A Loose Translation Within Scripture?

There are a number of places in the Gospels where the words of Jesus or someone else are reported in Hebrew or Aramaic, followed by a gloss in Greek (which is usually translated into English for English-reading audiences).  Thus “Immanuel” is glossed “God with us” in Matthew 1:23, and “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Matthew 27:46.  But in one case the supplied translation adds a few words: in Mark 5:41, Jesus says to the dead girl, “Talitha koum!” which is translated as “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”  A rudimentary knowledge of Aramaic quickly indicates that talitha is “little girl” and koum (qum) is “get up!” but where did “I say to you” come from?  This has long made me scratch my head, but now I have a theory.  (Nerd alert!)

First let me say that in any event I don’t think scripture is “wrong” here.  Translation is tricky business, and nothing says that the gloss provided needs to be word-by-word translation.  The twentieth-century debate among Bible translators between dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence had its precursor among Syriac Christian Bible translators in the fifth to seventh centuries.  The important thing is that the gloss, in some sense, “means” what the original means, and that is surely accomplished here.  So I do not think we are discussing an “error” in the Bible, regardless of whether someone accepts my theory or not.

Nevertheless, I have often wondered why Mark put in “I say to you.”  When Matthew told the story, he did not report what Jesus said to the girl (Matthew 9:25), and Luke did not include “I say to you” (Luke 8:54; the “my” in “my child” is not in the Greek, but has been added by the NIV translators).  What’s going on here?

I cannot say that I know, but I have a theory.  What would this look like if we excised “I say to you”?   In Aramaic, talitha means “girl” or “female child,” and here it is being used in direct address: Mark makes explicit that Jesus says this “to her,” i.e. to the girl.  This use of a noun in direct address is called “vocative.”  The verb requires that this be spoken to the girl, because  qum is a command (called “imperative”).  The Greek words are likewise vocative and imperative, respectively, but they could function differently.  In Greek, “girl” is a neuter noun, so it is not written differently because it is vocative.  But the vocative is indicated by adding “the” in front of it (this is a Greek thing): to korasion.  But this is exactly the same form as saying “the girl.”  The Greek verb used to translate qum (“get up!”) is certainly imperative, but it could also mean “raise up” (something else).  Word order does not matter, so the Greek that Mark uses to translate “little girl, get up” could just as likely be a command to some bystander, “lift up the girl.”  And since one does not generally talk to dead people, some readers might presume that Mark’s comment that he said this command “to her” must refer to the child’s mother, or some other living female bystander.  So the direct command to the girl might be misinterpreted to refer to moving the child’s body.

Mark wishes his readers to understand what is going on, particularly that Jesus is speaking to the girl herself.  By inserting “I say to you” Mark makes clear that Jesus is talking to the girl, rather than talking to some woman present, telling her to lift up the girl.  By contrast, Luke uses a different Greek word for “female child” (he pais).  Because Luke’s noun is feminine instead of neuter, it takes a different form when it is used as a direct object, so even though Luke uses the same verb, his Greek cannot be telling anyone, “Lift up the child.”  That is why Luke’s version is clear without adding “I say to you,” but Mark adds those words in order to make his Greek clear.  The “extra words” fulfill the same function as the grammar of the original Aramaic, and make sure that the Greek in fact means the same as the Aramaic.  Using the Greek words he had to hand, Mark’s “loose translation” is attempting to specify the meaning more clearly than a word-by-word rendering would allow him to do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s