“What Is Fidelity in Translation?”

“Fidelity” — “1. strict observance of promises, duties, etc. 4. adherence to fact or detail; 5. accuracy; exactness” (Webster’s College Dictionary). In chapter 2 of Translating the Word of God, Beekman and Callow ask “What is Fidelity in Translation?” They answer with these excerpts (italics added) . . . 

It seems axiomatic, therefore, to conclude that a definition of fidelity will focus on the meaning of the original. The linguistic form of the original was natural and meaningful. It did not represent a grammatical or lexical structure that was impossible or discouragingly difficult to understand but one that was already in use by the people in everyday conversation. 

The message [of a faithful translation] is not distorted or changed; it has neither unnecessarily gained nor lost information . . . . On the other hand . . . the writers were not penning abstract theses or obscure philosophies but had a very practical aim in view; they wrote to be understood.

Based on the comments by Beekman and Callow, this article questions the fidelity of the following translations at 1 Peter 1:1-2:

New International Version (2010 and earlier editions), NIV
International Standard Version, ISV
NET Bible, NET
New American Standard Bible, NASB
New King James Version, NKJV
King James Version, KJV
Amplified Bible, AB

The issue in the verses centers on one word and three prepositional phrases. The Greek text and the present author’s literal translation visualizes the problem. Notice the placement of the words in bold font. Only the affected portions of the verses are displayed:

ἐκλεκτοῖς παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς Πόντου, Γαλατίας, Καππαδοκίας, Ἀσίας καὶ Βιθυνίας, 2 κατὰ πρόγνωσιν θεοῦ πατρὸς ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος εἰς ὑπακοὴν καὶ ῥαντισμὸν αἵματος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ

. . . to the elect strangers of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father in sanctification by the Spirit unto the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ . . . .

The adjective “elect,” serves either as a noun substitute (called a substantive) or modifies the following word “strangers.” A natural translation of these two words would be “elect strangers,” or as A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, translates, “chosen sojourners.” The above-listed translations displace “elect” from “strangers” and connect it to the prepositional phrases of verse two. This change not only alters the wording but also Peter’s focus in the passage.

Separating “elect” from “strangers” follows two patterns: (1) The NIV places a comma after “elect” and again after Bithynia effectively making the adjective a substantive and connecting it with verse two—“To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.” (2) Apparently to reinforce this interpretation, it inserts an English participle to the beginning of verse two. This addition, either as a substantive, “chosen,” or as a participle, “who have been chosen,” can be seen in the following versions: NIV, ISV, NASB, NKJV, KJV, AB. The NET Bible follows suit, however, it does add a footnote: “Or ‘to the chosen sojourners. . . ” On this reading the [prepositional] phrases in v. 2 describe their entire existence as sojourners, etc., not just their election.” This note not only identifies the issue facing the translators—to what do the three prepositional phrases connect—but also opens the door to a very different meaning for the verses.

Bigg’s comment on the passage alludes to the reason for changing the text (St. Peter and St. Jude, 91), “The general and preferable arrangement is to take [the prepositional phrases] with ἐκλεκτοῖς [“elect”]—‘Elect according to foreknowledge,’ etc.; this gives perfectly good sense; the only difficulty is that we should have expected ἐκλεκτοῖς [“elect”] to be placed after Βιθυνίας [Bithynia].”

However, the suggested “preferable arrangement” of wording that “gives perfectly good sense” implies that Peter’s original wording does not make “perfectly good sense” and needs to be rearranged. Such a hypothesis must be validated before accepted.

E.D. Hirsch’s significant work, Validity in Interpretation, p. 236, outlines a procedure for validating an interpretation (italics added for the criteria):

To establish a reading [interpretation] as probable it is first necessary to show, with reference to the norms of language, that it is possible. This is the criterion of legitimacy: the reading must be permissible within the public norms of the langue [language possibilities] in which the text was composed. The second criterion is that of correspondence: the reading must account for each linguistic component in the text. Whenever a reading arbitrarily ignores linguistic components or inadequately accounts for them, the reading may be presumed improbable. The third criterion is that of generic appropriateness: if the text follows the conventions of a scientific essay, for example, it is inappropriate to construe the kind of allusive meaning found in casual conversation. When these three preliminary criteria have been satisfied, there remains a fourth criterion which gives significance to all the rest, the criterion of plausibility or coherence. The three preliminary norms usually permit several readings, and this is by definition the case when a text is problematical. Faced with alternatives, the interpreter chooses the reading which best meets the criterion of coherence. Indeed, even when the text is not problematical, coherence remains the decisive criterion, since the meaning is “obvious” only because it “makes sense.”

