Friday, August 28, 2009

Savoring "more of curiosity than wisdom": Notes on the translation of logizomai in Romans 4:1-12

The Greek verb logizomai (to count, to reckon, to impute) is at the heart of Romans 4:1-12:

KJV Romans 4:1 What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? 2 For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. 3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. 4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. 6 Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, 7 Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. 9 Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. 10 How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: 12 And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.

Logizomai appears eight times in this passage and is translated in various ways in the AV:

v. 3: to count
v. 4: to reckon
v. 5: to count
v. 6: to impute
v. 8: to impute
v. 9: to reckon
v. 10: to reckon
v. 11: to impute

This raises an interesting question about the nature of translation. Should the translator strive to render the same Greek word with the same English word throughout? This has been the rule for some modern translations. The RSV and NRSV, for example, translate logizomai in this passage with "to reckon" throughout. The ESV uses "to count" throughout.

In Alister McGrath’s book In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, he notes the "elegance achieved by accident, rather than design" in the KJV (p. 254). He continues: "One possible contributing factor to the elegance of the King James Bible is its refusal to adopt a purely mechanical approach to translation, in which a Hebrew or Greek word is woodenly rendered by exactly the same English term throughout" (p. 255).

In the prefatory introduction "The Translators to the Readers" to the AV, this translation philosophy is made clear in a section titled "Reasons inducing us not to stand curiously upon an identity of phrasing." The translators explain:

"Another thing we think good to admonish thee of, gentle reader, that we have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe that some learned men somewhere have been exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places (for there be some words that be not of the same sense everywhere) we were especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty. But we should express the same the same notion in the same particular word; as, for example, if we translate the Hebrew or the Greek word once by purpose, never call it intent; if one where journeying, never traveling, if one where think, never suppose; if one where pain, never ache; if one where joy, never gladness, & c.; thus, to mince the matter, we thought to savor more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the atheist than bring profit to the godly reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables? Why should we be in bondage to them, if we may be free? Use one precisely when we may use another no less fit commodiously? …."

Indeed, we can see the wisdom of the AV translators here. Surely, they succeeded in the creation of a distinctively English translation that rendered the literal sense of the underlying original languages according to formal correspondence, but not in such a way as to create the kind of sterile redundancy that one often encounters in modern translations.


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