Wayne Leman is to be thanked for reopening the discussion about Bible translation at Better Bibles blog with the example of an idiom found in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek he claims is best translated in a text like Matthew 9:30a by “disfiguring” it – my, carefully chosen, expression - that is, by removing the kinetic figure and replacing it with straight-up propositional language.
The idiom in question, which I italicize, reads as follows in Greek (context provided):
καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς
πιστεύετε ὅτι δύναμαι τοῦτο ποιῆσαι
λέγουσιν αὐτῷ ναί κύριε
τότε ἥψατο τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν αὐτῶν λέγων
κατὰ τὴν πίστιν ὑμῶν γενηθήτω ὑμῖν
καὶ ἠνεῴχθησαν αὐτῶν οἱ ὀφθαλμοί
καὶ ἐνεβριμήθη αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων
ὁρᾶτε μηδεὶς γινωσκέτω
A translation that seeks to be faithful to the wording and stylistic choices of the original might go like this:
And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “In accordance with your faith, let it be.” And their eyes were opened, and Jesus was stern with them. “See that no one knows.”
The kind of translation Wayne prefers, an explicating translation which “frees” the source text of ambiguity, might go like this (NLT1):
Jesus asked them, “Do you believe that I can make you see?” “Yes, Lord,” they told him, “we do.” Then he touched their eyes and said, “Because of your faith, it will happen.” And suddenly they could see! Jesus sternly warned them, “Don’t tell anyone about this.”
To be sure, to judge from his post, Wayne actually prefers they saw. But that is terribly flat. Surely NCV and CEV improve on that: the men / they were able to see.
Wayne is entitled to his preference, though I feel like replying, in the eloquent language of a UNESCO paper, “Open your eyes or be blind forever.” There are three reasons why disfiguring translation (hereafter DT) is to be avoided like the plague:
(1) DT mistakes first level for second order referential accuracy. Those intent on first order accuracy make use of expansive and periphrastic turns of phrase in order to achieve first order accuracy – the kind of phrases that abound in DE (dynamic equivalence) / DT translations. Higher order referential accuracy is sacrificed in the process. Here is an example of what I mean (HT Rich Rhodes, who nonetheless in my view has his eyes wide shut on the implications of his example). If someone punches me in the nose, I am likely to say, in idiomatic English, “Ouch!” (an example of second order accuracy). Not to mention an expletive or two. With limp wrist plainly in view, the DE translator prefers The Truth Made ClearTM: “That hurt me” (an example of first order accuracy). Sorry, guys, but “That hurt me” translation is a pale substitute for “Ouch!” translation.
(2) DT inevitably destroys connections integral to the macrosemantics of a finely woven text like the Bible. I might as well keep picking on NLT – that is the price of success - by noting the following. NLT1 Matthew 9:30 read as noted above, but NLT2 corrects and expands on it. In place of “And suddenly they could see!” (NLT1), we now have, “Then their eyes were opened, and they could see!” (NLT2) At least concordance across the canon is thereby re-established, in particular, with Isaiah 35:5 (NLT2): “And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind / and unplug the ears of the deaf.”1
But is it necessary to add “and they could see!” after “their eyes were opened” in Matthew 9:30? Only on the assumption that the average reader is dumb as a doornail.
(3) The preference for straight-up propositional language typical of the theory of communication to which DE/ DT translators subscribe reveals discomfort with the fine capacity of figurative expressions to make connections across distinct semantic domains. DE/ DT translators tend to remove figurative expressions because they are inherently subject to more than one construal. But that, I submit, is a feature of figurative language, not a bug. A very strong argument for retaining the kinetic language of an expression like “their eyes were opened” is that the figure of speech has multiple uses with distinct meanings which nevertheless cohere at some level and bounce off of one another in the textual symphony of the larger whole we refer to as the Bible, and offshoots thereof.
Besides Isa 35:5, here are other texts that are recallable upon reading Matthew 9:30 if and only if the figurative language is retained: God “opened the eyes” of Hagar, saving her in the process (Genesis 21:19); “Open your eyes day and night toward this house,” Solomon prays (1 Kings 8:29); the figure is retained in ESV and NRSV, but discarded in NLT; the servant of the Lord is appointed “to open the eyes of the blind” (Isaiah 42:7); Paul, “to open the eyes” of the Gentiles (Acts 26:18).
Translations like ESV and NRSV do a better job than NLT is preserving concordance across the canon in cases like this. Thus, in 1 Kings 8:29, the figure is retained in ESV and NRSV, but discarded in NLT (“May you watch over this Temple day and night”). On the other hand, NLT retains the figure in another prayer, that found in Dan 9:18 “O my God, lean down and listen to me. Open your eyes and see our despair.” ESV and NRSV retain the expression throughout John 9, where of course both literal and non-literal meanings of seeing are in view; NLT discards it except in one out of seven instances (9:32).
“Open the eyes of my heart, Lord. Open the eyes of my heart. I want to see you.” So Michael W. Smith.
No. That won’t do. We don’t talk that way. In conformity with the requirements of DE/DT translation, it should be reworded, “Heal my spiritual vision, Lord. Heal my spiritual vision. I want to see you.”
Anyone have a puke bag handy?
Did I say that DE translations are unreliable? They are. They disfigure texts that make use of non-propositional language. But even essentially literal translations, which retain figures of speech, are unreliable. They lull people into a false sense of security, as if they have access to the original, when in fact they only have access to a very incomplete map of the original.
The wise course of action for the one who desires to plumb the depths of biblical literature: learn the languages; study the ancient world so that one does not impose on the text meanings that make sense today, but not then; and read the literature backwards and forwards in the original until its tropes and truths, propositional and non-propositional, seep into your bones.
1This is off-topic, but NLT2 revises the syntax of the Hebrew in Isa 35:5 such that it stands out more easily as a prophecy fulfilled in Christ. I have issues with this. It is amazing sometimes what people allow themselves to do in the name of a worthy cause.