Father James Martin explains what can get lost in translating Scripture

Worshippers recite the Lord's Prayer during Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Mineola, N.Y., on Oct. 13. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)Worshippers recite the Lord's Prayer during Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Mineola, N.Y., on Oct. 13. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

Pope Francis inadvertently initiated one of the internet kerfuffles he has become famous for earlier this week. During a television interview, he suggested that the Italian church consider tinkering with its translation of the Our Father. The interweb quickly heated up with protests that the pope was trying to rewrite the prayer before cooler theological heads prevailed, pointing out that the pope’s corrective was simply aimed at bad translations, not an effort to put words in our Savior’s mouth.

Making ancient Scripture sensible in contemporary languages—especially since passages and phrases from Scripture end up in Catholic liturgies—will likely always prove hazardous work. James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large here at America and author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, says the pope’s efforts to encourage a better translation of the Our Father are a reminder that there are several other Scripture passages that have been seen as problematic in terms of translation.

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“It’s important for people to know that Jesus spoke in Aramaic,” Father Martin says, “and maybe a little Hebrew.”

Making ancient Scripture sensible in contemporary languages will always prove a hazard-heavy challenge.

The disciples of Jesus passed on the stories of their experiences to the early church before Gospel writers of the first century began their work, employing the lingua franca of the era: Greek. That means there was already something of “a distance” from the words that Jesus actually spoke in Aramaic to his followers.

Those Greek passages were then open to a number of alternative interpretations and choices when they were translated into other languages “as any translations would be,” says Father Martin.

1. Entos hymōn: Within or among? Among the biggest continuing interpretive challenges, one focuses around a familiar phrase from Luke, “the kingdom of God is among you,” according to Father Martin.

The original Greek expression, entos hymōn, could be interpreted in two ways: The kingdom of God could be found “within you,” as if it were an “interior reality,” or “among you,” to suggest “the world you live in,” a spatial expression of the rule of God present among the community of the faithful on earth.

Were Gospel writers deliberately trying to be vague on the concept? Perhaps Jesus was? “These are the kinds of things translators have to look at,” says Father Martin.

Why is it important to get it right? Because, he explains, like the pope’s concern that the current translation of the Our Father might persuade some to believe that God could lead people into evil, these subtle differences in translations can have significant effects in how we understand the faith and live our lives.

“If it’s ‘within,’” says Father Martin, “you have to worry less about the outside world.” But if the kingdom is “among us,” then the kingdom is here, “already but not yet,” he says, using a construct familiar to New Testament scholars.

The expression “kingdom of God” itself has been the source of interpretive disagreement, Father Martin says. Is “kingdom,” in Greek basileia, meant to denote a geographical reality or is it meant to suggest “more of a dynamic reality”?

Father Martin wonders if the use of blessed “tamps down the joy” of the Beatitudes.

“Lately, the phrase ‘reign of God’ has been used as a way of reminding us that it is not a geographic reality as much as an existential one,” he says.

2. Anthrōpos: Fishing for the best translation Another major “lost in translation” moment begins in Matthew when Jesus first calls the disciples to follow him, rendered in the New American Bible, Revised Edition, as: “‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’” Father Martin points out that the original Greek texts use a form of the word anthrōpos, a gender-neutral term that should be read not “fishers of men,” but “fishers of people.”

“That’s more inclusive,” Father Martin concludes, “and most New Testament scholars would say it’s more accurate.”

3. Makarios: Blessed or happy? In the Beatitudes many Scripture translations use the expression “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but did Jesus actually say something closer to “Happy are the poor in spirit”?

Were the people who were the object of the Beatitudes—the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit, the pure of heart and the rest—blessed, from the Greek, makarios, “like the saints?” Father Martin asks. Or “were they ‘happy?’” another possible take on the original Greek. “If you choose ‘happy’ the Beatitudes take on a whole different meaning,” he says.

Father Martin wonders if the use of blessed “tamps down the joy” of the passage in Matthew: “At the end, Jesus says, ‘Rejoice and be glad,’ so it’s probably more likely that he meant ‘happy.’”

“The choices of the translator influence how we think and what we believe,” Father Martin says. And for Catholics the nuances of ever-evolving translations of Scripture and how Scripture is reflected during Mass and in prayer is of essential importance. “Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi,” says Father Martin.

How we pray affects what we believe, “and how we live.”

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John Walton
10 months 1 week ago

St. Augustine never got into the Classical Honors program, and, thankfully was bereft of a knowledge of Greek and Aramaic.

Jay Zamberlin
10 months 1 week ago

Once again, the opining by "experts." And not a "logophile" in the bunch.
"Reign of God" is such an odd phrase, and the only reason it is used - especially in modern Catholicism's more and more bland, colorless, neutered and pedestrian translations - is to satisfy those triggered by what those same would deem "non inclusive" language. "Kingdom" implies a king, and they can't have that. Be a bit more honest here Fr. Martin.

God always "reigns."

"When You come into Your Kingdom," (where You are temporarily away from) makes no sense as "reign" as, again, God always reigns. The kingdom's boundaries are expanded or not by us. It is not geography, as such, but it is a place.

The terms men, man, mankind, have been for millennia thought to be Inclusive. We are all men, what could be more "inclusive" than that idea. From man was formed a more special brand, woman, but we are all "men." Fishers of men certainly would not be thought - by anyone with a brain - to mean fishers of males exclusively.

