Ambiguity As a Translation Value (Redux)

A year and a half ago, I shared a post on this blog called “Ambiguity As a Translation Value.” I received some very helpful feedback, namely that the questions I was asking about ambiguity were important and warrant more thought and discussion. When the call for papers came from the 2017 Bible Translation Conference coordinators, I submitted an abstract with the same title, and it was accepted. I have been hard at work developing these ideas for the last several months, (thus explaining why my blog has been so quiet of late!), and I presented the paper at the conference last month in Dallas. I am now ready to share it here as well. You can click the link below to read the paper. I’ve also copied the abstract here.



Clarity is one of the most esteemed qualities of a good translation, but is it always a value translators should aim for? This paper explores the challenges of translating ambiguous texts, and through the lens of Skopos theory considers the question of when translations may legitimately be ambiguous.

Language is routinely unclear. It often underrepresents an author’s intended meaning, opening the door for more than one understanding. A historical, cultural and linguistic distance between author and exegete only exacerbates this problem. For instance, when Paul says in 1 Cor. 11:10, “A wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels,” there is considerable uncertainty about how the angels fit into his argument. Furthermore, authors often intentionally avoid a precise and single meaning, especially when using poetic or figurative language. Translators often find themselves unsure of how to translate clearly in these situations, and many wonder whether clarity should be abandoned altogether in favor of ambiguity.In this paper I use the concepts of function, loyalty, and adequacy to posit three functions that may legitimize ambiguity in a translation. Using examples from the English Standard Version which intentionally employs ambiguity to achieve its purpose, I demonstrate the importance of defining the function or functions of a translation, and the precision required when ambiguity is used. These conclusions have strong implications for meaning-based translation practices as well as our overall view of clarity and its status as a core translation value.

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. 


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.

Why Plenary Inspiration Does NOT Favor “Essentially Literal” Bible Translation

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).  Although I’m a decade or so late to the party, I will be writing a series of posts on this volume.  This is part 1, covering Wayne Grudem’s chapter “Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out By God? Why Plenary Inspiration Favors ‘Essentially Literal’ Bible Translation.”

Summary of Grudem’s Argument

Wayne Grudem launches this book with an argument of staggering significance: if we believe plenary inspiration, that every word of Scripture is inspired by God, then “essentially literal” Bible translations are more compatible with the teachings of Scripture.  If his conclusions are true, then God has placed his stamp of approval on essentially literal translations, and the debate over Bible translation theory and methodology among evangelicals is over.  Virtually any other argument for dynamic equivalence Bible translations is moot.  Secular translation theory may apply to other texts, but not the Bible, becase it is not morally or spiritually “neutral.”

Grudem begins with a concise but clear treatment of plenary inspiration.  Passages like 2 Tim. 3:16 and 2 Pet. 1:20-21 emphasize the divine origin of Scripture, as words that are “breathed out” by God.  Lest anyone think such passages are referring to the overall message and not the individual words, Grudem points out several passages where the words are important, such as Matt. 4:4, where “Man shall not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” and Rev. 22:18-19, which warns against adding to or removing from the words written in the book.  He also points out that on occassion, Jesus and other NT authors call attention to very small details in specific texts (e.g. Matt. 22:41-45).  His conclusion is that every word of Scripture is from God and is completely trustworthy.  (For the record, I agree with Grudem on the doctrine of plenary inspiration.)

If each word of Scripture is so important, he argues, then as translators we must translate “the meaning that each word contributes” to a sentence.  This is the primary aim of essentially literal translations.  Grudem provides this definition for this approach: “An essentially literal translation translates the meaning of every word in the original language, understood correctly in its context, into its nearest English equivalent, and attempts to express the result with ordinary English word order and style, as far as that is possible without distorting the meaning of the original.”  Elsewhere, he explains, “Essentially literal translations will place a high emphasis on translating every word of the original, as opposed to dynamic equivalence translations, which emphasize translating the thoughts more than the individual words.”  In Grudem’s assessment, this approach fits better within the doctrine of plenary inspiration because it focuses on the words themselves.

