Scripture, Pt. 4 — Translation Theory

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…. [2 Timothy 3:16, ESV]1

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,

for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the the Holy Spirit spoke from God. [2 Peter 1:20-21, NASB]

There is an old Italian proverb, Tradurre e Tradire, which translated says: “Translation is treason.”  As the saying goes, those involved in translation commit treason on three counts:  [1] against the author, because they diminish the author’s original intent; [2] against the reader, because they impose the translator’s interpretation on the text;  and [3] as Gregory Rabassa notes, against the translator himself, who must sometimes sacrifice a preferred rendering “in favor of some pedestrian norm in fear of betraying the task we were set to do.”2

James noted:  My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.  [James 3:1]

We are faced today with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Bible translations.  If I just count translations with a perceived or claimed evangelical theological slant, there have been 15 major translations in the past 50 years.  That is not including translations with a decidedly or perceived liberal or other non-evangelical slant.

The main thing which distinguishes each translation from the others has to do with the theory of translation being followed.

Basically, there are three basic types of translations.  The first type follows a theory of translation called “literal [or formal] equivalence.”  Commonly this is caricatured by opponents of the theory as being “word-for-word” translation.  As much as possible, translators working within this framework strive to translate from a source language into a receptor language while retaining as much as possible the grammatical forms of the source language.  Proponents of this theory also describe it using such terms as “complete equivalence” [James Price, OT editor of the NKJV].

The second type follows a translation theory which is called “dynamic [or functional] equivalence.”  Those who follow this theory attempt to communicate “thought-for-thought” with more attention being given to the forms and meanings in the intended receptor language than to the source language.

The third type does not follow a translation at all, but is called paraphrase. Paraphrases tend to be idiosyncratic renderings of the text according to individual perceptions of what the text “means” to the one making the paraphrase rather than what the text actually says.

So, taking for example such contemporary translations as: the New American Standard Bible [NASB], the New King James Version [NKJV], the New International Version [NIV], the English Standard Version [ESV], the New Living Translation [NLT], and the Holman Christian Standard Bible [HCSB], and ranking them from the most formally equivalent to the most functionally equivalent, I would probably rank them as follows: NASB, NKJV, ESV, HCSB, NIV, NLT.

It is important to note that I do not consider any of these to be paraphrases.  The only paraphrases currently being published are J.B. Phillips’ The New Testament in Modern English, and Eugene Peterson’s The Message.  As such, paraphrases are not useful in the least for evaluating what the text actually says.  Paraphrases are only useful as commentary–to show what the text means to the one who made the paraphrase.

It is also critical to note that even though I have ranked these on a continuum of most formally equivalent [word-for-word] to most functionally equivalent [thought-for-thought], no translation is purely word-for-word or thought-for-thought.  Even the most formally equivalent translation listed here, the NASB, has elements of functional equivalence, while the most functionally equivalent, the NLT, has elements of formal equivalence.

The crucial issue which faces translation is which theory is most consistent with the doctrine of plenary [full or complete], verbal inspiration of Scripture?  If we accept the doctrine that every word in the autographa was superintended by God, then it logically follows, that the grammatical structure of Scripture was superintended as well.  That being the case, a translation which orients itself more toward the principles of dynamic equivalence, is at the very least, logically absurd if the translators claim they believe in plenary inspiration.  And if this can be said of dynamic equivalence, then paraphrase is not merely absurdity, it becomes a profaning of the word of God which borders on blasphemy.

While I realize such statements may be considered strongly worded, please consider this: in languages such as Greek and Hebrew, the words may have varying shades of meaning depending upon the grammatical form used and the context in which it is used.  As an example which I shall look at in an upcoming blog, a preposition-noun construction in the Greek which uses the dative case carries an entirely different meaning than a preposition-noun construction in the accusative or genitive case.  [See my blog The Mystery of Junia/s for this discussion on how the difference in case affects the translation.]  In order to translate the construction accurately, one must attend not only to the words, but the grammar in the source language as well.  Translators who orient themselves in the direction of “dynamic equivalence” ignore the grammar of the source language with the blithe delusion that, as long as they communicate the basic “thought,” their efforts must be pleasing to God.  Moreover, many of the translations put forth in the name of “dynamic equivalence” distort and twist the true meaning of Scripture by ignoring the grammatical structures and syntax in the source language.

This is probably the reason I never felt attracted to Bible study when I first became a Christian and everyone was trying to foist on me such “translations/paraphrases” as Good News for Modern Man and The Living Bible. What fired my heart for Bible study was when someone introduced me to the New American Standard Bible, which was probably the one contemporary translation at the time [forty years ago] which was directed towards formal equivalence.

To demonstrate how grammar matters and the translational approach affects the meaning, let’s look at a few examples comparing a formal equivalent approach with a dynamic equivalent approach.

Matthew 18:18: The best translation is found in the NASB, 1995 update, which renders the verse as:   “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth, shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” The NKJV renders this: “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The ESV renders the passage: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The NLT renders the passage: “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.”