That we have to have all these white people now whitesplaing what Catholics could always, somehow, astonishingly, catch - as far as the real meaning - is a luxury of a modern age when people just have way too much time on their hands. (I'm white, but have had plenty of years to notice that brown and black and red and yellow Church folk don't seem to worry about these trivial pursuits, that is, until they attend some Catholic event featuring plenty of whitesplainers).

Educated white people generally, (or so called) -- and that would indeed include some Catholics -- having few worlds now left to conquer, have turned their perhaps overly active brains into the study of all things minutia, and are doing a damned good job of "fixing" a lot of things and institutions that just are not broken. Good job.

Carol Cox
10 months 1 week ago

"Whitesplaiing" (sic)! I find that harsh! Can we stop already with all of the name-calling? These are simply thoughts expressed by someone whom I frankly enjoy reading. Having grown old; but, not tired, I look forward to reading, hearing and seeing different points of view on matters that interest me. (And, most everything interests me!) I can agree. I can disagree. To denigrate others by labeling them is not something that I espouse in my lexicon and/or in my intra-/inter-personal relationships. As a retired elementary school teacher, I spent as much time teaching children to be kind and considerate towards others as I did teaching academic subjects. I do not consider that time wasted. Souls, not just institutions, can be broken. Respectfully submitted.

Anne Danielson
10 months 1 week ago

All of us have disordered inclinations of various type and degree, some inclinations more difficult to overcome than others; God desires that we desire to overcome our disordered inclinations so that we are not led into temptation but become transformed through Salvational Love, God's Gift of Grace and Mercy. Our willingness to ask God for the Grace to overcome our disordered inclinations will give us the strength to avoid temptation to sin as we become transformed through God's Gift of Grace and Mercy.

Bruce Snowden
10 months 1 week ago

Anne, I like the term, "Salvational love." Don't recall ever hearing it before. Please explain what it means. Wondering if it references Jesus' salvific and unconditional love. You mentioned its effects as gifts, Grace and Mercy. Is that its definition? Thanks!

Richard Bell
10 months 1 week ago

If a Greek expression in the New Testament has some relatively specific sense in the Septuagint, there may be very good evidence for its better translation. We know that the Septuagint was scripture for the writers of the New Testament.

Jim MacGregor
10 months ago

RE: Pope Francis ... suggested that the Italian church consider tinkering with its translation of the Our Father.
Wow! The Pope is catching up with the explanation given to Confirmation classes in all the Christian denominations. (Was he ever an altar boy?)

Betty Dudney
10 months ago

Spousal abuse tied to sexual disrespect!

Have had two contacts with “God's Hand”, the first time appearing the morning of my fifth birthday, not another such supernatural sign until in my early thirties!
Spent those twenty-five years doing mostly my own will, then began to feel deeply the need for a Spiritual “Rebirth”, to put God’s Will before my own, and hearing the one word of "Equality”.
Years later, did not see God's Hand again but felt it in mine, and felt strongly The Hand spin me around in my tracks, to go back to the Church I had just left because I no longer felt there was anything more I could do to make it equally just for all, especially for the female half of God's Image, we were both created in.* Gen.1:27; Gen 5:1. But I did go back and are still trying to get Equal Rights within my Catholic Church.
Now many others seem to feel this too in some way, and realizing it is time to stop the inequality, our world's political, moral, racial, and sexual imbalance with the need for Equal Rights and Equal Opportunity or "Equality".

We also need to counter the racism, sexism, and unfair hoarding of profits, by a few males who control economically over seven trillion people! Over half by near starvation wages! The Profits created by the workers, including the managers, consumers, should best be used for just wages, and peoples basic needs, not for the greed, or power of a few bullies of inequality, who are using them to make more, even selling weapons to both sides, creating more war, even nuclear destruction!
Words of Jesus to “Love One Another” and the Universal "Golden Rule", like the message of “Equality”, tell us to treat others with Equal Respect, and to be Concerned!
The last World Council of Christian Bishops declared there be "no more discrimination of race or sex… as not the Will of God. *1
*1Pastoral Constitution Article 29+, Vatican II, 1965.
Seek the Holy Spirit within you to confirm, and share with Religious leaders, especially those who still prevent women called by God, their equal opportunity.

May God’s Peace Be With You,

Betty C. Dudney

Patrick Murtha
9 months 3 weeks ago

I wonder if some conflating these "issues" in translations are too much of literalists, and perhaps what is worse, are too caught in the bickering of political correctness and gender-politics. Fr. Martin talks about the fishers of men and says rather it should be "fishers of people," as if the translators intended that the apostles be "fishers of the male species." But, just as in Latin, the word "homo" can signify the male of the human species, it also is common in English to signify common man--man or woman, male or female--with the one word "man." It can be usually for the male person or, generally, for mankind.

Nevertheless, the term "man" is more appropriate as it signifies what collectively belongs to the human race. "People" signifies a group, as multiplicity of persons, but remains ambiguous as to whether it will signify the entirety of the species or merely a group or a collection within the species.

In this season of Christmas, perhaps words of that old song ought be changed: "She bore to man a saviour..." to "She bore to human beings a saviour...", for fear people believe women are excluded from Christ's redemptive sacrifice.

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