Problem #1: Essentially Literal Translations Regularly Break Their Own Rules

The bulk of Grudem’s chapter sets out to show how dynamic equivalence translations regularly break the rules established by the essentially literal translation philosophy by either adding meaning to the text, or removing meaning represented by certain words.  However, many of Grudem’s examples don’t in fact prove his points.  An additional irony is that some of these examples demonstrate that the ESV and other essentially literal translations break these rules themselves.

For example, Grudem draws attention to the Greek word orgē in Rom. 13:4, translated ‘wrath’ in the ESV: “For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”  Translations like the NLT and NCV omit the word ‘wrath’ in favor of the verb ‘punish.’  Grudem argues that these dynamic equivalence translations omit meaning in using the word punish, because orgē is linked with Rom. 12:19, which speaks about God’s wrath.  By using the word ‘punishment,’ these translations are representing the primary meaning, but omitting a clear reference to God’s wrath.  The problem in his argument is that the meaning of the word orgē has not been omitted in the NLT and NCV, but has been represented by a different English word, “punishment” in the NLT and NCV.  This is an acceptable translation of the lexical meaning of orgē in this context.  While most would agree that God’s wrath is in view in Rom. 13:4, there is debate about whether God’s wrath or general punishment is primarily in focus.  The Greek text does not explicitly state that this is “God’s” wrath.  The ESV here inserts the word “God’s.”  This is an interpretive decision.  If the ESV is following the motto “As literal as possible, as free as necessary,” adding the word “God’s” is breaking this rule.  This is exactly the kind of interpretive activity that Grudem accuses dynamic equivalence translations of in the following section about adding components of meaning that are not in the original text.  Grudem later suggests that dynamic equivalence translations should be read as commentary, interpretation, or explanation. He ignores the fact that the ESV also explains and interprets on a regular basis.

There are many other examples of the “rule-breaking” exhibited by essentially literal translations, which others have already brought to light.  Dave Brunn’s recent book One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? provides a multitude of examples in chart form, demonstrating that not only do essentially literal translations regularly exhibit the qualities of dynamic equivalence translations, but in many verses they are more thought-based than translations like the NLT or TEV.

I personally agree with some of Grudem’s critiques of specific verses in dynamic equivalence translations, not because they “added” or “removed” a word, but because they truly failed to account for the meaning a particular word contribtued to a verse.  The dynamic equivalent approach is not perfect, nor is it perfectly executed.  But neither is the essentially literal approach.  If, as Grudem argues, the essentially literal philosophy of translation is required by plenary inspiration, and if, as I have demonstrated, the ESV breaks these rules, then the ESV cannot be trusted as the Word of God and is no better than the dynamic equivalence translations he criticizes.

Problem #2: The Argument for Essentially Literal Translation Based on Plenary Inspiration is Flawed

The logical conclusion stated above is not my own, because the first premise is flawed.  Plenary inspiration does not in fact favor an essentially literal approach.  I affirm that every word is important and inspired, yet it is very possible to hold to the importance of words, while at the same time prioritizing meaning.  While words do carry lexical meaning, it is when they occur in combination with one another that broader contours of thought are formed.  Each word is still vitally important in contributing to that larger thought.  The difficulty in translation is that both the words and the way in which they combine differ from one language to another.  Copying “nearest English equivalents” for each word will inevitably result in miscommunication, even if steps are taken to “express the result with ordinary English word order and style.”  Meaning-based translations do not neglect the importance of words.  They affirm their importance in the role that words play in constructing meaningful thought, and recognize the reality that each language has its own ways of combining words.  Often to express the right meaning, a translation must deviate from the nearest English equivalent to get the job done.  This does not mean that the words of the original text are unimportant.  It simply means that languages differ from one another.

