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Monday, February 27

Natural Language Translation (John 6:11)

Are you familiar with the term “natural language”? It is a translation theory that seeks to say, for example, in English the same thing as is said in Greek, but to say it is naturally as possible for the English speaker.

In other words, the order of the Greek sentence and its grammatical forms are of less significance than how the English reader hears the biblical text.

So, for example, if a sentence has one independent clauses, two prepositional phrases, and a relative clause, conveying that structure is not as important as is producing an English translation that feels totally natural to the English reader. The dominating question for the translator is, “How would I say that?”

I was reading through John the other day and noticed 6:11. The NIV reads, “Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.” What struck me as a tad peculiar was the placement of the phrase, “as much as they wanted” (ὅσον ἤθελον). I don’t know about you, but it feels awkward to me, and I am not used to the NIV feeling awkward.

But when you check the grammar, it gets even more interesting. ὅσον is neuter singular. ὀψαρίων is neuter plural. “As much as” doesn’t go back to the fish; it must be adverbial going back to “distributed.“ So if you just go word for word, you get an incorrect translation. The ESV says, “So also the fish, as much as they wanted” (also the NASB, NRSV, HCSB, NET).

The NIV pulls the phrase back to the verb so you can see the connection, but it still feels a little awkward. The NLT, on the other hand, is a natural language translation. They write, “Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted.” They add in “they all ate,” but in doing so they keep the phrase from being incorrectly connected with “fish.”

This is a good example of the force of translation philosophy, and how much of the Greek structure is going to be conveyed and how naturally (to the English ear) it feels.