A Word About Bible Translation Philosophies

montoyaIf you’re a Christian who has paid attention, you’ve probably heard strong opinions from Pastors or other Christians about various English Bible translations. Maybe you’ve heard the NIV is a “liberal translation,” because it’s “gender-neutral.” Perhaps you’ve heard the NLT is a paraphrase. And so it goes.

There’s nothing wrong with the major English Bible translations. I don’t care which one you read and use; KJV, ASV, RSV, NIV, NRSV, NEB, REB, NASB, MEV, LEB NET, Phillips. Take your pick. In the end, most disagreements come down to what you believe about (1) translation philosophy and (2) which printed, Greek New Testament text is the best. I wrote a long article about bible translations a while back to briefly address some of these concerns.

Today, I want to talk about translation philosophy. If you ask an informed Christian, she’ll probably tell you there are two camps:

  1. Formal equivalence, or “word for word” translations. This approach tries, as much as possible, to retain the original word order in Greek and Hebrew.
  2. Dynamic equivalence, or “thought for thought” translations. This philosophy seeks to convey the meaning of the word or phrase, and isn’t as tied to the original word order.

This is all wrong. Wrong. Not right. Wrong.

Most Christians in America aren’t fluent in a second language, and haven’t studied languages. I understand, and I’m not blaming anybody. But, the result is that Christians who say these things are usually repeating what others have told them. They often really don’t know what they’re talking about. This kind of argument works best as an abstraction, as a pie in the sky philosophy. When you put the fancy ideas away, and actually try to translate a Bible passage yourself, life gets tough.

Here’s a simple example …

What does “bless” mean?

The Apostle Peter is wrapping up his discussion of the so-called “household” or “station codes,” and he wrote this to sum up every Christian’s responsibility to live in a holy way in a pagan world (1 Peter 3:8-12). Here’s one excerpt from that section:

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing (1 Peter 3:8-9, RSV).

Tell me, what on earth does “bless” mean, in this context? I want you to explain it to me. I want you to consider the context, consider why the phrase repeats in the same sentence, and tell me what “bless” and “blessing” mean. I’m waiting …

Still waiting.

Well, I’ll go first. Here’s one thing you should always remember:

  • There is no such thing as a “literal meaning.” Literally (heh)! 

Every word and every sentence depends on context for clarity. Words have tons of different meanings, but the context tells you which meaning is right. You already know this, instinctively. You don’t even realize you know it, but you do.

Think about the word “tons” (which I conveniently put in bold so you’d see it). What is the “literal meaning” of that word? You don’t know, do you? You’re thinking on it now, and you’re realizing it all depends on how the word is used, aren’t you? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says:

  • The word could refer to a metric unit of weight, or
  • It could mean a large quantity of something, or
  • Various quantities of storage capacity for maritime shipping

So, there is no literal meaning for a word or phrase – context is everything. Now, when you look at a dictionary, you get what linguistic nerds call a gloss. This is a generic definition that covers a lot of ground, but doesn’t even begin to explain the word well. For example, you could say the gloss for the word ball is “a rounded mass or shape.” But, that really doesn’t tell you much. There are tons of ways (see what I just did!?) to use the word ball in the English language.

  • “George and I went to the ball last night! He looked so handsome in his tuxedo!”
  • “We left the kids at home last night, and went out on a date. We had a ball!”
  • “Hey, Jeff, wanna play some ball with the guys this Saturday?”
  • “For the last time, Sherri – you’ve got to keep your eye on the ball! What’s wrong with you, lately?”

When you come to the Greek participle εὐλογοῦντες, the normal gloss means bless. Yay. How wonderful. What on earth does this mean? Well, when you consider how the word is used in the New Testament and contemporary Greek writing, you have two basic options:

  1. It can mean something like “be kind.”
  2. It could also mean “to invoke God’s blessing upon.”

Which one is it, here? Because Peter goes on to say Christians were called to inherit blessing (i.e. “divine favor”) from God, it makes sense to understand the participle to have the same sense, here.[1] That is, it seems Peter is using the term “bless” in the same way both time he uses it, in 1 Peter 3:9.