In this passage, there are two translational issues.  The first is that the verbs deo [“bind” or “forbid”] and luo [“loose” or “permit”] in the Greek use the perfect passive participle.  As such the verb is a paraphrastic construction used to convey an imperative sense to such declarations.  The second issue is that this construction is in the future aspect which is punctiliar in nature, in other words, this is NOT indicative of sequential action, as if to say the apostles would make a determination [such as in Acts 15:19-20, cf. 15:28-29] and God would then simply rubber-stamp His approval after the fact.  Instead, the future punctiliar aspect denotes the emphatic nature of the binding and loosing as having been determined beforehand by God, with the apostles making that predetermined will known.

As it is, only the NASB translators rendered the verb in a manner which most nearly conveys its full meaning.  While the ESV translators attempted to maintain the emphatic aspect of the verbs, they missed the punctiliar aspect of referring to an action already completed. The NKJV translators, while missing the punctiliar and emphatic aspects of the verb, at least footnoted the punctiliar aspect for the identical construction in Matthew 16:19, but they did not do so here.

1 Thessalonians 4:3-8:  This passage is another good test passage to determine how a more formal equivalent translation such as the NKJV or NASB handles certain issues compared to a dynamic equivalent translation.  In verse 3, for example, the noun “sanctification” is rendered as an adjective by the NIV and NLT.

In verse 4, the verb eidenai [from the stem oida], is properly rendered “should know” in the NKJV [as an optative verb suggesting an imperative], with a punctiliar aspect of being something already accomplished. The NIV renders it as “should learn,” an incorrect translation at best since Paul is talking about something the church in Thessalonica has already been taught.  The NIV rendering also ignores the punctiliar aspect by inferring that the learning should be an ongoing process since what the believers should learn could be subject to change.  The NLT goes even further away from the proper meaning and renders it as “will control.”  The nouns properly rendered as “sanctification” and “honor” in the NKJV and NASB are both rendered as adjectives in the NIV.

In verse 5, there is a dative construction pathei epithumias, which the NKJV renders most nearly correctly as “passion of lust,” while again, the NIV renders the noun for “passion” as an adjectival “passionate.”  The NKJV rendering correctly recognizes the sin of lust as being the underlying motive/causation which drives the passions.  The NIV rendering on the other hand sees the emotional state as being the underlying motivation for the sin.  The rendering of the phrase in the NKJV and NASB, on the other hand, rightly show that the passion proceeds from lust.  In medical terms, the NIV is mistakenly viewing the symptom [“passion”] for the illness [“lust”]–suggesting that the outward sin of lust is the fruit of the inward sin of passion when the phrasing in the Greek shows that it is really the opposite–that the inward sin is lust and when it bears fruit it drives our outward passions.  The translation used in the NIV also suggests that lusting is acceptable, as long as one does not do it “passionately.”  In other words, the translation offered in the NIV totally negates the teaching of Christ in such passages as Matthew 4:21-30 and Matthew 15:17-20.

In verse 6, the verb rendered as “defraud,” in the NKJV and NASB, pointing to a specific type of sin, is muted by the NIV to a rather vague “wrong.”  Of course, no believer wants to commit any wrong against another believer, but the Greek refers to a specific act being wrong and the NIV, through poor translation, diminishes that impact.  In the same verse, the noun rendered as “avenger” in the NKJV and NASB is rendered as a verb “will punish” in the NIV.

Thus, a defective theory of translation [dynamic or functional equivalence] followed by the translators who produced the NIV and the NLT leads to systematic misuse and abuse of the grammar of the original text, and the final result is not clarity, but a defective translation which breeds misunderstanding and misapplication.

Another clear example of this type of abuse is found in Acts 2:40, which reads in the NASB: “And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’ ”  The voice of the verb is crucial, because Peter has just given a sermon explaining how Christ was crucified according to the plan of God to accomplish salvation.  The verb is a passive verb, which means the subjects of the verb must be acted upon by an agency outside of themselves.  Dynamic equivalent translations such as the NIV, NLT, and even the supposedly more literal ESV all transform the passive verb into a middle or reflexive voice and render it as “Save yourselves.”  While changing the meaning of the passage to one which promotes a Pelagian view of salvation might be expected from translations such as the NIV and NLT, which are oriented more towards a Wesleyan-Arminian view of salvation called semi-Pelagianism, it is shocking to see such coming from a translation like the ESV, which supposedly was translated by those holding reformed theological views with respect to soteriology.  [For the record, the NKJV and HCSB also translate the verb as a passive.]

