Archives For Bible translation

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.

ESV 2011 revision update

November 4, 2011

Not long ago I posted a note regarding a possible update to the ESV. Turns out that is has already been done “silently.” Now, somewhat after the fact, Crossway has finally announced what’s involved.

As the publisher of the ESV, I want to let you know that a small number of word changes are being incorporated into the ESV Bible text, as we reprint and publish new editions of the ESV in 2011.

This list of 2011 changes was reviewed and discussed over the last five years by the thirteen-member ESV Translation Oversight Committee (TOC). The TOC then met in the Summer of 2010, and finalized the list in the Spring of 2011. The changes were then approved by the Crossway Board of Directors in April 2011. Editions of the ESV with the 2011 text changes include the following notice on the copyright page: “ESV Text Edition: 2011.”

Most changes to the ESV text were made to correct grammar, improve consistency, or increase precision in meaning.

They provide a few examples of the changes:

from “yourself” to “you”; from “servant” to “worker”; from “has not” to “does not have”; from “young man” to “boy”; from “capital” to “citadel”; from “bondage” to “slavery”; from “nor” to “or”; from “trustworthy” to “faithful”; from “competent” to “sufficient”; from “everyone” to “each one”

There is a link to a complete list of changes. Unfortunately it is in a protected Flash container of some sort so that it cannot be copied and can only be printed in a very low/poor/fuzzy resolution, one-page-at-a-time ordeal. 27 pgs altogether.

As a sample, there are 6 changes in Mark, ranging from the pedantic to very helpful.

I would judge the change in Mark 4:3 to be pedantic, resulting in clumsy English. The previous (2d) edition read:

“Listen! A sower went out to sow.”

This is the same as, e.g., NIV, NET, HCSB, and NRSV. But since “Listen!” represents two words in Greek (Ἀκούετε. ἰδού…), we now have a more formal, but awkward:

“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.”

Other than keeping some ESVO advocates happy by “not omitting any words” from the text (!), it accomplishes little other than lessening the naturalness of the English a bit further.

On the other hand Mark 16:1 has been improved considerably, though the change is only punctuation; it avoids a misunderstanding of the text:

2d ed.:

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

3d ed.:

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

Mark 7:3 adds a word to the text—one that is very much a functional equivalent:

2d ed.:

For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders…

3d ed.:

For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders…

“Properly” is presumably an attempt to represent πυγμῇ—a word omitted in earlier editions, though with a f.n., “Greek unless they wash with a fist, probably indicating a kind of ceremonial washing.” The former note was, indeed, a formal equivalent (an “essentially literal” translation, if you will 😉 ), but to translate πυγμῇ as “properly,” while not a bad choice, is certainly a very functional equivalent.

In 8:24 we have an increase in gender neutral language:

2d ed.:

And he looked up and said, “I see men, but they look like trees, walking.”

3d ed.:

And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

A good change since the man’s blindness would not have enabled him to distinguish men from women before his healing.

The remaining two changes are unremarkable: 3:18; 5:13.

A friend sent me a link this morning to a very interesting and helpful symposium on Bible translation.

Sept 26, 2011 at Liberty University

Ray Clendenen (HCSB), Wayne Grudem (ESV), and Doug Moo (NIV)

There are videos of each half hour presentation and audio (only) of the subsequent responses and Q&A posted on David Croteau’s blog, Slave of the Word.

I’ve just finished listening to all the translation sessions. (Apparently Grudem got two speaking slots; the first one [listed as “morning”] is on inerrancy, and I’ve not listened to that one.) The formal responses in the wrap-up session are far too short to be very helpful, but the Q&A has some good material. Worth your time. If you can’t spare the time for all of them, at least listen to Moo.

A book is scheduled for a year from now from B&H that will have expanded versions of these presentations along with Phil Comfort on the NLT. Hopefully this will be a “four views” style book in which the authors are allowed extended responses to each other. I don’t know who the editor will be or what the title will be. (If anyone knows, please post it in a comment or send me an email and I”ll add it here.)

Updated info: Andreas Kostenberger and David Croteau are editing the book. The tentative title is “Which Bible Translation Should I Use?”

Here are wise words, written, as you can easily tell, quite some time ago:

Whoſoeuer attempteth any thing for the publike (ſpecially if it appertaine to Religion, and to the opening and clearing of the word of God) the ſame ſetteth himſelfe vpon a ſtage to be glouted vpon by euery euil eye, yea, he caſteth himſelf headlong upon pikes, to be gored by euery ſharpe tongue. For he that medleth with mens Religion in any part, medleth with their cuſtome, nay, with their freehold, and though they find no content in that which they haue, yet they cannot abide to heare of altering.

—“The Translators to the Reader,” [p. 2], 1611 printing of KJV

For those of you who struggle with reading 17th C. English (which is not what you’re reading in a modern KJV—that’s a late 18th C revision!), here is a translation into reasonably contemporary English.

Whoever attempts anything for the public, especially if it has to do with religion or with making the word of God accessible and understandable, sets himself up to be frowned upon by every evil eye, and casts himself headlong on a row of pikes, to be stabbed by every sharp tongue. For meddling in any way with a people’s religion is meddling with their customs, with their inalienable rights. And although they may be dissatisfied with what they have, they cannot bear to have it altered.

— Erroll F. Rhodes and Liana Lupas, “The Translators to the Reader, Modern Form,”
in The Translators to the Reader: The Original Preface of the King James Version
of 1611 Revisited
(New York: American Bible Society, 1997), 69.

One would think that all the “brooha” over new translations is a 20-21st C phenomenon. Those who have read some history know that the KJV (whose 400th anniversary we mark this year) stimulated just as much controversy when it was published. What I had not read before is the record of such controversy in the days of Augustine and Jerome (4th-5th C). On the way home today I swung by the library and checked out The Earliest Gospels (ed. Horton; T&T Clark, 2004). There are several interesting articles included. I was particularly interested to read Barbara Aland’s article on the significance of the Chester Beatty papyri for text crit. But in browsing the volume I ran across Harry Gamble’s article, “Literacy, Liturgy, and the Shaping of the NT Canon” (pp. 27–39). His book Book and Readers in the Early Church is one of the most interesting books I’d read in a long time, so a related title caught my eye.

In the essay Gamble recounts a letter written by Augustine to Jerome regarding the furor caused by Jerome’s new translation. It almost cost a pastor in Oea (modern Tripoli) his ministry. It seems that this pastor read the Scripture reading one Sunday from Jerome’s Vulgate rather than the Old Latin. The text was Jonah 4:6. Here’s what Augustine reported to Jerome:

In the course of this reading the bishop came upon a word […] of which you have given a very different rendering from that which had long been familiar to the senses and memory of all the worshippers and had been read for so many generations in the church. Then there arose such a tumult in the congregation, especially among the Greek speakers, correcting what had been read and denouncing the translation as false, that the bishop was compelled to ask assistance from Jewish residents (Gamble, 37–38).

Gamble goes on to summarize that

finally the bishop buckled under this pressure, and reverted to the accustomed (Old Latin) rendering. As Augustine put it, ‘the man was compelled to correct your [i.e., Jerome’s] version in that passage […] since he desired not to be left without a congregation—a calamity he narrowly escaped’ (38).

Some contemporary pastors can relate to that experience!

The word in question, BTW, was “the name of the plant that sheltered Jonah. The Hebrew was qiqiyon, which was rendered in the LXX as kolokunthe (round gourd, pumpkin), and in the Old Latin … as cucurbita (gourd). Jerome’s Vulgate rendering was hedera (ivy)” (Gamble, 37 n.30).