Raymond Brown on Ambiguities and Literal Translation

After my comments earlier about Piper and the ESV, I found this comment by Raymond Brown in An Introduction to the New Testament:

For the purpose of careful reading or study, which concerns us here, one must recognize that sometimes the biblical authors did not write clearly, so that the original texts contain certain phrases that are ambiguous or difficult to understand. In some instances translators have to guess at the meaning. They must choose either to render literally and preserve the ambiguity of the original, or to render freely and resolve the ambiguity. . . .

Brown continues by describing such a freer translation as a commentary built into the translated text.

I have enormous respect for Dr. Raymond Brown, but I have to disagree with him here. The best explanation I can think of for his making this comment is that he overestimates the ability of the average reader to discover to range of possible meanings that the translated text might carry. In almost all cases I would regard it as more appropriate for the lay person to use multiple translations, reading of footnotes, and careful attention to the context to resolve ambiguity. The English text does not tend to suggest the same range of possible meanings as does the Greek or Hebrew text, in my experience.

Most questions I’ve gotten on this result from the consistent translation of the Greek genitive with English “of” + some noun. English readers frequently find this ambiguous, and possibly more frequently they find it meaningless.

I’m going to begin collecting ambiguous renderings from formal equivalence translations into English, where the ambiguity of the English text does not match the ambiguity of the source text. I’d be interested in any specific suggestions. I will post results here in a later blog post.

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