Accuracy, Precision, and the Christian Standard Bible

Not too long ago, the Holman Christian Standard Bible underwent a revision, resulting in the newly branded Christian Standard Bible. I have not spent much time with this newer version, but I began spending time with the HCSB about a year ago. In my assessment it is an excellent translation. It provides a nice balance between the ends of the translation spectrum. However, something has always bothered me about the way they present their translation philosophy, called Optimal Equivalence. As they explain on the CSB website, “Some translations are accurate to the original but tend to be clunky and hard to read. Other translations are easy to read but stray away from important precision.” Optimal Equivalence claims to offer the “optimal balance” between accuracy and readability. This presentation of translation theory and philosophy suffers in three ways: their definition of precision, their definition of accuracy, and their view of the translation spectrum. 

Precision

One mistake the CSB has made is in portraying precision as something that applies only to the sphere of retaining form in a translation. Meaning-based translations have a reputation for lack of precision: less rigorous adherence to the text, unnecessary liberties, and additions to the text that make the reader uncertain about just what the original text actually says. Sometimes, these criticisms are valid. Other times they are not, because they are being judged by the wrong standard – that is, judging the translation by its adherence to the original form rather than its communicative success. A meaning-based translation is not trying to be a form-based translation. It is attempting to communicate meaning, and this requires just as much precision as a translation that seeks to be true to the form. 

Consider 1 Pet. 1:1, for instance. The ESV is a good example of a literal rendering of Peter’s audience: “elect exiles of the Dispersion.” This rendering rather precisely captures elements of the original Greek form, but it may leave many readers scratching their heads. The CSB understands that a literal rendering like this will sound clunky, and so they abandon it in favor of something that communicates more naturally: “those chosen, living as exiles dispersed abroad.” This is a step in the right direction if the goal is to be more readable. They have sacrificed formal precision here by using more words than a strictly literal rendering would require, but does that mean that they have sacrificed precision altogether? Not at all! Instead, they have carefully and precisely chosen particular words to craft a readable rendering. By limiting their portrayal of precision to the realm of form, they have condemned their own approach. Whenever they favor a readable rendering over a literal one, they are admitting to sloppiness, even if they are not actually being sloppy.

Accuracy

The CSB’s portrayal of accuracy suffers from a similarly narrow definition. According to the statements on their website, accuracy corresponds to faithfulness to form, including word-for-word correspondence. Readability sits on the other side of the translation spectrum.

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Here is the problem: if accuracy and readability are opposing forces on a continuum, then one is always compromised to some degree. When the CSB translators favor a readable rendering over a literal wording, they are sacrificing a degree of “accuracy,” and vice versa. Yet according to the translators, “Bible translation should never compromise on accuracy or readability.” 

Accuracy and readability are not at war with one another. In fact, accuracy does not even have a place on the translation spectrum. It stands outside of the spectrum altogether as as a target. As translations fire arrows from various points on the spectrum, they hit the target in different places, reflecting the original text in unique ways. Formal translations may more accurately reflect the syntax or word order of the original, and thus are accurate to the form of the text in some way, while translations on the other end may be more true to the meaning. No single arrow is large enough to hit the entire target. In translation there is no perfect bullseye. How then can a translation succeed? It succeeds when translators set out to hit a particular point on the target and with precision they hit their mark.

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Returning to 1 Peter 1:1, the ESV aims to be faithful to the form of the text, and does a remarkable job hitting its target when it says, “elect exiles of the dispersion.” But it does not communicate meaning very well, nor does it do so in a natural way. Toward the other end of the spectrum, the NLT sacrifices accuracy to the form, but accurately and naturally communicates meaning by saying, “God’s chosen people who are living as foreigners.” The CSB aims for a mediating approach with a rendering that corresponds more closely to the form while reading more understandably and naturally: “those chosen, living as exiles dispersed abroad.” They succeed in their goal, but by moving toward the right on the spectrum,  they are not compromising on accuracy. They are simply being accurate in a different way. Acknowledging this would only strengthen their claim that they do not compromise on accuracy.

The Translation Spectrum

The CSB has aimed to hit a particular point on the target and succeeded. I applaud them for it, but unfortunately they haven’t stopped there. They have gone on to call it a bullseye. They say in their explanation of Optimal Equivalence: “One one hand, the CSB provides a highly accurate text for sermon preparation and serious study, translated from the biblical languages by scholars who love God’s Word. On the other hand, it doesn’t compromise on readability and clarity for those who may be less familiar with the traditional (and sometimes difficult) vocabulary retained in some translations” (emphasis mine). Consider also some of the words they use in their branding. Christian Standard Bible. Optimal Equivalence. The message is clear. They have found the optimal point on the translation spectrum. It serves every reader for every purpose, and avoids compromise in the process! Sadly, this is a pipe dream.

Translation is compromise. This is exactly what the spectrum demonstrates, that no translation can completely capture everything about the original text. There is, strictly speaking, no optimal point on the spectrum. The CSB has misrepresented the nature of the spectrum by claiming that their mediating position avoids compromise on either end.

Conclusion

If the CSB were to use broader definitions for accuracy and precision, their case for an “optimal” translation would actually be strengthened. They would be able to demonstrate how their mediating position on the translation spectrum offers readers a nice balance between the ends of the spectrum, that with precision they have achieved their goal of being accurate to the text in particular ways, and that this kind of translation can appeal to a wider audience.

Instead, they have shot themselves in the foot. They have presented a distorted translation spectrum that misrepresents accuracy and precision, and demands perfection from all angles. This only sets up their translation to fall short. For instance, when they favor a readable rendering over one that is literal as they do in 1 Pet. 1:1, they are compromising their “accuracy” and “precision,” something that they have said no translation should ever do.

As I said before, I believe the CSB is an excellent and useful translation. It is indeed versatile as they argue, but they overstate their case. This approach may sell more Bibles, but it only perpetuates common myths about Bible translation, all while undermining their own claim of fidelity to the text.

Philippians 1 (BET)

After a longer than intended hiatus, I am resuming my blog, and giving it a new look and address while I’m at it. I have chosen to kick things off again with a little exercise in translation. I spend much time in consultation with Bible translators, but I rarely take on the role of translator myself. I thought it would be a stimulating challenge to attempt some English Bible translation of my own, so I opened up a blank Paratext project and got to work.

Before I began, I had to settle a few questions in my mind about what kind of translation I am aiming for. I will probably need to hone these guideines further as I go, but these are some general statements to guide me as I dive in:

  • My source text is NA-27, but I am making use of many other translations and exegetical helps to aid my understanding of the text.
  • This translation will be functional rather than formal.
  • I aim to use my own English idiolect, communicating in plain, natural English. I will not shy away from using contractions here and there if it is natural and fits with the genre of the text. (I won’t!)
  • Where other plain English translations often abandon many traditional key biblical terms in favor of terms or phrases that those outside the church would understand better, I have chosen to retain many of those words. For example, I will use ‘gospel’ instead of ‘good news.’
  • I am not going to bother with section headings, and in this blog, portions will be presented without chapter or verse numbers.
  • Since I aim to reflect my own idiolect, my audience is myself. I am really doing this more for the process than the product, but if your idiolect is similar to mine, then perhaps you will find it useful and enjoyable.

Of course, it is absolutely imperative that every English Bible translation have a name and corresponding abbreviation. I considered calling mine “Today’s New Revised Authorized Amplified International Christian American English Standard Reader’s Bible Translation Version” (TNRAAICAESRBTV), but in the end I settled on “Ben’s English Translation” (BET).

