Ambiguity As a Translation Value

“I like how you translated that verse. It’s very ambiguous.” 

These are words you might not expect to hear from a translation consultant. They seem to fly in the face of the ‘clear, accurate, natural’ mantra that so many of us champion. But from time to time I find myself saying something along these lines. While we uphold clarity and accuracy, these values assume that we can always be sure of the text’s meaning. The reality is that there are often places where we are not sure, due in large part to the gaps between our time, culture, and language, and those of the ancient world. One solution to this dilemma is to make a firm decision on what interpretation the translation will follow, and make that meaning clear. However, this often feels like the wrong decision, especially if the evidence is evenly divided between two options. In such cases, it would feel a bit deceptive to translate one interpretation clearly while leaving the reader oblivious to other possibilities. A second solution is to prioritize the need for the reader to be aware of an interpretive difficulty. At this juncture, ambiguity in the translation becomes a friend, allowing the reader to wrestle with the difficulty themselves, and enabling them to come to their own conclusions. Such an approach may feel safer for the translator who wants to avoid inserting their own opinions into the text.

The question of when to employ ambiguity (if at all) becomes complex when considering the varying degrees of certainty we might have concerning the text’s meaning. Some translation philosophies try to preserve as much ambiguity as possible so that the translation exhibits the same exegetical potential as the source, while others uphold clarity most of the time and only attempt to preserve ambiguity in rare instances where there is a great deal of uncertainty. These two values of clarity and retention of exegetical potential are often in tension with one another.

The question I want to ask here is this: how effective is ambiguity in achieving its desired result? In order to work, the reader must 1) discern that there is ambiguity in the text, and 2) arrive at the same interpretive options available in the source language, no more and no less. Ensuring ambiguity with no distortion can prove to be even trickier than translating a clear meaning, considering that we are now concerned with multiple meanings instead of one. It should also be said that the determination of which interpretive options are legitimate is itself an interpretive process, so even if ambiguity achieves its goal, the translator is not freed from interpreting the text.

Below are some miniature case studies from English to demonstrate where ambiguity is a good option, where it is not even possible, and where it doesn’t work as well as we would like. 

1 Cor. 11:10

ESV: “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”  

NLT: “For this reason, and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.

This verse is notoriously difficult on many levels, but it is the last phrase, “because of the angels,” that I want to focus on. The text clearly draws a logical connection between women wearing a symbol of authority and angels, but it gives us no explicit information as to the nature of this connection. We can assume that Paul’s meaning was clear to his Corinthian audience. Some aspect of their cognitive environment would have filled in the gaps of what was not explicitly said, but we modern readers are left scratching our heads. Is it because angels in some way participate in worship and would be offended by seeing a woman with her head uncovered (see NLT)? Is it because angels themselves veil their faces in the Lord’s presence? Is it because a covering will protect them from spiritual attack (assuming the angels here are actually evil spirits)? A translation whose priority is clarity will want to choose from these or other options so that the reader has no doubt about the text’s meaning. However, because the correct interpretation is very uncertain here, the translator may desire to leave it ambiguous. If we simply say, “because of the angels,” the reader will be very aware that some information is missing in order to understand the nature of the logical relationship at play. However, because the co-text itself provides no clues, the average reader will be left with nothing to fill in the gap until they can consult a secondary resource. While this is not ideal, some may consider it better than creating the impression that there is no uncertainty at all.

Matt. 11:12

ESV: the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,  and the violent take it by force.

NIV84: the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.

The Greek word in question is βιάζεται, ‘use force.’ The interpretive problem is whether this verb should be taken as middle or passive. If it is middle, the force belongs to the kingdom of heaven; it is being forceful in its movements. If it is passive, then an external force is being applied to it; it is under attack. The contrast between options is stark. The kingdom is either forcefully on the offense, or it is on the defense against attackers. 

In such cases, making the translation ambiguous is virtually impossible, and a decision must be made. One solution to at least cue the reader that there is another alternative is to place the alternative rendering in a footnote. The 2011 edition of the NIV changed its mind and settled on “has been subjected to violence,” but placed the old 1984 rendering in a footnote. This is probably the best approach, because it both cues the reader that there is a problem and presents the options. However, the option placed in the text is presented as the more likely one. The translator’s views are still shining through.  

1 John 2:5

ESV: “but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.”

NLT-SE: “But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him.”

Does ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ contain an objective genitive (man’s love for God) or subjective genitive (God’s love)? I dealt with this example in a previous post. According to C. John Collins, the English phrase “the love of God” faithfully reflects the ambiguity in the Greek. However, it fails to accomplish its aim. First, it does not cue the average reader that there is in fact ambiguity, unless the reader is already familiar with Greek genitives. At best, “the love of God” just sounds a bit unnatural. Second, it is doubtful that a reader would hold “love for God” as an equally viable interpretation as “God’s love.” We have to be careful not to assume that grammatically equivalent English forms will retain the same level of ambiguity in a receptor language.

