is unlikely as the scriptures quoted seem to be directly or paraphrased from LXX)

4. Or is Matthew quoting Mark, who quotes the LXX, again with their respective variations?

I guess there are three main points here:

A) The quoted scripture translated into Greek as the speech of Jesus precisely follows the old Hebrew syntax (neither necessarily good Aramaic syntax nor rightly natural Greek syntax). We might think of it as odd Greek. We could quote how you say this about our odd English translations: "The [Greek] translation was kept as close as possible to the form of the [Hebrew], even though no one [Greek speaker then] naturally sa[id] or wr[ote]" it that way." Even if Matthew and Mark are simply copying awkward Greek (e.g., from LXX), or even if they're quoting Jesus quoting the awkward (LXX) Greek, then why? Why wouldn't they smooth out their translation for their Greek readers?

B) When NT writers translate Aramaic speakers quoting scripture, and when the resulting Greek is odd, do English translators smooth out the Greek as better English (even though originally it's not the smoothest, if perhaps literally faithful to the Hebrew, Greek)?

C) There is danger in translating the old Hebrew and the newer (awkward) Greek differently. Willis Barnstone, for example, makes the good point that English translations make him "Jesus" in the gospels (although he's "Joshua" or "Yeshua" in the sixth book of the Jews).

BTW, this is a great post, and a great series of smart and fun comments! Thanks for taking time with us.

 
At Mon Feb 18, 07:38:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kurk, as usually happens when I post, sharp minds think of things I didn't think of. Let me just say that quotes have some special difficulties in translation. I can also say that I was focusing on narrative and epistle type material which did not include quotes which can suffer from the unnaturalness issues you correctly bring up.

 
At Mon Feb 18, 07:48:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Steve wrote:

We are not gods of any kind. To truly imitate the mind and manner of God in all things is not only ego/self centric it is impossible.

It is, indeed, Steve. But even Jesus said, "Be perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect." Can we be perfect? No. But Jesus still set it up as the standard. And Paul told the believers at Ephesus to live lives which are like the character and actions of God. Definitely love is one of those character traits (and actions), clearly mentioned in the very next command in Eph. 5. Then verse 3 begins a section in which we are told to avoid a number of sins.

Please don't read into my post something I haven't suggested. I have not claimed at all that we can become gods of any kind.

I simply tried to raise the question of what English is more natural to translate some Greek. The Greek clearly has the idea of imitating someone, trying to be like them. To imitate someone does not mean that we are like them in every respect. I want to imitate God by following his commands and desires for my life. I suspect that you do also. If there is a better word than "imitate" to translate the Greek word, let's use that. I believe in getting the message of each passage of the Bible translated clearly, accurately, and naturally into English and thousands of other languages around the world.

 
At Tue Feb 19, 04:46:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Steve, it would be presumptuous of us to imitate God if God had not both told us to do so and, in Jesus, provided us a human example of how he intends it to be done within the limitations of a human body and mind.

Kurk, you wrote:

Or is Jesus possibly quoting the old Hebrew verbatim, and then Matthew and Mark are translating that into Greek? (This is unlikely as the scriptures quoted seem to be directly or paraphrased from LXX)

Here you seem to discount the possibility that the LXX as we have it has been adjusted to match the NT quotations from the OT. This is perfectly possible as the earliest surviving MSS of LXX, apart from some fragments, are from Christian sources well into the Christian era. There are in fact known places where LXX (at least in some MSS) quotes the NT: see for example Psalm 13:3 LXX, corresponding to 14:3 in English versions, where there is a long insertion taken from Romans 3:13-18 made up of quotations from elsewhere in the OT.

 
At Tue Feb 19, 09:06:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Wayne replies:

I can also say that I was focusing on narrative and epistle type material which did not include quotes which can suffer from the unnaturalness issues you correctly bring up.

Fair enough. But Paul's οὖν ("oun" or "therefore") seems to point us back directly enough to his quotations of Zechariah and of David, which Paul also translates to Greek. And aren't all of our English translations now quotations of the writers of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts? I'm really not trying to make sharp points here, but my dull mind can't seem to get around the practices of the earliest simultaneous translators or literal textual translators of the Bible.

Peter replies:

Here you seem to discount the possibility that the LXX as we have it has been adjusted to match the NT quotations from the OT.

Also a very good point and a definite possibility. So in I Cor. 15:45, maybe Paul actually wrote something like γήινος ("geinos" or "earthling") as his translation of the word play in אֶת־הָאָדָם, which gets spoiled by the later LXX match and the editor's later transliteration Ἀδὰμ ("adam"). The transliteration is, we see, inserted over and around Paul's quotation of Genesis 2:7--he's trying to say that the first earthling of earth is like the last one who came from the sky. But the Greek speakers in Corinth already have ἄνθρωπος of the earth in sharp contrast with any θεός of the sky, which makes the transliteration of the Hebrew odd Greek. Could Paul have really written/translated it thusly: ἐγένετο ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος Γήινος εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν ὁ ἔσχατος Γήινος εἰς πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν? The speculative possibilities should say something helpful for our contemporary English translation practice (and theory based in good practice). But do they?