I have begun with the first chapter of Philippians. It is one of my favorite epistles, and it is also a fairly easy entry point. I will post additional chapters and books as I have time and motivation to complete them. So, here is Philippians 1 (BET). As always, constructive criticism is welcome.


From: Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus

To: All of Christ Jesus’ holy people in Philippi (including the elders and deacons)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Whenever I think of you, I thank my God, and whenever I pray for you, I do it with joy. From day one you’ve partnered with me in spreading the gospel of Jesus, and I have no doubt that the one who began a good work in you will see it through until Christ Jesus returns.

It’s no surprise I feel this way about you. You have a special place in my heart, because you joined me in receiving God’s grace as I defended and spread the gospel, even when I was in prison. God knows how much I want to see you again. I love you with the heart of Christ Jesus.

This is my prayer: that your love will keep flourishing as you grow in knowledge and discernment. Then you’ll understand what is best, and you’ll be pure and blameless until Christ returns. The righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ will bear much fruit in your lives, and this will bring glory and praise to God.

Brothers and sisters, please know that what has happened to me has actually caused the gospel to spread. Everyone here, even the whole palace guard, knows very well that I am in chains for Christ. And because I am here, many believers have a new confidence in the Lord, and they are now proclaiming the message more boldly.

True, some are preaching Christ out of jealousy and rivalry, but others do it with good intentions, out of love for me. They know the Lord has put me here to defend the gospel. Those who preach Christ for selfish reasons aren’t sincere. They just want to cause trouble for me in jail. But who cares? False or sincere motives aside, Christ is being preached, and that makes me rejoice.

And I’ll keep rejoicing, because I know that through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ, I’ll eventually be set free. I am confident and hopeful that I’ll never do anything to be ashamed of. Instead I’ll be bold, and my whole life will keep magnifying Christ as it has been, whether I live or die. To me, living is all about Christ, and dying would be even better. If I live, I’ll stay productive in my work. But I really couldn’t tell you what I would choose. I’m torn between the two. I want so much to go and be with Christ. That would be far better for me. But it’s better for you that I stay alive. I’m sure of that, so I know that I’ll stay with you and help you grow with joy in what you believe. Then when I return to you, you will have great pride in Christ Jesus because of me.

Just make sure you live in a way that reflects the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or not, I’ll hear that you’re standing firm together, fighting as one for the gospel you believe, and not letting your opponents intimidate you at all. Then it will be clear to them that they will be destroyed, but you will be saved. And God will do all of this. He has been gracious not only in giving you faith in Christ, but also in making you suffer for him. Your struggle mirrors my own. You saw it yourself, and even now you’re still hearing about it.

6 Ways to Grow Your Greek Skills

How Important Are Biblical Languages in Bible Translation?

The other day I came across this article at the Gospel Coalition, in which Kevin McFadden argues that pastors would greatly benefit from the study of Greek and Hebrew as opposed to just learning the tools that Bible software provides. I appreciated his thoughts, as I am also of the persuasion that the deeper we grow in our knowledge of the biblical languages, the better we can know God’s word and accomplish the ministries God has given to us, whether we are pastors, translators, or laypeople.

One notion that McFadden counters in his article is the suggestion that the Bible study tools available today, especially those that come through software like Logos and Accordance, significantly reduce the need for people to know the language at a deeper level. If we have easy access to word glosses and parsings, and numerous exegetical tools at our fingertips, why do we have to go through all the effort to internalize the language? McFadden offers some good responses to this question, but I’d like to offer two of my own, based on my experience as a translation consultant.

1. Some insights into the text are not easily found in a secondary source, if at all. There are times when I encounter a difficult exegetical issue for which I cannot find an answer in any resource. I keep dozens of resources on my computer, but it still happens. Often, this will be an issue that doesn’t have relevance for English translations, but is very important when translating into another. In situations like these, I am very thankful when my own knowledge of Greek helps me to confidently resolve the issue.

2. Having a deeper internal knowledge of Greek enables me to use it more efficiently and frequently than even software allows. When I am in a consultant checking session, I often encounter an exegetical issue for which I did not study ahead. In such situations, I don’t always have the time to study the interlinear or commentaries to see what is going on. If I can’t resolve the situation with the tools in my own mind in that moment, I am likely to forgo using my external resources until later. Being able to read the Greek text more fluently enables me to use it in situations where I would not otherwise have the time to consult my resources. Software may put loads of information at our fingertips, but if we store it within our own brains, we will find ourselves using it even more.

My Greek Growth Plan

I will soon be leaving Nigeria for a six month furlough in the US, and I plan to have some time during this absence for some personal study. I’ve decided to use some of this time to refresh and further develop my Greek skills. I have already been doing most of these things in some way, but I hope that in the coming months I will be able to spend some more concentrated time on the following activities: 

1. Read Greek. For much of my time in Nigeria, I have met with some colleagues on a weekly basis to read Greek together. This is the first time I’ve done this kind of thing in a group since my seminary days ten years ago, and it has been great. While I am away, I don’t anticipate having people to meet with, so I will need to do something independently. I have my eye on a couple of Greek readers, and I plan to choose one and work through it. Most likely I will choose the first of these two:

Hellenistic and Biblical Greek: A Graduated Reader (B.H. McLean)

A Patristic Greek Reader (Rodney A. Whitacre)

2. Listen to Greek. I recently taught myself how to read Greek using the modern pronunciation, which seems to be rapidly winning people over from the Erasmian model. I found it to be an easy transition, and I can see the benefit of knowing both systems. To aid this process and to further internalize the Greek language, I picked up this Koine Greek audio New Testament.  It is the Nestle-Aland 26th edition, read in modern pronunciation by Dr. Spiros Zodhiates. At $20, it’s a great deal. I’ve been listening to passages before I read and translate them for myself. His reading is easy to follow, but at times it can be a little too slow, breaking up natural phrasing. Still, it’s an excellent resource, adding a valuable auditory element to the learning process.

3. Read about Greek. My Greek skills deteriorated quite a bit in the years after I left seminary. More recently, I’ve been able to bring it back closer to where I was before, but I also have to recognize that in the 10+ years since I studied Greek in the classroom, much has changed and developed in Greek studies. A very recent book that helped fill me in on some of those developments was Constantine Campbell’s Advances in the Study of Greek, but there are a few more that I think would benefit me. Before the end of the year, I plan to read at least the first of these two books listed below. It is a new Grammar, touted by some as “The new Wallace.” I expect this book to be not only a great review, but also a way to stay current on trending topics like Greek aspect, the middle voice, and discourse.

Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (Kostenberger, Merkle, Plummer)

Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice (Stanley E. Porter)

4. Review vocab. A few months ago, I pulled out an old Anki database that includes every word in the NT. Back in college, I had memorized every word that occurs 10 times or more in the NT, but in subsequent years I lost much of it. After a few weeks of daily drilling, I worked my way back down to words that occur 13 times or more, but I’ve found it hard to keep this up for long stretches. I’ve also found that there are disadvantages to just learning glosses. Exposure to a word in context is a better way to really learn it. Nevertheless, I think there is still  some benefit to drilling vocab, so I hope to spend at least some time on this in the coming months.

