Translation for the Tribes

Translation for the Tribes June 5, 2019

What depresses me about Bible translation debates today is tribalism. Some have raised the bar of this conversation to such heights that variation is tantamount to heresy. But let’s have a little fun with the tribalism that does exist, that seems almost inevitable, that does sometimes lead to uncharitable divisiveness, but that can lead us to see ourselves in humorous tones at times.

No one person, and not even a committee, can translate and not have some bias. There is then no unbiased translation though some translations are more committed to closer proximity the original text in its original language.

Translations can also be a window to our heart and theology and preferences. So here goes with a sketch of tribalist translation tendencies. Each of these is partially true but not wholly true, so let’s not reify but have a little fun…

NRSV for progressives, mainliners and Shane Claiborne lovers;
ESV for Reformed complementarians;
HCSB for LifeWay store buying Southern Baptists;
NIV for complementarian evangelicals;
NIV 2011 for peacemakers who are still not for the ESV. (The TNIV, which was for egalitarians, is now taken up its above in the NIV 2011.)
NASB for those who want straight Bible, forget the English;
NLT for generic brand evangelicals;
Amplified for folks who have no idea what translation is but know that if you try enough words one of them will hit pay dirt;
NKJV and KJV for Byzantine manuscript-tree huggers;
The Message for evangelicals looking for a breath of fresh air and seeker sensitive, never-read-a-commentary evangelists who find Peterson’s prose so catchy.
CEB for mainliners who read their Bibles.

Translations are now officially and unofficially connected to tribes, and it is not a little bit humorous and also at times quite sad.

Sometimes it sounds like culture wars, and that is sad.  Here’s my point: the authority is the original text, not the translation. The original texts are in Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). The authoritative text is not in English, regardless of how accurate the translation. No matter which translation you prefer, it is not the authoritative text for determining which translation is best. Yes, we need more to devote more time to study of the original languages. I saw a review recently that compared John Goldingay’s First Testament with the ESV, as if the ESV was the authorized text.

The sweeping conclusion is this: unless you can read the original languages, you should avoid making public pronouncements about which translation is best. Instead, here’s my suggestion: if you don’t know the languages and can’t read them well enough to translate accurately on your own but you want to tell your congregation or your listeners which translate is best, you need to admit it by saying something like this: “On the basis of people I trust to make this decision, the ESV or the TNIV or the NRSV or the NLT is a reliable translation.”

Here’s an example, and it’s a good one. The translations of James 3:1 translate in two ways:

NIV: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers…”
NIV 2011: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers…”
NASB: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren…”
ESV: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers…”
NLT: “Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church…”
TNIV (same NRSV): “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters…”
CEB: “My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers…”

Pretty obvious, isn’t it? NIV and NASB and ESV translate with “brothers” while the NLT and TNIV and CEB have “added” or “clarified” or “included” [women in the audience] by adding “and sisters.” NIV 2011 splits the difference and opts for “fellow believers” (you get to guess on gender). This is not a debate about which of them has a better theology or about which one is more inclusive but about which one is more accurate to the original Greek. The fact is this: the Greek word behind this, adelphos or “brother,” sometimes refers to a congregation of Christians [hence, siblings], including men and women, and sometimes refers only to males (but there is a Greek word for male and James did not use that; gender is not the most important thing in his mind; spiritual kinship is).

Sure, the NLT and the TNIV and CEB are more inclusive, but that’s not quite the point. The point is which one best represents the intent of the original Greek, which has the Greek word adelphos? Unless you know what adelphos means in Greek, in the broad swath of the New Testament’s use of adelphos and how it is used in the Greek-speaking (not to mention Hebrew-reading world) and about how James uses the word adelphos, any judgment is rooted in theology or theory but not in evidence. If you don’t know the Greek, avoid standing in judgment. I’m not trying to be a hard-guy or an elitist, but let’s be honest: only those who know Latin should be talking about which is the “best” translation of Virgil or only those who know Middle High German should be weighing in on the “best” translation of The Nibelungenlied. This isn’t elitist; it’s common sense and intelligent.

We could get into the “intent” of translation, but that’s another post. Our intent today is simple: to press upon everyone that there is a distinction between the text and a translation of the text. The authority is with the former; those who know that text are informed enough to decide about translations.

