Better Bibles Blog has a discussion of the wording of Luke 2:40 in various Bible translations. The NKJV, the translation I normally use for devotional reading, etc., reads, "And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him."
The BBB discussion centers on the fact that "filled with wisdom" is not very natural English (neither is "strong in spirit," for that matter, but the translations being discussed are all from the Alexandrian text family, which omits "in spirit"). "The grace of God was upon him" is not very natural English either.
I agree with all of these statements, but some of the discussion in the comments has me asking a new question: where do languages end and cultural assumptions begin? Peter Kirk suggests that we get rid of the word grace, replacing it with favour (or favor, as we Americans usually spell it), because the word grace in English has come to be defined by Pauline theology, and the meaning here is not the same. There's also some discussion (in the main post, not the comments) about the CEV rendering "the grace of God was upon him" as "God blessed him." This is not necessarily wholly accurate, as Tim pointed out. Furthermore, "blessed" is still church English.
At some point, I think, we are no longer translating from one language to another; instead, we are transposing the content from one set of cultural assumptions to another. Now, I hold that this kind of transposition is good, but clearly not the job of a translator. Richard Swinburne argues, in his book Revelation, that if a speaker of another language says something that translates as "animals must breathe deforeonated air to live," and he says this because he believes that oxygen is air with the "foron" removed (when in fact there is no such things as foron), his sentence is still true, provided that there's some way we can pick out the referent of "deforeonated air" as being identical with the referent of our word "oxygen." The same will hold for the Bible - it's statements may be expressed in terms of false cultural assumptions and nevertheless be true, so long as the cultural assumptions are the means of communication, and not its content. This means that interpreters of the Bible must attempt to separate the text from its cultural assumptions. But should translators?
Now let me state that I don't think there are any false cultural assumptions in this verse. (What would those be?) What I'm saying is simply that language and cultural assumptions, and in particular standard cultural thought patterns, have enormous influence on one another (in both directions!). As a result, it may not always be possible to render a phrase in natural English while remaining accurate simply because English speakers don't think that way. One example, I think, may be this phrase "the grace of God was upon Him." We can't eliminate grace/favor from the translation of this verse, but English speakers simply don't think that way. We don't think of grace being upon someone. We might say, "and God favored him," but, as Wayne pointed out, this sounds to English speakers as though God favored him over someone else, which is not the point of the verse. I think the "natural English" way to render this phrase is simply "God was pleased with him," but this rendering is, in my opinion, shallow by comparison to the Greek (but then, it is my opinion that English, despite the enormity of its lexicon, is a shallow language compared to Greek). Even though God's favor toward Jesus is not undeserved, as the standard definition of grace would have it, there is definitely a deep meaning to the use of the word grace here. It implies that God the Father isn't merely pleased with Jesus, but is actively benefiting ("blessing") him. Evidently, Greek speakers thought of favor or grace as something one bestows upon others, approving of them and deciding to benefit them. English cannot actually render this full meaning, but only explain it, and to render only part of the meaning is inadequate.
Does Greek have an underlying cultural assumption or thought patter to do with "grace" being something substantive that rests upon a person? Or is this merely empty idiom? Is any idiom really empty, or do they come from tacit assumptions of the culture that develops them? If idioms come from tacit cultural assumptions, it is indisputable that they continue to be in use after those cultural assumptions die. Does that mean we should ignore the literal content of idioms, or might there still be some significance? Personally, I love finding cases where we are able to come up with a good idiomatic English translation that has both the same meaning and the same etymology as the original, but these cases are few and far between. In most cases, rendering idioms literally makes the translation not merely difficult to understand, but positively misleading.
The big question in the present case, however, is at what point these sorts of things cease to be merely linguistic differences and become substantive differences in content. Does a person reading a Bible translation devotionally or liturgically need to know that Greek phrases this in such a way as to imply that something substantive was given to Jesus (indeed, were Greek speakers even consciously aware of this?), or is this something needed only at deeper levels of interpretation? Clearly this phrasing in the language does lead speakers to think in this way. Is this type of thinking integral to the New Testament's mode of communication, or can we abstract away from it?
I don't necessarily have the answers, but I'm sure more extreme cases for this question could be found. These things begin to make me a little nervous at this point, because I fear that translations seeking to eliminate these kinds of underlying assumptions in order to communicate more naturally to English speakers may alter the text to an unacceptably great degree. It is very difficult to distinguish content from cultural assumptions and cultural assumptions from linguistic apparatus, and I would hate to have any actual substantive content removed from a translation due to its being mistaken for a mere linguistic difference.
One last note on this verse: I would like to see the first clause (before the participle) translated more literally; I think the progressive/repeated aspect of the two verbs and the passive voice of the second verb may be significant. This more literal rendering would be something like, "The child was growing and being strengthened." I don't know whether the original text would have left Greek speakers asking "being strengthened by whom?" as this translation would leave me asking (although in this case the answer is obvious), and I actually kind of doubt that it would, since this seems based on the limited degree of "feel" I have for the Greek language to be simply the most natural way to say what is being said, but I think the implication (whether it was on the surface or only a kind of underlying assumption for Greek speakers) that Jesus was strengthened by some agency outside himself may be important to our interpretation. Again, is this merely linguistic, is it a tacit cultural assumption, or is it part of the substantive content of the verse? I don't know, but in this case I'm pretty sure it would be better to preserve it in the translation. So, in light of that, here's my proposed (amateur, in a few minutes) translation of the whole verse: "The child was growing and being strengthened [spiritually], and gaining wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him." My Greek professor would chide me for leaving that participle as "general circumstance." I actually think that if the word pneumati is legitimate then the participle could be of means: he "was growing and being strengthened spiritually by gaining wisdom." However, if pneumati is not legitimate that wouldn't make as much sense to me. It could be temporal, since the participle is in the present, and we could give it a reading like "and all the while he was gaining wisdom," which I think sounds pretty good in English: "The child was growing and being strengthened, and all the while he was gaining in wisdom." But then maybe I just like phrases like "all the while" for the same reason I like to use whence as a relative pronoun: because too much of the stuff I read is either old or stilted or both, and besides, things like that just sound neat. At any rate, the point is that there are many factors to balance in translation, and it requires a lot of work in all cases, and is impossible in some cases, to get them all right at once.Posted by Kenny at December 24, 2005 2:23 AM
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