Lost (and found) in translation: installment #4 ; Luke 1:39-56, Mary’s Magnificat

Sermon begins at 26:45

On Sunday, I preached at our home church from Luke 1:39-56, and in the sermon I pointed out some of the translation issues we have dealt with in translating this passage into five Roma languages in Croatia and Serbia. In this blog post, I want to share them with you as well.

This passage includes one of the three poems (sometimes called “hymns”) which appear in Luke 1-2. The first is Mary’s praise to God (called the “Magnificat” which is Latin for the first word, “Magnifies) in 1:46-56. The next is Zechariah’s praise to God (called the “Benedictus” which is Latin for the first word, “Blessed), in 1:68-79. And the third is Simeon’s praise to God (called the “Nunc Dimittis” which are the first two words in Latin, “Now Lord”) in 2:29-32.

Before we look at the hymn itself, we’ll read the background and set the stage:

Vv. 39-45 (ESV): In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

 Literally, it says: “In those days”, which does not communicate a lot. In “which” days”, we might ask? The phrase as used in Luke often refers to a short amount of time, so in one Roma language, we translated it “some days later”. But because it says that she “hurried” off, it probably was not a very long time. So two of the Roma languages translated it as “after a few days”, but they don’t actually have a word for “few”. They say, literally “two three days after this”.

Literally, it says: “she arose and went”. “Arose” is not a word we use in everyday English. It means to “get up”, but in this word combination, “arose and went”, does not mean “stood up”, but rather “prepared”. In order for it to sound more natural, three of our Roma translations say, “she prepared and hurried off”, and one simplifies it and just says “she hurried off.”

This word combination is often used, as here, to talk about someone getting prepared and then setting out on a journey. It was a journey of 80-100 miles from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea, which would take 3-4 days, and she would probably not make the trek on her own as a teenage girl; she may have had to arrange an escort or found a caravan to travel with.

What happened when Mary got there, to Elizabeth’s house? Literally, it says the baby “leaped” or “jumped” for joy. We understand what that means, but it is a bit idiomatic. Elizabeth was six months pregnant, and obviously, there was no room for a fetus to jump, nor would he be developed enough to “jump”. It is fine, though, to translate “leap for joy” in languages that understand that it is hyperbole. One of the Roma translation uses an idiom, “danced with joy” or “played from joy”. But a couple of our Roma translations felt like that was not the best way to translate, so used rather “moved rapidly” or “strongly kicked”. The point though is clear. It is more than just a baby repositioning. John, the baby, was full of joy and showed it by how he moved!

Origen (a preacher and scholar from Egypt in the fourth century) pointed out that even in this state, in the womb, John became the forerunner, announcing the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus. Even without being yet born, or being able to talk, John the Baptist pointed out the Messiah by leaping in Elizabeth’s womb when the baby Jesus in Mary’s womb came near. In the words of Maximus of Turin (a bishop in Italy in the fifth century): “Not yet born, already John prophesies and, while still in the enclosure of his mother’s womb, confesses the coming of Christ with movements of joy—since he could not do so with his voice.”

1:42 literally says “and she called out in a loud voice and said”, but these are not two separate actions, like “yelling and talking.” It is a Hebrew way to express saying something very loudly and excitedly, so when we translated this in the Roma languages, we used “and she loudly said”, or “with joy she loudly said”, so that the Roma listeners do not think she was screaming or yelling at her before talking to her.

1:42 literally says “blessed are you among women” but “among” here is a Hebrew way of expressing a superlative, like “above” or “more than all”. It means “most blessed” which is a clearer way to translate it.

Next, “fruit of the womb” is literally the wording in 1:42 but it is a Hebrew way of referring to offspring, so we normally translate it as “child”.

In 1:43 there are two translation issues. First, it is literally a question, “How (or Why) to me this that has come the mother of my Lord to me.” In English, we understand and use rhetorical questions, but in some languages and cultures, it might be more clear to not translate it as a question, so the listener doesn’t literally think that Elizabeth is asking Mary a question and wondering why she came.

