Monday, November 18, 2013

Translating Truth: A review–Part 1

TranslatingTruthI recently discovered this fairly small book, written by five members from the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version (ESV) Bible. The foreword of the book was written by the General Editor for the ESV Bible, Dr. J.I. Packer. Just to put you at ease, I prefer the NASB over the ESV. So, I am not promoting the ESV here at all.

General Info

Title: Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation
Format: Paperback
ISBN-10: 1-58134-755-3
ISBN-13: 978-58134-755-5
Size: 13.97cm x 21.59cm
Weight: 201.3gr
Published: 30 November 2005

The five authors of this book are: C. John Collins, Wayne Grudem, Vern S. Poythress, Leland Ryken, and Bruce Winter. You can find out more about them at the book’s site at Crossway.

Blurb on the book
“In an age when there is a wide choice of English Bible translations, the issues involved in Bible translating are steadily gaining interest. Consumers often wonder what separates one Bible version from another.

“The contributors to this book argue that there are significant differences between literal translations and the alternatives. The task of those who employ an essentially literal Bible translation philosophy is to produce a translation that remains faithful to the original languages, preserving as much of the original form and meaning as possible while still communicating effectively and clearly in the receptors' languages.

Translating Truth advocates essentially literal Bible translation and in an attempt to foster an edifying dialogue concerning translation philosophy. It addresses what constitutes "good" translation, common myths about word-for-word translations, and the importance of preserving the authenticity of the Bible text. The essays in this book offer clear and enlightening insights into the foundational ideas of essentially literal Bible translation.” (Crossway)

In the foreword of the book, Packer goes into general descriptions of the three categories that have been used for translating the Bible in the last 60 or so years.  First, the “word-for-word” or “essentially literal” translations (ELT). These versions “aim to be as transparent as possible to the vocabulary, sentence structure, thought process, literary purpose, situational context, personal style, rhetorical strategy, and communicatory technique of each author, within the limits that good English allows.” (p10) He then mentions versions that fall into this category: Tyndale, King James Version, RSV, NKJV, NASB and ESV, with the NRSV, NET and HCSB not too far behind. He then clarifies that these versions are not “word-for-word in any mechanical sense; they seek simply to catch all the meaning that the text expresses..., in a way that the original writer, were he with us today, would recognize as a full and exact rendering of what he sought to put across to his own readership...” (p10-11)

Second, he mentions the “thought-for-thought” or “dynamic equivalent” translations (DET). Here translators aim “to induce, directly and immediately, the same positive complex of compelling interest and intellectual, emotional, and volitional response that the original writers sought to trigger in their own readership, and the developed method is to modify the wording and imagery of the text as a means to this end.” (p11)

Translations that fall into this category are: GNB, Living Bible, NLT, CEV, NCB and God’s Word. The problem with these translations is that they try to be interpretive and tend to paraphrase somewhat too. This makes them try to be more than a translation and has some danger in them as follows: (1) Focus is blurred: Where one or more understanding of the Biblical text is possible, this method smooths over the difficulty leaving readers completely unaware that any difficulties exist and that other options are available. Also, Biblical technical phrases are eliminated. (2) Fidelity is restricted: In the case that a literal rendering would not “make sense” to the casual reader, this method will substitute that rendering with modern day word pictures that may even convey equivalent meanings as the original. The problem here is that the reader will never know where this had been done  and where not. (3) Foreshortening is imposed: By this, Packer means cultural foreshortening. “Colloquial paraphrase, however dynamically equivalent, cannot but pre-empt recognition of the cultural gap between the Bible worlds... and our own world of today... Distancing (that is, discerning the differences between our world and worlds of the past) must precede assimilation (identifying transcendent similarities that reach above and beyond the differences). Cutting corners here, in rendering literature from the past—the Judeo-Christian past no less than any other—is always under-translating.” (p12-13)

The third category Packer mentions is what may be called “exposition-for-text” or “expanded paraphrase.” “These elaborate and amplify what is found in the semantic field of each text and passage, just as a pulpit expositor might do.” (p13) These are J.B. Phillip's’ The New Testament in Modern English and, of course, Eugene Peterson’s The Message. The danger of these dangerous translations (my classification), is that they may read way more into the text than what is actually there, which Packer calls “over-translating.”

Chapter 1

The first chapter of the book is written by Wayne Grudem, and is called, “ARE ONLY SOME WORDS OF SCRIPTURE BREATHED OUT BY GOD? Why Plenary Inspiration Favors ‘Essentially Literal’ Bible Translation.

Grudem makes clear in this chapter that Bible translation is not spiritually or morally neutral. It isn’t something that must be purely guided by secular linguistic theories about translation. In this chapter Grudem argues (1) that the Bible repeatedly claims that every one of its words (in the original languages) is a word spoken to us by God, and is therefore of utmost importance; and (2) that this fact provides a strong argument in favor of ‘essentially literal’ (or ‘word-for-word’) translation as opposed to ‘dynamic equivalent’ (or ‘thought-for-thought’) translation.” (p19)

Grudem explains that an essentially literal translation (“word-for-word”) is not what most people think of when they hear of such translations, which normally amount to a caricature of ELTs. He writes,

“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.” (p20)

It is sometimes necessary to translate one Greek word by using more than one English word and vice versa.

