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.
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