What a Difference a Translation Makes

August 12, 2013

Quinn G. Caldwell

"Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these…"  from Galatians 5:1, 13-25

This is the kind of passage that can give Christianity a bad name: bodies are bad and they lead us into all kinds of uptight-sounding sins.  They're so uptight-sounding, in fact, that I kind of want to go out and commit some right now just because I think it would be fun to upset the kind of person that would even use such words.  Impurity?  Yes, please!  Carousing?  Let's go!

Read a little further in most translations, and you find that denying the flesh and living instead by the Spirit will turn you into a big-eyed, hands-clasped-in-front-of-your-chest milquetoast saint, a sort of Melanie Wilkes, only with less personality.  Hermmm, no thanks.

Here's where the right translation - or a good preacher - can really help out.  The Message renders the passage this way: "It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage, frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.  I could go on…"

Oh, dang.  Am I the only one who feels like that dude's been spying on me?

I think a lot of the trouble we have with these passages is about the translation, not about their actual meaning.  The Message is a very free translation, sure, but now that passage doesn't sound like some laughable Puritan talking about body parts; it sounds like my life.  I'll let you look up for yourself what The Message says will happen if you live the way Paul wants you to; I don't want to spoil it.  I'll just say that it sounds a lot better than long suffering and meekness.


God, when your word seems laughable, grant that I not be too quick to dismiss it.  And keep sending translators and interpreters to help me get my head around it.  Amen.

About the Author
Quinn G. Caldwell is Pastor and Teacher at Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC, in Syracuse, New York, and co-editor, with Curtis J. Preston, of the Unofficial Handbook of the United Church of Christ, published by The Pilgrim Press.
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