Those Pesky Prepositions

I was reading through Mark 5 this weekend in preparation for Sunday school, and it was interesting to watch the prepositions. It illustrates how you have to watch context carefully in choosing just the right translation. I will be using the NIV to illustrate.

This is the story of the Gerasenes demoniac; the text criticism on the name is worth a blog in and of itself. France argues that the best location is not in the south-east of the sea since, among other things, it is miles from the sea. Rather, the north-east location is better (hence Matthew’s “Gadarene demoniac”) since, among other reasons, the cliff is quite steep leading down to the sea. I remember standing on the location trying to imagine 2,000 pigs plummeting to their death, their carcasses floating on the sea. The cliffs are steep.

When Jesus arrived, the demoniac came “from (ἐκ) the tombs.” I thought “from” as a rather strange translation since tombs are underground; but then I remembered that caves were a normal place for burial, and hence coming “from” the tombs made sense.

In the next verse Mark writes that the man lived “in (ἐν) the tombs” (v 3), presumably in the caves themselves.

V5: “Night and day among (ἐν) the tombs and in (ἐν) the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.” Two different translations for the same preposition in v 5, and two different wordings for exactly the same expression in vv 3 and 5: “in the tombs.”

These are subtle things, but does he live “in” the tombs or “among” the tombs? And is consistency here important? Working back from “in the hills,” it makes sense to use “in” in this context; that is natural English idiom. So why “among” for the first occurrence of ἐν in v 5? English idiom does not want to repeat the same word; it prefers stylistic variation, so I can see why the NIV has “among.” What is a little less clear is why he live “in” the tombs (v 3) but cried out “among” the tombs (v 5).

Later in the story, the demons say, “Send us among (εἰς) the pigs; allow us to go into (εἰς) them” (v 12).If the NIV did not alter its translation of εἰς, both halves of the sentence would say the same thing, and that seems unlikely. Even the ESV alters translation of εἰς: “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” Jesus allowed, and they went “into (εἰς) the pigs.”

So what’s the point? Maybe I am being a bit pedantic, but I enjoy watching translations struggle with these little nuances. And little nuance are important. The majority of translation is comprised of all the little things that go into the work, and getting just the right contextual translation of a preposition is part of the puzzle.


<p>At least it isn't Hebrew. I remember reading the account of Rebekah and Laban coming back out to meet Abraham's servant in Genesis 24:30 and thinking how odd it was that the servant was standing "on" the camels, which were in turn standing "on" the well in some kind of balancing act. I could only imagine how bored he'd gotten out there while he was waiting. I was a newbie in Hebrew in those days, and have since learned that 'al can mean pretty much anything the author wants it to.</p>