Adventures in Bible Translations: Luke 22:31-32 and 2nd-Person Pronouns in Modern English

NOTE: this article assumes that the reader understands the distinction between literal, word-for-word Bible translations and less literal, thought-for-thought translations. If one is not familiar or needs a refresher, check out this quick article outlining the differences.

About a year ago, I was sitting in my Thursday night Spanish bible class, and the teacher was using Luke 22:31-32 as his text.

Actually, since this was a Spanish bible, it was Lucas 22:31-32.

Anyway, the teacher, a skilled linguist fluent in at least three languages and having strong capabilities in others, read the passage and then stopped talking abruptly. I looked up, curious as to why he’d stopped.

He was looking down at the text, a thoughtful expression on his face.

“The Spanish here is much clearer than the English,” he said to me in English. I was sitting immediately at his left hand, so he was able to make the aside quietly without being rude to the non-English speakers in the room.

“What do you mean?”

“I never realized that Jesus wasn’t speaking to just Peter in verse 31 but instead the group,” he replied.

At that point, he continued with his lesson. I didn’t fully grasp what he meant. I looked down and re-read the passage. It says, in Spanish:

31 “Simón, Simón (Pedro), mira que Satanás los ha reclamado a ustedes para zarandearlos como a trigo; 32 pero Yo he rogado por ti para que tu fe no falle; y tú, una vez que hayas regresado, fortalece a tus hermanos.” (NBLH)

A light bulb went off. Here’s why.

In many modern, literal, “word-for-word” English translations, the passage reads something like this:

31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; 32 but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (NASB)

What is going on here? What is this passage about? Well, it chronicles a conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter; in verse 31, Jesus tells Simon about Satan’s request to do some sifting, and in the beginning of verse 32, Jesus tells Simon how He responded in prayer to that request. The critical questions are: whom exactly is Satan asking to sift? And, for whom is Jesus praying?

Reading it in a modern, literal, “word-for-word” English translation like the NASB quoted above, the passage seems simple: Satan asked to sift Simon, and, as a result, Jesus prayed for Simon that his faith might fail.

31 “Simon…Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; 32 but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail…”

This interpretation, however, is incorrect.

Using the Spanish version, it becomes evident that Satan asked permission to sift a plurality of people (Simon AND his cohorts), and then it shows that Jesus prayed for Simon singularly so that Simon will be strengthened.

31 “Simón…mira que Satanás los ha reclamado a ustedes para zarandearlos como a trigo; 32 pero Yo he rogado por ti para que tu fe no falle…”

Notice the blue highlighted words in English and Spanish. In the English passage, there are two words in use: you and your. These are 2nd-person pronouns that modern English speakers use for both singular and plural applications. In the Spanish, three words are present: ustedes, ti, and tu. Ustedes is used exclusively for 2nd-person plural cases, and ti and tu are used only for 2nd-person singular.

Using that information, in the Spanish translation we see that in verse 31 Satan asked to sift a group of people including Simon, and then in verse 32 we see that Jesus prayed singularly for Simon that his faith would not fail.

So……

Why is this a big deal?

Well, this just goes to highlight how important it is to read different Bible translations.

“Read the Bible in different translations?? What am I supposed to do, Grant? Learn Spanish so I can get the correct translation?? That seems pretty extreme LOL!”

The average English speaker needn’t learn another language to get this passage right. He would just need to seek out a word-for-word translation that uses the full set of English 2nd-person pronouns. For example, were someone to read this same passage from the venerable King James Version, he would see the distinction:

31 “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: 32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not…” (KJV)

In this case, the pronouns thee and thy are used in verse 32 instead of you and your. Why? Because, early modern English had distinct 2nd-person pronouns for singular and plural applications, just like Spanish. Thou/thee/thy for singular, ye/you/your for plural.

Today, you/your is used for both singular and plural, thus the confusion in literal, word-for-word translations of the passage.

Of course, a less literal, more thought-for-thought translation can fix this easily. Consider the passage as found in the New Living Translation:

31 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat.32 But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail…” (NLT)

In this version, the phrase each of you is used in verse 31 to connote a plurality of people. Then, in verse 32, the pronoun you is followed by the name Simon to show that Jesus is narrowing his focus from the group to just Simon.

This is a wholly satisfactory translation that communicates the meaning of the passage, and many less literal translations use this formulation. So, problem solved, right?

Well, yes, it is solved as far as getting the correct understanding of the passage. Since that is, after all, the most important consideration, I think most of us would just stop there and carry on with life.

However, some may resist such a translation on the grounds that the phrase “each of you” is not literally word-for-word what the passage says in the original Greek. Furthermore, “you, Simon” adds something that was not in the original text, namely, the name Simon.

So, what should someone do who wants to make sure he’s both getting the meaning right and also getting a very literal, word-for-word translation? I recommend three translations: the KJV, American Standard Version (ASV), or the pre-1995 New American Standard Bible*. Because all of these translations implement the full array of  2nd-person English pronouns (including thouthee, etc.), one can rest assured that he or she is reading a solid, literal, word-for-word translation that depicts the original Greek in very accurate English.

Of course, the challenge is that those translations don’t use just outdated 2nd-person pronouns but many other archaic words as well, making reading a tough task at times. And, in the case of the KJV, we now have better texts from which to translate, so while the translation might be word-for-word, it is word-for-word from inferior texts.

In the end, for anyone looking for the newest translation featuring accurate pronouns, I suggest purchasing a pre-1995 NASB and holding onto it. Then, make sure to have something like an NLT, CEB, or other similar, less literal and more “thought for thought” translation on hand for times where the older English is impenetrable.

Or if thou wantest not to spend money on new Bibles, just use the Internet. One click of the mouse can give thee access to, like, five million different parallel versions. Which is cool and stuff.

To close, this is just another interesting tidbit from my journey into Bible translations. More to come.

* If you are open a Catholic translation, you might also give the Douay-Rhiems Challoner Revision a try. Or, if you want an adventure in language and font, check out this facsimile production of a Bible published in 1537 (seventy-four years before the KJV): the Matthew’s Bible.

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