The Line between Translation and Commentary – Mondays with Mounce 298
Every once in a while you read a verse that obviously cannot mean what it says. Whether you are working with a formal or a functional equivalent translation, both are going to just translate the words and leave the exegesis up to the reader (and the commentaries). But if you are reading a natural language translation like the NLT, they will often try to help the reader. A couple examples.
John writes a short letter, and at the end says, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink” (2 John 12, ESV, see most translations). Do you see the problem here? He has just used “paper and ink” for eleven verses. Contextually, we understand that what he means, even though it is not what he says, is that he has more to say but he wants to say it in person. So the NLT adds, “I have much more to say to you, but I don’t want to do it with paper and ink.” The GNT reads, “I have so much to tell you, but I would rather not do it with paper and ink.” The NJB has a clever way to say this as well; “There are several things I have to tell you, but I have thought it best not to trust them to paper and ink.”
In Jesus’ tirade against the religious leaders, he attacks their arrogance, specifically, their desire for titles that separate them from the regular folk (Matthew 23:5-6). He says that they are not to be called “Father” (πατέρα), “for you have but one Father, and he is in heaven” (23:9). Obviously, Jesus doesn’t mean what it says. I call my dad “Dad” or “Father,” I don’t know anyone who would fault me for that. What he actually means is spelled out in the last two verses. “The greatest among you will be your servant. And whoever will exalt himself will be humbled, and whoever will humble himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11–12).
Verse 9 obviously does not mean what it says; it is Jesus’ typical way of expressing truth by overstating it to drive the point home. The real issue is pride and arrogance, the desire to set yourself above others. But there is no way to translate that without moving across the line into commentary.
I listen to people speak all the time, including myself. I enjoy finding English examples of grammar where the words do not mean what we want to communicate, and yet the meaning is perfectly clear. Being from Minnesota, I often end a sentence in a preposition, but the lack of an object for the preposition does not hide its meaning. “Do you want to go with?” Context makes it clear that the object is something like “me” or “them.”
My favorite, however, is the use of the superlative for the comparative. I never grow tired of objecting to sports announcers when they say something like, “That’s the best catch I have ever seen.” Really? Why do you say it repeatedly throughout the season? Is each one really better than the last, or better than any catch last season? Of course not. It is just the undisciplined misuse of grammar to create excitement.
Words contain meaning, but sometimes the meaning is only seen in the larger context, a context that often a translation cannot deal with.
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Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.