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The word κοπιῶντες in Matt. 11:28 is translated differently in the NASB and the ESV:

NASB:

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.

ESV:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Which translation of the Greek is more accurate?

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Is the difference in meaning between "weary" and "labor" really large enough to be worth a question here? I don't see how the overall meaning of the verse is significantly different between the two translations. –  jimreed Oct 7 '11 at 17:28
    
@jimreed: I suppose I was thinking about the difference between being weary (not necessarily from hard work) and laboring (but not necessarily being worn-out from it). –  jrdioko Oct 7 '11 at 17:50

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The root κοπιαω (κοπιωντες is the present active participle form) does include both the idea of 1) the passive state of being weary from labor and 2) the activity of hard labor, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. I think the difference between those two ideas is more a difference of perspective than of essential meaning.

In a strictly grammatical sense, I think we should prefer the ESV rendering of κοπιωντες ("who labor"), although the NASB does not damage the sense of the verse with its rendering of "who are weary."

Κοπιωντες is actually parallel to πεφορτισμένοι (perfect passive participle from φορτίζω, frequently translated "are heavy laden" in this verse). Both participles are substantives, and they function as the subjects of the main clause: The ones who κοπιωντες and the ones who πεφορτισμένοι are the ones who are to "come."

  • Because κοπιωντες is an active participle, a literal translation would use an active verb. This pattern appears in the ESV "who labor," KJV "ye that labour," and NKJV "you who labor." The NASB actually renders κοπιωντες as a passive.

  • Because πεφορτισμένοι is a passive participle, a literal translation would use a passive verb. This pattern actually appears in the KJV, NKJV, NASB (implicitly), and ESV.

The crucial difference between the ESV and the NASB is that the NASB interprets κοπιωντες as a passive to smooth out the parallelism with πεφορτισμένοι. Notice the rendering: "all who are weary and [are] heavy-laden." From a strictly English perspective, the NASB renders both verbs as passive. This is not an illegitimate translation (the close parallelism may suggest that there is a passive force to κοπιωντες, but I'm not sure about that).

The real question is what we mean when we ask which rendering is most "accurate." If by that we mean "which translation is most literal," then the ESV more clearly reflects the voice of the Greek verbs. If instead we mean "which translation accurately represents the sense of the verse," then I'm not sure there really is any way to say that the ESV or NASB is more "accurate" than the other.

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Very nice explanation and well thought out. One question--wouldn't the active participle be "laboring", a la, "come to me, all you, laboring and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest", or similar? It's a more awkward construction, of course; just asking about how to preserve the grammar –  Ray Oct 8 '11 at 10:14
    
Good question Ray. I think the reason the ESV has "who labor" and the NASB "who are weary" instead of "the ones laboring" is because the participle is functioning as a substantive. The substantive use of the participle here is as the subject of the verb translated "come." The continuous aspect of the present tense is not the emphasis here. Literally it could read "Come to me all the ones laboring and [the ones who are] heavy-laden." I'd happily defer to a better grammarian about the function of the tenses here. Κοπιωντες is present, but πεφορτισμένοι is perfect. –  Duncan Johnson Oct 8 '11 at 14:43

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