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The Problem of Under- or Over-Translating (James 1:23–24)

Anyone involved in translation knows that it is almost impossible to hit the nail directly on the head, so to speak. We either say too little, not conveying all the information of the Greek, or we say a little too much, being too interpretive at conveying the full meaning of a sentence.

Add to that our ignorance of certain constructions, whether they be Greek or Semitic, and it is easy to see why translation is as much an art as it is a science.

I was looking at James 1:23–24 and his call to not only hear the word but to do the word. “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at (κατανοοῦντι) his face (τὸ πρόσωπον τῆς γενέσεως αὐτοῦ) in a mirror and, after looking at (κατενόησεν) himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (NIV).

First of all, κατανοέω does not simply refer to looking. BDAG gives its semantic range as “1. notice, observe carefully; 2. to look at in a reflective manner, consider, contemplate; 3. to think about carefully, envisage, think about, notice. The simple “look” is simply not in its semantic range. Nevertheless, most translations say “look” (except for the NLT’s surprising “glancing,” a translation that is clearly outside the range of meaning for κατανοέω).

If a person stares intently at their own face, mulls it over, reflects on it, and then walks away, he or she will forget what their reflection was like. That is what it is like to hear God’s word but not put it into practice.

The other under-translation is a little more difficult. James doesn’t say “face”; he says τὸ πρόσωπον τῆς γενέσεως αὐτοῦ, “the face of his birth.” Granted, this is a difficult phrase to understand, and yet James could simply have said τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ; τῆς γενέσεως must have some meaning. I for one think it is best, especially when we are not sure what a word or phrase means, to find some translation and not merely omit the words. It probably means something like a “natural face,” the one you were born with, not the face you perhaps have covered up with makeup or dirt. This explains the older translation, “natural face” (KJV, NASB, ESV).

Whatever it means, certainly taking a stab at it is better than dropping it out, and then leave the rest of the exegetical process to the commentaries.

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