5. Teach Greek to my kids. As a former phonetics instructor, I’ve discovered that a really great way to learn something is to teach it. For some time, I’ve had this wild idea that I would teach my kids Greek. I even bought this resource and went through a couple of lessons with them, but scheduling it on a regular basis was always difficult. This fall when the kids resume homeschooling, I will have a more flexible schedule. I am hopeful that we can make it happen this time.

6. Engage with like-minded people. I’ve often found it difficult to find other people interested in developing their Greek skills, especially those who are farther along and can help me to grow. I’ve already mentioned that I have a group of colleagues here who I read with on a regular basis, but in the US I probably won’t. But even if you don’t have others nearby, fear not! A couple years ago, someone added me to a Facebook page called “Nerdy Language Majors.” It turned out to be a lively community of nearly 2,000 students and scholars of biblical languages, and I have enjoyed the discussions and book recommendations that regularly show up on my Facebook feed. Several of the books linked in this post came from there. If I have a specific question, this group is eager to help me out by explaining or pointing me to another resource. I’m sure there are other online groups or forums that accomplish the same thing. If you’re not already part of one, it’s a great way to stay connected and informed.

These are some of the ways I hope to grow in my Greek skills and keep them from going stale. If you’re doing something similar or altogether different, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

English Bible Chart 2.0

Corrections and Additions

I was very thankful for the constructive feedback I received on my chart of English Bible translations. I took time to apply some of this feedback and make improvements in some key areas: 

1) I expanded the width of the chart. Everything was very tight before, and as a result, some were seeing connections and relationships were I did not intend them. To be honest, when I started building this from the top, I didn’t expect I would need so much room at the bottom! 

2) I added the following translations: The Knox Bible (a modern translation using the Latin Vulgate as a base text), The World English Bible (a fairly recent revision of the 1901 ASV), the New World Translation (yes, I really did put that in there), the English Version for the Deaf (the original translation that gave rise to the New Century Version), and The Voice (a recent modern speech translation that presents narrative with a unique play-like presentation). 

3) I corrected the publication date for the NCV. The sequence between English Version for the Deaf and NCV was very complicated, with some revisions being published under multiple names within a very short period of time. The representation in the chart is somewhat simplified, reflecting what I saw to be three major stages of revision, and omits alternate names for some editions (e.g The Everyday Bible). 

4) I added the 2011 NIV underneath the TNIV. One person made the good point that this edition was influenced by lessons learned from the TNIV, so it seemed appropriate to list the NIV a second time underneath.

5) I added an arrow from the 1901 ASV to the Amplified Bible.

5) I added “A Family Tree” to the title, to indicate the types of relationships I aim for the chart to illustrate.

Some Clarifications

It was obvious early on that this kind of chart cannot effectively communicate everything we might want to know about these versions. For example, I initially thought about somehow placing versions in the chart according to translation philosophy (form-based toward the left, and meaning-based toward the right?), but this would have been too complicated. For this reason, I opted for the chart to communicate only two things: 

1) Date of publication, as represented roughly by a version’s vertical placement. I did not attempt to make this exactly to scale, so distances are relative to one another. For example, the distance between the King James Version and most 20th century versions has been compacted to reduce the chart’s size.

2) Relationships between translations, as represented by arrows. Arrows are an indicator not of similarity between translation philosophies, but of influence. I’ve defined influence rather broadly, indicating revisions and adaptations on one end, and looser manifestations of influence on the other. Determining influence according to this guideline is a bit subjective, so some might debate whether arrows should exist in some places. One weakness of this chart is that it appears to denote the same kind of relationship across the board, when for example, the relationship between the Living Bible and the NLT is actually nothing like that between the ASV and RSV. I saw another similar chart outlining early Greek versions of the Old Testament, and it used two types of arrows: a solid line for “direct descent” and a dotted line for “influence.” I think this kind of distinction would be helpful to apply to this chart. I may add it later when I have the time.

English Bibles

A Chart of English Bibles and Their Relationships

UPDATE: I have replaced the chart introduced in this post here, along with a list of changes and some clarifications.

While I and so many others presently work to see the Bible translated into languages for the first time, a growing proliferation of Bible translations remains available to the English speaking world. I have my favorites, but it occurred to me that I really didn’t know that much about all the other versions, especially those that preceded my generation. Enter Bruce Metzger’s The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions. While this book is not entirely devoted to English versions, it spends the majority of its pages on them. The time he does spend on ancient versions, particularly the Septuagint and the Vulgate, provide an important foundation for understanding some of the bases for the English versions that followed. Metzger provides a brief synopsis for every major English translation from Wycliffe to present day. (Since the book was published in 2001, more recent developments like the ESV, TNIV, HCSB, and NET Bible are absent.) He covers details including the circumstances under which these translations were undertaken, their aims, base texts, translation philosophies, idiosyncrasies, and critical and popular reception.

I found this book to be an easy but very informative read. It filled in many holes in my knowledge of English versions, and gave me an appreciation for their history. Occasionally, Metzger provided biographical sketches of individuals who took on a translation of their own, and some of these were utterly fascinating. One of my favorites was that of Julia E. Smith, the first woman to translate the Bible into English. A well-educated Adventist, she believed the world would end in 1843. When this failed to happen, she suspected that deficiencies in the King James Version resulted in erroneous calculations. Purely out of personal interest, she set out to produce her own translation of the Bible in order to uncover the “literal meaning” of the text. Meanwhile, a scandal emerged at her family farm because of an increase in property taxes. She fought this with the help of the women’s rights movement that was just beginning. To prove the point that women can do anything men can do, she published her Bible, which otherwise may never have seen the light of day. 

As I read, the relationships between many of the English versions became very evident. Many were revisions or were influenced or inspired in some way by previous efforts. Because I like to process things visually, I decided to make a chart depicting the versions covered in this book and their relationships to one another. (I added some other more recent versions as well.) I was happy with the way it visually illustrates some general observations I made while reading this book:

1) The web-like appearance of the many English translations that were made in the 1500s brings out their interdependence on one another.

2) It can be clearly seen that the King James Version emerged from a crowded Bible market. It was not a purely original translation, but one that sought to bring unity out of the varying works that preceded it. Clearly its aims were successful, as the King James Version ruled as the standard Bible for the next 250 years with very little competition. 

3) Around the onset of the twentieth century, English Bible translation utterly exploded, as can be seen on the chart. While many of the newer translations are purely original creations, the legacy of the older versions still continues today. For example, the ESV stands within a tradition that can be traced all the way back to Tyndale and King James.

This chart is a work in progress. If you see anything needing correction or revision, or identify a notable translation is missing from the list, I’d love to hear those as well.

Ambiguity As a Translation Value

“I like how you translated that verse. It’s very ambiguous.” 

These are words you might not expect to hear from a translation consultant. They seem to fly in the face of the ‘clear, accurate, natural’ mantra that so many of us champion. But from time to time I find myself saying something along these lines. While we uphold clarity and accuracy, these values assume that we can always be sure of the text’s meaning. The reality is that there are often places where we are not sure, due in large part to the gaps between our time, culture, and language, and those of the ancient world. One solution to this dilemma is to make a firm decision on what interpretation the translation will follow, and make that meaning clear. However, this often feels like the wrong decision, especially if the evidence is evenly divided between two options. In such cases, it would feel a bit deceptive to translate one interpretation clearly while leaving the reader oblivious to other possibilities. A second solution is to prioritize the need for the reader to be aware of an interpretive difficulty. At this juncture, ambiguity in the translation becomes a friend, allowing the reader to wrestle with the difficulty themselves, and enabling them to come to their own conclusions. Such an approach may feel safer for the translator who wants to avoid inserting their own opinions into the text.

