Translating Colossians 1:20

In our Sunday morning service yesterday we had a reading of one of my favourite verses. Colossians 1:20. Rather surprisingly, the reading was from a translation we don’t often use at our Church; the English Standard Version or ESV.

and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Compare this to the same verse in the NIV.

and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Take a look at the last few words: the blood of his cross compared to his blood, shed on the cross.

This raises an interesting question. The ESV is a more literal translation of the Greek (which basically says, the blood, of the cross of him) but is it a better translation?

This sort of structure is called a genitive and means belonging to. In English we have two basic ways of expressing the genetive; by using the word of or by using the apostraphe s. Sometimes it is possible to use one form, but not the other. For instance, we can say, the dog’s bone but the bone of the dog is slightly clumsy and we would tend not to say it. In other situations we can use either form God’s son or the son of God are both acceptable. Native English speakers note that there is fine nuance of difference in meaning between the two, but essentially they are very similar. However, genitives become very complex because they can denote much more than mere possesion. Let’s take an easy example; have you got Eddie’s book? In this context Eddie’s book could either be a book that I own (and which someone has borrowed) or it could be a book which I have written (I can dream, can’t I?) Think about the different relationships which are implied by the following genitive structures:

Eddie’s car (ownership)
Eddie’s son (parent-child)
Eddie’s wife (marriage)
Eddie’s leg (part-whole)
Eddie’s idea (???)

A seemingly simple structure can have many different meanings. Now, the problem for the translator is that these types of meaning don’t always overlap from one language to another. Greek genitives are used in all sorts of different ways which don’t always communicate very clearly in English. The blood of his cross is a typical Greek genitive structure which implies the blood which was shed when he died on the cross. The ESV has translated the form of the Greek genitive directly into English, but in doing so it has lost some of the nuances which were evident to the original hearers. By being slightly less literal, the NIV has done a far better job of carrying the meaning of the Greek across into English.