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.

October 31, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, blog review, translation theory | , , , , | 7 Comments

Always Pick On The Correct Idiom

A classic bit of self-contradictory writing advice goes back to William Safire in the 1970s: “Always pick on the correct idiom.” In English, “pick on” means to annoy, and the right phrasing here is “pick” (which means “choose”).

What makes his example work is that the meaning of “pick on” doesn’t come from the meanings of “pick” and “on.” More generally, phrases, like words, are not the sum of their parts. (I have more here.)

Thinking otherwise is a widespread error in translation. This gaff usually comes up in the context of word-for-word translations that make no sense. In other words, sometimes the words of the original Hebrew or Greek suggest nonsense in English, and that nonsense becomes the accepted translation.

But sometimes the words of the Hebrew or Greek suggest an idiom in English. In those cases, rather than a nonsensical translation, we find a translation that is idiomatic but wrong. This sort of wrong translation is particularly difficult for lay readers to detect because — unlike the nonsense translations — there is no red flag.

What got me thinking about this is a translation in the CEB — highlighted by Wayne in a recent post — that reads, “Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up…” (Hebrews 12:1, Wayne’s emphasis).

The English expression “throw off any extra baggage” is without doubt more idiomatic than, for example, than the ESV: “let us also lay aside every weight.”

In English, “baggage” metaphorically means “emotional background,” and “extra baggage” (or “excess baggage”) means “destructive emotional background.” So the CEB’s English means “let us try to rid ourselves of our destructive emotional background and get rid of sin.” The image is that sin is like destructive emotional background.

Unfortunately, this is not what Hebrews 12:1 means. The image there is not of complicating emotions, but rather more directly of a weight that makes it difficult to proceed quickly. Indeed, the second half of Hebrews 12:1 refers to “the race that is set before us.” By shedding the “weight,” we are are better able to “run the race.”

Furthermore, “sin” itself was seen as a weight, a burden to be borne. (For more, take a look at Anderson’s wonderful book Sin: A History, or start with my review.)

So the imagery in Hebrews 12:1 is of better enduring a race without weights such as sin. By contrast, the imagery in the CEB translation is of discarding destructive emotions.

To look at it another way, it seems to me that Hebrews 12:1 is about a better way of going where we are already headed, while the CEB’s translation is about going in a different direction.

More generally, I think it’s important to note that an idiomatic English phrase that copies the original Hebrew or Greek words is just as likely to be wrong as a non-idiomatic one.

What other examples of this sort of error have you noticed?

September 22, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

All in All Not Much of a Conversation

All in All

Dannii at BBB has a post about “all in all” as a translation for panta en pasin in 1 Corinthians 15:28. The full verse is (NRSV):

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

I think this is an excellent demonstration both of what can go wrong in Bible translation and how hard it can be to talk about Bible-translation issues.

Dannii read “all in all” and “almost made the mistake of thinking the Bible taught pantheism.” Therefore, for Dannii, the NLT’s “[God] will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere” is “a much better translation.”

In a comment, Marshall Massey replies that, “Personally, I’d rather have a mechanically literal translation of this verse than a translation ‘corrected’ to fit someone’s preconceived notions of what the Bible can and cannot teach. If a verse appears to teach pantheism, then let the readers wrestle with that fact!”

Another comment agrees: “Others are saying it better than me, but I’ll weigh in against this theological filtering.”

Gary Simmons then suggests that modern audiences are “less capable of interpretation” than Paul’s audience and “[i]f our audience is less capable of working through interpretation, then clarity becomes a prominent issue.” So a translator has to take obscure Greek and clarify it in translation.

Peter Kirk notes that “all in all” isn’t a literal translation at all, because “it misses the significant fact that in Greek both ‘all’s are plural, and the first is neuter, whereas the second could be any gender.”

John Hobbins then raises the issue of consistency: “It also makes sense to translate a neologism [such as panta en pasin] in the same way across all of its occurrences,” suggesting that the “ESV among recent translations is the way to go. It’s as simple as that.”

Four Conversations

At this point, we have four conversations going on:

1. What did the Greek mean?

2. How do we judge the success of a translation?

3. Which English best applies the right answer to (2) to the right answer to (1)?

4. Which published translation best represents the right answer to (3)?

(J.K. Gayle rightly notes three of these, in a different order: “1. the Greek; 2. the English; and 3. what translation means and does.”)

I think one common source of frustration is when people appear to be engaged in dialog but in fact they are having different conversations.

For example, Marshall pits literal translations against translations that are corrected. For him, this is a conversation about the second question: he prefers accuracy over emended theology. But for me, this is a combination of the 1st question and the 3rd. I agree that accuracy is important, but I don’t think that “all in all” accurately represents the Greek. So even though I disagree with Marshall’s conclusion that “all in all” is a good translation, fundamentally, at least on this, I agree with him.

Dannii seems primarily to address the third question, without first having answered the first and the second (but with the caveat: “I won’t say the NLT is necessarily correct, but at least they tried.”).

Peter is apparently addressing question 3 (“is this really a literal translation?”), though I don’t believe that he is in favor of literal translations in the first place.

Gary’s point concerns the second question.

John seems to address the second and fourth questions. I agree with John that consistency is important, though I disagree that the ESV achieves it. The same Greek phrase appears in 1 Corinthians 12:6, but there the ESV translates, “all in everyone.” (I don’t know of any translation that offers consistency here.)


I think this expanded view of what’s going on is important for two reasons:

1. This is typical of how Bible translations are debated.

2. When we aren’t clear about which question we’re addressing, fundamental agreement (e.g., “a translation should be accurate”) ends up looking like disagreement.

April 7, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 9 Comments