The question of when to employ ambiguity (if at all) becomes complex when considering the varying degrees of certainty we might have concerning the text’s meaning. Some translation philosophies try to preserve as much ambiguity as possible so that the translation exhibits the same exegetical potential as the source, while others uphold clarity most of the time and only attempt to preserve ambiguity in rare instances where there is a great deal of uncertainty. These two values of clarity and retention of exegetical potential are often in tension with one another.

The question I want to ask here is this: how effective is ambiguity in achieving its desired result? In order to work, the reader must 1) discern that there is ambiguity in the text, and 2) arrive at the same interpretive options available in the source language, no more and no less. Ensuring ambiguity with no distortion can prove to be even trickier than translating a clear meaning, considering that we are now concerned with multiple meanings instead of one. It should also be said that the determination of which interpretive options are legitimate is itself an interpretive process, so even if ambiguity achieves its goal, the translator is not freed from interpreting the text.

Below are some miniature case studies from English to demonstrate where ambiguity is a good option, where it is not even possible, and where it doesn’t work as well as we would like. 

1 Cor. 11:10

ESV: “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”  

NLT: “For this reason, and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.

This verse is notoriously difficult on many levels, but it is the last phrase, “because of the angels,” that I want to focus on. The text clearly draws a logical connection between women wearing a symbol of authority and angels, but it gives us no explicit information as to the nature of this connection. We can assume that Paul’s meaning was clear to his Corinthian audience. Some aspect of their cognitive environment would have filled in the gaps of what was not explicitly said, but we modern readers are left scratching our heads. Is it because angels in some way participate in worship and would be offended by seeing a woman with her head uncovered (see NLT)? Is it because angels themselves veil their faces in the Lord’s presence? Is it because a covering will protect them from spiritual attack (assuming the angels here are actually evil spirits)? A translation whose priority is clarity will want to choose from these or other options so that the reader has no doubt about the text’s meaning. However, because the correct interpretation is very uncertain here, the translator may desire to leave it ambiguous. If we simply say, “because of the angels,” the reader will be very aware that some information is missing in order to understand the nature of the logical relationship at play. However, because the co-text itself provides no clues, the average reader will be left with nothing to fill in the gap until they can consult a secondary resource. While this is not ideal, some may consider it better than creating the impression that there is no uncertainty at all.

Matt. 11:12

ESV: the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,  and the violent take it by force.

NIV84: the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.

The Greek word in question is βιάζεται, ‘use force.’ The interpretive problem is whether this verb should be taken as middle or passive. If it is middle, the force belongs to the kingdom of heaven; it is being forceful in its movements. If it is passive, then an external force is being applied to it; it is under attack. The contrast between options is stark. The kingdom is either forcefully on the offense, or it is on the defense against attackers. 

In such cases, making the translation ambiguous is virtually impossible, and a decision must be made. One solution to at least cue the reader that there is another alternative is to place the alternative rendering in a footnote. The 2011 edition of the NIV changed its mind and settled on “has been subjected to violence,” but placed the old 1984 rendering in a footnote. This is probably the best approach, because it both cues the reader that there is a problem and presents the options. However, the option placed in the text is presented as the more likely one. The translator’s views are still shining through.  

1 John 2:5

ESV: “but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.”

NLT-SE: “But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him.”

Does ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ contain an objective genitive (man’s love for God) or subjective genitive (God’s love)? I dealt with this example in a previous post. According to C. John Collins, the English phrase “the love of God” faithfully reflects the ambiguity in the Greek. However, it fails to accomplish its aim. First, it does not cue the average reader that there is in fact ambiguity, unless the reader is already familiar with Greek genitives. At best, “the love of God” just sounds a bit unnatural. Second, it is doubtful that a reader would hold “love for God” as an equally viable interpretation as “God’s love.” We have to be careful not to assume that grammatically equivalent English forms will retain the same level of ambiguity in a receptor language.

Lk. 13:32

ESV: “And he said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox…” 

The nature of this metaphor is uncertain. Some would say that by comparing Herod to a fox, Jesus was saying Herod was clever or cunning. Others point out that in some Jewish contexts, foxes were seen as destructive (Neh. 4:3), insignificant, or ineffective. It could be that Jesus had any combination of these qualities in view. In my culture, we view foxes as crafty and cunning, but never as typically destructive or ineffective. Therefore, the English reader will not be signaled to any ambiguity in this metaphor unless they are informed outside of the text. What may be an attempt by translators to leave the text ambiguous inadvertently results in a clear translation. Interestingly, the only English translation I am aware of that attempts to make the meaning of this metaphor explicit is The Voice, which says, ‘that sly fox.’ This only highlights the interpretation that most readers would naturally assume anyway, while removing the possibility of the other options.

Conclusion

These examples demonstrate that aiming for ambiguity in translation can be just as treacherous as aiming for clarity. Ambiguity is not a default that will happen unless we choose to make the text clear. As with any part of a translation, care must be taken to ensure that an attempt at ambiguity is in fact achieving the desired results. Otherwise, we may inadvertently end up with a clear translation we did not intend, even one that leads readers toward a wrong interpretation. 

Can you think of other examples where ambiguity either works or doesn’t? I’d like to hear them in the comments.

Bruce Winter on the Presence of Rhetoric (Or Not) in Corinthian Correspondence

Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation is a collection of papers originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2004. Each of the five authors was part of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version (ESV). This is the final post of a 5-part series, evaluating Bruce Winter’s paper, “Revelation Versus Rhetoric: Paul and the First-century Corinthian Fad.”

Introduction

This series of posts is ending on a somewhat anticlimactic note, because the final paper in this book doesn’t contain much explicit discussion on translation. Most of the paper revolves around a discussion of Paul’s use of rhetoric (or lack thereof) in 1 Corinthians, and it is not until the final paragraph that a brief application to translation is presented. Nevertheless, I will attempt to engage with the material presented in this article as it relates to translation, specifically the case for essentially literal translation. It would not have been included in this volume if the authors/editors had not thought that it somehow advanced their thesis.

Summary of the Article

Winter argues in this paper that in his Corinthian correspondence, Paul rejected the use of rhetoric, a popular “fad” during that time, and instead used an informal, non-epistolary writing style. Such an approach was also reflected and defended by Seneca the Younger in letters to his close friend, Lucilius. Winter provides four arguments in favor of this view:

1) The relationship between Paul and the Corinthians. Winter demonstrates that Paul viewed his relationship with the Corinthians as very intimate. Paul calls them “brothers,” a term that was not only uncommon to use outside of biological family relationships, but was also considered improper. By using this term, Paul showed that he considered the Corinthians as family. The argument here is that if Seneca the Younger’s relationship with a friend prompted him to reject rhetoric in his personal letter writing, then it is likely that Paul would have also done so with the Corinthians.

2) Paul’s self-disclosure about his own approach to communication with the Corinthians.  Winter points out that in 1 Cor. 2:1-5, Paul explicitly rejects the use of rhetoric in his proclamation of the gospel, recounting how he came in “weakness, and fear and much trembling” (2:3) so that their “faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (2:5).

3) Paul’s thoughts on revelation and the mind of Christ. Paul contrasts the wisdom of men and the wisdom of God in 1 Cor. 2:6-16, pointing out that only a person with the Spirit can have the mind of Christ. Because he is speaking revelation from God, his wisdom will not conform to the wisdom of the world.

