Gained through Translation

A few years ago I adopted the practice of reading through a different translation of the New Testament each year. I do this concurrently with my daily readings in the Recovery Version (RcV), my preferred translation. So far, I’ve read Tyndale, Lattimore, Moffatt, the New Jerusalem Bible, and I just started David Bentley Hart’s new translation.

This has helped me see new things in old places by preventing my mind from rushing over familiar words like well-trodden trails. Familiarity breeds contempt for close reading. There’s always the danger of skimming a text you’ve read before. If all I want is a reminder of what the text says, this will work. But if I desire an encounter with the living Word, nothing is more detrimental. As Barth said on a different issue, “to fail here is to fail everywhere.” [1] In my reading I try to guard against, what Proust called, “the deadening effect of habit, which cuts away from things we have seen many times the taproot of deep impression and thought which gives them their real significance.”[2] “Dead, insignificant, unimpressive”—not words that I want to characterize my reading of the Bible. An unfamiliar translation can help stave off these intruders. It forces me to slow down and look around, with the wonder and joyful sense of discovery of a tourist in a foreign land. The Bible is a strange new world, and if we aren’t careful we risk domesticating its mystery.

My heart stands in awe of Your words. I rejoice at Your word, like one who finds great spoil. –Psalm 119:162

Another way I’ve benefited from this practice is related to the first one. Not only am I forced to slow down and look around, but there are new things to see and hear. Translation is like casting a single light on a sculpture in a dark room. The angle and intensity of the light determine how we perceive it—its mass, relief, and texture. From one angle, the light brings out certain details but obscures others. From another angle, previously unseen aspects emerge from obscurity. It’s impossible for any one lighting scheme to equally illuminate the whole, and if we succeed in drowning it in light from all angles, we end up losing its finer points.

David head 3.jpg

Translation does something similar—it evokes new things from a familiar text. We make new connections within the text. A striking rendering sheds new light. Verbal echoes resonate in new canyons. In short, we see and hear the word differently. And since there is so much to see and hear in this word, this is a good thing.

This is how I put it a few posts ago:

The richness of the divine discourse is brought out only by a multiplicity of translations. No single translation is the perfect translation that says it all. Only a chorus of voices, singing out their parts in balance, can recreate the operatic fullness of the original solo.

A Compelling Case Study

All that brings me to my point. I recently noticed something new in Luke 14. Here’s the context. The Lord is teaching concerning the acceptance of an invitation to God’s great dinner in the kingdom. The dinner call is sounded. People make excuses. The host becomes angry. New invitations are sent out to the needy. People are compelled. The house is filled.

Compel them to come in. This line became famous due to the fateful development it underwent over the course of a thousand years. It ultimately became a major factor in justifying the crusades. The question was, what does compel mean? Taken out of context it can mean really anything—persuade, tax, imprison, conquer. But viewing it in context anchors its meaning and sheds some light.

Here’s what I never noticed before:

“Compel” in verse 23 is the verb form of the noun “need” in verse 18.

Here is how it appears in the RcV:

Luke 14:18  I need to go out and see [the land I bought].
Luke 14:23  Compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled.

It’s probably impossible to catch in this guise (and this is the standard rendering), but the two underlined phrases in Greek are almost identical:

ἀνάγκην ἐξελθὼν—v.18
ἀνάγκασον εἰσελθεῖν—v.23

If we break that down and transliterate the Greek, it looks like this:

ananke (a need) + ek (out) + erchomai (to come or go)—v.18
anankazo (to compel) + eis (in) + erchomai (to come or go)—v.23

Verse 23 echoes verse 18. The problem is: most translations obscure the verbal resonance between the two. This is because it is a little hard to convert the verb anankazo into a similar sounding noun in English. It is important to see this link though, because the master of the house is clearly playing on the wording of the first person’s excuse and this helps us understand his intended meaning.

Here’s how some versions treat the issue:

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As you can see, only Hart’s translation (of the ones I looked at) makes the connection crystal clear. Some of these translations could have achieved a similar transparency if they had mirrored the noun and verb. Options that come to mind include:

  • I have an obligation / obligate them
  • I have a constraining circumstance / constrain them
  • I have no choice / give them no choice
  • It is urgent / urge them
  • I am under pressure / press them
  • I am compelled / compel them

Of course, most of these solutions don’t maintain the noun form in the first instance. But in a situation like this I think it is more helpful to clarify the connection than to preserve the grammatical form.

The noun itself occurs 17x in the NT, and the RcV translates variously as necessity (9x), necessary (4x), need (2x), constraint (1x), and distress (1x). The RcV has a few footnotes that clarify what the noun means, and how we get necessity out of the noun form of the verb to compel.

1 Cor. 7:26  necessity. Or, pressure, constraint; hence, distress, anguish. The word refers to the necessities of life in the present age, the demand of which constrains and presses people and becomes a distress and anguish to them.

2 Cor. 9:7  not out of necessity. I.e., by being forced or pressed.

2 Cor. 12:10  necessities. Or, constraints; i.e., urgent needs that press much.

So an ananke is something that you feel so compelled to do that it becomes a necessity, limiting the freedom of your action and choice, even to the point of distress. And this is exactly what the master of the house is saying—cause the people I have invited to sense their need to come into my house. Economic and domestic responsibilities represent genuine obligations, the Lord doesn’t deny this, but He is incredulous and angered if we don’t sense how much more pressing is our acceptance of His invitation. Nothing is more pressing, urgent, or needed than this. How can we prioritize proving oxen over the dinner fellowship of God’s kingdom?

Hart shows us that it is in response to these incredulous excuses, presented as compelling needs, that the master almost blurts out, “compel them to come in!” Those sent out to call the invited guests should make people sense their need, so that they feel forced or compelled to reorder their priorities. The call of the gospel should awaken people to their greatest need and become the most compelling force in their life, so that they fill the house, taste the dinner, and eat with the master.



1. Karl Barth, CD, IV.1, ix
2. Marcel Proust, The Past Recaptured, p. 64

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