How Much of the Job Does Your Translation Do?

December 11, 2011

Analogies don’t prove anything, so don’t press this too far. (Analogies illustrate, not prove.) As I was reading Hebrews 2 this morning this analogy came to me regarding Bible translations.

NASB does half a job.

ESV does a bit better, maybe ⅔ a job (though that might be a tad too generous).

NIV, NET, and HCSB try to do the whole job (though with varying degrees of success).

NLT does 125% of the job (which I don’t intend as a superlative!).

What I mean is that NASB gets the Hebrew and Greek words into English, but that’s about it. (First year language students love NASB because it sounds just like what they produce: clumsy English equivalents!) A translation, however, ought not to be a simple (simplistic?) formal equivalent. The “half” the job that NASB does is focused on the original languages, but a translation must pay just as much attention to the receptor language as the donor language. It must put the message of the original text into good receptor language grammar and style, and it must do so without compromising the accuracy of the message. Clarity, accuracy, and naturalness are all important.

The ESV goes further in this regard, though not as far as their PR department (they would like you to think that the ESV is “NASB on English steroids”!) and some ESVO advocates would have you believe. The best parts of the ESV are those that use the most functional equivalence (and yes, there is a fair bit of functional equivalence in ESV); the clumsiest parts are those which are most NASB-like.

At the other extreme are those translations which are primarily and intentionally functional equivalents. In this group the NLT is probably best known, though the new CEB and the older GNB and CEV are toward this end of the spectrum also. When I suggest that they do “125% of the job” I mean that their receptor language focus tends to take them too far from the donor language (IMHO!). As a result they end up supplying more in English than can be warranted in many cases—thus my attribution of the extra 25%! There is diversity here and my judgments of the relative positions involved are not as well founded as the formal and mediating segments of the spectrum since I’ve not attempted a full review of any of these translations. My impressions, however, would line them up something like this, from less to more functional:

CEB . . . NLT2-GNB-CEV . . . NLT1

Hyphens connect those that fall quite close together on the spectrum. The 1 & 2 on NLT refer to the two editions; there are actually three editions, but the 3d is still listed officially as a 2d ed. The NLT1 showed its LB paraphrase origins much more obviously than the 2d ed. (As a result of the NLT1, both its “sound” and the way in which it was produced, I’ve probably ignored NLT2 unjustly; I need to spend more time with it.) As for the new CEB, I’ve only seen the NT and not read a lot of it. I have used it as I’ve continued work on the Mark handbook, and sometimes I note that they’ve found a new and very helpful English equivalent for an awkward piece of Greek, but other times I’m not so impressed.

To return to my analogy, those translations which I think come the closest to my ideal (and I realize that is a subjective judgment; you may not agree!) are those which attempt a mediating position between the two groups I’ve described above. Of these, NIV is the best known. The “feel” of the NET text is quite similar (though with “NASB-sounding” marginal readings, a fairly successful attempt to incorporate the strengths of both models). The newer HCSB falls into this group as well, though perhaps just a tad more formal than NIV (see below on HCSB).

None of these comments are intended to imply that any of the translations listed are “bad.” I respect them all as generally reliable translations of Scripture which represent the Word of God in English. Each have their strengths and their appropriate role for various purposes. My preference for a translation which reflects a mediating approach is intended as my general recommendation for a general-purpose, all around, church translation. For study it is ideal that those without the ability to read the original texts should use multiple translations that represent all three segments of the translation spectrum, e.g., to supplement the use of the NIV as a main text, one might consider using the ESV as well as the NLT. For those able to afford more (both in money and time), then adding a more specialized translation such as the NET with its very valuable notes (not only on translation equivalents, but also textual and study notes) would be even better. Since NET and its notes are freely available online, a wise student would make regular use of them even if they normally use a translation such as NIV or HCSB which is quite similar in the “feel” of the main text. Having all of them available in a Bible study program is ideal.

Re. the HCSB, I like their “bullet notes,” but am rather unhappy with their decision to capitalize all pronouns referring to deity.* They are also too traditional in terms of gender language, even more so than ESV, which is a bit surprising since they say that “The HCSB seeks to reflect recent changes in English.” As for their calling their translation philosophy “optimal equivalence,” that’s just a marketing slogan. (If I remember correctly, NKJV did something similar; I think they used “complete equivalence”—in my opinion an even worse choice of terms.) It does not present a new way, a third “pole” on the translation spectrum. It is simply their attempt to balance formal and functional—which is fine, that’s what NET and NIV do also. But uninformed readers will think it’s something new.

*Did the high priest really say/imply when speaking to Jesus, “Don’t You have an answer…?” (Matt 26:62)?! I don’t think so. And then there are the problems of the Messianic references in the Psalms, and the difficulties of the Servant in Isaiah, etc. I know, NASB does this also, but most other translations (Bishops, Geneva, KJV, ASV, RSV, NIV, NRSV, NET, ESV, etc.) do not. How they can justify listing “Nouns and personal pronouns that clearly refer to any person of the Trinity are capitalized” under traditional features (see the HCSB Intro) is beyond me. That may be true of nouns, but it is most certainly not true of pronouns.

One response to How Much of the Job Does Your Translation Do?

  1. The ESV might as well have been written by aliens. It’s really not my language. I was comparing the RSV with the ESV the other day and noticed that although there was some updating of the language (ex. RSV bosom), the ESV had moved a lot further away from the everyday language I am familiar with.