 
At Tue Feb 19, 09:31:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kurk responded:

And aren't all of our English translations now quotations of the writers of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts? I'm really not trying to make sharp points here, but my dull mind can't seem to get around the practices of the earliest simultaneous translators or literal textual translators of the Bible.

OK, Kurk, I think I understand what you're getting at. Sorry for being slow (of heart, or is it slow of mind?!).

My personal opinion is that as we do Bible translation into English or any other language we should not follow the practices of the authors of the N.T. or translators of the LXX when they translated. I realize that this may sound like heresy, but I really do have a high view of scripture and I really do believe that the Holy Spirit was involved when the authors wrote the N.T. But that does *not* mean that the Holy Spirit caused the LXX translators or N.T. authors to follow the best translation techniques. To my mind it is similar to how Paul tells us that the things in the Hebrew Bible were written as examples for us. We don't have to follow David exactly in being a murderer and an adulterer in order to learn from his life how to be "a man after God's own heart." In the same way, we don't have to learn from the N.T. authors or LXX translators how we should translate accurate and naturally today. We are not creating *new* inspired texts. We are simply translating texts that are already written.

What do you think?

 
At Tue Feb 19, 10:08:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Wayne, I think you're brilliant. I'll be mulling over your clear answer for a long time. Thanks!

 
At Tue Feb 19, 11:25:00 AM, OpenID num1fish said...

What about the psychology of what "unnatural English" does in the hearts and minds of the hearers today?

Of course there is need for clear and current language, to reach those who are just dabbling. For instance, a young person who is not yet a Christian and just "skips over" the difficult passages.

My personal experience may be odd, but I relish having my attention "caught" by an unusual turn of phrase. It makes me pay attention. It makes me want to know "why that phrase in just that way." When my attention is not "caught" by the unusual, the text is easily taken at face value and desire for looking deeper, thinking through, searching out is often not awakened.

Is it possible that the "common language" we have today can "steal" the potential of the Word just as surely as a "mis-translation?"

 
At Tue Feb 19, 11:38:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Is it possible that the "common language" we have today can "steal" the potential of the Word just as surely as a "mis-translation?"

Yes, it is possible, just as the common language of the original biblical texts might have done. I personally think that we should translate into English that is of the same kind of language that the original biblical texts were written in. Somehow God wanted that kind of language to speak to people. We could do far worse, eh?!

 
At Tue Feb 19, 12:22:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Kurk, your speculation about Γήινος is interesting, but it is not what I was writing. I was referring only to later adjustments of the LXX text, not of the NT text. Of course the latter may also have been adjusted after it was written, but there is a considerable body of early MSS which in this case provide no evidence for your speculation - except that the early MS P46 omits the second Adam in this verse.

I must say I suspect that the Hebrew etymologising connection of Adam with adama "ground" is a modern idea which would not have been taken seriously by the LXX translators or Paul.

 
At Thu Feb 21, 01:36:00 AM, Blogger theologien said...

Having spent hours in the slough of despond trying to grind out a good translation that at least sounds like the mother tongue I speak, I appreciate what you have to say about this.

However, I find that the more I learn to speak French (I live in France currently), the more I understand that most translation is too mechanical, too machine-like in its attempt to render faithfully the original language.

First, take these comments as observations, not criticisms, I have no theological or linguistic bone to pick with you about what you wrote.

You wrote:
ginesthe oun mimetai tou theou
be therefore imitators the.of god.of
therefore be imitators of God (NRSV)

The point is the phrase "the.of" is really not a good way to handle the "literal" translation of this text. Greek, I think, is much like French, in that the articles are there, but don't lend themselves to the twisted americanese we wrap around them. With French, I find that the definite article is often a noun marker and not much more.

Therefore, what is a perfectly good construction in Greek is actually a prepositional phrase in English. The French use l'appareil photo for what we call a camera. the l' is the definite article you use before a vowel in a noun. I would not translate that as "the apparatus photo," but as "camera".

Therefore, what is a perfectly good construction in Greek is actually a prepositional phrase in English.

I think it is more than dynamic equivalence that is in mind here. It is how language works. We learn Greek (and Hebrew, for that matter) the way that we learn to do puzzles, a piece at a time.

I guess the question then becomes, do we learn Greek in order to understand what Paul or Peter, etc., wrote, or do we learn Greek in order to understand our english bible better?

Having said that, the problem is still what do we do with the language as we try to translate it? Is the way that the TNIV handles the text "Follow God's example" (TNIV) really better than the NIV "Be imitators of God (NIV)"?

I don't particularly like either one, but that is a matter of english style, perhaps and less an issue of translation.

 

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