The Christian theological vocabulary is full of specific words and phrases that we’ve come to hold dear—we read them in our Bibles, sing them in hymns, and repeat them in prayer. When translators conclude that there’s a more accurate way to translate one of these linguistic “sacred cows,” should they do so? Or is it better to leave a beloved, but possibly inaccurate, translation intact to avoid reader confusion?
This question has come to the fore in recent online discussions of the Common English Bible (CEB). When we added the complete CEB to Bible Gateway’s online library earlier this summer, we noted its focus on readability and modern language. If you’ve read much of the CEB New Testament, you may already have come across one notable example of this translation philosophy. Do you notice anything unusual about the CEB’s translation of Matthew 9:6?
“But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—”Get up, take your cot, and go home.” (CEB)
Did the phrase “the Human One” jump out at you? It’s a title that most other English Bibles translate as “the Son of Man.” (And in fact, the CEB notes this in a footnote.) Here’s how the English Standard Version translates the same verse:
“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—”Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (ESV)
If, like me, you’ve grown up reading about Jesus as “the Son of Man,” the CEB’s new translation is jolting! Why would the CEB change a long-used, widely-accepted phrase like “the Son of Man”? As always, the question to ask of an unexpected translation choice is “Is this a good translation of the original text?” and not “Does this match what I’m personally used to?” In fact, the CEB translators had a strong reason for making this choice, and they lay out that rationale in a post at the CEB blog:
People who have grown accustomed to hearing Jesus refer to himself in the Gospels as “the Son of Man” may find this jarring. Why “Human One”? Jesus’ primary language would have been Aramaic, so he would have used the Aramaic phrase bar enosha. This phrase has the sense of “a human” or “a human such as I.” This phrase was taken over into Greek in a phrase that might be translated woodenly as “son of humanity.” However, Greek usage often refers to “a son of x” in the sense of “one who has the character of ‘x.’” For example, Luke 10:6 refers to “a son of peace,” a phrase that has the sense, “one who shares in peace.” Another example: in Acts 13:10 Paul calls a sorcerer “a son of the devil.” This is not a reference to the sorcerer’s actual ancestry, but serves to identify his character. He is devilish — or, more simply in English, “a devil.” In short, “Human” or “Human One” both represents accurately the Aramaic and Greek idioms and reflects common English usage. Finally, many references to Jesus as “the Human One” refer back to Daniel 7:13, where Daniel “saw one like a human being” (in Greek, huios anthropou); using the title “Human One” in the Gospels and Acts, then, preserves this connection to Daniel’s vision.
The post goes on to note that the English phrase “Son of Man” has experienced a shift away from its intended meaning—many readers read that familiar phrase as a reference to Jesus’ divinity, at the expense of his humanity. In using “the Human One,” the CEB translators were aiming both for a more accurate translation and for a greater emphasis on Jesus’ humanity as suggested in the original language.
As you can imagine, a change like this has generated debate. Joel Hoffman of the God Didn’t Say That blog nicely lays out the pros and cons of using the phrase “the Human One.” (He considers the phrase a good translation, but ultimately feels that the title “Son of Man” is too central to abandon.) Elsewhere, blogger John Vest uses this example to highlight the challenge of bucking a “translation tradition”:
The problem people have with this seems to me to be another example of an English translation tradition trumping a reasonable alternative that attempts to better represent the original languages in natural English rather than “biblish” or “church speak”. So what is more important, a readable English rendering of our sacred texts or the preservation of theologically laden phrases that have taken on a life of their own beyond the Bible?
Whatever you think of this particular translation choice, Vest points out an important issue. When the familiar, traditional translation of a word or phrase is inadequate, should the translators update it—and risk confusing readers—or leave it untouched? What about words that are correctly translated but have acquired social or denominational connotations that distract from (or even replace) the original intended meaning?
As this instance shows, this isn’t a simple issue to answer. But it’s one of many tough challenges faced by every Bible translation team.
(You can see for yourself how the CEB’s translation choices turned out by reading the CEB on Bible Gateway.)