Translation in Action: John 6:17

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Verse 17 is a bit long and there are several issues that I want to discuss, so I'll look at it in three parts. I'm going to throw the KJV into the mix for comparison as well. Here we go:

[Note: edited to change my translation slightly as per Jeremy's suggestion.]

  • and after getting into a boat they started going across the sea to Capernaum. And darkness had already come and not yet had come to them Jesus. (interlinear)
  • And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them. (KJV)
  • got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. (ESV)
  • and after getting into a boat, they started to cross the sea to Capernaum. It had already become dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. (NAS)
  • But as darkness fell and Jesus still hadn't come back, they got into the boat and headed out across the lake toward Capernaum. (NLT)
  • and, boarding a boat, they departed across the sea to Capernaum. (Darkness had already fallen and Jesus had not hadn't yet come to them.) (My translation)

Issue 1: Getting into the boat.

Most of the major translations do some variation on "got into a boat" (though interestingly, the KJV has the disciples entering a ship). However, at least in English, you don't "get into" a boat unless you are the kind of person who is rarely on a boat. If you are frequently on boats (and remember that several of the disciples were fishermen), then you either "get onboard", or you "board" a boat.

Again, I've chosen a less "literal" translation of a word for a more readable one, given the context. Again, I feel that I've accurately retained the meaning of the original. How do I know if I've chosen an acceptable translation of a given word? After all, no lexicon lists "to board" as a meaning for "embaino" ("getting into" in the interlinear). (Though some lexicons list "to embark" as acceptable.) One of my rules of thumb is to imagine that I am translating from English into Greek. If the obvious translation for my English word choice is the Greek word in the original, then I've got a decent contender. In this case, the obvious Greek word to translate "boarding" is "embantes", so I'm doing fine.

Issue 2: Going over the sea

Now the interlinear's "they started going across the sea" is perfectly good English syntax. But it sounds terribly wooden. "They started crossing the sea" is a far better option. However, even that sounds too analytical for John's writing style lifting the reader too much out of the story. When you are in a boat, you don't "start going", you "depart", so I went with "they departed across the sea". Technically, the "across the sea" is a bit redundant once you have "departed", but I felt a little too uncomfortable dropping the entire phrase. In a perfect world, I would have found some way to combine "departed" with "crossing", but that was just not possible. Again, I've gone with a less literal translation, but I've done so for stylistic and readability reasons (and without sacrificing accuracy of meaning).

This one was a very tough decision for me, and I almost went with "started crossing" instead of "departed across". I'm still not sure which choice is better.

Issue 3: Parenthetical statements

I've already discussed the choice of "fall" to describe what evening/darkness does in verse 16, so I won't repeat that here. What I do want to point out is that I've chosen to put the entire last half of the verse in parenthesis. The previous sentences had been in some form of past tense. This sentence is in the pluperfect. This tense change pulls us out of the narrative to state the backdrop for the story. As such, it is a bit of an authorial aside rather than part of the narrative itself. To reflect that it is an aside, I made translated it as a parenthetical statement.


Have you given any thought to contractions? It sounds really strange to my ears to say "darkness had already fallen and Jesus had not yet come to them". The first half of the conjunction is a metaphor and seems less formal therefore, but you've written out "had not yet come" instead of "hadn't yet come". Since John isn't a formal document but a story, would it be better to write it the way we speak and say "darkness had already fallen and Jesus hadn't yet come to them"?

Very good point. I remembered to do that elsewhere in my translation yet somehow overlooked it here. I've changed my translation above to include the contraction. Thanks!

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