I’ll tell you what I think here: there is no evidence in James that there were women teachers and that would favor the NIV and NASB and ESV; it is also likely that by “brothers” James is looking at the whole congregation (common enough usage of adelphos in James), favoring the NLT and TNIV and NIV 2011 and CEB. The Greek text has adelphos and the debate should revolve around what that word, in that world and in this context in James, means. [Other things can be discussed too, but my point is not to resolve the issue.] There is insufficient evidence to be dogmatic in this instance. If a translation wants to be “inclusive,” then a little note at the bottom of the text could give readers a tip that “brothers” is another translation.

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.

Formal 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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  • Christ & Cosmos

    As someone who loves the NASB and the NKJV, I find these descriptions pretty hilarious!

    I agree that, in general, if you don’t know the languages then you shouldn’t be proclaiming one translation as “the best.” I know I can’t make the claim – I’ve been to seminary, but I’m hardly a natural at foreign languages, so I don’t think I’m truly qualified. Besides, I have doubts that there is a single “best” one anyway – different translations seem to be good at different things, at least from an English reader’s perspective.

    I do worry, however, that even among those who know the original languages well, there’s still a tendency to play favorites with translations based on the “tribe” to which you belong. Not many Bible professors are going to teach with The Message, that’s true, but students and teachers in mainline seminaries will probably opt for the NRSV, and many in more conservative seminaries will be more likely to use the NIV or the NASB. This isn’t a huge problem – none of these translations are bad – but it does make me wonder to what degree we can trust anyone to be above this kind of tribalism. And that, probably, is another occasion for sadness!

  • Patrick

    Beyond the examples above, you also have the debate about “pistis Christou”. Some of these differences don’t affect how I view the passage that Scot gave above. Pistis Christou debates change the faith’s perspective entirely and it’s always going to be an opinion how we interpret that phrase.

  • My two favorite quotes on this topic come from Klyne Snodgrass… “The translator is a traitor.”

    And…

    “Reading a translation is like kissing your wife through a screen door.”

  • Waverly

    “gender is not the most important thing in his mind; spiritual kinship is” No truer words have been spoken. Interesting that words that were supposed result in kinship are doing the opposite. Which translation is the best? Doesn’t look like any are resulting in Spiritual kinship. Divisions will only grow deeper. Rome is starting to burn.

  • Steve_Yellowknife_Canada

    “Some have raised the bar of this conversation to such heights that variation is tantamount to heresy.” Who exactly?

    Is anyone beyond KJV-onlyists being suggested?

    I have never, in all my reading and internet wandering, encountered anyone outside that group who would rise to that level. Strong preferences, sure. Critiques of other options, perhaps.

  • George Ertel

    The reformed church I belong to previously used the NIV, but when it was revised the church leadership switched to ESV. The pastors explained why they were dropping the former and why the latter was accurate by comparison. Recently the lead pastor cited Rev 13.8, in which the ESV translates apo as “before” to proof-text his assertion on predestination. I wouldn’t say that this church has declared variation from ESV to be tantamount to heresy, but they certainly seem certain the ESV is correct/preferred.

  • If the goal of a translation is to make the content of a text accessible to readers who could not derive that content from the original text (and what other primary goal would a translation have?) then you have to be ok with dynamic equivalence, and the examples raised in the article really make that point clear.

    I remember first running into this in Attic Greek class when translating a phrase that meant, literally, “Go to the crows,” but the phrase was an idiom that meant something along the lines of, “You can go die, or our modern use of, “Go to hell.”

    So, what’s the best translation of that line? Do you translate it more or less formally with the knowledge that your English readers will have no idea that phrase is an idiom and might possibly concoct all sorts of meanings for it? Is that clearer or more faithful to the text than translating it as an idiom contemporary readers would understand?

  • Waverly

    ” but they certainly seem certain the ESV is correct/preferred.” Of course, that translation is preferred because it reinforces the doctrine of predestination and complementarianism. Your translation is going to be worded to defend your pillars of faith, that’s a given. At the end of the day everything is tribalism defined by doctrine in today’s Christianity and not about transformation into his likeness. Everyone is crossing their fingers hoping/believing they chose correctly and when Jesus returns he will pick them as his true followers.

