God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

More on Bible Gateway’s new “Pespectives in Translation” Blog

Bible Gateway’s new Perspectives in Translation blog, a joint project with The Gospel Coalition, went live last week with the question “What Makes a Translation Accurate?”

So far, six answers to the question appear on the blog.

Unfortunately, reading the posts feels — at least to me — like joining a debate in the middle. And the conversation is largely a familiar one: which is better, formal or dynamic equivalence? As I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t think that’s a useful way to frame a discussion about Bible translation.

For example, James M. Hamilton, Jr., starts in an interesting direction: What makes a translation accurate is “[i]ts ability to preserve the way that later biblical authors evoke earlier Scripture.” (Surprisingly, he adds by way of elaboration that Moses was the oldest author of the Bible, even though there’s no historical evidence to support a Moses who authored any part of the Bible. To me, this seems like an odd mix of science and myth.)

But after an intriguing opening, Dr. Hamilton returns to familiar ground:

There is, of course, a spectrum of opinion about how best to translate. Those who present a dynamic equivalent may “accurately” communicate the meaning of a particular passage in the language into which the Bible is being translated. But what if the translator did not see a subtle connection the biblical author made to an earlier passage of Scripture?…

At the end he states: “Because the influence of earlier Scripture is so often determinative for the meaning of later Scripture, I prefer more literal translations.”

Similarly, after a general opening (“A translation is accurate if it is able to communicate the thought of the original into another language”), Tremper Longman III defends thought-for-thought translations against an attack that, while common in Bible-translation literature, wasn’t part of the original question:

Languages do not line up with one another in a word-for-word manner, so word-for-word translations are not as accurate as thought-for-thought translations. Of course, this means that the translator will have to make exegetical judgments about the meaning of a passage, but this is of the nature of all translation. Translations are commentaries…

Likewise, Denny Burk starts with a sweeping opening (“A translation is accurate when it faithfully renders the intended meaning of the biblical author into a receptor language”) and then specifically notes the nature of the now-familiar debate:

Biblical scholars differ over what approach to translation best achieves this goal. Those who favor a dynamic or functional equivalence approach argue for thought-for-thought translation. Those who favor a formal equivalence approach argue for word-for-word translation.

These give a flavor of the answers, which sadly seem to offer little new insight, instead treading on familiar (and, in my opinion, unhelpful) old ground.

The six answers on the blog are from Tremper Longman III, professor of biblical studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA; E. Ray Clendenen, associate editor of the HCSB; James M. Hamilton, Jr., associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY; Robert Yarbrough, professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO; George H. Guthrie, professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, TN; and Denny Burk, associate professor of New Testament and dean of Boyce College. Most of these people have also played roles in contributing to published Bible translations.

All of the contributors are men. I don’t usually find myself offended by gender imbalances, because I recognize that sometimes the most qualified people will by happenstance be all of the same gender. But I have to say that seeing six men and no women to represent diversity of opinion strikes me as too narrowly focused.

So in this regard, too, the site seems a little behind the times.

I was also surprised not to see BBB acknowledged in any way.

And Bible Gateway is still working out the technical kinks in the site. The posts are displayed three to a page, but, confusingly, the navigation links offer the reader only “previous posts” versus “older posts.” And from the individual post pages, I could find no way to move from one posting to the next or previous one. Also, when I tried to login to post a comment (yes — you need to create an account with Bible Gateway to join the discussion), I got an error message that “something went wrong.” [Update: Logging in seems to be fixed.]

It’s encouraging to have the combined resources of Bible Gateway and The Gospel Coalition invested in a blog on English Bible translation.

I hope that as the blog matures it will live up to its potential.

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October 31, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, blog review, translation theory | , , , ,

7 Comments »

  1. I do agree that a good translation coheres as intended, with latter scriptures echoing, or harping back to earlier ones. One could elaborate on that more by saying that scriptures often harp back to Ugartic myth, etc. This saying is good. And it is detrimental to non-formally equivalent texts that this “chain reference” often gets broken.

    To me, there are three majorly important translation efforts in the current age (and the NIV is decidedly not one of them)…

    * the NET Bible: because the translators document their work via footnotes. Why did they make this decision? See below! Wow! (and free).

    * the Anchor Bible. Each book is treated with loving care by a distinguished scholar *of that book*. (decidedly not free, but prices for used versions is dropping precipitously).

    * Robert Alter: “Umm.. this is Hebrew literature, k?” (and because he doesn’t buy into “spirit”)! Not even close to free, even used.

    Here’s a very wonderful lecture by Alter:

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 31, 2010 | Reply

  2. The NET Bible may be online and free but that doesn’t make its footnotes necessarily accurate. A good footnote should be more than an opinion unless an opinion is all that can be offered. The footnote on Psalm 139:18 is a case in point. “A reference to the psalmist awaking from sleep makes little, if any, sense contextually.” This is the opinion of the translation team and it is simply an untrue statement as I have explained here.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | October 31, 2010 | Reply

    • Thank you Bob, for that balancing remark. Still, given a “Bible” in a sea of “Bibles” isn’t it refreshing to have the editorial decisions of the translators laid bare?

      Comment by WoundedEgo | October 31, 2010 | Reply

      • editorial decisions laid bare – yes – it is good. Then we can know that there are such decisions / exegetical guesswork. They are unavoidable.

        Comment by Bob MacDonald | October 31, 2010

  3. “All of the contributors are men.”
    And Christian.

    Comment by Elli | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  4. There’s a reason why you don’t see any women commenting. The Gospel Coalition is patriarchal and quite vehement about women in no way shap or form teaching men. I’m sure they would see a woman’s commentary as a form of teaching men. Seems utterly ridiculous. This marriage between Bible Gateway and Gospel Coalition nixes a fair and unbiased presentation of perspectives.

    Comment by P. Day | November 24, 2010 | Reply

  5. I myself believe the best translation will be closer to a word for word translation. Through much bible study, I realize God has hidden meanings in the bible that can only be found through word study, if the translation is not consistent with words, word study becomes impossible and the truth is therefore hidden. However, I understand your point that with different languages are hardly compatible for word to word translation, therein is the problem.

    Comment by Bible Study | January 18, 2011 | Reply


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