God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How (Not To) Talk About Translation

A recent post by Nick Norelli cites Cicero, who translated not “word for word, but [by preserving] the character and energy of the language throughout.”

A response by John C. Poirier suggests that the NIV’s “dynamic translation” (his scare quotes) of 1 Cor 12:28 misses the point when it translates dunamis as “those who do miracles.”

The debate should sound familiar: Is word-for-word translation good?

My point here is to suggest that debates about theories should be about the the theories themselves, not particular applications of the theory. Maybe the NIV is right. Maybe not. But that really has no bearing on Cicero, or on Nick’s point in citing him.*

There are translation mistakes in the ESV. But that shouldn’t be how we judge the merit of “essentially literal” translation. There are mistakes in the NIV, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that their philosophy is wrong.

I think the better approach is to decide on our criteria for translation. Then we can see which translations best meet those criteria.

(*)For the record, I’m citing Nick citing The New Testament in Antiquity citing Cicero, in translation, of course.


September 11, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , ,


  1. Joel: Well said. I alluded to this in response to John. If the translation philosophy of a given translation is to convey the meaning of the text rather than simply the form then we’ll have to turn to the exegesis of the translators and decide whether or not their exegetical decisions were correct. It’s already a given that they’re not going to be slaves to the form if the form doesn’t necessarily best convey the meaning.

    Comment by Nick Norelli | September 11, 2009

  2. It’s already a given that they’re not going to be slaves to the form if the form doesn’t necessarily best convey the meaning.

    I think this is part of the confusion of some translators and readers. From what I can tell, they seem to think that mimicking the form is capturing the meaning.

    Comment by Joel | September 11, 2009

  3. Joel, thanks for the post. I have been thinking lately about purpose, “what purpose does the translation serve”? Which I think that is what you mean as well when you say “…which translation best meet those criteria.”

    When seeking clarity, and meaning I will refer to the NLT, when seeking an essentially literal understanding I’ll use the ESV, NASB, or NRSV. For anything in between I use the TNIV (NET, HCSB as well), which is my primary bible. They all help me to better understand what I am reading. And since I am not a Greek expert nor have any desire to be one, I consider it a privilege to have these English bibles at my disposal.

    Comment by Robert Jimenez | September 11, 2009

  4. You’ve visited me a few times so I should return the favor.

    John C. Poirier said,

    “Translations following the Nida/Louw philosophy are essentially exiling the reader from the actual wording of the text.”

    A question that comes to mind is, do we have the original and exact words the authors used? Also, a lack of knowing Hebrew and Gk. exiles the reader. Also, as you pointed out an incomplete knowledge can sometimes be even worse.

    I once had a Muslim explain to me how the text of the Qur’an was given, alluding to being “perfect”. He used an example of downloading something onto the computer. He used that analogy comparing how the text of the Qur’an came to their Prophet, Muhammad. It was downloaded directly from Allah.

    So I guess to the essentially literal Christian translator, it appears to me they think they’re downloading the text into English.

    My apologies if I wasn’t clear.

    Comment by A.Admin | September 13, 2009

  5. Thanks for stopping by.

    A question that comes to mind is, do we have the original and exact words the authors used?

    I doubt it, and when we don’t there are two approaches. One is that the text we have, by definition, is the “right” text. The other is that we have a two-fold task, first of uncovering the original, and then of interpreting/translating it.

    The classic example is Deut 31:1, which follows one of Moses’s great speeches.

    The Hebrew text, as we have it now, reads, “Moses went (vayelech) and spoke….” But the obvious question is where Moses went, seeing as he just finishing speaking and then started speaking to the same people again. Some translations (JPS, for example) guess that it could have been a Hebrew expression, similar to, “you had to go [and open your big mouth].”

    But the LXX has “Moses finished speaking…” So do the DSS. And, the Hebrew for “went” is vav-yud-lamed-kaf, while the Hebrew for “finished” is vav-yud-kaf-lamed, with the last two letters reversed.

    In other words, the Hebrew is almost certainly a scribal error (a.k.a “typo”).

    Comment by Joel | September 13, 2009

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