Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Friday, December 29, 2017

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.


I enjoy reading your blogs. However, it has struck me that recently you have entered a crusade against formal equivalent translations, strongly advocating for functional equivalent translations. This seems to me to be a change in the position that you took years ago. And as with many converts, it seems to me that you have become over zealous in bringing out the strengths of functional equivalent translations, minimizing their weaknesses, and attacking only potential weaknesses in formal equivalent translations. From an outsider, it seems that you have lost a balance, almost as if you are trying to convince yourself of the changed in position you have (seemingly) taken.

Or, I have grown I my understanding of the translation process. I think there are good reasons for formal equivalent translations. I am just becoming tired of what I think are wrong claims that a translation can be "literal" or that word for word translations are more accurate. I think this runs the danger of damaging people's faith who read more functional equivalent translations, and actually are just wrong claims. Maybe I will look for somethings I don't like in the NIV and NLT ;-)

Bill I do not think this is an easy issue. The translator making such decisions as accepted above places the translator into the position of an exegete or even a commentator - and, decidedly, that is NOT the role of a translator. If I was a translator that was committed to taking that level of liberties with a passage, I would probably create a side by side (with, preferably the Greek on the facing page with text critical annotations...:-). I have long found English translations far more obscuring than the Greek....:-(, I would start with something like Phil2:6, 7 in which the translation of morphe is rendered nature - such that we now have a "nature of a servant" as if this represent some sort of ontological characteristic. This seems very theologically rather than linguistically motivated. There is my two cents from a lay Greek reader - who is delighted to have ability to look underneath the carpet - and set myself free not just from translators - but from those who "pretend" to express the text from the pulpit. Regardless, I always appreciate your perspectives - and read them assiduously! Greg Logan

Phil 2 and μορφη is really a hard word to translate. It has to fit in context, but it is a hard word to deal with.

The sermon this morning was on the first few verses of John. I noticed the translation of the last part of verse 5 varies quite a bit from translation to translation. I use several versions on my iPad: English, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. I see “the darkness did not comprehend (KJV, NKJV), apprehend (ASV), overcome (ESV, NIV), receive (Norwegian), conquered (Swedish), get it under control (Danish) it.” What does the Greek actually say? Are we dealing with different manuscripts or different interpretations? I know this is not related to this blog entry, but I decided to pose the question here. I would love to hear your take on this verse. Thank you

The Greek is κατέλαβεν. My quick dictionary reads, "G2638   καταλαμβάνω   katalambanō   15x to lay hold of, grasp; to obtain, attain, Rom. 9:30; 1 Cor. 9:24; Phil. 3:12, 13; to seize, to take possession of, Mk. 9:18; to come suddenly upon; overtake, surprise, Jn. 12:35; 1 Thess. 5:4; to detect in the act, seize, Jn. 8:3, 4; met. to comprehend, apprehend, Jn. 1:5; mid. to understand, perceive, Acts 4:13; 10:34; 25:25;"

No textual issues.