  • Aaron Lage

    Speaking of tribes, surprised you made no reference to the Pope’s recent announcement (last month I think?) of a fundamental change in the translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Francis has rejected the traditional language “lead us not into temptation,” replacing it with “do not let us fall into temptation.” Definitely goes against the original Greek.

  • John

    And what is more fascinating is the amount of female pastors, students,and/or Bible study teachers that would never embrace complementarianism but somehow they were convinced that the ESV is the best possible translation. Sometimes tribalism crosses preferences for translation just based on the “celebrity” who happens to use that translation.

  • Patrick Coleman

    OK, not many Evangelicals pay attention to it, but the Catholic NAB Revised Edition should be included in discussions like this one. For James 3:1, it has “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers…” Funny, I thought the revised edition had become more inclusive, but not here.

  • Al Cruise

    based on the “celebrity” who happens to use that translation. That would be my guess as well.

  • Rudy Schellekens

    “I’ll tell you what I think here: there is no evidence in James that there were women teachers and that would favor the…”

    Interesting what I get from what you write: That the “teachers” are those in the assembly of the believers. Priscilla was a teacher, as were some of the women named in Romans 16… But not in the assemblies, butin settings with non-believers. Apart from that, the “older women are to ‘teach’ the younger women…” still has the same warning… Teachers are judged differently, in a way

  • George Ertel

    I agree — I said — that’s why the church preferred ESV. On the other hand, my preference for NASB stems from having been told and having become convinced that the so-called word-for-word translation was superior. I’ve stayed with NASB more by default that by doctrinal compatibility.

  • Joris Heise

    as does the “daily” bread for “epiousion”–but we doing it at least since the Vulgate.

  • Joris Heise

    Once a seminary teacher, I urged ordained folks to have five bibles, and use ’em all–the KJV, the (annotated) Jerusalem bible, the RSV, the NAB, and then their particular traditional bible. 1) But I fault this article not so much for a fault, as a reminder that there is a “third step”–1) the original languages 2) the translation 3) the belies, principles, prejudices and expectations of a recipient-reader. 2) I suspect that within the next 100 years or so, it will dawn on people that the effort at formal/word-for-word/phrase-for-phrase “translation” so well dones in the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the King James will yield more and more to what you refer to as dynamic, and I would use the term “user-friendly” especially as regards English which has such a vast and unused vocabulary which can use different expression for identical Hebrew or Greek words–something,incidentally, the brilliant scholars of the King James Version were not afraid to do. and 3) I would once again urge all preachers, listeners, readers and believers to have the Spirit of the Thing, and be aware of “mythic” writing and the mindset of the various parts of the ancient world. [I have a gigantic tome of scholarship about the fluctuations and contradictions people had as to what the “messiah” meant to people around the era of Jesus. It is no wonder the Apostles kept getting it wrong, along with those who crucified Jesus and a few others.]

  • scotmcknight

    Saw it after writing this post… but the translation of one verse does not a translation make.

  • JohnM

    Got a kick out of the Amplified sketch. Not my translation, but hey, that approach has some merit 😉

  • Jim West

    Fantastic post. Thanks for doing it.

  • Great post! I find the efforts to be gender neutral in translations amusing because the entire struggle is still going on in the English language itself. When the NIV tried it too soon they rapidly saw the (economic) light and continued with the 1984 version for another decade or so. Being on the cutting edge can be risky!

  • That is a FABULOUS quote (the kissing one). I love Snodgrass. Do you know the source for that quote?

  • I don’t believe it’s in any book. Klyne would say both of those in class. I went to North Park seminary and took 4 or 5 courses with Klyne. I used a bunch of my electives on him, lol.

  • That’s fantastic. I would love to take a class with him. His parable book is one of the best resources on my bookshelves.

  • huzonfurst

    How about you just leave these people alone instead of pushing such barking nonsense on them!

  • PhillipWynn

    I would add the Hebrew Study Bible (for the Tanakh only, of course).

  • billwald

    Like it or not, I am obligated by careful readings of many translations and Christian theology to observe that God invented and implemented tribalism at the Tower Incident.