Lk. 13:32

ESV: “And he said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox…” 

The nature of this metaphor is uncertain. Some would say that by comparing Herod to a fox, Jesus was saying Herod was clever or cunning. Others point out that in some Jewish contexts, foxes were seen as destructive (Neh. 4:3), insignificant, or ineffective. It could be that Jesus had any combination of these qualities in view. In my culture, we view foxes as crafty and cunning, but never as typically destructive or ineffective. Therefore, the English reader will not be signaled to any ambiguity in this metaphor unless they are informed outside of the text. What may be an attempt by translators to leave the text ambiguous inadvertently results in a clear translation. Interestingly, the only English translation I am aware of that attempts to make the meaning of this metaphor explicit is The Voice, which says, ‘that sly fox.’ This only highlights the interpretation that most readers would naturally assume anyway, while removing the possibility of the other options.

Conclusion

These examples demonstrate that aiming for ambiguity in translation can be just as treacherous as aiming for clarity. Ambiguity is not a default that will happen unless we choose to make the text clear. As with any part of a translation, care must be taken to ensure that an attempt at ambiguity is in fact achieving the desired results. Otherwise, we may inadvertently end up with a clear translation we did not intend, even one that leads readers toward a wrong interpretation. 

Can you think of other examples where ambiguity either works or doesn’t? I’d like to hear them in the comments.

9 thoughts on “Ambiguity As a Translation Value

    • I actually thought about including the “faith(fulness) of/in Christ” in this post! That one is hard to leave ambiguous, because our interpretation of the genitive determines if we render it “faithfulness of” or “faith in.” “Faith of Christ” doesn’t make much sense at all.

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      • You get stuck in the “faith of Christ” trap in Romans 3:22 and it ends up being circular reasoning: we are justified by faith in Christ for everyone who has faith in/of Christ. Versions dance around this by trying to make it say “whoever you are (who has faith)”, but it is far easier to take it as faithfulness of Christ: we are justified by faith in Christ who made a way of salvation through his faithfulness to God.

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  1. I agree that we should not be forced into solving all ambiguities, especially those that have several possible understandings as you point out. One perspective that I have not heard pertains to God’s intention. It sounds like everyone believes that there wasn’t any ambiguity for the original receptors, if we only better understood the context in which it was written we would have clarity. What if God intended there to be vagueness or ambiguity? The broad topic of your previous posts had to do with inspiration and translation, especially more literal versions.
    I have a more conservative view of inspiration and as much as I believe that God chose the words, I believe at times He chose an absence of words leading to vagueness and ambiguity. This adds an extra layer to my struggle with determining when I strive to make something clear or unambiguous or not. If there is the possibility that the lack of clarity in a particular verse is God’s intent, I am much less inclined to force our perception of clarity.

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    • I agree with you that there was definitely some level of ambiguity for the original receptors. When I said, “We can assume that Paul’s meaning was clear to his Corinthian audience,” I was only speaking to that particular example. This post was rather limited in scope, and does not really take into account intended ambiguity.

      I identify with your struggle over what to make clear or leave ambiguous!

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  2. When it comes to ambiguity we have to have the readers in mind. How will the average reader in the public in question deal with ambiguity? I think an ambiguous passage has to say SOMETHING. It does not have to be exact (clear and accurate), but it must say something that the reading public can understand so they arrive in the correct ballpark. A translator working in a given context can determine what will (not) be understood, and what will give rise to ridiculous interpretations and endless speculation (wrong ballpark!)

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    • I agree, audience is very important to consider. Even if all the passage ultimately says is “this is ambiguous,” we need to ensure that the intended audience will understand it. I’m afraid that ridiculous interpretations and endless speculation will occur to some extent whenever we intentionally leave a passage ambiguous. This kind of thing regularly happens even when the text has been translated clearly!

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  3. In partial reply to Chaz and also as a general observation, let me add the following regarding the “audience factor.”

    Too often, which means pretty much always, when we discuss what a translation should be, we speak as if there is just going to be a dude or dudette sitting down with a text or recording. When something is not clear, they are stuck. Or perhaps worse, they will sit and think about it until some crazy heretical interpretation starts them on the way to forming a new cult.

    We need to remember that the books of the Bible were almost entirely written to remind more than to inform. They were not written like a sixth grade textbook, with the expectation that the student would go home and read it and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. Moreover, they were not written with the expectation that the reader would be alone in their interpretational world. Scripture engagement was usually a communal activity with more experienced folks guiding less experienced folks.

    If we work with this framework in mind, this kind of discussion takes on a whole new flavor.

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  4. Pingback: Ambiguity As a Translation Value (Redux) | Finding the Right Words

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