To Burn or To Boast? (1 Cor 13:3)

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Aaron Blumer's picture


"meaning, not words" is a false disjunction if there ever was one.

I think everybody interested in accurate translation acknowledges that there are times when idioms can't convert well into a particular language. And of course word count and word order can't be a rigid thing. The point of contention is really over which way the process is going to tilt by default: toward staying as close to words as possible, deviating as necessary, as close to understanding as possible (replacing ambiguities with interpretation quite freely), or a conscious effort to achieve a good balance.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

TylerR's picture


I get what Mounce is saying. You cannot simply translate word for word and be done with it; if an English reader is searching for a "pure" word for word translation, they just need to buy an interlinear. Every translator has to engage in some amount of interpretation in order to make the text clear to the English reader. The difference is in how much interpretation is too much. Mounce wrote about 1 Cor 13:3:

The HCSB’s “if I give my body in order to boast” isn’t English; what is the correlation between “give” and “boast”? But it does make sense to give yourself over to hardship in order that you can boast about it (in Paul’s positive sense of boasting; cf. 2 Cor 8:24; Phil 2:16; 1 Thess 2:19; 2 Thess 1:4). So “to hardship” was probably added to make sense of the verse, the idea supplied by context.

Mounce is saying that the HCSB's rendering is so literal and wooden that it makes no sense at all. The English reader can be left confused. Now, that could be a good thing. It makes you think, draw connections about slavery to Christ and self-sacrifice, and the right motivations and wrong motivations for this service. But, the ambiguity could also make the reader draw an entirely wrong and wacky assumption. Is it wrong to put a little bit of interpretation in here, and express the sense of "giving my body over" as "hardship?" These kind of hard decision are done all the time; just look at how the preposition εἰς is translated in Acts 2:38!

I heard one of the NASB editors say their goal was to simply translate what the text says, and leave interpretation up to the reader. This is why the NASB is so technically accurate, but also has a reputation for stale woodenness.

That's why the old proverb that Bible translation is more art than science is so true. It's also why I think it' so much fun to do!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Darrell Post's picture

I would prefer English translations to stay as literal as possible and use more footnotes to explain idioms and discuss translation difficulties. A classic example is the word doulos. Some believe that because a 1st century slave is not 100% identical to a 19th century American slave that doulos should not be consistently translated 'slave,' as though it is impossible for modern English readers to learn or comprehend what it meant to be a first century slave. So they end up taking the word doulos, with its limited range of meaning (a slave) and translating it 'slave' in some verses, 'servant' or 'bond-servant' in other verses and so on. This unnecessarily muddies the waters. It would be far better to translate the word consistently as 'slave' and supply a note that briefly describes what was involved with 1st century slavery. Although doulos is not identical to 19th century American slavery, the core ideas of personal autonomy loss, being personal property, living for the will and purposes of your owner are the same, and so 'slave' is the best translation of doulos

The word kosmos goes the other direction. This single Greek word has a wide semantic range:

  • Adornment/cosmetics (1 Peter 3:3)
  • The sum total of everything created / Universe (Matthew 24:21)
  • Planet earth (Mark 16:15)
  • The realm of the living (John 1:9)
  • Mankind (John 1:29)
  • The scene of earthly joys, possessions, cares, sufferings (Mark 8:36)
  • Society hostile toward God and everything good (James 4:4)
  • Totality, sum total  (James 3:6)

And yet with this very wide range of meaning, kosmos is almost always translated 'world' and the English reader is left to sort out the nuance. Here again, extensive notes could be supplied to alert the user that "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" means "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the mankind" and that "Love not the world" means "Love not godless society."

So in short, I favor as literal of rendering as possible with extensive notes to help the English reader when confused.



Aaron Blumer's picture


IMO, you can produce a translation and try to get it to be multiple tools at once (usually none of them all that well), or just let be one really good tool. To me, a translation is one tool, and a commentary is another. Though I'm fine with footnotes and such (I often find the NET quite useful in that regard), too many translations try to do too much interpreting for you and cram the interp into the translated text. What needs to be admitted up front is that if it's going to be a translation and not a paraphrase/highly-compact-commentary, there are going to be passages that are not clear until the reader does some study.

On the other hand, I do think it's important that translations read reasonably well and set a high linguistic style standard. This is just respect, if nothing else. This is why, on the whole, I prefer ESV for leaving most of the interpreting to the reader/student but also working hard (maybe not always succeeding) at delivering smooth, high-quality English.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

WallyMorris's picture

Doing some work in 1 Cor 13 - Verse 5:

KJV: "thinketh no evil"

NAS: “does not take into account a wrong”

NIV: “keeps no record of wrongs”

ESV: “resentful”

The ESV takes 4 Grk words and uses 1 Eng word, very interpretative, as the NAS & NIV are to some extent.

The KJV is more literal, although "thinketh" here is the bookkeeping term, not just the idea of thinking, which is why the other translations use the words they do.

In this case, the ESV does not leave most of the interpreting to the reader - It interprets for the reader, which all translations do to some extent.

I remember hearing Dr. Stewart Custer say that the ESV was more like "six of one, half a dozen of the other", different but almost trying too hard to be different.

I like the ESV, but I prefer the NAS. I've never thought the NAS to be "wooden".

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

TylerR's picture



I actually think the NASB does the best job here! The idea behind οὐ λογίζεται τὸ κακόν seems to be "do not keep score of wrongs done to you," but I can't think of a smooth way of communicating that in English right now. The lexicons don't seem to support the idea that the verb λογίζεται, in this context, is really just about "thinking." In other words, I don't think Paul is telling them to "be happy." I think he's telling them to not hold grudges for evil done to them (i.e. be forgiving). 

As far as the NASB goes, when I say "wooden" I mean that it is not smooth, colloquial English. It is certainly very accurate, but it reads like it was written by a nerdy IT guy. Theres nothing "wrong" with it, in my opinion.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.