It is an exclamation, rather, so we translate it, “What an honor it is to me that has come!” Or if we do translate it as a question, we can word it in such a way that it is clear that Elizabeth is not asking for information or an answer to a specific question. It is still an exclamation, so we can say “Why am I so important that…?” or “How have I deserved this honor that…?”

The second issue is that Elizabeth uses the third person (“she”) for the person to whom she is talking, which normally takes the second person (“you”). “The mother of my Lord” in this sentence is Mary, not some other person. So to avoid confusion we can translate “that you, Mary, the mother of my lord, have come”.

Let me point out one more thing. This greeting was very counter-cultural. In that culture especially, it was the younger person who showed honor to the older. It would have been expected that Mary would give honor to her older relative, Elizabeth, whose lineage was esteemed and who was married to a priest. But the opposite happened. It was Elizabeth who praised Mary—the younger and less significant one—because Elizabeth recognized that God had favored Mary in a special way.

But let’s move on to Mary’s psalm of praise. This is how Mary responded when she heard Elizabeth:

Vv 46-56 (ESV): And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

V. 45: “And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” What does magnify mean? It means to exalt God and proclaim how great he is. It means to glorify him. It means to honor God greatly, to cause him to be held in great esteem.

For our translation in a couple of Roma languages, we used the Serbian and Croatian word which means “praise”, “thank” or “celebrate” and that is a good translation. But it is difficult to translate this into everyday speech that the Roma use. “Magnify”, “exalt” and “glorify” are churchy words. We don’t tend to use them very often outside of religious speech.

So we wondered how to translate this for the Roma of former Yugoslavia, many of whom are not churched and are not biblically literate, and who don’t necessarily use words like “magnify”, “exalt and “glorify”. For a couple of the Roma languages, we used the word for “make bigger”. I like this because it brings out a helpful aspect.

Of course, we do not “make” God bigger. He is already big. But just like a telescope makes something clearer or easier to see, we want to proclaim God’s bigness and greatness so that we, and everybody else for that matter, see it. Mary is increasing God’s honor, not in the sense of making him more honorable, but in the sense of recognizing and announcing his honor.

Just like in Jesus’ prayer he says we are to “hallow” God’s name, or “make it holy”. But it is already holy. What we need to do is treat it as holy. We need to acknowledge it for what it is and act accordingly.

So here. God is already great and big and powerful and significant. It is our joy to recognize that and make that known, both to ourselves and to everybody else.

In one of the Roma languages, we translated that Mary “lifted up” God. I like that nuance as well. Of course, this is metaphorical. We don’t pick God up and place him higher than he was. But we do metaphorically put him in a higher place in our love and affections and adoration. That is the meaning of “magnify”.

V. 46: “My soul magnifies … my spirit rejoices…” This is the style of parallelism that the OT Psalms use. They often repeat an idea in a second line, using a synonym to emphasize a concept, and yet to also give stylistic variation.

Here “soul” and “spirit” are pretty much synonymous. It is the inner part of us. It is the “real we”, who we really are, our true person, our true being which praises and lifts up God. Like I said, “magnify” means to exalt. It is a lifting up of God, so that we, and everyone else, can see how great he is. He is already great. We do not make him greater, but we do declare his greatness and make our own selves, our own souls, aware of it.

In v. 48, we come to the first reason that Mary gives us. It is the first “for” in this passage. V. 48a, “for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” Mary is referring to herself here as God’s servant. She says that he “looked on her humble estate.” What does that mean? Well, Mary was a young, unmarried girl, probably in her teens, from the despised village of Nazareth in the despised province of Galilee. Matthew declared that Jesus would be called a Nazarene, meaning that he would be looked down on. Nazareth was a small town, geographically close to Gentile areas. It was a small village with probably only a few hundred people. It was not Jerusalem, the capital, where hundreds of thousands of people lived, where the beautiful golden temple stood, where the Sanhedrin and the influential Jewish leaders presided and where the Romans had their powerful headquarters. The rich and influential leaders in Jerusalem looked down on the poor, backward Galileans. They said once “Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee”. They were wrong in this statement, but their assessment was the accepted thought of the day. Heathen Galilee and Podunk Nazareth were nothing. And that is where Mary hails from.