Once again, here is Peter’s argument – consider which usage best fits the context:

Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary ——–, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a ——–.

Is Peter telling them to be nice to hostile unbelievers? Or, is he telling them to invoke God’s favor upon these hostile outsiders? Christians have been called to do this, whatever it is. As a result of God’s calling, Christians will obtain … whatever this is. It seems obvious the second option is the one we want; to invoke God’s divine favor.

But, how should we translate it? Should we render it as bless? 

The rendering “bless” is standard Biblish in our Christian vocabulary. It’s meaningless. You’re used to seeing it, because it’s comforting and familiar. But, does the word bless here actually communicate anything at all? What does it mean?

We’ve just found out that, in this context, it means a Christian shouldn’t return insult for insult, or evil for evil. Instead, the Christian should ask for God’s favor on the offender. So, perhaps we should just translate it that way! This is what my translation looks like:

You must not make it a habit to repay evil for evil, or insult for insult. But, instead, you must always repay by asking for God’s favor on the person, because you were called to all this, [and] as a result you’ll obtain God’s favor!

We shouldn’t be captive to glosses that don’t explain what the word actually means. Deliberate ambiguity isn’t a virtue when the context is rather straightforward.

Some critics would say my translation philosophy here is dynamic equivalency. I reply – I love you, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about.[2] A dynamic equivalency translation would actually go one step further, and ask the question, “what does it mean to ask for God’s favor on the person?” The answer, I believe, is to pray for the person’s salvation. So, a true dynamic equivalent translation would render this something like, “you must always repay the person by praying for his salvation …” So, there.

In this context, the participle εὐλογοῦντες means “to invoke God’s blessing upon” someone. This isn’t a tenuous interpretation; it’s pretty straightforward and I can make a very, very good case for it. Shouldn’t a translation seek to bring this across?

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Bill Mounce, the author of the most popular first-year Koine Greek textbook in America. He wrote this in a short article, entitled “The Myth of Literal Translation:”

May I encourage you not to be deceived by this idea of choosing an English Bible so that you can see the underlying Greek structure. You will be led astray on every verse. If you want to get that close to the Greek, I know of a couple Greek textbooks that will help you get there (grin). If not, then understand that all translations have to smooth out the Greek to make it understandable English, and read it with that in mind.

Keepin’ it real

I could say a whole lot more, nuance my position a bit, and offer up all the appropriate caveats about translation philosophy.  But, I won’t bother here. I’ve said enough to make my point, and any theologians reading this already know what those caveats are anyway.

Let’s recap:

  1. Don’t take a simplistic stance on a Bible translation philosophy – it’s complicated.
  2. Most Pastors or leaders you listen to either never learned Greek, or have allowed themselves to forget most of it. Even if they use it, many of them don’t do much beyond word studies. It’s very rare to have a Pastor who actually does translation himself, and can interact with exegetical commentaries and argue syntax in  meaningful fashion. So, the chances are the person who’s giving you information about bible translation philosophies is well-meaning, but really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
  3. There is no such thing as a “literal meaning” of a word. I mean that literally. Get it?
  4. A bible translation shouldn’t be afraid to ignore a gloss and render the clear meaning of a word or phase, if the context is clear and straightforward.

So, don’t be afraid of the NLT. Don’t be afraid of the NIV. Don’t be afraid of the KJV or the RSV. They’re good translations.

Notes

[1] Actually, there is real disagreement about how to translate the last bit of 1 Peter 3:9, but I won’t bother to go into that here!

[2] Any interested Christian should read Leland Ryken’s book, Understanding English Bible Translations – An Essentially Literal Approach. With some caveats, I appreciate his approach to the issue and agree with his “essentially literal” philosophy.