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.

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.

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?