4) Paul and the “grand style.” Winter presents some evidence that Paul intentionally abandoned the use of rhetoric in his letters, based on some scholarly comparisons of Paul’s letters with ancient rhetorical handbooks. The accusations that Paul’s letters were seen as “weighty” in 2 Cor. 10:10 also suggests that Paul’s opponents saw his style as “inappropriate to the sophisticated culture of letter writing in his day.”

Critique

Winter provides only a brief application to translation following his arguments: if Paul’s letter-writing style was plain, our translations should read the same way. Assuming that Winter’s thesis is correct and Paul’s letters truly represent a plain, informal, personal style of writing, (I do think there is merit to his arguments), I agree that a translation should attempt to retain that kind of style. In my assessment, style is something that is often overlooked and underapplied in Bible translation. That said, this paper’s inclusion in Translating Truth implies that essentially literal translations do a better job retaining this kind of plain style than dynamic equivalence translations. On this point I would like to hear from Winter how he sees this to be true. As I see it, the attempt to preserve plain, informal speech is at odds with the essentially literal approach. In trying to preserve exegetical ambiguities, word-for-word correspondence, and what the text says (as opposed to what the text means), an essentially literal translation will inevitably require more work to understand, as essentially literal proponents readily admit. The result is a translation that doesn’t sound plain, personal, and informal. It appears opaque, distant, and formal. The ESV translation of 1 Corinthians does not read like an informal letter to a close friend. The NLT, on the other hand, reads much more plainly.

Essentially literal translation philosophy has its strengths, but retaining the plain and informal style of Paul’s original letters is not one of them. Therefore, Winter’s arguments in this paper do nothing to advance the case for essentially literal translation. If anything, they strengthen the case for its alternatives.

Vern Poythress on “Fullness Versus Reductionistic Semantics”

Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation is a collection of papers originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2004.  Each of the five authors was part of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version (ESV).  This post is part 4 of a series, evaluating Vern Poythress’ paper, “Truth and Fullness of Meaning: Fullness Versus Reductionistic Semantics in Biblical Interpretation.”

Introduction

Vern Poythress’ paper presents a rather jarring shift from the previous papers in this volume.  First, it is far more technical, and displays a level of engagement with linguistic theory that was largely ignored, even intentionally, in previous papers.  Second, he never makes use of the label “essentially literal,” making his contribution to the case for this translation philosophy less explicit.  Third, I found myself in agreement with most of his arguments, although below I will point out some weaknesses.

Summary

Poythress observes that since the Enlightenment, scientific rigor and objectivity have become very high values.  But any rigorous scientific theory inevitably involves reduction of a complex matter into something more simplified.  Poythress examines three twentieth century innovations that, while useful, have the tendency to reduce the complexity of meaning into something more one-dimensional, a weakness that is especially unfortunate considering the unique complexity of God’s word:

1) Symbolic logic.  While helpful for uncovering logical fallacies, this theory requires that we work with isolated sentences devoid of situational context, thus reducing the richness of communication into isolated strings of propositions.  Poythress affirms propositional revelation, but stresses that meaning is more than the truth value of a statement.  It is situated in context.

2) Structural linguistics.  Here, Poythress focuses on how structural linguistics views meaning.  Tracing the development of modern linguistics from Saussure to Chomsky, he demonstrates that language is seen as a working system, with regularities common to all speakers.  Saussure’s focus on langue over parole, and Chomsky’s breaking down of meaning into simple kernel sentences all demonstrate a reduction in the true nature of meaning.  Like symbolic logic, these linguistic theories deemphasize syntagmatic relations, remove situational context, and ignore the speaker’s idiosyncrasies.

3) Translation theory.  Nida was very aware of the reductionistic tendencies of modern linguistic theory, but he still tried to glean as much as possible from it.  Poythress points out the title of Nida’s 1964 work, Toward a Science of Translating, which reveals Nida’s assumption that use of rigorous science would aid him in the quest for translating the fullest meaning.  In the end, Nida’s translation philosophy adopted the same forms of reduction that structural linguistics exhibited.  In addition, it added its own reductions, among them the assumption that all meanings are clear and transparent.

Poythress argues that scientific rigor and meaning are in fact opposing forces.  Where translation is a science on the one hand, it is an art on the other.  An artist-translator, “using solid knowledge, artistry, and intuition together,…comes up with a translation that captures more fully the total meaning of the original.”  According to Poythress, translation as science and art are complementary perspectives.  Any one approach has unique limitations.

Continued Development.  Poythress briefly mentions more recent developments in linguistic and translation theory.  He cites cognitive linguistics and Gutt’s application of relevance theory to translation as examples of the shift toward a greater recognition of the complexity of meaning.  These are good things, he says, but reductionism is still a danger.

Critique

Poythress makes many helpful observations here.  His discussion of the dangers of reductionism and his criticisms of specific theories are appropriate and solid.  While I agree with the main thrust of his paper, I noted two weaknesses:

1) He downplays the improvements of recent theoretical developments.  Poythress acknowledges that the developments of newer theories such as cognitive linguistics and relevance theory are a move in the right direction, but he only mentions them in passing.  He blankets them with the generalization that “the spirit of formalization and reductionism remains in place.”  While this is true, he leaves it unclear to what degree these newer theories have improved upon their predecessors, giving the impression that they haven’t actually made great strides.

This is unfortunate.  In my assessment, cognitive linguistics and relevance theory have greatly improved our ability to take into account a fuller picture of meaning while also retaining the scientific rigor of earlier theories.  No doubt they are still guilty of reductions as Poythress points out, but by failing to engage with them, he downplays the degree to which these newer theories have improved.  I’d be interested to hear Poythress’ assessments of such theories, but in this paper they’re all lumped together with those that prove to be easier targets.

2) He fails to enhance the case for essentially literal translation.  This criticism isn’t leveled so much against the paper itself, because I don’t suspect it was Poythress’ primary aim to argue for essentially literal translation.  (The paper was both presented and published elsewhere before its inclusion in Translating Truth.)  My issue is with the paper’s placement in this volume.  Without a single mention of essentially literal translation, the reader is left to discern how Poythress’ material advances the book’s thesis.

My best attempt at making this connection comes from his statement, “If we have an impoverished view of language, we are likely to have an impoverished view of the Bible as well.”  Since much of the article consists of a critique of Nida’s application of structural linguistics to translation, Poythress implies that dynamic equivalence is based upon an impoverished view of language.

If this is truly the paper’s contribution to the case for essentially literal translation, it should be pointed out that it is arguing against a definition of dynamic equivalence that is decades out of date.  As I mentioned above, great strides have been made in meaning-based translation theory with the advent of theories of language and communication that are far more robust than their predecessors.  Dynamic equivalence has evolved to the extent that many meaning-based translation proponents hesitate or refuse to use the label anymore.  But the authors of this volume tend to talk about dynamic equivalence as if it hasn’t changed a bit since Nida.  If this paper’s aim was to argue against meaning-based translation, then it should have spent more time engaging with newer theories.  But that would have weakened the force of his arguments, because the newer theories are less reductionistic.

Furthermore, Poythress’ warnings against reductionistic theories of linguistics and translation apply with full force to essentially literal translation philosophy.  Consider Collins’ presentation in the previous paper.  He separates text and meaning, and determines that translation involves only text, refusing to go beyond “recognized linguistic operations.”  This is an extremely reductionistic approach, a point I elaborated on in my previous post.

