Monday, January 1, 2018

Lead Us Not Into Mistranslation

Recently Pope Francis suggested on Italian television that the English translation of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation” (Mat 6:13; Luk 11:4) “is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation.” He went on to say that, “It is Satan who leads us into temptation; that is his department.” As a result, Pope Francis suggested changing the English translation of the Lord’s Prayer to “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

The problem with the Pope’s suggestion is that the Greek text of Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4 is quite clear, and the traditional rendering “lead us not into temptation” is a faithful and literal translation of the text. “Lead us not into temptation” is exactly what the Greek text says. It is a request to God on the part of the one praying that God not lead us into temptation. Interestingly, the Greek word translated as ‘temptation’ can also be translated as ‘test’ or ‘trial’.

Pope Francis’s comments highlight a common question that we Bible translators ask ourselves—do we translate what the text actually says, or do we translate what we think the text should say? The temptation is great to translate what we think the text should say rather than translating what the text actually says. But there is great danger in doing so, because we begin to insert our own ideas and interpretations into the text, obscuring what the text actually says and promoting our own particular brand of theology. Now, it is impossible to avoid all interpretation in the process of translation, but interpretation should generally be avoided if at all possible.

Incidentally, a couple of years ago before Pope Francis made his comments about the Lord’s Prayer, someone suggested to me that we should do the exact same thing in Enga. The Enga translation of the Lord’s Prayer says, “Do not bring us and go into the tempations to do bad.” That is a very literal translation that captures well the meaning of the Greek text. But someone suggested that we should change our translation to “Don’t abandon us, telling us to go into the temptations to do bad.” The person who made this suggestion, like Pope Francis, wished to defend God’s character as someone who does not tempt to sin. However, after considering the suggested translation, we decided to stick with our more literal translation.

The problem is that we often do not have the perspective that we need to see the bigger picture of the biblical narrative and the nuances of the text. Pope Francis is correct that God himself does not tempt us to sin, and that temptation is the devil’s department. However, the Lord’s Prayer does not suggest that God himself tempts us. Rather it suggests that God can lead us into temptation, just like the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit did not do the tempting, He just did the leading. God can lead us into a time of temptation, but He Himself doesn’t tempt us.

The point is that we should not seek out opportunities to be tempted. We should avoid temptation and actively ask God not to lead us into temptation. Yet we must also recognize that God, in His sovereignty, may at times choose to lead into temptation, just as the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.

No, the Lord’s Prayer does not need to be corrected. And that is the lesson we Bible translators must learn: When the Scripture seems like it needs to be corrected, it is a good indicator that it is actually our understanding of God that needs to be corrected.