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.

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