The call for concordant translations (was Chapter)

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Sat Apr 3 17:02:18 EST 1999

Peter Kirk wrote:

>Dear Rolf,
>I think you have left people confused. Let us leave aside the small,
>or not so small, group of people who would benefit from the literal
>translation you described. What sort of non-literal translation would
>you recommend for the average reader of English or Norwegian, the
>people Nida etc had mainly in mind for dynamic equivalence
>translation? Perhaps you could either name a translation or translate
>a verse or two for us. To start with, how would you render Colossians
>1:15, in a non-literal way, for readers for whom the literal
>"firstborn of all creation" is theological nonsense?
>Peter Kirk

Dear Peter,

I will use the last clause of Romans 12:20 as a background for my answer.
It reads: "But 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give
him something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals upon
his head.'" de Ward & Nida,  1986, " From One Language to Another
Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating", p 38, wrote: "The idiom 'heap
coals of fire on his head' (Prov. 25:22 and Rom. 12:20) has often been
seriously misunderstood as a means of torturing people to death." However,
in their comments on the letter to the Romans in the series "Helps for
Translators", Newman & Nida, 1973, "A Translator`s Handbook on Paul`s
Letter to the Romans",pp 242,243, wrote: "The imagery of the last clause in
this verse is difficult, though all translations seem to prefer to retain
the imagery rather than change the metaphor into a non-metaphor."

Here we have words which very likelywill be misunderstood if they are
translated literally, and just the same, almost all translations render
them literally! Newman & Nida wrote also that the sense of "for by doing
this you will heap burning coals on his head"  probably is "for by doing
this you will make him ashamed." Their interpretation is probably correct,
but to translate it this way would be weak and unappealing compared with
the colorful imagery. So the translators reason that the readers must
either find the meaning themselves or get an explanation.  An idiomatic and
understandable text is important for the group you mention, but we must be
careful, even in idiomatic translations, not to translate the word "car"
with "Ford".

I would for all target groups translate Col 1:15 the same way, as
"firstborn of all creation". The reason is that the phrase has theological
implications, and it is therefore very important to give all kinds of
readers the chance to interprete the text themselves without being foreced
in a particular direction. All agree that my translation is literal, and
most persons would give an interpretation of the phrase placing Jesus among
the creatures. You have on the other hand, suggested a different
interpretation of the literal phrase, and this suggests that such a literal
phrase is the most neutral rendition. If we should follow Nida & Louw and
translate in a way where Jesus was placed *above* creation or *before*
creation, then we had excluded the literal understanding of the phrase, and
forced the readers in a trinitarian direction.
For the same reason that I would translate "heap burning coals upon his
head" literally, although it most likely would be misunderstood, would I
also translate col 1:15 as "the firstborn of all creation" even for those
who view it as theological nonsense.

If I were to translate the Bible for a group with no previous knowledge of
it, I would use an idiomatic method, but I would follow your advise to
translate important words as uniformely as possible. Because I see so much
unnecessary theological coloring of the text in the modern versions, I
guess I would be extremely careful to render theologically important
passages as literal as possible. And the most important thing - I would
like to have an extensive apparatus of footnotes, both giving textual
variants and alternative renderings. But I would not give Louw & Nida's
suggestions in a footnote to Col 1:15, because they in my view are
completely unfounded, linguistically speaking. To John 1:1, however, I
would use one of the following five renderings in the main text, and the
four others in a footnote: "And the Word was God", "and the Word was
divine", "and the Word was a divine being", "and the Word was a god", "and
god was the word".


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

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