Translation Tribalism 3

Translation.jpgWe began a series, which will have new posts sporadically rather than consistently, not long ago about Translation and the tribalism that we now experience with translations. One of our points is that the authoritative text is not the translation but the original languages. (This is not denying the authority of God or the Holy Spirit, but instead the smaller point: when translating, we don’t pronounce the translation the authority but always defer to the original. Always.)

Another point being made in the recent dustup about the TNIV and the NIV (and the NIVI) has to do with “translation theory.” I hear it like this all the time: I prefer “dynamic equivalence” (functional equivalence) or I prefer “formal equivalence.” Sometimes it gets expressed by such words as “paraphrase” or “literal” and sometimes by “bad” and “good.” Or “loose” and “tight.” 
I’d like to contend today that most words are translated in all Bible translations with formal equivalence and that some words are translated more or less in a dynamic, or functional way. In other words, there isn’t really a radical commitment to dynamic equivalence — as if one can find some better way in English to the original languages “and” or “but” or “the” or “God.” Or a radical commitment to “formal equivalence,” as if the Greek word order can be maintained in English and make sense, though at times the NASB gave that a try (much to the consternation of English readers). No one translates “God’s nostrils got bigger” (formal equivalence) but we translate “God became angry.” There are some expressions that can’t be translated woodenly unless one prefers not to be understood. (See Dan Wallace.)
The result of this is that all translations are on a spectrum of more or less formal and more ore less dynamic. Now one more complication: each translation will vary for individual words or phrases or clauses

The most important book to read (so far as I know) for translation theory is the old book by Eugene Nida, The Theory and Practice of Translation
, and I used to teach this book every year. The issue here is clear: there is an original text and there is a “receptor” language (English). It is the translator’s intent to take the original text and make it the receptor language in a way that is as “equivalent” as possible. The issue has to do with which one gains prominence when decision time comes? Everyone strives for “equivalence.” The TNIV people don’t think they are paraphrasing; they are translating the original text accurately into modern English.

Trans.jpgFormal equivalence tends to move in the direction of “identity” — the idea that one can translate as simply as possible in a way that is as close to “identical” as one language can be to another. “And” becomes “and” and “gird up the loins of your mind” becomes “gird up the loins of your mind.” The more dynamic approach is as concerned with a modern reader being provoked to the same response as the original language provoked in the original writer/listener/reader. So, the spectrum moves from identical text to receptor’s response/understanding. The focus moves from “text in its original context” to “text in its modern context.” In one the emphasis is on rendering a text in as identical fashion as possible while the other is on rendering a text so that obstacles are removed to understanding. And another point: preachers and teachers, whether they like the formal or not, always explain the text in dynamic ways. All of this is connected to purpose of both translator and reader — which I’ll address in another post.

It is not to be forgotten that the NT authors more often than not quote the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) from its Greek translations (called Septuagint), and those translations were as dynamic at times as we see in modern dynamic translations — making it fairly obvious that use of dynamic translation is already at work in the New Testament we are now reading.
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  • RJS

    Well — NASB bashing? A tribe under attack.
    Good points here about the philosophy of translation. There is room today for a variety of translations meeting slightly different purposes. I prefer a translation that uses little dynamic equivalence (although footnotes giving dynamic equivalence for obscure expression are always good).
    Your post made me wonder why … and I think it is because a more literal translation helps me put myself into the framework of the author and original audience better than a dynamic translation. This keeps front and center the importance of wrestling with the text, considering the “alien” context, and moving it into application today.

  • Scot,
    And it’s not just the word-to-word, idiom-to-idiom process that matters (as your post makes so clear), but those words, idioms, sentences within a historical/cultural setting. For example, the old KJV phrase in James 1 “superfluidity of naughtiness” meant something to King James’ subjects that misses us today. Here, you, Ben Witherington III, NT Wright and many others lift the exegetical enterprise to higher, broader levels. I sometimes feel the nitpicking going on regarding English translations are like flies around a deliciously prepared Italian meal 🙂

