The literary Bible: Deeds of doom!

Posted: 20th May 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

This is the third post in a translation comparison series. Focused on “the literary Bible”, my intent is look at passages or phrases where translations that have been especially noted for their literary translation qualities seem to capture the meaning of the text with an extra dash of written flavor, at least in comparison with other standard English translations. I especially focus on the Revised English Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible, as well as others as warranted.

Previous posts: The winner’s wreath | A wilderness of words

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The primary text under consideration today is 2 Corinthians 11:12-15. In order to provide the proper context, I will first provide a modern literal translation, then look at how the “literary” translations render the target text.

12 And what I do I will also continue to do, in order to deny an opportunity to those who want an opportunity to be recognized as our equals in what they boast about. 13 For such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. Their end will match their deeds. (NRSV)

The “literary” translations considered in this post are the REB and NJB, as well as Richmond Lattimore’s translation and a little-referenced translation on this blog, the International Standard Version (ISV). The latter came to my attention in a review by Andy Cheung (HT: sunestauromai), where a particular phrasing jumped out at me from this passage. But more on that later…

This passage overall is notable for a number of words that are repeated in the original Greek: aphormē (NRSV: opportunity), metaschēmatizō (NRSV: disguise) and diakonos (NRSV: ministers). While most of the translations maintain consistency in the repetition, there is definitely variance in how those words are translated.

Verse 12:

REB: And I shall go on doing as I am doing now, to cut the ground from under those who would seize any chance to put their vaunted apostleship on the same level as ours. NJB: I will go on acting as I do at present, to cut the ground from under the feet of those who are looking for a chance to be proved my equals in grounds for boasting.
Lattimore: This I do, and this I shall do to cut away the pretexts of those who desire a pretext for boasting that they are found to be our equals. ISV: But I will go on doing what I’m doing in order to deny an opportunity to those people who want an opportunity to be recognized as our equals in the work they are boasting about.

The ISV tracks quite closely to the NRSV, but reads more naturally, especially in the opening phrase. I’ve noted that the ISV is far more likely to use contractions to smooth the spoken aspects of a verse, which may not necessarily be “literary”, but lends itself well to spoken English.

The Greek aphormē (NRSV: opportunity) literally means “a base of operations” from which to attack or move, or the resources found therein. As such, the NRSV’s translation, “opportunity”, could be understood as “[…] to close the door on those who want an opportunity to be recognized […]”, leveraging the “door of opportunity” idiom. Lattimore’s use of “pretext” stands apart when comparatively reading the English versions; his version begins weaving the thread of false deceit that will become more apparent in subsequent verses.

Both the REB and the NJB use an expression “cut the ground from under those” as a substitute for the first instance of aphormē. This seems to be a likely British idiom unfamiliar on this side of the pond, whereas an American equivalent might be to “to pull the rug from under those…” Both translations use variants of “chance” for the second instance of aphormē, and are the exceptions to the general rule of maintaining concordance.

The REB’s individual choice of “vaunted” for the Greek kauchaomai (“boasting”) introduces a certain “is it praise or boasting” ambiguity that isn’t apparent in the other translations. Furthermore, “apostleship” is a clarifying addition to the text, though one that definitely changes the grammatical construction of the phrase.

Verse 13:

REB: Such people are sham apostles, confidence tricksters masquerading as apostles of Christ. NJB: These people are counterfeit apostles, dishonest workers disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.
Lattimore: Such people are the false apostles, treacherous workers, disguised as apostles of Christ. ISV: Such people are false apostles, dishonest workers who are masquerading as apostles of the Messiah.

Here we consider the variety of language used for the phrases “pseudapostolos” and “dolios ergates“. The former is translated as “false apostles” (NRSV, Lattimore, ISV), “counterfeit apostles (NJB) and “sham apostles” (REB). The latter translation continues the “con game” theme with “confidence tricksters” for dolios ergates, which is more literally translated as “deceitful workers” (NRSV), “dishonest workers” (NJB, ISV) or “treacherous workers” (Lattimore).

