Inverted Negatives and Litotes in the TNIV

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At Better Bibles Blog, Wayne Leman and several others often complain about inverted negatives in the ESV. [See Wayne's comment here, for instance.] Inverted negatives are a kind of construction that you find regularly in the KJV and some of its heirs that do not ever appear in contemporary English unless someone is deliberately trying to sound archaic. Yet the ESV continues it, largely out of respect for the KJV tradition and a desire to avoid changing the language many of the biblically literature find familiar to them and expect in a Bible translation.

Matthew 6:13 is an example. The ESV translates it "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." The normal English way of saying this in our day would be "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil." The archaic reversal of the negative is simply not contemporary English, and it's contrary to the purpose of translating into contemporary English (to be understandable to ordinary readers not familiar with Biblese) to translate with inverted negatives.

Contemporary translations not in the Tyndale tradition tend not to translate with inverted negatives, however. The HCSB, a translation similar in many ways to the ESV, translates Matthew 6:13 as "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." The NET gives exactly the same translation. This rendering is much better as contemporary English than the ESV translation. The GNB (TEV) says, "Do not bring us to hard testing, but keep us safe from the Evil One." The ISV has "And never bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." The NRSV translates it as "And do not bring us to the fiery trial, but rescue us from the evil one." I think this is more likely referring to temptation than to trial, and there's no indication of anything fiery in this verse, but the structure of the sentence here is correct (and "rescue" is far better in contemporary English than the old-fashioned sounding "deliver").

This morning I was reading the TNIV of the Luke parallel (Luke 11:4), and I discovered that it uses the inverted negative. In fact, it's exactly the same translation as in the ESV. This is also true of Matthew 6:13, and it's true of the NIV renderings of both verses. That led me to check several translations, and the other one that struck me as interesting was the NLT: "And don't let us yield to temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." That raises an interesting translation issue that I think is worth spending some time thinking about.

First, the TNIV issue. It looks as if they just didn't bother to change the NIV's archaic translation. In this case, the TNIV doesn't turn out to be any closer to contemporary English than the ESV, despite its often doing exactly that. I'm fairly sure they removed inverted negatives from the NIV in other verses, but I don't know of any examples, so maybe they didn't. It surely seems at odds with their official translation philosophy to leave inverted negatives that the NIV had. The only thing I can think of is that they were reasoning the same way the ESV translators often do, thinking that this verse is too well known to change it from the archaic form it usually takes, and people would find it too unfamiliar. It would be stange if the TNIV committee were to take this line, but I can't think of another explanation.

What about the NLT? It changes the structure away from the inverted negatives of the older translations (and the newer ones that haven't broken out of the older tradition). But it also changes one other thing, something that strikes me as clarifying the meaning of the verse at the sacrifice of losing a common Hebraic figure of speech. This is something the NLT does frequently, so it's not out of character for the NLT (as the inverted negatives are for the TNIV), but it is an issue worth thinking through to see if this is one of the bad examples of when the NLT does this (and there are many) or whether in this case it's worth doing.

The figure of speech in this verse is called a litotes. This is a common Hebrew literary device, where something is stated in the negative when it has a correlated positive meaning that isn't stated. We do have this in English sometimes, such as the term "not a few", which means not just that it's not a few but that it's some large number, a positive meaning expressed in negative terms. Similar expressions in English include "not too bad", "no small accomplishment", and "he's no fool".

Jesus uses a litotes in John 6:37 (TNIV): "All whom the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away." Jesus isn't just saying that he isn't going to chase off people who come to him. He's saying that he holds on to those who come to him, but he's expressing it in this typical Hebrew negative figure of speech. In the ESV, Acts 14:28 says, "And they remained no little time with the disciples." The NIV and TNIV translate away the litotes: "And they stayed there a long time with the disciples." So too does the HCSB: "And they spent a considerable time with the disciples", but they do give a footnote that retains it "Or spent no little time". The NET takes the same tack: "So they spent considerable time with the disciples." The foonote reads, "Grk 'no little (time)' (an idiom)."

Only the NLT of all the translations I looked at removes the litotes in Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4. The HCSB, NIV, TNIV, GNB, and NLT all remove it in Acts 14:28. So it isn't as if most of these translations have a policy that they remove a litotes or do not remove a litotes. They apparently decide on a case-by-case basis whether the litotes carries the meaning in English that it did for the original audience. But I think they've all got their judgments on that issue backwards. It seems to me that the litotes works fine in Acts 14:28 in English, and yet the HCSB, NIV, TNIV, GNB, and NLT all get rid of it. It strikes me as not implying the positive meaning in English in Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4. Yet all those translations that remove the litotes in Acts 14:28 where it might as well stay insist on leaving it here where it's much more misleading. That makes me wonder if this is just different translators with different inclinations or if there's some other principle at work here that I'm missing. It does seem strange to me, though.

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I have previously posted on obsolete inverted negatives in the ESV. Jeremy Pierce has just posted on finding some inverted negatives in the TNIV. They are retained from the NIV and also found in several other English Bible versions: Read More


From the NIV Preface: "The Committee also sought to preserve some measure of continuity with the long tradition of translating the Scriptures into English." One of the ways they did this was to make as few changes as they could to the traditional forms of certain very well known passages, including the Lord's Prayer. That surely explains this (probably) unique negative inversion.

Almost the same sentence appears in the TNIV Preface. That shows that the CBT had no intention of making changes in this area.

Yes, but that's basically the same argument the ESV translators use for doing it on a wider scale. The difference between the two on this question is a difference of degree, not a difference in kind.

Good post, Jeremy. I'm going to link back to it from BBB.

Nice post, Jeremy. thanks. I meet the thing, I don't know.

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