  • As I read the post, something came to mind that I had heard this past week. I wish I could remember what and who, but I think it was an Orthodox priest. It captured a tension or a caution when we speak about our Holy Scriptures that I think we need to always keep in mind.
    First, I will say that it’s always important to refer back to the texts in the original language when translating. Translations of translations inevitably lose ever more coherence. Further, even formal equivalence is dynamic as Scot points out. Other than for the simplest and most concrete words, there are almost never fully equivalent words in different languages. The culture and experience of the people shape languages such that even on a one-to-one basis words rarely carry precisely the same meaning. In translation, there is no such thing as a strict equivalence. And the further removed another culture is, the more dynamic even the word for word (never mind idea by idea) translation becomes.
    However, it’s important, I think, to keep in mind that we are not Muslim and the Bible is not the Qur’an. It is a teaching of Islam that the Qur’an can only be read in Arabic. A translation of the Qur’an is not the true Qur’an itself, but rather a commentary on it. (Not sure that “commentary” is the right word, but it’s the best one I can come up with at the moment.) The Qur’an exists only in its original Arabic language, never in translation.
    That is not and has never been the Christian perspective. We have always believed that the Holy Scriptures can be translated and, in translation, remain just as much the Holy Scriptures as the original text. Whether the translation is Latin, or Slavonic, or Aleut, or English, we do believe the result is actually Holy Scripture (even when a written form of the language has to be created by the translator) not something less than the original.
    I think that also says something about where we truly place authority, but that’s a different topic.

  • Bob Smallman

    I don’t know if I have a horse in this race or not, but one of the minor irritations I face in doing group Bible studies is the tendency of some translations to “flatten” and even ignore some of the beautiful metaphors in the text in the interests of “clarity.” Yes, I understand that’s what the text means, but don’t we lose some of the beauty of the Bible as a literary production when we do that? I think this particularly true in some of the more poetic sections of the prophets and wisdom literature. Part of the “meaning” of a passage, it seems to me, grows out of its literary style; and at least some of the more paraphastic translations seem to miss that.

  • billy v

    “And another point: preachers and teachers, whether they like the formal or not, always explain the text in dynamic ways.”
    And this is why I think that many preachers prefer formal equivalence, it gives them built in illustrations.
    Great series

  • Bob in #4,
    “one of the minor irritations I face in doing group Bible studies is the tendency of some translations to “flatten” and even ignore some of the beautiful metaphors in the text in the interests of “clarity.” Yes, I understand that’s what the text means, but don’t we lose some of the beauty of the Bible as a literary production when we do that?”
    This is a fair concern. But just like modern poetry, if it isn’t understood, all that flowery, beautiful language is meaningless. Sometimes when the poetic language is the same as the “common” one, this is intentional, and then it’s simply a matter of “working” to understand what the poet was getting at, but one has to understand the language first, and work on retaining the literary style only secondary, if one is truly to appreciate that literary style at all.
    If nothing else, this example is why it’s good to have multiple English versions available. One translation may do an excellent job of retaining “the beauty of the Bible as a literary production,” while another communicates more clearly what the words meant in the first place. We need both.

  • Regarding: The focus moves from “text in its original context” [in formal equivalence translations] to “text in its modern context” [in dynamic appraoches].
    I think this is a false dichotomy. For example, a formal-equivalence translation that takes a common Greek expression and turns it into bizarre English captures neither the text in its original context (it was never bizarre) nor in its modern context.

  • Scot:
    I do prefer it, however, when ambiguous constructions are left ambiguous. The HCSB on Romans 11:15 seems to me a minor crime (note how it contradicts their own translation of 11:2). RSV, ESV, and NET don’t make that mistake.
    Derek Leman

  • RJS

    Interesting example Derek.
    Other translations commit similar “minor crimes” at times (ESV in Romans 16:7 as an example). I agree about leaving ambiguous constructions ambiguous. I made such a point on an earlier post in this series and another commenter with expertise in translation noted that ambiguity in the text was almost never intended by the author and thus we should be searching for clarity of meaning and using it in translation.
    But I think that at times the temptation to push our prejudice on the text means that it would be better to leave the ambiguity in the translation. Then we are less likely to be guilty of passing our thoughts off as divine inspiration.

  • All translation involves interpretation. This is something some people in church don’t understand, including some of those who have strong opinions about how the text should be translated.
    Interestingly, it is possible that the most literal translation may not be best. A prof told me once that some missionaries in China feel that translators might have made a mistake by translating the word “dragon” in Revelation literally. It is supposed to convey negative affect but the dragon in Chinese culture is a positive thing. This is a literal word-for-word translation that tends to immediately convey the opposite intended impression.
    I lean more in favor of dynamic equivalence since it seems the goal is to communicate a meaningful message using the target language. I like the example of “superfluity of naughtiness:” we just don’t talk like that. Might as well learn Latin or Greek and read that.
    More literal is sometimes the right tool for the job, though. I am slowly meandering my way through a word study of “walk” in the NT. It is interesting how many passages in the NIV (my preferred) do not make it easy to detect the underlying “walk” metaphor. Eph 2:10 for example says “10For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” This is a fine translation that communicates what the Greek says but it does not help the “walk” metaphor stand out. I suppose this is the case where the more literal NASB, KJV or others would be helpful.
    Going further yet, perhaps it would be helpful to have a translation that transliterates some key words like hesed. There isn’t a perfect English translation for hesed, regardless of whether you prefer dynamic or formal equivalence.
    But for most daily usage, I favor translating similar to how one would say it today. If the reader wants to go deeper, he or she will need to dig into the tools anyway.