A more natural rendition of the REB might be “con men” instead of “confidence tricksters”, which is the formal phrasing of a common slang term, albeit perhaps more natural in British English?

Verse 14:

REB: And no wonder! Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light, NJB: There is nothing astonishing in this; even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
Lattimore: And no wonder; even Satan disguises himself as the angel of light, ISV: And no wonder, since Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.

There is little variance in identifying Satan’s deceitful appearance as “an angel of light” – all the considered translations use this phrase. I want to look, therefore, at the verb metaschēmatizō (verses 13, 14 and 15), which is derived from schēma (defined in Strong’s as “comprising everything in a person which strikes the senses, the figure, bearing, discourse, actions, manner of life etc.”). The full verb means to change or transform the figure of (one’s self).

The NRSV, NJB and Lattimore choose forms of the verb “disguise” to describe these passages, while the REB and ISV choose the more elegant “masquerade”, which certainly fits the billing of a literary translation. Both renderings accomplish metaschēmatizō through concealing the true nature of something by way of deceit.

However, as much as I like masquerade, I wonder if it is too suggestive of a costume ball, where the participants are just tantalizingly hidden behind ornate decorations. It not so much the player who has been transformed, as the costume has given them a new appearance. The focus is on the costume, not the player. A disguise, while not as adventuresome, seems to be more in line with changing the appearance of someone such that they become someone or something else. We want to see an angel of light, so Satan becomes one; not merely hiding behind a feathery mask, but indistinguishable to our sinful inclinations from a true angel or Christ.

Verse 15:

REB: so it is easy enough for his agents to masquerade as agents of good. But their fate will match their deeds. NJB: It is nothing extraordinary, then, when his servants disguise themselves as the servants of uprightness. This will come to the end appropriate to what they have done.
Lattimore: so there is nothing startling if his ministers disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. Their end will be what their acts have deserved. ISV: So it is not surprising if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their doom will match their deeds!

The word choice for diakonos is equally varied: the NRSV and Lattimore translate it as “ministers”, the NJB and ISV as “servants”, and the REB as “agents”. My hesitancy on “ministers” is that we perhaps read that today with too narrow of a viewpoint – is Paul referring to spiritually corrupted pastors and teachers of the Church? Ironically, diakonos is the original of our word, deacon. Or is it a political reference such that C.S. Lewis can imagine a host of letters written to the young demon Wormwood from his bureaucratic uncle, Under Secretary Screwtape? Similarly, the REB perhaps has too much of “secret agent” feel to it – Satan’s minions as the field office of the CIA (or MI6 for our British friends).

The last part of this verse provides another opportunity for a literary turn, with Paul essentially writing that “they’ll get what’s coming to them!”. The ISV turns out the phrase that caught my eye in Andy Cheung’s review: “Their doom will match their deeds!

The critic may protest against the overt interpretation or even cartoon-ish reading of “doom” versus the literal “end” (NRSV, NJB, Lattimore), but the alliteration is irresistible, as is the exclamation. Unlike “doom”, both “end” and the REB’s “fate” are somewhat ambiguous in an explicit positive/negative sense, but the context makes it clear that the latter is in play here.

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Concluding thoughts: Highlights from this passage include the REB and NJB’s “cut the ground” idiom in verse 12, the “con game” language of the REB in verse 13, the suggestive imagery of “masquerade” (REB, ISV) in verse 14, and the ISV’s “deeds of doom” in verse 15. The REB continues its pattern of modifying grammatical structures to smooth the resulting translation, while the ISV has an oral smoothness all of its own.

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Fantastic post! Absolutely wonderful side by side comparisons with your discussion! But with, or instead of, your “modern literary translation” as the comparison, why not give the Greek (and perhaps its transliteration for your readers who need/ want that)?

