Lost—and Found—in Translation

I discerned a bit of dark humor in one of today’s passages, in one of my favorite translations:

We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

Romans 3:5 (The Message)

In other words, Paul seems to be saying, “If it’s really true that what doesn’t kill us is making us stronger, then it looks like we’re about to become really freaking strong. God is giving us more learning experiences than we know what to do with.”  Or maybe he’s saying “Golly gee whillikers, it sure is nice of God to send more troubles than we can handle!”

The problem here is that the closer you get to the original, the less accurate this seems. Young’s Literal Translation, which isn’t always grammatical in English but gives you more of the original flavor, renders the same passage as:

And not only [so], but we also boast in the tribulations, knowing that the tribulation doth work endurance; and the endurance, experience; and the experience, hope; and the hope doth not make ashamed, because the love of God hath been poured forth in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that hath been given to us.

In other words, if you’ve survived a few bad times already, you’ll have more hope for surviving the next bad time, and God will be comforting you.  But this is neither Pollyannaish nor snarky; it’s practical.  Your previous experience will comfort you and protect you, and give you hope.

If you look at four different translations side-by-side, you can see that The Message is among the most figurative and imaginative versions in English.

There are others: the Cotton Patch Version is set in the South during the civil rights movement, and its Galatians 2 makes this clear with breathtaking language in which Paul accuses Peter of being a racist because he thinks of the Gentiles as ‘inferior niggers’ and reminds him that nobody gets right with God just by being a white Southerner. (Technically, it’s not “Galatians” but “The Letter to the Churches of the Georgia Convention”.  Like I said: set in the South.)

In this passage from Romans (or, if you prefer, “The Letter to the Christians in Washington“), I found something helpful in the figurative translation. I found that bit of dark humor that wouldn’t have been possible with a more literal translation, and I’m glad that I did. But sometimes I find that The Message injects strident notes of hostility:

Young’s Literal Translation New Living Translation The Message
From the mouths of infants and sucklings Thou hast founded strength, Because of Thine adversaries, To still an enemy and a self-avenger. You have taught children and infants to tell of your strength, silencing your enemies and all who oppose you. Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you; toddlers shout the songs that drown out enemy talk, and silence atheist babble.

— Psalm 8:2

Excuse me? “Atheist babble”?  I have no beef against atheists, and I don’t think they babble any more or less than theists of various kinds.  In my experience, they’re at least as loving toward their neighbors as any believer; they just have a different inspiration.

So my advice to you, if you’re interested in finding a translation that suits you, is to do it. There’s no need to rely primarily on a cumbersome or archaic translation just because it’s been used for centuries.  But please remember: your favorite version is one translation among many, and sometimes it pays to compare it to something a little more figurative or a little more literal.

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