Mary was from that place and had no wealth, no power, and no prestige. But God chose her. And she recognizes the incongruity. She thought, “Who am I that I should be chosen for such a task—to be the mother of the Messiah?”

She says that God looked on her lowliness. Literally, it says “he looked on the lowliness of his servant”. But “he has looked on” does not mean simply that he “saw” her or “looked” at her. Of course, God had seen her before. But this is an OT way of saying that he hard regard for her, or that he looked with favor on her. In other words, in spite of her low position, he chose her.

To bring this out, in one Roma language we translated “he looked on the lowliness of his servant” as “he chose his humble servant”. In other Roma languages, we translated it as “had mercy on“ or “looked with mercy (or mercifully) on“ or “was merciful to” his humble servant (or as one Roma translation has “he looked mercifully on his not-so-big/important servant.“ That is exactly the idea. Mary knew she wasn’t anything special. So she was astounded that God had chosen her.

This is a theme we see in the rest of this passage, and one that Jesus when he grew to be a man and teacher, would constantly emphasize. God chooses the lowly. He is not impressed with the rich and powerful. He did not have his arrival announced to the religious leaders in Jerusalem. God announced Jesus’ birth to insignificant shepherds. And he had his Son born in a small village, Bethlehem, in a one-room house, that was perhaps dug into the side of a hill like a cave, and had him spend his first night, not in a bed made of gold, but in a food trough lined with straw. That is the God we serve. That is the God that Mary recognized. And she was overwhelmed with his mercy and condescension to pick her.

V. 48b “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed”. ESV has “behold“, which is correct in the sense that the word means “Look!“ But we don’t tend to use the word “behold“ since it is a very archaic word. This word is an attention-getter; it is a way of drawing the attention of the listener or of expressing surprise. Some translations, like NIV and NLT, leave it out. Some like ESV, NASB, and KJV translate it literally as “behold“. CSB does a good job of translating it as “surely“ since that is a natural way in English to emphasize something. Mary is emphasizing this fact.  In the Roma translations, we often translate this as “Look!“ or “Listen!“ since we want the listener to know that this is being emphasized.

What is she emphasizing? It says that “from now on all generations will call me blessed“. “Call her blessed“ here is not referring to a literal name, “blessed“ or to a title of some sort, like  “blessed Mary“. It means that they will acknowledge that she is blessed. In one Roma translation, we have “will say that I am a blessed woman“ and another has “will say that God blessed me.“ That is precisely the point. And she was right because, for generations, for years and years, believers in Jesus have recognized how blessed Mary was to be chosen as the mother of the Messiah.

She recognized the significance of this. This was not a minor thing. She was blessed more than any woman in history. And she knew that this would be recognized by generations to come. All generations would recognize that she was blessed.

In the ESV, you notice that this line also begins with “for” but that is a bit misleading. It is not the same word as “for” in the preceding and following lines. It does not give another reason—we will get to another reason in the next verse. Rather, it gives more of a conclusion or an outworking, of what she said. In other words, Mary says, “I praise God because he was so kind to reach down and use insignificant little old me, and the result of that is that I am blessed, so blessed that hundreds and thousands of people will recognize how blessed I am.”

V. 49 “for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Here is where we get to a second reason. Here “for” is like the “for” at the beginning of v. 48. It gives another reason for which Mary magnifies God. God, she says, is mighty. He is powerful, and he has done great things for me.

It was inconceivable (pardon the pun) that a teenage virgin would miraculously conceive the Son of God in her womb. The incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas, is an astounding miracle—that God would become a man and be born of a virgin.

Mary said, “Holy is his name”. “Name” in the Bible often refers to the person as a whole or a person’s character. It is not a “name” like Joe or Susie. It is his attribute. He himself is holy. And holy here seems not to be emphasizing so much his sinlessness (though God is sinless) as much as his “otherness”. In other words, he is so different from us. Who would have even thought of doing this? Of God himself being born of an insignificant virgin from Nazareth. He is holy, he is other, and he does things that no man can do.

V. 50 “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Mary has proclaimed that God is holy and that he is mighty. Here now is the third attribute. He is merciful.