    12 ὃ δὲ ποιῶ καὶ ποιήσω ἵνα ἐκκόψω τὴν ἀφορμὴν τῶν θελόντων ἀφορμήν ἵνα ἐν ᾧ καυχῶνται εὑρεθῶσιν καθὼς καὶ ἡμεῖς
    13 οἱ γὰρ τοιοῦτοι ψευδαπόστολοι ἐργά ται δόλιοι μετασχηματιζόμενοι εἰς ἀποστόλους Χριστοῦ
    14 καὶ οὐ θαῦμα αὐτὸς γὰρ ὁ Σατανᾶς μετασχηματίζεται εἰς ἄγγελον φωτός
    15 οὐ μέγα οὖν εἰ καὶ οἱ διάκονοι αὐτοῦ μετασχηματίζονται ὡς διάκονοι δικαιοσύνης ὧν τὸ τέλος ἔσται κατὰ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν

    12 ho de poiO kai poiEsO hina ekkoPSO tEn a-PHormEn tOn THelontOn a-PHormEn hina en hO kauCHOntai eureTHOsin kaTHos kai hEmeis.
    13 hoi gar toioutoi PSeud-apostoloi ergatai dolioi meta-sCHematiZomenoi eis apostolous CHristou
    14 kai ou THauma autos gar ho Satanas meta-sCHematizetai eis aggelon PHOtos
    15 ou mega ouv ei kai hoi diakonoi autou meta-sCHematizontai hOs diakonoi dikaiosuvEs hWn to telos estai kata ta erga autOn

    (Of course, the boldings so liberally added above are mine to illustrate some of Paul’s word play that the Englishes choose to follow or to be inspired by in uniquely English language ways.)

  2. Thank you, J.K. I have to confess that my understanding of the Greek is limited to the references in Strong’s and Vines provided on Blue Letter Bible and elsewhere online, so I really do appreciate your putting the entire passage in context.

    I see that I missed the wordplay between ergates in vs.13 and ergon in vs.15, though none of the translations considered here uses “works” in the latter to tie in with “worker” (as the KJV does).

  3. J. K. Gayle says:

    El Shaddai,
    I really like the ISV, especially its ending here. If it were to keep the wordplay around erg* in 13 and 15, then maybe it could be revised this way:

    Such people are false apostles, workers of deceiving deeds who are masquerading as apostles of the Messiah…
    So it is not surprising if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their doom will match their deeds!

    What do you think?

  4. I like that, a lot. I like “deceiving” there, even better than “deceitful” in the NRSV – it’s a more active tone with more presence and impact. And, of course, the repetition of “deeds”. Well done!

  5. TCR says:

    Hey guys! I know I’m late on this one, but I like the exchange. I like both the REB and NJB “to cut the ground from under.” I get it, and it carries along the sense of ἐκκόψω.

    On v. 13, REB “confidence trickters” strikes me as odd. I like the other better. “False apostles” is fine.

    On v. 14, REB does not translate “γὰρ.” Both Lattimore and NJB render it “even,” and ISV as “since.” I like “even” better.

    On v. 15, I agree that we should try to keep the wordplay with ἐργά and τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν.

    Here’s the HCSB:

    “deceitful workers” (v. 13) and “according to their works.”

  6. Thanks, TC. I should have noted the HCSB in my comment above as using “works” in 15 for ergon, along with the KJV.

    Also interesting is the HCSB’s choice of “destiny” for telos in 15 – that’s hand-in-hand with the REB’s “fate”.

    I suppose the ultimate literary translation would be “They are destined to doom according to their deeds!”

  7. TC says:

    Yeah, I like “They are destined to doom according to their deeds.” There’s some kind of alliteration going on.

  8. Nathan Stitt says:

    This post has me salivating for a copy of the ISV in hand already. I’ve been waiting for the whole bible, but I may just grab the NT for now.

  9. It does seem intriguing, Nathan, doesn’t it? I don’t know if it’ll be a full-time participant in future posts of this series, but I’ll be sure to take a look at the verses as I work on them. Normally I’d also wait until the full Bible was completed, but a printed NT might be calling me too…

  10. Nathan Stitt says:

    So many books, so little income. I still can’t get over them charging $30 for a hardcover NT…