In his seminal book The Semantics of Biblical Language, James Barr lamented the tendency of biblical scholars to place too much emphasis on individual words.  Barr argued that meaning is expressed in larger linguistic structures, as words combine and interact with one another.  This isn’t a fringe notion that Nida borrowed in his works on translation.  It has become a standard hermeneutical principle in biblical studies, but it seems that old habits die hard.  Doug Moo, in his article “We Still Don’t Get It: Evangelicals and Bible Translation Fifty Years After James Barr,” argues that many evangelical biblical scholars and translators are still not consistently honoring these basic principles.  They are affirmed in theory, but in practice are often ignored.

I think that Grudem understands at some level that this is the way language works.  His approval of thought-based decisions in the ESV evidence this. But he is a theologian more than he is a linguist, and somehow his commitment to plenary inspiration prevents him from wholly embracing these linguistic realities.  If we follow his logic to its fullest conclusion, we’d have to say that plenary inspiration prohibits translation altogether.  Translation by nature is adding to and removing from the text.  All of the words are being removed, and an entirely new set is being added in their place.  Even nearest lexical equivalents have different semantic ranges that add and subtract meaning.  To state it succinctly, dynamic equivalence isn’t to blame.  Translation is.  As the saying goes, “Translation is treason.”

Why translate then?  To make the text more meaningful to people reading.  If we’re going to change the words even a little, a precedent has been set, allowing for greater formal change for greater understanding.  In the end, both essentially literal and dynamic equivalence translations accomplish the same things.  They change the words.  They interpret.  They bring a foreign text closer to a new audience.

In summary, dynamic equivalence translations are just as aware and respectful of plenary inspiration as their essentially literal counterparts.  Labeling dynamic equivalence translations as inferior “skillful free interpretations” misrepresents both the nature of plenary inspiration and the nature of linguistics and translation, issues that I think Grudem and I ultimately agree on, even if our practices aren’t consistent with our philosophy.


Essentially literal and dynamic equivalence translations differ in their approach, but I will not argue that one is better than the other.  Both regularly deviate from their stated methodology.  Both honor the doctrine of plenary inspiration.  Both attempt translation ultimately to communicate meaning.  Both are successful and fail in their own ways.  These approaches are complementary, and each has its own use.  For those who don’t have knowledge of the biblical languages, I would suggest reading a variety of translations.  Noting the differences will provide much greater insight than using one translation exclusively, as no translation will fully communicate the whole meaning of the original text.  No other language has such a wealth of Bible translations available.  Why not use them instead of limiting ourselves to the strengths and weaknesses of just one?

Χριστός in Matthew 1

Matthew’s gospel begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (ESV).  Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ appears in this particular form 105 times in the New Testament.  Most translations exclusively translate this as ‘Jesus Christ’ or an equivalent transliteration, as it normally functions as the name of Jesus.  This construction presents no problem when looking at it in isolation.  However, a look at Matthew’s broader theological purposes reveals that a simple transliteration may not be the best practice here.

Some Background on Χριστός

Χριστός is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word māšîah used in the LXX.  It means ‘anointed person.’  In the OT, anointing signified the Lord’s “initiative, election, and commission” for a particular task.  Most often it would be kings who were anointed, but there were also anointed priests and prophets.  We see an many anointed kings in the Psalms.  Interestingly, none of these passages refer to a future king who will restore or redeem Israel.  What seems to have happened is that because the ideal expressed in the Royal Psalms was left unfulfilled, these passages were later interpreted to refer to the future Davidic ruler predicted by the prophets.  Though the prophets never used the term māšîah in their predictions, it eventually became a title for this expected Davidic ruler.

While māšîah/Χριστός became a title, it was not widely used before the time of Jesus.  In fact, expectations of a coming redeemer/deliverer/king within Judaism were by no means uniform.  There was variety in the type of person or being who was expected, what their role or rule would look like, how long it would last, and what this person was called.  māšîah was just one title that was used.  It was the first Christians who emphasized Jesus as the Messiah.

A Name or a Title?