V. 50 literally has “and his mercy to generations and generations”. Generation is a nice word in English, but we have had a really hard time translating it into Roma languages. Sometimes we use the Serbian or Croatian word for “generation”, and that works alright: one of the Roma translations is thus: “he is merciful to people from all generations”.  But in some of the languages, we use a Roma word instead and it is interesting to see how they express the idea. One Roma language uses the word “seed”: “for all seed, God has mercy”. That is a biblical metaphor. In the Bible, offspring are often referred to as the “seed” of the father, meaning that which comes from the father and produces the next generation.

One of the Roma languages uses the term for “knee”: “his mercy is from knee to knee”.  That also is a biblical concept. The OT speaks of “knees” in relation to birth. For example, the NASB of Genesis 30:3 says, “She said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children.'” Or Job 3:12, “Why did the knees receive me, And why the breasts, that I should suck?”

Still another Roma language uses the word for “belt or sash”: “He is merciful to all people from all every belt/sash.” This sounds weird in English, but it is a biblical concept as well, in the sense that it reminds of how the Bible speaks of birth and generations and procreation in terms of coming from the part of the body near where we wear a belt, i.e., the “loins”. The KJV uses that, for example in Genesis 35:11: “And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins.”

One of the Roma translations decided not to use a metaphor and made the meaning very explicit. It says: “he shows mercy to all those in all time” and that captures the idea. God is merciful. It is who he is and it is what he demonstrates to people of all time.

Vv. 51-53: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Here we see the reference to his powerful arm. V. 51 uses an idiom; literally it says that “he did strength with his arm” which is a Hebrew way of saying that he did something powerful. In more colloquial English, we might translate it as (JB): “He has shown the power of his arm”, or simply (TNT): “He has acted powerfully” or (NIV): “He has performed mighty deeds.”

We know from other Scriptures that God does not have a body and thus does not have an arm. This is an anthropomorphism, which means, it is a description of a characteristic or action of God as if he were a man, so that we humans can get a better picture of what it means.

Let’s draw this to a close as we look at the last couple of verses: Vv. 54-55: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his offspring forever.”

ESV has “in remembrance of mercy” which is sort of a clunky phrase since it is trying to closely follow the Greek which has (1:54) “he helped Israel, his servant, to remember mercy” or “by remembering mercy”.

The idea is that he was merciful to them, and this was in keeping with his earlier promise. When it says that “he remembered”, it does not mean that he had forgotten for a while. This is an OT way of saying that he “acted on” his promise. He carried out what he had promised beforehand.

Mary praises God that he has helped her specifically and the people of Israel as a whole. This was all in keeping with what God had promised he would do. He made a promise to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants. He had not forgotten to do it. He “remembered” it and was even now setting his plan in motion to fulfill all those promises that he made to Abraham and to Abraham’s offspring. Through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus—the Messiah—he would deliver his people and establish his kingdom.

During Jesus’ lifetime, the kingdom was not established in a visible way. Jesus did not defeat the Romans, make Israel an independent state and begin ruling as an earthly king.

He chose, rather, to reign in the hearts of people, whether they were ethnic Israelites or not. He set up a kingdom that “is within you”, that is “not of this world”. His kingdom was one that ruled, not through military might and the defeat of physical enemies. It was a kingdom of love and peace and defeated the spiritual forces of evil through forgiveness and redemption. He reigns now in his people who live lives that are different from the rest of the world. He reigns now, not in the rich and the powerful, but in the humble and trusting.

One day, he will return and he will reign as king. At that time, all of his enemies will be defeated. Those who oppose him will be judged and cast into the lake of fire. He will brook no opposition then. He will scatter all who are proud in their hearts and send the rich and arrogant away empty in a very literal sense. He will exalt the humble. He will reign. Remember, Jesus is coming again. And when he comes the second time, it will not be as a tiny, helpless baby. Nor will he come to be arrested and crucified. He will come to reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He will judge the living and the dead. He will have eyes of fire and a face like the sun. He will sit on his throne and rule all as the High King of glory!

Until then, we wait. Like Mary we wait in faith, knowing that He is a faithful God who keeps his promises forever.

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