Conclusion

If, as I have suggested, dynamic equivalence has become less reductionistic in the last several decades, and if essentially literal translation remains more reductionistic, then Poythress’ arguments are actually making a stronger case for meaning-based translation.  Again, Poythress does not make his case for essentially literal translation explicit.  This is my attempt to put the pieces together.  I would be curious to hear from him how he views this paper’s contribution to this volume.

C. John Collins on “What the Reader Wants and the Translator Can Give”

Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation is a collection of papers originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2004.  Each of the five authors was part of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version (ESV).  This post is part 3 of a series, evaluating C. John Collins’ paper, “What the Reader Wants and the Translator Can Give: First John as a Test Case.”

What is a Translation?

C. John Collins opens his paper recognizing a very real problem that characterizes debates about English Bible translation.  He observes that both sides tend to talk past each other, basing their arguments on their own presuppositions or definitions of terms.  The most notable example is the definition of “translation” itself.  Dynamic or functional equivalence translations are somtimes labeled as skillful free interpretations (Grudem), and essentially literal translations are sometimes called transcriptions.  Each side appears eager to portray the other as not really doing translation at all.

Rather than engaging right away with specialist definitions, Collins considers what the lay person would consider a translation.  For him, this is a good place to start, because “a good philosophy will start from everyday rationality and build on it, and refine it.”  His conclusion is that the average lay person would expect neither a woodenly literal rendering nor one where the renderings do not directly correlate with the words, but one that, in the words of R. C. Van Leeuwen, “conveys as much as possible of what was said, and how it was said, in as near word-for-word form as the target language allows, though inevitably with some difference and imperfectly.”  This kind of translation allows someone to “listen in” on a foreign communication without the translator getting in the way.

In Collins’ view, this definition does not have a place within the popular method of placing translation philosophies on a continuum between literal and dynamic.  He draws special attention to the fact that essentially literal translations, unlike “woodenly literal” ones, favor recognized linguistic operations, resulting in a translation that sounds like good literary English.  In other words, such a translation recognizes that a shift is indeed taking place from one language to another, but interpretation is limited to these recognized linguistic operations.

Because his translation philosophy is apparently so distinct from others, Collins suggests abandoning the single-line continuum for something a little more complicated: a triangle, with “literal” on the left, “dynamic” on the right, and “essentially literal” at the top.  I find this suggestion unconvincing and unhelpful.  First, he hasn’t actually demonstrated that essentially literal translations are categorically different and don’t take a place on the line-continuum model.  All he has done here is highlight the difference between his model and the two extremes.  Second, this new diagram doesn’t really alter the line-continuum at all.  It simply bends it upward so that essentially literal translations are in a prominent place at the top center.  There is an irony to this, as earlier in the paper he draws attention to the NIV’s portrayal of itself as the ideal balance between the two extremes on the continuum.  I think he is correct in saying that translation is much more complicated than the line-continuum model makes it appear, but his solution only makes the nature of those complications more confusing and reflects his own bias.

From here, Collins moves on to discuss another complexity of translation: the difference between the text and the message (or in terms used in my previous post, the difference between saying and meaning).  Collins handles this issue with far more competence than Ryken.  He points out that a text is “a means by which the speaker (or author) operates on [a] shared picture of the world to produce some effect (the message) in the audience.”  The primary difference between essentially literal and dynamic equivalence translations is that the former stops at the text level, allowing the reader to simply “listen in” on a foreign communication.  The latter, on the other hand, seeks to convey the meaning, producing the same effect that the communication had on the original audience.  I think this is a fair assessment in theory, so long as we recognize that essentially literal translations regularly go beyond the text, and dynamic equivalence translations often stick close to it.  That said, this generalization highlights a fundamental difference in the definition of “translation” by these two philosophies.  Consider Van Leeuwen’s above definition of translation and its emphasis on what was said, and compare it with a definition of translation from relevance theory: “A receptor-language utterance is a direct translation of a source-language utterance if, and only if, it presumes to interpretively resemble the original completely” (emphasis mine) (Gutt, Relevance Theory: A Guide to Successful Communication in Translation).

Translations for Particular Uses

Having established the wide gap between these translation philosophies, Collins pulls back from his stated preference and proceeds to ask the important question, “What kind of translation might suit…various contexts for the English reader?”  I’m glad that he is at least entertaining the possibility that different kinds of translations might be best suited for different contexts.  Abandoning Nida and Taber’s division of contexts by the social status of the audience, he proposes three basic uses for a Bible translation:

1) Church.  He posits that a church Bible should be intelligible, ecumenical, orally rhythmic, preachable, poetic and dignified.

2) Family reading.  He sees no reason a church version can’t be used in the family so long as it is intelligible.  Parents should be willing to explain things to their children (and the church should equip them to do so), and children will live up to what is expected of them.

3) Outreach.  He admits that a simpler, more readable Bible may be better here, but it needs to be clear this is only for introductory purposes.

Case Study on 1 John

With these three uses in mind, Collins proceeds to examine how different translation philosophies perform on the text of 1 John.  He focuses on the following features of the Greek text:

1) Repetition of Greek words.  One notable example is the appearance of menō 24 times within 18 verses.  Essentially literal translations do a good job transparently showing this repetition with the word “abide.”  The NLT on the other hand uses no fewer than ten different renderings for the same word.  Collins cites contextual consistency, naturalness, and ready intelligibility as motivations for the NLT’s variety.

This observation reveals a legitimate weakness of the NLT.  The NLT often does not allow the reader to see the repetition of words.  However, it reads far more naturally and understandably.  Collins acknowledges this “trade-off between literal precision and readability,” and this is why he holds to essentially literal rather than woodenly literal translation.  What he does not explain is why he thinks that word repetition is always more important to preserve than contextual consistency, naturalness, etc.  Repetiton might be ideal to preserve in a Bible used for preaching, but in my assessment it’s not going to be the most important factor to consider in a Bible for other uses.

2) Puzzling Ambiguities.  One example of Greek ambiguity that Collins points out is the Greek genitive construction translated “love of God” in the ESV.  Does this mean “love for God” (objective genitive) or “God’s love” (subjective genitive)?  He argues that the ESV maintains ambiguity by using this ‘of’ construction, saying, “The essentially literal approach will be to pass the responsibility on to the reader to decide.”  I would suggest that in some cases, the ESV is successful in retaining ambiguity in the text, but this is not one of them.  I think it is fallacious to say that the English ‘of’ construction is equivalent to the Greek genitive and retains its full exegetical potential.  The phrase “love of God” could be interpreted as “love for God,” but I suspect that most readers would naturally assume a subjective reading.  Often when essentially literal proponents claim they are preserving ambiguity, they actually are not achieving their aim to the extent they think they are.  Unless people are schooled in the biblical languages and have learned to flag English ‘of’ constructions as ambiguous, I suspect that most English readers would find many of them unnatural more than ambiguous.  They will simply assume the interpretation that involves the least cognitive effort.  Having said this, I do agree with Collins that essentially literal translations more often do a better job retaining ambiguity than their dynamic equivalence counterparts.

