Perspectives in Translation

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Bible Gateway and The Gospel Coalition have teamed up to host a discussion of English Bible translation. We have convened a team of world-class scholars representing different versions of the English Bible who will address specific passages from the Old and New Testaments and answer questions about the translation process.

We hope that by pulling back the curtain on translation, this discussion will help readers understand their Bibles more clearly and learn to love God's Word more deeply. And we pray that careful attention to Scripture will excite readers to behold God's glory as he has revealed himself to us in our own language.

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How Do We Render Such an Important Word as ‘Chesed’ with No Simple Parallel in English? E. Ray Clendenen

Posted in Old Testament by E. Ray Clendenen on November 8th, 2010

Question: How do we render such an important word as ‘chesed’ with no simple parallel in English?

The difficulty not only of translating this Hebrew word, but even of clearly and fully understanding it, is shown by at least four scholarly monographs having been written in the twentieth century on this one word (by N. Glueck in 1927, B. M. Bowen in 1938, K. D. Sakenfeld in 1978, and G. R. Clark in 1993). The last work agrees with many scholars that chesed cannot be “adequately” translated into English, which is especially a problem since it occurs about 250x in the Hebrew Bible. I disagree with this in principle. I believe God gave us his Word with the intention of its being “adequately” translatable into all the languages of the world. Although not every nuance of the original languages—whether the content and intention of a book, paragraph, sentence, or word—can always be rendered fully into English or other languages, I believe it is contrary to biblical teaching to say that a word cannot be “adequately” rendered. Although Isaiah 55:11 is speaking of God’s word of promise rather than of translation, I believe its message applies: “My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.”

God’s inscripturated word will also communicate and accomplish what he intends, even when translated, and so is more than “adequate.” The principle of translation is found many times in the Bible either explicitly (Ezra 4:7,18; Neh 8:8; Matt 1:23; Mark 5:41; 15:22,34; John 1:38,41; Acts 4:36) or in the fact that when the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament as God’s word, they wrote it in Greek, usually quoting the Greek translation available at the time, the Septuagint.

Nevertheless, the difficulty of translating chesed is apparent. The translation “lovingkindness” originated with Miles Coverdale in 1535 and was also used in the KJV (26x) and NKJV (29x), and more consistently in the ASV (166x) and NASB (176x), although they and all translations must use other words at times, such as “mercy” or “kindness,” and sometimes “loyalty” or “faithfulness,” depending on the context. Clearly the word has a range of meanings.

Modern study in particular has revealed that the word has a strong semantic element describing covenant behavior and the kind of behavior expected of friends and relatives. We should be aware, however, that 75 percent of its uses apply to divine behavior. When God acts with chesed, he is coming to the aid of those to whom he has committed himself: for example, to deliver, to forgive, and to enable us to worship him. And his people are to act with chesed toward one another. The RSV started expressing this complex concept with “steadfast love,” also followed by NRSV and ESV. “Unfailing love” was used by the NIV, NLT, and TNIV; and the similar “constant love” occurs in the REB (though the more economical “love” is used at times in the NIV, TNIV, NAB, and JPS). It seems apparent the primary difficulty comes in trying to express the dual aspects of kindness, mercy, and love on the one hand, and commitment, loyalty, and faithfulness on the other. The HCSB used “faithful love.”

E. Ray Clendenen is Bible commentary editor for B&H Publishing and associate editor of the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

This entry was posted by E. Ray Clendenen and is filed under Old Testament.