If anything, translations made according to the principles of dynamic equivalence, in their misguided zeal to translate “thought-for-thought,” add to the word of God what should be considered as commentary and not translation.  An example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 7:36.  In the NKJV, this passage reads:  But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he wishes.  He does not sin:  let them marry. This is a pretty straightforward rendering of the Greek word parthenos.  This same rendering is adopted in the HCSB.  The NASB adds a word which is interpretive and renders it as “virgin daughter.”  The NIV renders it as “the virgin he is engaged to,” which is not only grammatically incorrect English [as in, it is not proper to end a clause or phrase with a preposition], but also an interpretation being imposed on the text by the translators.  The ESV [rendering the word as “betrothed”] and the NLT [“fiancee”] are equally irresponsible in this regard. In part, this is due to the propensity of dynamic equivalent translations to ignore voice-tense-mood-aspect of verbs along with the relationship of those verbs to their subjects and objects.  Specifically, this has to do with the verb gamizo which appears twice in v. 38. The verb is different from the verb gameo, which means to take in marriage.  The verb gamizo means to give in marriage.  A man does not give his betrothed in marriage, but a father does give his daughter.

Yet another manifestation in which the theory of “dynamic/functional equivalence” is an explicit denial of the inspiration and authority of Scripture is to be found in the comparatively recent fad of “gender neutrality” in translation.  “Gender neutrality” is the idea that humanity is perceived as devaluing women, and that part of this devaluing is accomplished through the use of the generic masculine when referring to groups of people or to individuals who are not specified as to gender.  There is an inferred indictment against Christianity itself that the Church has been an active agent in the repression and devaluing of women because of the language of Scripture and the only way to change the Church is to change the Scripture.

This move towards “gender neutrality” is to suggest that either [1] God erred in using the generic masculine, or [2] the language of Scripture is not truly inspired, but is simply an accommodation to cultural norms.  On the other hand, if Scripture is to be recognized as fully inspired according to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and 2 Peter 1:20-21, then the creatures must bow to the superior wisdom of the Creator and recognize that the inspiration does not extend merely to the vocabulary of the text, but to the syntax and grammar of the autographa as well.  God, being the Creator of language, is the Arbiter and Determiner of the rules of grammar, not the whims of men, and if God has chosen to communicate through the generic masculine–which appears to be universal for all languages, then for fallen humanity in its limited wisdom and knowledge to suggest that the rules of language can be bent or changed to accommodate fallen culture is not an act of compassion, but an act of rebellion and blasphemy–translators would do well to remember the tower of Babel and what happens when sinful, depraved humans seek to arrogate for themselves the prerogatives of God.

In the final analysis, while it is possible to glean some understanding of God’s will from such poorly translated Scriptures as found in the NIV, NLT, and ESV, the nuances brought into play by closer attention to the grammar in the source language and trying to translate those nuances are lost. Of course some teachers claim this can be avoided by people using two different translations for study, especially if one is a formal equivalence translation and one is a dynamic equivalence translation. However, people will not gain any benefit if they do not understand what they are looking for when they compare the two, nor do most people who are untrained in the Biblical languages understand the nuances of meaning which can be lost in translation—especially when a translation is made based on “dynamic equivalence,” a term which has come to be synonymous with haphazard translation as far as I’m concerned.

So, for my money, if one can only afford a single translation, his spiritual well-being is better served by purchasing a translation oriented towards formal equivalence [such as the NASB or NKJV] for formal study and devotional reading rather than a translation which tries to straddle the fence between formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence [such as the ESV or HCSB] or one oriented towards dynamic equivalence [the NIV or NLT]. If there are questions concerning the more nuanced meanings in the text, a good expository dictionary such as Renn’s, Vine’s, or Mounce’s, along with such aids as Nelson’s Cross-Reference Guide to the Bible, will be better investments than a boxcar full of uncommitted or dynamically equivalent mistranslations.

1 Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are from the New King James Version of the Bible.  Copyright ©1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

All Scriptures marked ESV are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.  Copyright ©2001 Crossway Bibles.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

All Scriptures marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, updated edition. Copyright ©1995, Lockman Foundation.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.


About davestheology

I found a book that was kind of worn, But to my surprise, not a page was torn; It had a title, that I could not read, "Red Letter Edition" was all I could see.
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3 Responses to Scripture, Pt. 4 — Translation Theory

  1. I have to say you put a lot of work into your post it is very impressive and good.

    I like your ranking however I would probably drop the nkjv a few spots, because of two reasons. 1(The choice in manuscript to write it. 2) SInce I just switched from a nkjv, to a ESV I find it easier to read and understand.

    • I understand, and I do not wish for the rankings to be considered as authoritative or binding in any senses of those terms. However, I think you may have misunderstood those rankings. They are not a ranking of preference, but a ranking of translations on a scale of which translation most closely adheres to the theory of formal equivalence to which translation most closely adheres to the theory of dynamic equivalence. Every person has different perspectives and those perspectives are going to effect their preferences for a Bible translation. For me, having completed an MA in theology, which required learning to read and exegete the original languages, the key priority is accuracy of translation over it being easy to read. And I certainly rate the ESV higher in terms of accuracy over the NIV–especially when compared to the NIV’s 2011 concession to feminist theology. However, I don’t think the ESV is more literal than the NASB or the NKJV, no matter what the publisher claims for the ESV.

  2. Pingback: Defining Essential Doctrine | davestheology

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