Classifying the adjective as a substantive, “elect ones,” and rearranging the location of that word in the text, are possible within the norms of the Greek language. Therefore, these changes found in the NIV and other translations meet the criterion of legitimacy even though Peter could have but chose not to write his text in this manner.

The criterion of correspondence, where every detail of the text including word order is taken into account, appears to be disregarded by many translators. The original text places “elect” at the very beginning of the sentence as the indirect object or modifier to the indirect object placing the three prepositional phrases in direct relationship to “strangers,” the “head word” (see Black, Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek, 107-08, for this linguistic terminology).

Perhaps Hirsch’s third criterion may be able to establish legitimacy for the translations that altered Peter’s wording. Generic appropriateness means that the text fits the nature of the overall writing. The key terms are theological in nature and they are somewhat identifiable in other parts of 1 Peter. But is 1 Peter a theological treatise centered around these ideas thereby establishing its theological nature? Or does 1 Peter partake of a different nature that supports Peter’s original wording? If it does, proper procedures of interpretation must give Peter’s wording “first priority” unless it can be unequivocally shown to be inadequate and not “making sense.”

Finally, coherence connects directly with the previous criterion. Does Peter’s word arrangements make sense or must they be changed to make sense? Apparently for many translators Peter did not make good sense. However, a competing hypothesis interposes itself: Peter said what he wanted to say in the way he wanted to say it, and he made perfectly good sense in doing so. This, too, needs validation.

(1) Peter’s wording clearly meets the criterion of legitimacy. (2) The criterion of correspondence is validated because no detail of the text is shunted to the side including the all-important detail of word order. (3) Generic appropriateness exists because 1 Peter as a whole represents a pastoral epistle more than a theological treatise. (4) A survey of the book confirms the preceding criterion and clearly demonstrates coherence. The text as written makes sense!

Numerous scholars support the pastoral aspects of 1 Peter. Roger M. Raymer writes (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 837), “First Peter was written to Christians who were experiencing various forms of persecution, men and women whose stand for Jesus Christ made them aliens and strangers in the midst of a pagan society. Peter exhorted these Christians to steadfast endurance and exemplary behavior. The warmth of his expressions combined with his practical instructions make this epistle a unique source of encouragement for all believers who live in conflict with their culture.”

Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 791, provides this keen observation (italics added), “The keynote of the letter is hope and Peter wishes to exhort these Christians to live in accordance with the hope they have received through Christ. He gives practical guidance to assist in their human relationships and particularly exhorts them to endure suffering in a joyful manner for Christ’s sake. His main purpose is, therefore, hortatory, but not infrequently he introduces theological considerations which press home the ethical injunctions.

Peter’s motivation for writing 1 Peter was primarily pastoral and secondarily theological. This means that the wording of the text should not be “distorted or changed,” to use Beekman and Callow terminology. It also means that the theological term “elect” and the theologically-oriented prepositional phrases have direct bearing on the pastoral concern of the writer and provide the initial encouragement for the suffering believers of Asia Minor. 

Peter’s letter sent to “elect strangers” points to these truths: (1) that God not only elected them but did so in the contexts of a specific time and place, “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1:1-2; cp. Acts 17:26); (2) that their difficult life situations are the arena of their “sanctification by the Spirit” (1:6-7; 1:13-17; 2:11-12; 3:13-16; 4:1-19); (3) that they have a divinely-appointed purpose as witnesses to those around them, “unto the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (2:9-11 and 3:15-17).

None of this denies the theological truths imbedded in the passage and expounded by many commentators, but the emphasis by Peter lies in shepherding those caught in difficult life circumstances. He ties theology inseparably to the “struggling saint on the street.” Perhaps one should state that 1 Peter contains both theological and pastoral orientations with the primary emphasis on the pastoral aspects and the secondary focus on the theological. Based on Peter’s wording, this is certainly true in 1:1-2.

One final note about the listed translations at 1 Peter 1:1-2—the well-meaning but unacceptable distortion of Peter’s emphasis preconditions contemporary readers for deep theological discussion when what they really need to hear is that God puts His people where He wants them, uses their circumstances to build them up spiritually, and commissions them to witness for Christ.

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