When Words Mean What They Don’t Mean — Mondays with Mounce 232
Every once in a while I come across a verse that is simply impossible to translate. No matter what you do, you over- or under-translate, or worst mistranslate. 2 John 1:12 is one of those verses.
“Although I have many other things to write (γράφειν) to you, I do not want to use (οὐκ ἐβουλήθην) paper and ink (διὰ χάρτου καὶ μέλανος); instead, I hope to be with you and speak face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”
The meaning is obvious. John did write; there were some things he needed to communicate with paper and ink. But the bulk of what he wanted to say needed to be said face to face. So far so good, except that is not what he says. It is what he means, but it is not what he says.
How else did he intend on writing? A stylus and stone? Carrier pigeon? The internet? He has other things to write, but he doesn’t want to use writing utensils. For him, that’s not possible.
The NASB does not solve the problem. “Though I have many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink” (see also HCBS, NET, and NIV). How else would he write?
The ESV is a little better (see also NRSV). “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink.” For a word-for-word translation, “rather not use” is a bit loose, and it still does not solve the problem. What else would he use?
Another solution is that of the NLT. “I have much more to say to you, but I don’t want to do it with paper and ink.” This is clearly the meaning of the verse, but γράφω can never mean “say,” at least in a dictionary.
So as I said, this is an impossible verse to translate if you want to stay true to the meaning of the words used. And yet it does communicate, doesn’t it? I wonder how many of us actually have noticed this issue, or did we just read over the verse, understanding the meaning.
As I like to say: “language is the stringing of one ambiguity after another.” There is so much more to communication than merely words, a phenomena not attached merely to this kind of verse. Our words create pictures, and those images communicate and fill in the blanks (and at times straighten out the absurdities of the words we use).
I don’t remember this lecture in my seminary hermeneutics class. The grammatical-historical method is king! Except that in this case it is powerless to translate. I wonder how many other verses convey meaning in ways contrary to the meaning of the words.
I am writing this in the airport at Portland, headed to Denver for this year’s CBT meeting (on the NIV). We would all appreciate your prayers as we work through the biblical text once again, as is our habit every year.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.
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