All Translators Are Traitors, and Should Be Tried as Such

While looking up a Biblical reference earlier today, I came across a text whose translation gave me considerable pause several months ago. The passage in question is Colossians 2:18:

μηδεὶς ὑμᾶς καταβραβευέτω θέλων ἐν ταπεινοφροσύνῃ καὶ θρησκείᾳ τῶν ἀγγέλων, ἃ μὴ ἑώρακεν ἐμβατεύων, εἰκῆ φυσιούμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ νοὸς τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ… (Ecclesiastical Greek text)

Let no one who delights in humility and the worship of angels pass judgement on you. [Such a] person goes on at great lengths about [things] he has [not] seen, [being] puffed up with empty notions by his fleshly mind… (New English Translation, emended)

That day I had been reading the passage in Greek, as I’ve done on alternate days since I was in high school. The inkling of a possible and quite concrete pastoral application of this text to a situation with which I was then dealing lead me to survey how this passage, and the phrase θέλων ἐν ταπεινοφροσύνῃ (thelōn en tapeinophrosynē) in particular, was rendered in a few English translations.

Both the New International Version and the Today’s New International Version read “anyone who delights in false humility,” which is rather close to the NET rendering quoted above; the New King James Version joins chorus in describing such people as “taking delight in false humility.” But the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New Revised Standard Version take the passage in a different (and somewhat disquieting) direction by turning “false humility” into “self-abasement.” Now, that is quite an understandable rendering, and one attractive in some ways, but I had the distinct impression that behind the word choice here lay an anti-ascetical agenda. Of course, I’m prone to detect conspiracies where there are none (with the exception of the Vatican-CIA connection, which most certainly exists and indeed runs the world), so I decided to file that thought and consult two other translations. Imagine my surprise when I found that the English Standard Version reads “insisting on asceticism,” whereas the Holman Christian Standard Bible reads “insisting on ascetic practices”! What was perhaps implicit in the RSV/NASB/NRSV, then, has been made fully explicit in the ESV/HCSB: that somehow, any kind of emphasis on the regular undertaking of the physical disciplines of the spiritual life (i.e., asceticism) is one of two reasons why the people being described in Colossians 2:18 are “puffed up with empty notions by [their] fleshly mind.” The other is flagrant idolatry (“the worship of angels”), which is presumably every bit as bad.

Now, I understand full well that behind Protestant anti-asceticism (and by extension, Evangelical gnosticism) lie the ghastly and not infrequently gory excesses of the Medieval and Counter-Reformation West. (Cf. the Revised English Bible‘s use of “self-mortification” in our passage, which conjures up images of self-flagellation, stigmata and cilices.) But, as a most sensible Latin proverb often ascribed to St Augustine saith, abusus non tollit usus: that is, that the abuse of something does not abrogate its rightful use. Latin Christendom, having lost sight of the ascetic ideal of the New Testament in both faith and practice, offered in its stead a hideously deformed substitute, to which the Reformers (and their stepchildren)1 reacted, in turn, by excising asceticism right out of Christianity. Needless to say, neither excess is tolerableand all the more so when they filter down to Biblical translation like this!

(Incidentally, all of this reminds me of the well-known NIV/TNIV practice to translate παράδοσις [paradosis] as “teaching” when its meaning is positive [cf. IΙ Thessalonians 2:15] and “tradition” when its meaning is negative [cf. St Mark 7:8-10]. Ah, traduttore, traditore!)

1Here I’m borrowing the title of Leonard Verduin’s fascinating study, The Reformers and their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1964).

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8 responses to “All Translators Are Traitors, and Should Be Tried as Such

  1. How can you not include the rendering of your favorite Bible, the REB?

    You are not to be disqualified by the decision of people who go in for self-mortification and angel-worship and access to some visionary world. Such people, bursting with the futile conceit of worldly minds, […]

    False humility, self mortification… I forgot I needed a psychology degree to read the New Testament!

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  2. So, Stefan and ElShaddai, how would you translate this phrase? I agree that the RSV rendering is bad and the ESV one worse. But do you think the NET rendering “who delights in humility” is appropriate and adequate, given that humility is usually considered to be a positive virtue, not something to be condemned as here, as well as being inconsistent with “puffed up with empty notions”? Are you happy with the NIV, TNIV and NKJV chorus?

