Cutting through the fog of language with the sword of conjunction

210x420_Mosaic_40kThanks to Damian for this Submission.

Oftentimes, reading our bible is like looking at a scene through fog. It takes a lot of effort to make out the overall picture, let alone the details. In order to get to the meaning, we have to first pass through the language, and through the cultural context. A good translation helps us see through that fog, by minimising the amount of decoding we have to do before we begin interpreting: It lets us pass through the barrier of language seamlessly.

An example: The other day, reading through 1st Corinthians in the TNIV, I came to a passage (5:12-13) which made absolutely no sense to me. It just jarred, and ruined the flow of thought:

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

I read it again once or twice, and began to understand the meaning. But it was simply a messy way of putting it, and in that form, I struggled with the passage. The next handy bible I had was the NRSV (an aging Catholic children’s version):

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

How startlingly original, I thought to myself. So it was to the NLT I turned for elucidation:

It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.”

All it took was two conjunctions to make understanding Paul’s words a lot easier. I’m not sure the NLT has a fresh approach; I think it’s just the freshest modern translation. For example, the KJV uses its share of conjunctions, and makes more sense than either the TNIV or NRSV, despite its archaic language:

For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.

Whilst the NRSV claims to have the maxim ‘As free as necessary, as literal as possible.‘, and the TNIV claims ‘unmatched reliability and readability’, but the true winner on both of those claims in the most recent generation of translations is the NLT. The others seem to have taken as literal/as reliable as possible and given it a promotion over free/readable. Those conjunctions weren’t in the original language, so they don’t belong there in a translation.

There’s an implicit danger in reading something that labels itself literal, because you come to believe it is no different from the original. But the truth is, no translation is an accurate reflection of the original. The only way to read literally is to learn Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. If you’re reading English, you’re reading an interpretation. So my solution is to read a bible that is easy to understand, and to read it with a healthy suspicion of language. Know that you’re reading an interpretation. But read the translation that’s as easy to read as a Dan Brown novel. And that translation is the NLT.

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