  • Susan Steinkraus

    Very strange that a supposedly all-knowing deity wouldn’t anticipate the problems caused by only revealing him/itself in one language on fragile papyrus or parchment. And then not take care to preserve the originals. And then never reveal his/its thoughts again to the scribes trying to copy the originals so that they would get it right, or to translators hundreds of years later so that they would get the translation right. Such a careless (or inept?) god.

  • AntithiChrist

    Humans being tribal by nature, I’d think the whole spiritual tribalism business got started a good deal earlier than the fight over whose English version is closest to Jehovah’s original, non-existent faxes from heaven. The My-Bible’s-The-Best is just a recent flavor of the never ending my-understanding-of-god-is-better-than-your-understanding-of-god battles.

    If only there were a god competent and far-seeing enough to speak definitively and conclusively to this issue, once and for all.

    Then none of us godfull sorts would be in this contentious, potentially h ell-bound mess.

    Meanwhile, let’s all just hope we didn’t pick one of the many “lesser” versions to pin our faith upon.

  • kzarley

    Super post, Scot.

  • ProchDolor

    I’d also suggest checking out Lawrence Venuti’s *The Translator’s Invisibility*, not to mention, of course Augustine of Hippo’s *de Doctrina Christiana*.

  • Thela Ginjeet

    I feel so sorry for all those Christian converts in distant lands who for centuries had the Bible translated into their own language so they too could read God’s word for themselves….They were never told that God is too impotent to reveal himself to them in the Gospel of his son in any language except in the original Hebrew and Greek.

    Unless you’re praying in the name “Yeshua,” your prayers are not heard because the English “Jesus” doesn’t cut it.

    God…if he had any gumption, should not have broken up languages at the Tower of Babel.

    Muslim clerics insist that the Quran can only be rightly understood in the original language Arabic and all translations are…for all intents and purposes…of the devil. Is this what we’re devolving into?

    I don’t think we’re being shortchanged. God works perfectly through the imperfections of human beings. The outcome of history is not in question…God wins. His purposes are accomplished. His promises fulfilled.

  • peepsqueek

    God is just a concept, not a real person that controls the universe. And we really do not know very much about the real Jesus, mostly just the mythical accounts. The Gospels were not written in Jesus time, nor in his town, nor in the semitic language he would have used to talked to his people. Jesus never wrote anything down in his lifetime that we can document.

    New World Encyclopedia: “Population of Nazareth estimates from 2000 years ago, range from its being a small village of a few dozen persons to a town of up to 2,000. The Galilean city of Sepphoris, about five miles north of Nazareth, was undergoing major reconstruction in the early first century C.E. under Herod Antipas, and many scholars now think that Nazareth may have functioned as a kind of suburb, where the families of Sepphoris workmen would have lived. Some historians, however, argue that the absence of textual references to Nazareth in Jewish sources suggest that a [town] called “Nazareth” did not truly exist in Jesus’ day.[2] In ancient Jewish sources Nazareth is first mentioned in the third century C.E.”

  • Thela Ginjeet

    ”God is just a concept, not a real person that controls the universe.”

    I appreciate the fact that you have an “opinion” on the
    matter.

    However, concerning the reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospels compared to other ancient documents, I would refer you to a superlative work that any fair-minded reasonable truth seeker would want to consider. I think Richard Bauckham in his scholarly study entitled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Eerdmans, 2006, has convincingly exposed arguments such as those by Karen Armstrong, et al., which seem to be the premise behind your comment, as seriously flawed.

    If you have the time check out Tim Keller’s exposition of
    Luke 1:1-4 and 24:13-32…From his series “The Trouble with Christianity: Why its so Hard to Believe it.” He addresses what you seem to be questioning.

    https://youtu.be/lJ03Qu0YL7g (38:55)

    Regards.

  • peepsqueek

    All fantasy and fiction! There is evidence that tribalism existed in pre-historic times. Were the first two humans, Adam and Eve, Neanderthal man or modern African man? We have absolute scientific DNA evidence that they roamed the earth at the same time. DNA is an accepted science all over the world, and their is no more guesswork involved.

  • John Gills

    I just finished rereading “Misquoting Jesus : the story behind who changed the bible and why” by Bart Ehrman and highly recommend it.