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Lost in Pronouns (Luke 11:22)

In an attempt to be as word-for-word as possible, sometimes some translations get lost in a sea of pronouns, making it difficult for the reader to understand what is being said.

The argument for doing so is that if the reader works at it, they can generally figure out what is being said. I understand that argument and see its value. However, part of translation — in fact part of writing in general — is to be understandable.

In regular writing, the reader should not have to work to figure out what the writer is saying. The reader may have to work to understand the concept behind the words, but not what the words are saying.

This is as simple as using specific language. If I use the word “right,” the reader has to process the semantic range of the word, and that makes it poor writing. Think of a scenario in which you are driving down a road and the passenger is giving directions. You ask if you should turn left at the next intersection, and the passenger answers “right.” What does that mean? Accurate communication requires unambiguous language, and so Robin, my wife, and I have learned to answer “correct,” or “turn right” or “turn left.”

I read Luke 11:22 this morning in the CSB. “But when one stronger than he attacks and overpowers him, he takes from him all his weapons he trusted in, and divides up his plunder” (also NASB, ESV, NRSV). Can I figure out who each of the third person pronouns is referring to? Yes. Should I have to? More formal equivalent translation answer, “Yes.” More functional equivalent translations say, “This is poor English, so something needs to be done.”

This makes the other translations understandable.

“But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder” (NIV). “One stronger” is Jesus.

“But when a stronger man attacks and conquers him, he takes away the first man’s armor on which the man relied and divides up his plunder” (NET), with a footnote on “first man’s”: “Grk ‘his’; the referent (the first man mentioned) has been specified in the translation for clarity.”But even this I find confusing, since it is the second person mentioned (“him”) and not the first (“a stronger man”).

“... until someone even stronger attacks and overpowers him, strips him of his weapons, and carries off his belongings” (NLT). This is dynamic but very clear, understandable, and proper English.

This is the tradeoff between formal and functional translations. Even though the formal equivalent are more word-for-word, they can be more difficult to understand, and they certainly cannot claim to be “clear” and “understandable.” That’s just marketing mumbo-jumbo.

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