Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Subtle ways of translating

I never cease to be amazed at the literary quality of the NIV. Yes, I know, I am on the committee, but I am thinking about verses that I find periodically that were written before I came on.

In class last week I came across a couple. Paul is talking about divisions in the church and warns the Corinthians about the seriousness of their divisiveness. The ESV reads, “Do you not know that you* (ἐστε) are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you (ἐν ὑμῖν)?” The footnote on “you” indicates it and the other pronouns are plural.

That’s all fine and good if you assume people read footnotes, which, considering all the superscript references in our Bible, is not a good assumption. The NIV reads, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s  Spirit dwells in your midst? Two very important differences.

1. The use of “yourselves” guarantees that the readers will understand the temple being spoken of is formed by the collection of all believers in Corinth. This in turn helps keep the reader from importing the singular use of the same imagery from chapter 6.

2. “In you” is an especially poor translation. It individualizes a corporate concept and works against seeing the Spirit as inhabiting corporate worship. “In your midst” is vastly superior.

The NASB and NET follow the same pattern as the ESV (with a footnote), but so does the NRSV without a footnote, which seems especially peculiar. The NLT so clearly makes the first reference plural that it does not have to worry about the reader misunderstanding the second: “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?”

My point is that with a little sensitivity to literary style it is often possible to communicate clearly without footnotes.

Another good example is 1 Cor 6:12. Paul is quoting his Corinthians opponents, and so the ESV/NIV correctly put the first part of the verse in quotation marks. But for the general reader, I could see that they might skip over the quotation marks at the beginning of the paragraph or simply not understand their intention. 

So look what the NIV says, “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.” The insertion of “you say” defines the use of quotation marks. Some may object to this as “adding to” the Bible; but quotation marks are also “additions,” so is the NIV really that much different from the ESV at this point? The NLT likewise helps the reader: “You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’ —but not everything is good for you.”

The point of these illustrations is simply to enjoy the literary style of the NIV (and NLT) and learn to appreciate the tremendous literary skill practiced by these two translation committees. After all, according to Webster, a “literal” translation is one that reproduces the same “meaning,” not the same form.