Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, September 28, 2020

Literary Power and the Indefinite Article (Matt 5:38)

Do you read your translation out loud? Even in first year Greek class, I think this is a valuable exercise and will change the way you translate.

I came across what appeared to be an oddity in the NIV, but when I read it out loud I could hear why they did what they did. This goes back to the 1984 edition.

Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’” Every other translation uses the indefinite article. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (ESV).

Of course, both translations are accurate. Since Greek does not have an indefinite article, we tell first year students they can use them whenever they think the English would benefit or require them. But the Bible is not meant only to be read; it is meant to be heard, and part of the translation process is to hear and not just see the text.

I read somewhere that John Piper said, “I write to be read and speak to be heard.” Good point. What works in written text does not always work in spoken speech, but I am amazed at how often I read out loud what I have written, and it just feels awkward. The next time you translate “do not,” read it out loud and then say the same translation but with the contraction “don’t.” What do you hear?

One of the things I am working on these days is how to help first year Greek students get away from translating word-or-word (which the teacher still needs to confirm the students know the Greek constructions) and translate into natural English. One of the ways to do this is to read your translation out loud and ask yourself if anyone would buy a Bible with that kind of translation.

When I read the NIV out loud, I hear the rhetorical force of “Eye for eye” and “Tooth for tooth.” What do you think?


Your discussion on this reminds me of something that has always bugged me with the ESV translation and maybe you can shed more light. Passages such as Luke 5:29, 7:37 etc. say, "reclining at table" instead of simply "reclining" or "reclining at THE table". Why did the ESV translators choose to translate it without the article "the" in it? When I read it aloud, it sounds wrong.

Janice makes an interesting point, but I guess "reclining at table" without the definite article is akin to "going to bed", "eating breakfast", etc.