Bible Translation: March 2008 Archives

Trust Without Action

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Kenny Pearce looks at the famous statement in James 2:20, usually translated as "faith without works is dead". He suggests a better translation, because 'faith' means a lot of different things, often something very different from what the biblical authors meant by 'pistis', and because 'works' isn't exactly ordinary English among those not raised with church language. (Neal Morse, formerly of Spock's Beard, expresses in one song that his response to this statement was that it was good, because he hadn't worked in a year.)

Kenny's translation: "Trust without action is dead." That does seem to me to be a lot better than the traditional translation.

Some might push replacing "is dead" with something more clear, and that might be fine according to a dynamic-enough translation principle, but I don't think this is a case where that's needed. The metaphor of something accomplishing nothing or being worthless because it's dead isn't exactly unclear in English, and I doubt it's less clear in English than it would have been to Greek-speaking people in the first century. This is one place where I'd argue for retaining the metaphor rather than translating it to what it's a metaphor for. It's things like that that lead me to avoid the more dynamic translations, even though I've got problems with the more formally-equivalent translations being too formally-equivalent. I'd rather not lose metaphors in general. But you can still translate clearly with contemporary English without translating away all the metaphors that do translate well into English metaphors, as Kenny shows. This is what I'd really like to see in a contemporary translation, and I don't think anyone has really done that at this point.

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