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  3. ElShaddai> Still not willing to cover your brother’s faults, I see! Well, I have just included a reference to the REB rendering in the post. Are you happy now? ;-)

    And yes, to hear some Christian psychologists speak, you’d think a PhD in psychology is necessary for both biblical hermeneutics and Christian spirituality! This is, of course, nonsense. But one of the unstated points of this post is that our experience of the ascetical tradition (i.e., praxis) of the Church (which is therapeutic and therefore psychotherapy, “soul treatment,” in the strictest sense) can and should cast light on our understanding of Biblical texts and their concrete application. So it isn’t so much a degree in psychology that we’re missing, but fasting, prayer, and the rest of the “spiritual disciplines”!

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  4. Peter> I’m satisfied, I think, with the NIV/TNIV/NKJV chorus. As you rightly note, tapeinophrosynē is overwhelmingly a positive term. BDAG agrees, commenting, delightfully, that in this text we have a case of humility “wrongly directed.” To me, its use here seems to border on the ironic, and the NIV/TNIV/NKJV only help make the meaning explicit (which unpacks the punch, but delivers the correct sense).

    In a note explaining their periphrastic rendering of embateuōn, the NET translators provide what I think is an accurate picture of the type of person being described here:

    “The idea in this context seems to be that the individual in question loves to talk on and on about his spiritual experiences, but in reality they are only coming out of his own sinful flesh.”

    The same would apply to this person’s supposed humility, which is of course not such at all.

    (Oh, and by the way, Peter, you might note that I answered your queries over at Lingamish’s blog a few days ago! ;-)

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  5. The question is, are delighting in humility and angel-worship and fixation on visions connected?

    If they are – and I think they are – NJB’s translation deserves consideration:

    Do not be cheated of your prize by anyone who chooses to grovel to angels and worship them, pinning every hope on visions received, vainly puffed by a human way of thinking.

    This verse is not about self-abasement in the abstract, but before angels.

    ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com

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  6. Peter challenged:

    So, Stefan and ElShaddai, how would you translate this phrase?

    I have no earthly idea – it’s all Greek to me! I googled tapeinophrosynē and found a reference or two that linked it to “modesty” rather than “humility”. Might that be a nuance between “false humility” and “self denial”?

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  7. John> While I agree with you that tapeinophrosynē and thrēskeia should be read together (they are, after all, the double complements of a single zeugma of en!), it seems a bit of stretch to connect tōn aggelōn back to both of them.

    Tapeinophrosynē is normally used to denote a moral quality (an attitude, if you will). To take it to mean the physical act of making obeisance before someone or something, as the NJB does, seems dangerously removed from the word’s semantic domain. Taking the usual meaning of the word as a given, to attempt to read the construction as the NJB translators did renders the text well-nigh unintelligible.

    As I said before, I think the TNIV reflects a more natural reading of the text. Reveling in “false humility” and the “worship of angels” is an unmistakable trait of the kind of people whose condemnation the Colossians are to ignore–as are never shutting up about visions they haven’t actually had, having big heads chock-full with nonsense, and ultimately, being severed from Christ the Head himself (v. 19). Each successive line in the check sheet gets progressively worse (and each is introduced by a participle, so it appears that they are indeed to be read serially).

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  8. fabulous provocation of thought here, as usual, Stefan!

    Have you looked at translations of Paul’s other two uses of the word in question?

    ἅτινά ἐστιν λόγον μὲν ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ καὶ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ καὶ ἀφειδίᾳ σώματος οὐκ ἐν τιμῇ τινι πρὸς πλησμονὴν τῆς σαρκός
    (Colossians 2:23)

    μηδὲν κατ’ ἐριθείαν μηδὲ κατὰ κενοδοξίαν ἀλλὰ τῇ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ ἀλλήλους ἡγούμενοι ὑπερέχοντας ἑαυτῶν
    (Philippians 2:3)

    Are the translators consistent with their decisions, respectively, for Colossians 2:18? And is Paul consistent in his use in the three different contexts?

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