24 June 2014

To be or..to become: when translators should try harder (John 1:1, 6)

by Dan Phillips

Last week I discussed an instance where the ESV used two different words to translate the same Hebrew verb in two consecutive verses, unintentionally obscuring a significant point of interpretation. There are cases where the reverse happens. One such is John 1:1 and 6.

Everyone knows verse 1, which doesn't warrant much creativity from a translator: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." That word "was" crops right up again in the ESV of verses 2, 3, and verse 6.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
"Was," "was," "was." Of course, verse 3 doesn't count since "was" there is just an auxiliary verb ("was made"). But the English-only reader is left to assume that every other occurrence of "was" must either translate the same verb, or that there is no exegetically-significant variation. Both would be incorrect assumptions.

In verses 1 and 4, the verb is ἦν (ēn), which is the imperfect active indicative of eimi, the common copula (I am). At this point, novices have sometimes waxed a bit imaginative, noting that the imperfect means continual action, so John is saying that the Logos continually was at creation.

Theologically, this is of course accurate. Etymologically, not so much. It might be, if a simple past (aorist) finite form of eimi were available to John. None was. Just the present (estin, is) and the imperfect (ēn, was). John could not have used that verb to say that Jesus "was," in the aorist tense, if he'd wanted to. (To oversimplify, aorist serves for punctiliar past events, with no emphasis on process: he ate, she sat, he built.)

But what of verse 6? According to the ESV, it's the same: in the beginning was the Word (v. 1), there was a man sent from God named John. The Word was, John was. No point is being made.

However, John (not the ESV) used two different words. Verse 6 employs the aorist tense of the verb ginomai, meaning simply "I become." It indicates beginning to be... something. Becoming something. Springing up on the pages of history.

In practice, one can't translate ginomai with forms of "become" every time, and I'm not arguing that we should. However, here it's pretty clear that John is making a point by using two verbs — ēn, ēn, ēn, ēn, ēn, ēn ...then egeneto. He introduces two characters in his opening verses: the Logos, and John. One had a beginning, one was at the beginning. The contrast between the two is, very literally, infinite.

So why not at least note the fact in translation? Sometimes, it is simply impossible to reflect nuances of Hebrew and Greek in English. Here? Not at all. Many translations make some try, such as "came" (NASB, NET, ASV, NJB), and "arose" (Rotherham). You could say "A man came to be; his name: John." But the ESV is not alone in apparently not even trying: "was" is found in ESV, NIV, CSB, KJV, and NKJV.

I can't even speculate about what moves translators to do or not do many things. It just seems like it's most respectful of the text to try to note both similarities and differences in the original text when one can. John could have used a sixth ēn, but chose to use egeneto instead. If we can reflect his word-choice, I think we should.

And here, we can.

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Doug Hibbard said...

For the first time this year, I'm actually doing my morning New Testament reading from Greek. Usually sitting beside my wife who is reading NASB. Little things like this have jumped out for the first time, and we have greatly profited from actually looking at the text in the original language.

To those who think we don't need it--there are dozens of enlightening moments like this in John alone. learn it if you can!

Penn Tomassetti said...

Maybe the translators were just tired and overworked that day, and didn't happen to notice it needed to be clarified as clearly you have?

Stephen said...

The problem with "A man came" in verse 6 (NASB, NET), of course, is the very next verse, "He came." You again have two different verbs and need some way to differentiate them. I think the question for translators is, can eimi and egeneto be differentiated in context more easily than egeneto and erchomai in verse 7.

The rest of the prologue, I hope, makes very clear the essential differences between the Word, Jesus, and the man, John. Indeed Jesus is set apart from every other man. So while a strictly literal translation wants to distinguish every Greek root, there is not a great need for it here when there is not a smooth way to say in English "A man became, sent from God."

DJP said...

Your point about "came" itself is a good one, Stephen. It does better justice to egeneto in this use than "was"; but then it runs into grief when the proper verb for "came" is used.

If you're saying that this flaw in "came" means giving up or ignoring ("was") is the wiser course, then in response I'd say... what I already said the whole post, above.

Aaron Snell said...

Another word-change in translation of the NT that baffles me to no end is in the pericope at Mark 8:34-38. ψυχή appears four times, yet the first two times it is often translated "life" (v. 35 "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it") while the second two times it is often translated "soul" (v. 36-37 "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?").

Sure, both words are acceptable as translations of ψυχή, but does anyone really think Jesus would use the same words four times in the same pericope and not want the connection and flow to be apparent? Switching words like that destroys this, inserting an apparent distinction that doesn't appear in the text and skewing interpretations because of the different freight the two words carry today. It's inexplicable to me. The NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV, and ESV all do it, though the NET, RSV, NRSV, ASV, and the Holman don't (they opt to consistently use "life").

DJP said...

Right. In such cases where literal is impossible, or where it's just impossible to denote the distinction in translation, I always resort to footnotes. As in Prov. 9:18, where a word is used that is commonly glossed "depths." However, I'd just used "depths" repeatedly in chapter 8 to translate a different Hebrew word.

Most (i.e. all) tr's just use "depths" for both, not caring to note a distinction. And the distinction is not terribly significant. But I am really trying to do something to honor Solomon's vocab; so in 9:18 I translated "In the chasms of Sheol," which is lexically justifiable. But I footnoted, "Or “depths,” but different word than 8:24, 27-28."

Jeff Voegtlin said...

Maybe I misunderstood you, but I believe the KJV has what you were looking for, "There was a man sent from God, his name was John" Doesn't the italicized word indicate what you want here.

DJP said...

Thank you, Jeff, but yes, you do misunderstand me. "Was" is the issue.

Stephen said...

The NASB does use a footnote here that provides a more literal translation ("Came into being"). But I don't think any edition of the Bible outside of commentaries and interlinears provide the detail in notes that you or I would want in such a way that a reader not trained in the languagues (and with knowledge on text criticism, etc.) would understand. This particular NASB footnote does not indicate whether one of the translations (the given text or the option in the note) is more literal or if perhaps there is a textual variance issue going on, or maybe the original Greek is ambiguous and we really don't know how to translate it, woodenly or not.

Generallly the best and most detailed grammatical footnotes are in the NET but surprisingly they give no indication in the notes that verse 6 and 7 use different verbs except the cryptic and unhelpful note for verse 7 "Grk “came for a testimony.”"

DJP said...

As a rule, I like NET's footnotes better than I like NET's translation.