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.


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.

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

  1. Concerning ambiguity, even deciding that a text is supposed to be ambiguous is an interpretive statement. The translator has indeed made a decision for the reader by leaving other possibilities open to them. Who is to say more choices is necessarily right, helpful, or superior? That depends on how the translator interprets the text.


  2. “Because of his lopsided approach to translation and communication, Collins downplays the benefits of using multiple translations.” I have been listening this week to talks about Translation Brief…defining what the receptor language would like their translation to look like. The examples are endless but fail in recognizing the reality of actual translation work. The reality is, especially for minority languages that they will only get one version, not two, not several, not many. If they get a more dynamic now because the church is young, there will not be an upgrade later for the maturing church. There are two very distinct discussions on translation “styles”, one for the west and one for the rest.


    • I think this comment is important. Is there a better translation approach for a minority language? Personally, I think some balance is required. However, it does seem to hold true that while there may only ever be one translation for a minority group, hopefully the long-term goal is educated leaders who will come to know the original languages, commentaries, and resources in the majority language. The translation itself is not the end-goal. The translation facilitates the Christian life and the life of the church. Perhaps this is why we can’t agree on the “perfect” translation – because we are not only misunderstanding the nature of translation, but because we are misunderstanding the purpose of the vernacular Bible in the church. Even multiple translations can miss valuable interpretive options. No matter what translations you have access, too, nothing can replace multiple commentaries, original texts, etc. But of course each person will have different levels of access. And thank God, one’s level of education is not the criteria for either being a Christian or being a faithful one. That God can reach even the most humble should humble the most educated who may struggle with his daily walk despite his advantages.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love your comment “The translation itself is not the end-goal. The translation facilitates the Christian life and the life of the church”. It is a great reminder that, as translators, our work should nurture the local believers and the local church.


    • Mark, what you are saying may not be true in all circumstances. I am in Guinea-Bissau right now, serving as consultant to the Portuguese Creole Bible translation project. There is already a complete Bible in Creole, and it has served the church here well. But it was felt a revision was needed, primarily to make it more natural-sounding. However, in the process, we worked on a sort of translation brief, asking leaders of the church to say what they want in the revised translation. They did want the translation revised to make it more natural, but they also wanted to end up with something more like a study Bible. So we have made that our goal, and are working on it. In the process, we are making some things in the translation more literal and are using more sophisticated theological terms, adding footnotes to help explain the meaning. So this is one fortunate case where, according to our translation brief, we are providing a somewhat different kind of translation in the second edition for a more mature church. Having said that, you are correct in saying that for most languages other than the major languages of the world (English, French, etc.), having various versions of the Bible to choose from isn’t realistic.


    • Mark, I agree with you that the situation with minority languages is very different than what I describe in this post. The book I am discussing deals specifically with English translation, hence my recommendation of multiple translations. Translating for minority languages has its own set of challenges, one of them being the choice of what kind of translation to produce.


      • Yes, pioneer Bible translations completed for many communities may be the only translation people have in that language, but they are not the only translation of the Bible people have access to. We have to remember that in these contexts there is considerable multilingualism and so the vernacular scriptures may enter the mix of ways people have for accessing scripture in the same way that monolinguals may sensibly use a variety of different versions to help their better understanding of the Bible. This, in my mind, is a helpful relief of the pressure to produce a ‘perfect’ translation that serves every conceivable purpose.

        Perhaps as we wrestle with translation teams to figure out the brief and angle for their translation then we need to understand what gaps in understanding or communication of the scriptures we are trying to fill.


      • I would agree with the comments made concerning having a translation brief (defining the translation) and the understanding of the existing challenges. I feel sometimes that we speak in the pie in the sky theoretical instead of in reality. It is great to hear that some languages are getting a revision. Here in Nigeria there are 80 completed NTs or whole Bibles and only five are listed as revisions. Maybe some of the whole Bibles included some revision on the NT but the spreadsheet does not say. I think having resources in languages of wider understanding is also unrealistic. There is English and a few in French but not much in the other 50+ LWU. Even the Handbook commentaries and dictionaries in Paratext have no plan for revision even in English much less translating into other languages. I was told this when I shared some edit suggestions.
        The wide spectrum promoted in teaching Translation Brief simply isn’t practical for the majority of language starts. In a recent workshop the example was given of a language that wanted a version designed for reading from the front of the church. I realize that the receptor plays a deciding role in the translation brief but is it wise to give such a narrow brief for the one and only Bible they will most likely ever have?


  3. Such an interesting response. I love the work that you are doing here, Ben. I love the note that in translation discussions, “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.”

    I would argue that even more “notable” is the definition or understanding of the Scriptures. What are they really? What is/are their purpose/s? How are people intended to interact with them?

    Also, how do time, place, culture, personality, and all the rest affect the interaction with the Scriptures?

    There are many questions that are rarely discussed. I am glad to see you tackling some of them here.


  4. Thanks for your introduction and analysis of these papers. I thought your comment about ‘keep’ was very instructive: “He seems to be defining ‘keep’ in a way that most English speakers do not.”

    How do we have confidence that we have been faithful in translation? It is rather tempting for a translator (not just of the Bible) to try to treat words in the target language as if they had the same meanings/senses as the source language. The result is ‘Biblish’, a jargon where the ‘correct’ word needs to be explained so that people understand it correctly.

    Is it even possible to prod people into understanding something the way we want them to understand it? I believe it is. As long as we present the text as a normal text (not generally to be read as a secret code) and use language according to the normal patterns of usage, then the consensus of the community ensures that any sane person will not misunderstand.

    I think many of us find it tempting, however, to seek a stronger guarantee of fidelity by defining the terms like ‘keep’ in a biblical sense so that they mean whatever the Greek/Hebrew words meant. This does however undermine the whole enterprise of translation. It’s really ducking the hard work of dancing from one semantic network to another. Attractive for making translation seem easier and offering a more mathematical guarantee of fidelity, this approach short-circuits the social aspect of language. It is this social constraint that prevents language being a complete free-for-all as Lewis Carroll pointed out:

    …’And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’
    ‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
    ‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’


  5. Pingback: Vern Poythress on “Fullness Versus Reductionistic Semantics” – Finding the Right Words

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