literary license, or forgot to read the whole thing?

Monday, 06-Jan-2014 marked the beginning of my first (official) online course that I’m teaching for Johnson University. The course is a 7-week intensive study of 1 Corinthians for the MA in Intercultural Studies program. To be fair, the course is really a 5-week intensive on 1 Corinthians, seeing that week 1 deals with introductory matters and week 7 is missions orientated–in view of what we learn from 1 Corinthians, of course.

While preparing for/writing the course, I had the opportunity to revisit the text in a rather detailed manner–something that I have not done since the middle of October. (I took a break from 1 Corinthians because I needed to, seeing that I spent nearly 5 years exegeting the thing). In this revisiting, I was also able to look at a few things more closely–things that I could only consider briefly when doing my PhD. One of these bits was the Thanksgiving portion of the letter (i.e. 1 Cor 1.4-9), which contains a number of salient details relevant to what Paul argues in the letter.

In my preparations for this course, I wanted to interact with English translation and consider how they deal with certain portions of the text. When I did this with the Thanksgiving section, something struck me as rather surprising. The specific passage in mind is 1 Cor 1.4-5, which I translate as: “I always give thanks to my God concerning you for the grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus, since in all things you were made rich in him [Jesus]–in all speech and all knowledge” (εὐχαριτω τω θεω μου παντοτε περι ὑμων ἐπι τη χαριτι του θεου τη δοθειση ὑμιν ἐν Χριστω ͗Ιησου, ὁτι ἐν παντι ἐπλουτισθητε ἐν αὐτω, ἐν παντι λογω και παση γνωσει).

By and large, the majority of English translation agree on the big ticket items in this passage: God is always the recipient of Paul’s thanksgiving, the Corinthians are always the indirect object, God’s grace is always the “thing” given to the Corinthians, Christ Jesus is always the agent through whom God’s grace comes, the Corinthians are always rich in/because of Christ, and there is always something about “speech” and “knowledge.” Admittedly, some will add a flourish here and there, ostensibly to make the text “come alive” to its readers, and these flourishes range between “Hey, that’s quite good” (e.g. “Every time I think of you–and I think of you often!–I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus” [MSG]) and “Okay . . . I think I see what you’re doing” (e.g. “I never stop thanking my God for being kind enough to give you Christ Jesus” [CEV]).

Moreover, especially when comparing translations on the final clause (i.e. “in all speech and all knowledge”), there are a few that offer what look to be explanatory interpretations of what (they think) Paul is saying. For example, while the Greek simply says, “in all speech and all knowledge”, others will suggest further details:

  • Amplified Bible: “in full power and readiness of speech (to speak your faith) and complete knowledge and illumination (to give you full insight into its meaning)”
  • Complete Jewish Bible: “particularly in power of speech and depth of knowledge”
  • Darby’s Translation: “in all word (of doctrine), and all knowledge”
  • Living Bible: “He has helped you speak out for him and has given you a fill understanding of truth”
  • New Living Translation: “with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge”[1]

All of these kinds of flourishes and explanatory interpretations could be seen as exercising artistic or literary license, which is sometimes needed when doing translation. However, in one translation it appears as though the excitement of receiving their literary license caused the translators to forget everything else. The translation in question?  The New International Reader’s Version (or NIrV)–published by the same people who did the NIV (and tried to corner the market with multiple types of it) and the late TNIV.[2] The over-exuberant reading? Here you go (with reference to the Greek for comparison):

  • Greek: ἐν παντι λογω και παση γνωσει (“in all speech and all knowledge”)
  • NIrV: “All your teaching of the truth is better.  Your understand of it is more complete”

Excuse me?! How the . . . Have you read 1 Corinthians!? Did you happen to pick up a commentary on 1 Corinthians or even a scholarly article and, I don’t know, see what scholars have to say?! “Better” and “more complete” than what–a rock? Two minutes more reading of the letter will demonstrate that the Corinthians’ teaching and understanding are precisely what Paul addresses. And it’s clear that he ain’t happy with either (or both). “All your teaching of the truth is better. Your understanding of it is more complete.” Give me a break. You should have your license revoked, or at least suspended.

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[1] I happen to like this one, mainly because I think it brings out Paul’s sarcasm, which obviously appeals to mine.
[2] Although, you can still access this version online.

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