As Jesus became increasingly known as the Messiah, Χριστός became attached to Jesus’ name in the forms Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ or Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, whereas before, it usually occurred alone as a title, most often with the definite article.

There is disagreement about whether Χριστοῦ is a name or a title when it occurs with Ἰησοῦ.  Some argue that it should be treated as a name in these places, because many of the early Gentile converts probably would have understood Χριστός as no more than a name, especially considering its similarity in form and pronunciation to the common Greek name Χρηστός.  Others argue that even as a name, it still carried the meaning of “Anointed One.”  According to Tim Farrell, even Gentiles would have understood its basic derivation and at least been aware of some kind of titular usage, even if they didn’t fully understand the concept.  He also rightly argues that names in NT times carried much more meaning than our names today.  His conclusion is that Χριστός should always be translated as a title.  A meaningless transliteration is not enough.

Farrell’s assessment leaves me wondering how far he would take this conclusion.  Would he advocate translating other names with obvious meanings?  Would he suggest translating Πέτρος as ‘the Rock’?  Always translating the meaning of names could get out of hand, drawing attention to meaning that wasn’t in focus in a particular passage.  We have to consider if the meaning of the name is in focus in a particular instance.  For example, in Matt.1:21, the angel speaking to Mary draws attention to the meaning of the very common name Ἰησοῦ.  Most of the time, however, the meaning of that name is not in focus.  Farrell argues that the meaning of Χριστός is in focus more often than we might think, but not always.

In summary, the line between Χριστός as a title and as a name is a blurry one.  It may have carried more meaning to some than to others, and the meaning of the name may have been in focus to varying degrees when it was used.  Therefore, many translators opt to translate the meaning of Χριστός when the title is in focus, and to transliterate when it is mainly being used to refer to someone.  I think this is a decent approach, although I am left partly dissatisfied, because there is an underlying unity that is lost.

Translating Χριστός as a title

I’ve seen three basic options to translating Χριστός as a title:

1) Add a definite marker to a transliteration of Χριστός.  This won’t communicate the meaning, but it may at least indicate that this is a title, not just a name.

2) Transliterate “Messiah” if that will communicate better.  This is really only better than the first option if people already have familiarity with the term “Messiah” from exposure to Christianity or other Bible translations.

3) Translate the meaning of Χριστός using vernacular terms. I have seen few translators attempt this in my context, as options 1 or 2 seem to work well for them.

Translating Χριστός in Matthew 1:1

Returning to Mathew 1:1, let’s assume that we are taking the dual approach of translating Χριστός distinctly as a name in some places, and as a title in others.  The presence of Χριστοῦ alongside Ἰησοῦ with no definite article might suggest that this is simply a name.  However, if we remove ourselves from our tunnel vision for a moment and look at Matthew 1 as a whole, we see that the aim of this genealogy is to show that Jesus is the son of David, son of Abraham, the expected Messiah.  In v. 17, we even see the definite article used with Χριστός.  Clearly, Matthew is drawing attention to the titular meaning of Χριστός.  R.T. France says in his commentary on Matthew, “The colorless translation ‘Jesus Christ’ here and in v. 18 in many English versions does not do justice to the excitement in Matthew’s introduction of Jesus under the powerfully evocative title ‘Messiah,’ the long-awaited deliverer of God’s people, in whom their history has now come to its climax.”  The NLT shows an awareness of these issues, translating  Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as “Jesus the Messiah” not only in this verse, but also in Matt. 1:18 and Mk. 1:1.  In my assessment, this kind of more meaningful  translation is a better option in such verses.  Transliterating Χριστός as a name simply misses the primary thrust of Matthew’s argument.


‘Χριστός’ in BDAG.

De Jonge, Marinus.  ‘Messiah.’ Anchor Bible Dictionary.

Farrell, Tim. “Christos – ‘Mr. Christ or the Anointed One of God.’ Notes on Translation 12:4 (1998).

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007. The New International Commentary on the New Testament.