The past year has taken me through the ups and downs of learning a foreign, dead language. I have been taking biblical Greek (Koine Greek, the common vernacular language used during the first century AD), and it has both brought great insight into my faith and also has kicked me into moments of despair. It is already difficult to grasp a foreign language, yet it seems to be made more difficult when it is an ancient language! However, the payoff for me began when I was able to start making sense of the Greek text, seeing nuances that might have been missed while reading a perfectly suitable English translation. As great as the ESV, NRSV, and NIV are, it is difficult to catch the nuances. Somewhere, a good point gets lost in translation!
While I was working over my final translation assignment for this quarter, Romans 5:8 stuck out to me. I translated it as “But God proved his love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died on our behalf” (NRSV and ESV conclude the line with “Christ died for us”). For the third word (the main verb), I chose to go with “proved” instead of equally acceptable terms like “demonstrated” or “showed.” There is flexibility in English word choices, just as long as you are faithful to the original.
So what? Why did I just bore you with my translation and year in Greek so far? Because it is through the course I have learned that words matter. How we communicate an idea in terms of our faith will shape other people. What word we choose in translation will affect others, especially those who are vulnerable. Equally acceptable words can emphasis different aspects of things, for better or worse. That is why we need humility when it comes to faith, because we could be absolutely wrong in the selection of words we use. That is why we need a measure of grace when discussing matters of faith, because perhaps we emphasis the wrong syllable. That is why it is so encouraging to know that while we were such screw ups (it’s in the Greek…), God proved his love for us by bearing the ramifications of our screwed-up-ness and dying on our behalf. For that I am confident and thankful, no matter how badly I might translate it.