  • Anybody who thinks that it is possible to do a word for word translation of Ancient Greek needs to spend some time working in Sophocles. The main reason English versions were at one time able to follow the Greek Text closely is that the English language has been significantly influenced by the older English versions. So up until say 1950 the idioms of bible were part of the working vocabulary of the man on the street. This is probably no longer true.

  • Scot McKnight

    Joel, I’m having a hard time figuring out that comment; what I was trying to say was “text in its original context” (as in the Greek text) and that same text now rendered into a modern context.

  • The focus moves from “text in its original context” to “text in its modern context.”
    Actually, this is what is called transculturation, rather than translation. Translation itself does not move a text to a modern context, rather, it moves a text from one language to another. Translation has been occurring since soon after the original biblical texts were written. We would not now call translations into Syriac or the Latin Vulgate translation into a “modern context.”
    The distinction between transculturation and translation is crucially important because much of the criticism of dynamic equivalence mistakes it for expressing the biblical text in terms of another culture. Examples sometimes criticized (by Lee Ryken, et al.) are biblical metaphors which make no sense translated literally, but whose figurative meaning has been accurately translated in modern Bible versions such as the NIV and TNIV. The main focus of dynamic equivalence (which is largely an outmoded concept among Bible translators themselves) is what is stated in your post, Scot, i.e. that the readers of a translation get the same response to it as did the audience of the original text. The focus is on reader response. Today’s Bible translators focus more on functional equivalence, or closest natural equivalence, i.e. “How do we normally express the meaning of the original text in some other language?” Great care is taken to accurately preserve the function of the words and grammar of the original text.
    Transculturation would be substituting an object in the receptor culture for a different object in the original biblical text, such as referring to Jesus as the “Minnow of God”, rather than “Lamb of God,” where sheep are unknown but fish are a prime source of food. Current Bible translation theory does not smile upon such transculturations. Too much theological information can be lost. It is better to use other solutions, such as borrowing a word from another language, then footnoting some explanation.
    Translation does not change meaning like that. Instead, it produces the meaning of the words of a text in one language through the words and grammar of another language so that the speakers of the second language can understand what was said in the first language.
    All the other points in this good post are well taken, especially talking about degrees of formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence.

  • A good, much newer textbook for Bible translation than Nida’s book is Meaning-Based Translation by missionary Bible translation consultant Mildred Larson:
    Meaning-Based Translation. It would be good for every seminary to have a one year sequence of courses (or at least one intense semester) on Bible translation theory and practice. This would help dispel much of the misinformation circulating today about Bible versions.

  • So up until say 1950 the idioms of bible were part of the working vocabulary of the man on the street.
    True. One of the changes since then is that the vocabulary of the working woman on the street gets to be considered as well! 🙂

  • Scot McKnight

    Wayne, I’m getting some good pushback on this “text in context” comment and I really didn’t mean anything other than “text of that world” into a “language of another world” and didn’t mean “transculturation.” (Though I suspect dynamic dimensions move in that direction at times.
    Anyway, I’ll watch how I say this next time!

  • James

    I couldn’t tell from the short and few reviews of Meaning-Based Translation, whether it’s attempt is at providing the benefits and challenges of formaldynamic tranlation or if it’s really more focussing on one or the other. The title seems to indicate the latter… What’s your take?
    Thanks for more great discussion on this. I certainly appreciate you linking a Wallace article. I both love and despise him for his work on the greek genetive. 🙂 Do you know if Stanley Porter has published anything similar (I couldn’t find one via Google)? As far as I know, those are the two titans of current greek grammar and they sometimes have different takes.
    Overall, I hope that as people read through these discussions, they get a sense of one thing that recurs with great frequency: Top translators and editors of various bibles and with various leanings along the tranlation continuum, consistently suggest that you read multiple tranlsations that represent differnt points along the line.

  • Charlie

    This whole subject of “tribal translations” has been thought-provoking. On a related note, I wonder how much of the seemingly constant barrage of translations is driven by commercialism and marketing. I understand the need to update from time to time, but the current situation seems terribly excessive. Just a thought.