3) Old Testament Evocations.  Collins argues that essentially literal translations do a far better job retaining OT evocations in the text.  My assessment here is similar to what I presented above regarding puzzling ambiguities.  I would agree that essentially literal translations tend to retain OT evocations better, but that they do not often do it as well as they claim.  For example, Collins points out the repeated use of the Greek word tēreō, which the ESV translates ‘keep.’  He argues that this rendering conveys more than simple obedience to God’s commands, but an attitude of carefully attending to, or even treasuring them.  (The NIV and NLT often prefer the word ‘obey’ among other options.)  Looking at the word ‘keep’ in an English dictionary, I don’t see any of the nuances that Collins is pointing out relating to being careful or treasuring.  He seems to be defining ‘keep’ in a way that most English speakers do not.

Two Observations

To summarize, Collins argues that how we define translation is of great importance.  His own starting point is the lay understanding of translation.  He asks, “What does the reader want, and what can the translator provide?  An opportunity to listen in on the original foreign language communication, without prejudging what to do with that communication.”  Such a translation, he argues, is best suited for all types of uses.  He does concede that meaning-based translations might be suitable for new believers as an introduction, and he also admits that essentially literal translations may place a heavier burden on the reader to learn about the world of the text, but suggests that people are (or should be) up for the challenge.

I see two closely related problems with Collins’ conclusions:

1) His definition of translation is far too narrow and one-sided.  Much of his argument highly favors “text” over “meaning” (using his words).  In praising the virtues of essentially literal translations (many of which really are virtues), he focuses on its transparency to the original Greek, word-for-word correlation, etc.  His selection of features of the Greek text in 1 John are carefully chosen to highlight the advantages of essentially literal translations, while neglecting other elements that are vital to successful communication of the text.  He acknowledges illocutionary force, implicatures, etc., but doesn’t seem to hold these in high regard as part of the communicative event, relegating them to appropriation or application.  A more healthy, complete view of translation would recognize that aspects of the text like word repetition and OT evocations are equal to, and even overlap with illocutionary force and implicatures as part of the whole communicative process.  All of these elements are important and intertwined, yet no translation can capture them all.  While acknowledging the trade-off between “literal precision and readability,” Collins elevates one over the other, which is unwarranted and presents a very lopsided and incomplete picture of communication and translation.

2) He presupposes that one translation or type of translation is better than many.  Because of his lopsided approach to translation and communication, Collins downplays the benefits of using multiple translations.  He assumes that “what the reader wants” is the same for every person.  There are readers who want a text that speaks to their heads and allows them to wrestle with the text.  But there are also readers who want a Bible that speaks to their hearts.  And then there are those who want both, because the original text spoke to both head and heart.

Collins attempts to shoehorn essentially literal translations into every kind of use, even though they might not be ideal for that use.  Where he does concede that another type of translation might be better, he argues that this should be seen as a temporary solution until the individual is mature enough to graduate to a better Bible translation.  Here I will share briefly from my personal experience.  I have been a Christian for nearly 30 years.  I have been through Bible college, seminary, Greek study, translation work, etc., and I still greatly benefit from translations like the NLT.  They are not something I have outgrown.  They complement the other translations in my arsenal because they reveal aspects of the original communication that I would not have previously seen and that do not come across in essentially literal translations.  I agree with Collins that the church needs to equip people to study the Bible critically and learn about its historical and cultural backdrop.  But instead of seeing meaning-based translations as a useful tool to help people, he views them as the opposite, a danger that prevents people from understanding.

Conclusion

Who gets to decide what a translation really is?  I don’t think there will be a consensus any time soon, but I think we all agree that a translation is one that does “justice to the original act of communication” (Collins).  I only wish that Collins and others would recognize that no translation fully does justice in every respect, and elevating some aspects of communication over others by insisting on only one type of translation hinders the church from understanding God’s full communicative intentions.

Leland Ryken’s Five Myths About Essentially Literal Bible Translations

Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation is a collection of papers originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2004.  Each of the five authors was part of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version (ESV).  This post is part 2 of a series, evaluating Leland Ryken’s chapter, “Five Myths About Essentially Literal Bible Translation.”

Introduction

The debate over Bible translation philosophy and methodology has been fierce, especially in recent years, as newer form-based translations threaten to knock dynamic equivalence from the throne where it has sat for the last several decades.  Naturally, dynamic equivalence proponents have been eager to defend their position, and in the process they have leveled many charges against the essentially literal camp.  In this chapter, Leland Ryken addresses five of these charges, which he has labeled “myths.”  I will evaluate each of these in turn, although most of my attention will be on #2.

Myth #1: Advocates of Essentially Literal Translation Are Guilty of Word Worship and Idolatry

The essentially literal camp’s emphasis on the importance of individual words has led some dynamic equivalence proponents to accuse their opponents of being guilty of idolatry, literally worshipping the words of Scripture.  Ryken illustrates with a few specific examples, including this quote from Nida: “As long as they worship words, instead of worshipping God as revealed in Jesus Christ, they feel safe.”  According to Ryken, this is blowing things way out of proportion.  Prioritizing words is not even close to worship of words.  He says, “Advocates of the rival theory to one’s own might fairly be viewed as intellectual opponents, but we should not resort to charges of idolatry.”  I fully agree with Ryken on this point.  We need to be realistic and gracious in our debates with those who disagree with us, and accusations of idolatry go too far.

Myth #2: Essentially Literal Translation Theory and Practice Are Naive

Ryken takes an interesting approach to this myth.  Unsure of what the critics actually mean by “naive,” he posits his own definition by providing some ways that essentially literal translations are naive, followed by some ways that dynamic equivalence translations are naive.  His conclusion is that the latter are more naive than the former.

Ryken gives two reasons why essentially literal translations are naive:

1. They are not based on a complex linguistic theory.  This is a strength in his view.  He says, “I am skeptical of a discipline that is encrusted in as highly technical and obscure a vocabulary as linguistics is.”  If I am understanding this statement correctly, Ryken is rejecting an entire field of academic study because it is too difficult to understand.  Some of his statements that I will address later make me wonder to what extent he has even attempted to gain understanding in this area.  This appears to be more than naivety.  Naivety is when someone doesn’t know that they don’t know.  Ryken knows that he doesn’t know, and doesn’t seem to care.  After this surprising statement, Ryken proceeds to argue that despite the complicated theory they claim, the practices of dynamic equivalence are actually rather simple, not depending on any “complicated linguistic principle.”  One of the principles that he cites is “mingling commentary with translation.”  I doubt that any dynamic equivalence proponent would ever cite one of their translation principles in this way.  Not only is he employing caricatures, something he decries in Myths #1 and #3, but he is also misrepresenting the principles underlying dynamic equivalence, and  proving his ignorance of linguistic theory by missing the link between theory and practice.

2. “Refusal to add the functions of interpretation, exegesis, and editing to the task of translation.”  I’ll have more to say about this when I get to Myth #4, as this brings up the same issue presented there.

Ryken moves on to give four reasons why dynamic equivalence translations are naive:

1. Translators cater to the needs of a naive audience.  Ryken argues that not only is the audience naive in dynamic equivalence translations, but so is the “unstated and perhaps unrecognized assumption…that readers cannot be educated beyond their current abilities.”  Despite their stated aim, he says, dynamic equivalence translations “ensure that readers will remain at a naive level of comprehension.”  While I might debate whether this is an assumption most dynamic equivalence translators actually hold to, I think there is some validity to this point.  For example, one strength of essentially literal English translations is their use of highly technical theological terms.  Over time, readers can grow in their understanding of them.  There is certainly a benefit and use for such translations.  However, there is also value in a translation that avoids these kinds of terms for more immediate understanding, even though it might remove people from the weighty content and history associated with them.  Both approaches have legitimate uses.  Ultimately, Ryken’s criticism on this point speaks not to the naivety of dynamic equivalence theory, but to its different (but valid) approach.

