John 4 in the ESV

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I was reading through John 4 in the ESV recently, and I realized just how bad (in one sense) its translation of John is. This isn't the first chapter that I've noticed such things, but it's the first time I've seen so many in such a short space. Whoever translated John in the ESV seems to me to be more inclined to use expressions and word ordering that are simply not grammatical, or at the very least incredibly awkward sounding, in English. Consider the following examples:

Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13-14, ESV)

So I will never be thirsty forever. If you really want to capture the form of the original, that's exactly how you should translate this. The problem is that you can't say that in English. It creates an ambiguity that isn't in the original. It could mean that whoever drinks the water will forever never be thirsty. That's still incredibly awkward sounding in English, but it puts the adverb in a place that makes it no longer ambiguous. The other way to read the ESV rendering is that whoever drinks the water will never be forever thirty. Keeping the form thus causes confusion. Does Jesus mean that someone who drinks it will have an eternity of not being thirsty, or does he mean that someone's thirst will never be eternal (but could keep coming back at any time as long as it gets quenched at some point)? In context, you rule the second possibility out, but the grammatical ambiguity isn't in the Greek, (from what I remember; I'm not looking at it as I type this).

At any rate the way they translated this just doesn't sound like English. It sounds like a Greek expression too woodenly translated into English while trying to retain exactly the word order in the original, even if the original word order doesn't sound like English word order. In other words, it sounds like what the ESV was attempting to get away from when they decided to publish a translation that isn't like the NASB in these ways. This verse is one place where they failed to achieve that goal.

The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water." (John 4:15, ESV)

This again doesn't sound like English. When you have a conjunction in English, you can conjoin adjectives, adverbs, or verbs. When you conjoin parts of verbs, it often just sounds wrong, and that's what's happened here.

The grammatical structure here is "I will not" followed by the completion of the verb. In the first case, it's "I will not be thirsty". In the second it's "I will not have to come here to draw water". The problem is that they've split up the verb so that the helping verb is before the conjunction splits but the main verbs, each in its own clause and with a very different form, just sound strikingly out of place. The first part sounds ok, but in a conjunction of likes you're expecting something like the first thing. "will not be thirsty" and "have to come here to draw water" are not likes in enough of a way for it to sound like good English.

"Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship." (John 4:20, ESV)

This is just bad style. Instead of "in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship", an English speaker would say, "People ought to worship in Jerusalem". Now that does lose one important feature of the form here, something worth preserving, which is why the ESV must have gone for this unseemly rendering. Also, it's worth using the word 'place' because that ties back to some important biblical theology in using the same language of Deuteronomy and elsewhere to describe Jerusalem as the place God would choose to dwell and to manifest his presence. The prophets often refer to the temple as "this place", and Jesus does the same thing. So there are reasons not to remove that term. I'm not saying the ESV has no motivation. Still, I don't see why it needs to be so awkward. Couldn't they just say, "Jerusalem is the place where people should worship" or "The place where people should worship is in Jerusalem"? Don't those both sound much more like English?

Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father." (John 4:21, ESV)

This is similar. I have a good idea of why they so awkwardly placed "neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" where it is. It's probably emphasized in the Greek word order, so they wanted that part of it as early in the sentence as possible. You can say things with this more awkward word order in English, but only if you're trying to sound like you're reciting poetry. Jesus wasn't reciting poetry, and making him sound as if he was is in a sense deceitful. It masks what he's really doing. He's sitting with this woman talking at her level. Don't make him sound as if he's trying to appeal to poets' elevated aesthetic sense. Portray him as speaking ordinary language. There are various options regarding how to do this. Each one will sacrifice something in terms of word order and lose some of the emphasis in the Greek. I'm not sure that should always outweigh sounding like ordinary language, and in a passage like this one the ordinary language factor goes up a good deal.

2 Comments

I think this sums it up:

"If you really want to capture the form of the original, that's exactly how you should translate this"

The act of translation is to turn one language into another. It is not paraphrasing, it is not imparting any understanding to the text at all. A translation from a truly believing Christian, and an athiest should be 99% the same (allowing for justifiable differences). For example, I've seen translations that literally say "In the beginning was Christ, and he was with God, and he was God". Obviously logos is not the same word as christos, the translator is imparting his understanding to translation.

Now, it is fine to impart ones understanding, it's called teaching. But it is not called translating, and a distinction needs to be made. Because I imagine a lot of unsuspecting people have no clue about what goes on behind the scenes to produce the many translations of the Bible.

John, you didn't pay attention to what I said. I said this is what you should do if you really want to capture the form of the original, and doing so sometimes requires losing other elements of the original. That's often bad, not just because it makes it unclear or awkward. It's often bad simply because it's less accurate to the meaning of the original. It's often bad because it isn't even a translation but a garbled mess. A translation takes something in one language and converts it to a sentence in another language, not just some grouping of words that are part of another language. If you want an interlinear, get one. Producing an interlinear and calling it a translation is basically lying to your customers. Those who want an accurate translation should not want that. The ESV sometimes moves in that direction, though nowhere near as much as the NASB. I still prefer the ESV to anything else out there, except perhaps the HSCB, which I haven't read enough of to compare. That doesn't mean I'm not going to be critical of its poor translation decisions. The form is not the only element of a sentence to capture in a translation, and sometimes it's much less important than something else. Those who elevate it to a higher status than it should occupy aren't going to end up with the most accurate translation, despite their claims to the contrary.

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