The main idea with ELTs is that an attempt is made “to represent the meaning of every word in the original in some way or other.” (p20)

He also describes DETs,

“A dynamic equivalent translation translates the thoughts or ideas of the original text into similar thoughts or ideas in English, and ‘attempts to have the same impact on modern readers as the original had on its own audience.’” (p20 – Grudem quotes here from the introduction to the Holy Bible: New Living Translation)

Next, he gives a table of where translations fall regarding their translation philosophy.


We have to remember that this book was published back in 2005, which means that it did not have the updated translations available from the ESV (2007), NIV (2011) or HCSB (2009).

On the edges of the spectrum there is some overlap, so that in a DET there are some word-for-word renderings, and within an ELT there are some amounts of paraphrasing where a literal translation would not make sense at all. So, if all translations depart from complete literalness at some point, what are the differences between ELTs and DETs? Grudem gives us two differences. First, ELTs will depart from complete literalness only where necessary. This will only happen if the readers will have no idea what is meant by a complete literal translation. DETs depart from literal translations and seek out paraphrases far more often, ”whenever the translators feel that the main thought or idea can be communicated more clearly with a more modern expression.” (p24) Second, ELTs “will place a high emphasis on translating every word of the original,” (p25) while DETs emphasize translating thoughts rather than individual words.

Next, Grudem goes into what the Bible says about its own words.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16 ESV)

All the words of Scripture are words spoken by God, and we need to think of Scripture that way.

knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2Pe 1:20-21 ESV)

Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. (Prov 30:5 ESV)

The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. (Ps 12:6 ESV)

It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt 4:4 ESV)

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev 22:18-19 ESV)

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Mt 5:18 ESV)

Grudem uses these and other verses to show the seriousness of translation work, down to the smallest letter.
Grudem makes the following statement as his 3rd section head:


I find this to be quite poignant. If words that are important to the proper understanding of the translation are not translated, how could it be a proper translation. If only the sense of sentences are translated, while important words within those sentences are not given the light of day, then we sit with a defective translation.

Grudem writes:

“If we are convinced that all the words of Scripture in the original manuscripts are from God, then it is important to focus on accurately translating the meaning of each word in its context. Translators should not only ask, ‘Have I rendered the main idea of this sentence correctly?’ but should also ask, ‘Have I represented correctly the meaning that each word contributes to this sentence?’ That is because every word contributes something to the meaning, whether by providing additional information, or by adding emphasis or nuance, or by modifying the meaning of the text in some other way.” (p29-30)

In the fourth section of the chapter Grudem tackles the issue of DETs often leaving out the meanings of words that are in the original text, and then gives some examples, such as

for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom 13:4 ESV)

While many DETs simply point to general punishment, the ESV and other ELTs say “for he does not bear the sword in vain.” Grudem explains that this verse in the ELTs is used as one of the primary verses by Christian ethicists who defend the right of government to perform capital punishment. Grudem continues to show that readers of the NLT, NCV, CEV and The Message would not even be able to follow this argument in their translations. For instance, The Message strays very far from the meaning of the text,

But if you're breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren't there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.

Grudem calls this The Missing Sword. I don’t want to go into all the examples since I do not want to reproduce Grudem’s chapter here. He gives more examples under headings such as Removing the Wrath of God, The Missing Hands, The Lost Soul, The Lost Spirit, and more. Through this section of his chapter, Grudem shows how DETs, in their effort to translate ideas and not words, end up under-translating the text, leaving the reader to think he struck gold while only holding fool’s gold in his hands.

Here is just a textual example. See how the NASB (ELT) translates it, and then see how The Message removes the “heart” and the “Holy Spirit!”

Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. (Psa 51:10-11 NASB)

God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life. Don't throw me out with the trash, or fail to breathe holiness in me. (Psa 51:10-11 MSG)

In the fifth section Grudem shows how DETs often add meaning to their translations that is not in the original text. In an example of how DETs get it wrong, he uses once again The Message.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. (Jas 3:1-2 ESV)

In verse 2, The Message starts off with

And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths.

Does James really say that teachers “get it wrong nearly every time” they open their mouths? Does James really want his readers not to believe anything an elder or teacher says? Should they therefore believe what James wrote? Grudem gives examples using the NLT, CEV and other translations.

The question is asked: Can we trust DETs? Because DETs sometimes add words and at other times do not even bring the meaning of certain words into their translations, Grudem makes a list of uses in which he cannot use DETs. He cannot use DETs to
  • teach theology or ethics classes
  • preach
  • teach an adult Bible class at his church
  • lead their home fellowship group
  • memorize passages from the Bible
On the other hand, Grudem writes, he can use any modern ELT such as the ESV, NASB, NET Bible and HCSB to do all the above. He continues,

“What then can I do with dynamic equivalent translations like the New Living Translation or The Message? I can read them like I read a commentary, not thinking of them as exactly the Word of God, but as a fresh and creative way to convey an explanation of the verse or an interpretation of the verse as understood by some very competent evangelical scholars. I think of these version as skillful free interpretations of Scripture, but not strictly as translations.” (p50)

In the last section before the conclusion of this chapter, Grudem lays down a critique of the theory of dynamic equivalence, especially of the father of this translation theory, Eugene Nida. From some of the quotes from Nida’s books, I wonder if Nida ever believed in the plenary inspiration of the Bible, and whether he believed that he was translating the words of God!

I think that Grudem did an admirable job in looking at the issues here, especially relating to DETs.
Once I am done with the second chapter, FIVE MYTHS ABOUT ESSENTIALLY LITERAL BIBLE TRANSLATION by Leland Ryken, I will be back with Part 2.

Here are some of my thoughts on The Message.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...