I also want to point out that while Ryken is specifically addressing English translations, minority languages like the ones I work with often do not even have the option of using established technical theological terms.  They must choose a rendering that will hopefully be meaningful right away, but that will become technical over time as people learn these categories by exposure to Bible reading and teaching.  I point this out as an example that dynamic equivalence translations do not necessarily prevent people from learning and growing.  Avoiding technical terms may be a weakness in the English context, but not in all situations.

2. “Refusal to make a valid distinction between what the original says and what the translator believes that it means.” Ryken argues that dynamic equivalence conflates saying and meaning, and this is why they have no problem changing what the text says.  I would argue that to the contrary, most dynamic equivalence proponents have a very healthy understanding of the gap between “saying” and “meaning.”  Underdeterminacy, the idea that the meaning encoded by words (what the text says) doesn’t fully articulate the proposition or thought being expressed (what the speaker means), is a fundamental principle in the theories of communication that drive meaning-based translation.

Ryken goes on to quote Ray Van Leeuwen in saying that dynamic equivalence translations “prevent the reader from inferring biblical meaning because they change what the Bible said.”  The fallacy in this argument is the assumption that if a translation retains what is said, the modern reader will make the same inferences the original audiences would have made.  In truth, the modern reader will often make wrong inferences from an essentially literal translation, while being completely unaware that they are doing so.  Dynamic equivalence translations have the potential to ensure that the reader will infer biblical meaning by wording the translation in a way that the proper inferences will be drawn.  In short, what motivates dynamic equivalence translations to change what the text says is not a denial of the difference between saying and meaning, but an appreciation of it.

3. “Reductionistic tendencies.”  Essentially literal translations aim to “preserve the full exegetical potential of the original biblical text” by leaving ambiguities and other details open to interpretation.  Ryken gives the example of Psalm 90:12, which says, “So teach us to number our days.”  He points out at least six different interpretations of the phrase “number our days.”  Because there are so many possibilities, he argues that an essentially literal translation keeps the interpretive possibilities open to the reader.  The readers of dynamic equivalence translations, on the other hand, “have no clue as to what has been removed from sight, or what interpretive decisions have been made for them by the translation committee.”

To this I would ask, what will cue the reader of an essentially literal translation that there are so many interpretive possibilities in Psalm 90:12?  “Numbering our days” has  become a fairly common figure of speech in English, and I imagine most readers would assume the meaning of “counting them with a view to seeing how few they are” without realizing the exegetical potential.  At least, that would be my own natural conclusion.  I would guess that most of these other interpretations were derived by scholars through careful study of the type that many readers are not able to carry out themselves.  Unless someone is reading the text with a commentary or sitting under a teacher explaining these options, the interpretive possibilities will be lost, and the text will not appear ambiguous at all.  In other words, in Psalm 90:12 the ESV is unwittingly guilty of the same crime of removing exegetical potential.

As I said in my previous post, a good way for someone unschooled in the biblical languages to get a sense of interpretive possibilities is to consult various translations.  Otherwise, the reader will be unaware of most places where interpretive decisions have been made for them, regardless of which translation they are reading.  Another good way to learn about interpretive possibilities is to sit under good teaching and preaching, which I believe is very important in the life of the church.  In such contexts, essentially literal translations can be very helpful.

4.  “Assumption that we can retain the meaning of the original text without retaining its precise words.”  Because dynamic equivalence proponents “support their practice with technical linguistic scaffolding,” a field we have noted he is very skeptical of, Ryken has decided to support his argument with some literary theory instead.  (Note that he refuses to even engage with the linguistic arguments backing dynamic equivalence.  He even dismisses Mark Strauss’ notion that words are “arbitrary and conventional symbols used to signify meaning.”  This is a fundamental principle on which all modern linguistics is founded, and Ryken doesn’t seem to understand it properly.)  From a literary standpoint, then, he invokes the formula, “The medium is the message.”  Dynamic equivalence, he argues, attempts to bypass the medium (words) in an attempt to communicate the message.  He says, “The fallacy…is in thinking that we can get the meaning correct if we do not retain the words of the original.”  Rather, I would propose that the fallacy is in thinking that a translation can retain the words of the original at all.  (See my previous post for more on that.)

Myth #3: Essentially Literal Translation is No More Than Transcription or Transliteration

Ryken provides the following example of a transcription of 2 Tim. 1:13 to prove this point: “Pattern of sound words of which from me you heard in faith and love the in Christ Jesus.”  Obviously, the ESV is more sensible than this.  Ryken’s argument is correct.  The ESV is a translation, not a transcription or transliteration, and this is a caricature that we should avoid.

Myth #4: Essentially Literal Translators Fail to Understand That All Translation is Interpretation

Ryken’s argument in this section depends on a distinction between interpretation of words and of conceptual meaning.  By “conceptual meaning,” I suppose he is referring to the meaning of a linguistic structure consisting of more than one word.  He affirms that lexical interpretation is necessary in translation, and admits that at this level, essentially literal translations interpret.  However, he denies that essentially literal translations interpret beyond the lexical level unless there is no way around it.  At this point, I will refer again to my previous post on Wayne Grudem’s chapter, where I discuss the translation of orgē in Rom. 13:4.  In this verse, the ESV made an interpretive decision that was not absolutely neccesary, thus violating their own stated priority of translating words rather than broader meaning.  Essentially literal translations interpret far more than they tend to admit.

Myth #5: Essentially Literal Translations Are Obscure and Opaque

Ryken points out that dynamic equivalence’s goal of clarity and readability often ignores the fact that the biblical text itself was opaque in many ways.  Essentially literal translations don’t make the Bible hard to understand, he argues.  The Bible was already hard to understand, even in its original context.  Instead, they “pass on the original text as it is.”  Ryken’s presentation is far too black and white here.  Sure, essentially literal translations do pass on difficulties, as do dynamic equivalence translations.  Ryken points out technical terms, OT allusions, and borrowings from Hebrew in the New Testament.  These certainly would have been difficult to understand to much of the original audience, especially Gentiles.  But to suggest that the modern reader is on the same ground as the ancient one is, for lack of a better term, naive.  Many figures of speech, customs, current events, and cultural values distinct to the Greco-Roman world would have been readily understood by anyone living in that place and time, but might well be lost on the modern reader.  My conclusion is that while all translations pass on certain difficulties inherent to the original text, essentially literal translations often make the text more obscure to the modern reader than it needs to be.

Conclusion

In summary, of Ryken’s five myths, two of them can be defended as myths.  He is correct that essentially literal translation proponents are probably not idolaters.  Neither are they guilty of simple transliteration or transcription.  However, their approach is in fact naive in some respects, even voluntarily so.  In addition, they do regularly interpret beyond the lexical level, despite their stated philosophy.  And they do make their text more obscure than it needs to be at times.

This is not to say that the essentially literal approach is useless.  I believe it is does have benefits, but it is not perfect.  Neither is dynamic equivalence, something Ryken is quick to point out, and in places he is correct.  Ryken and others with their feet firmly planted in the essentially literal camp may need to recognize that no translation philosophy is perfect, and most have a unique value and contribution to make.