Translation in Action: John 6:16

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As I start this off, I want to again point out that while I obviously prefer my own translation (otherwise I would have translated it differently), I by no means think that the other translations I'm citing are bad. In the places where I differ, in most cases it is only a very small incremental improvement. At any rate, the point of this whole exercise is not to find the best translation so much as to see how the priorities of the translator affect the final translation.

(In addition to my own translation, I'll also post the currently popular ESV, the somewhat wooden NAS, and the fairly dynamic NLT, as well as a rough interlinear for comparison purposes.)

We start off with a fairly straightforward verse. Most translations are nearly identical. And yet this verse is a good example of my emphasis on English readability:

  • Now when evening became, went down the disciples of him to the sea, (interlinear)

  • When evening came, his disciples when down to the sea, (ESV)

  • Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, (NAS)

  • That evening his disciples went down to the shore to wait for him. (NLT)

  • Now when evening fell, his disciples went down to the sea (My translation)

The last half of the verse is so straightforward that all of the versions except for the NLT (veering solidly into paraphrase territory here) translate it identically.

The only real issue in this verse is how to translate the "evening became" in the interlinear. Now "evening became" just is just bad grammar in English and there are two basic options which achieve proper English grammar: 1) "it became evening", and 2) "evening came". The first option keeps the most literal translation of the the verb "to become" and switches the order around. That change in word order is a quirk in English--Things can't just "become", they have to "become something. The "it" in this case doesn't really refer to anything. The second option keeps the word order, but changes the verb from "became" to "came". For reasons that are beyond me, every major translation has gone with the second option.

Both of these options are fine, retaining with accuracy the meaning of the original. And they read equally well in English. Since the meanings are equally accurate and they are equally readable, I somewhat prefer the first option as it doesn't change the verb. Pretty much the only reason why "evening became" is bad grammar is because of English idiosyncrasies in how we use the word "become".

However, I don't go with either option. Both options read equally well, which is to say that both options sound just slightly off to my ears. When was the last time you read (outside the Bible) or heard "it became evening", or "evening came"? Evening doesn't "come"; it "arrives", "descends", or "falls" depending on the context. In the context of this passage with its upcoming storm, evening "arriving" has too much of a positive connotation, and evening "descending" is a bit too formal for John. Evening "falling" has the right note of foreboding and informality for the passage.

You'll note that I did indeed change the verb from its most literal translation. This is because I'm trying to emphasize readability over "literalness". While I will choose the "literal" translation when it is readable, I'll choose a more readable one over it as long as the meaning is accurate to the original meaning. That is to say that if a phrase means exactly the same thing as another phrase in another language, then to me, the first phrase is a faithful and good translation of the second, even if it is not a "literal" translation. (This apparently puts me on the "dynamic" side of the "dynamic vs. formal" equivalency debate.) After all, the point of translation is not the words per se, but the meaning of the words.

As a result, my translation reads "When evening fell..." instead of "When evening came..."

And that is a lot of explanation and thought behind an incredibly tiny improvement (if indeed it is an improvement at all).

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The ESV is becoming increasingly popular among evangelicals, and has been receiving lots of praise on various blogs recently (especially Adrian Warnock�s). I have been reading through it this year, and on the whole have been impressed, but I still think t Read More

5 Comments

Jeremy, I think that your version with "evening fell" has better English literary style. BTW, does "evening fell" imply looking at the darkening process as being quick, or can it be gradual? Do you happen to know if the Greek participle is just setting the time frame (NLT), or is it stating that at the moment that it turned dark, that is when the disciples went to the lake. If it was the Sea of Galilee, I would think it might be better to call it a "lake" in English. A "sea" is much larger, I think, than is the "Sea of Galilee."

I always enjoy reading others wrestling with how to translate to English.

This is Wink's post.

I think that your version with "evening fell" has better English literary style.

Thanks! That's what I was going for.

does "evening fell" imply looking at the darkening process as being quick, or can it be gradual?

"Fell" implies neither one, so it could be either. The word that would determine that is "os" in the Greek ("when" in the interlinear). The "os" could easily be translated as "as" or "while", which would imply a more gradual process. "When" suggests a quicker process, though it can allow for a more gradual one (e.g. When the Roman Empire fell...). I chose "when" mostly because this issue didn't occur to me. Now that it has, I don't see any textual, exegetical or literary reason to choose one over the other. So I'd stick with "when" as it retains more ambiguity than "as" or "while".

Do you happen to know if the Greek participle is just setting the time frame...

There's no participle in the Greek in this verse, so I'm not really sure what you're asking about.

If it was the Sea of Galilee, I would think it might be better to call it a "lake" in English. A "sea" is much larger, I think, than is the "Sea of Galilee."

A fair enough point, except that it is indeed the Sea of Galilee and the name has "Sea" right in it. So to say that the disciples went to the Sea of Galilee and then they rowed across the lake just seems terribly wrong. When I read that it makes me think that the disciples started rowing across a lake that is by the Sea of Galilee instead of rowing across the Sea of Galilee itself.

I think he was suggesting that we translate the name as the Lake of Galilee (or in even better English style Galilee Lake). The only problem with that is that this lake has had an English name for centuries, the Sea of Galilee.

The only problem with that is that this lake has had an English name for centuries, the Sea of Galilee.

Which was exactly the point I was trying to make.

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