Thursday, July 11, 2019

Translating the Bible

There are different Bible translation philosophies. These go by different labels. For instance:

Major Bible translations typically reflect one of three general philosophies: formal equivalence, functional equivalence, and optimal equivalence. Formal equivalence is called a word-for-word translation and attempts to translate the Bible as literally as possible, keeping the sentence structure and idioms intact if possible. The NASB and KJV are representatives of this camp. Functional equivalence is typically referred to as a thought-for-thought translation. This is an attempt to translate the text so it has the same effect on the current reader as it had on the ancient reader. The NLT exemplifies this theory. Optimal equivalence falls between the former approaches by balancing the tension between accuracy and ease of reading. While striving for precision in translation, it also seeks clarity to the modern day reader. The ESV leans toward the formal equivalent translation philosophy. The NIV tries to balance these approaches and may lean toward a functional equivalence theory. The HCSB is an optimal equivalence translation.

Here's an approach I haven't seen discussed (which doesn't mean it hasn't been discussed). Suppose I'm translating the Bible into English. (I'm using English as an illustration because that's my mother tongue, but the approach I'm suggesting is applicable to receptor languages in general.) I'd ask myself, if Ezekiel, Jeremiah, St. Paul, or a Psalmist was a native English speaker, how would he express himself in idiomatic English? If he wasn't speaking or writing in Greek or Hebrew, if English was the original language, how would he speak or write in English? Instead of treating Greek or Hebrew as the original, and rendering that into a receptor language, suppose we imaginatively put Bible writers in a time machine and transport them to our own time and place. What words would they use? Rather than viewing the process in terms of translation from one language to another, we might switch that around by viewing the process as if the Bible writer was, in fact, speaking in our own language. If, say, he was a 20C American. Put yourself in that mindset. 

Now, what I just said is deceptively simple. There are complications to that hypothetical. There are different periods in English usage, so the answer would vary depending on whether we recast the Bible writer as a 17C English speaker, or 18C, 19C, 20C, 21C English speaker. Likewise, if even I confine myself to American examples, there's literary English, working-class English, Black English, Southern English, colloquial English, and so on. So the choice of English might depend on the target reader instead of a generic English translation.

If I was translating Ecclesiastes, the Psalter, or poetic sections in Isaiah, I'd use literary English. At the opposite extreme, if I was translating Ezk 18 & 23, I'd use street English or slang. Because that's how Ezekiel would talk if he was speaking English.  

Keep in mind that Bible translations never replace the original. We always have the Greek and Hebrew text to refer back to, as the theological benchmark. 


  1. What are your views on the NIV2011? Would you recommend it as a Bible to own over more literal translations?

    1. I think the ESV or 1984 edition of the NIV is pretty good.


    2. For what it's worth, I'm partial to the ESV for various reasons including its more literary language (largely thanks to its KJV heritage), though I'm mindful of the things C.S. Lewis once pointed out in his introduction to J.B. Phillips' NT.

      However, at least in my experience, the NIV seems more useful in cross-cultural contexts (evangelism, Bible study) with non-native English speakers.

      As far as I'm aware, I think the main issue with the NIV2011 is its gender neutral language. In my estimation, I'd say the NIV2011 is better than the TNIV in that regard, but still short of the NIV1984. To be fair, the NIV2011 is supported by scholars like D.A. Carson, Doug Moo, and Andy Naselli, and I find their arguments over gender neutral language somewhat more persuasive than Wayne Gruden and Vern Poythress' arguments. That's not to say I entirely agree with the former arguments and/or entirely disagree with the latter. I see merits to both sides, but I think if I had to call it I'd say Carson et al make the better case.

    3. @Steve


      @Epistle of Dude

      Thanks for chipping in. How have you been? As far as NIV2011 is concerned, on some days I think it is fine for casual reading (or listening esp. David Suchet read it) but not for serious study given its egalitarian focus - but on other days I feel it should be avoided altogether given that ESV does a much better job in almost all respect compared to the NIV2011. :) I was an ESV guy until a couple of years ago when I switched to NASB. Right now I switch between the NASB and the NKJV. I am increasingly considering making the KJV one of my got to translations because of the apocrypha. Call it the vestiges of my Catholic faith, but I find it rather unfortunate that Protestant publishers gave up printing (and later translating) it in their Bibles in the last 150 years.

      Btw, did you read about CL Edwards - former ABN colleague of David Wood who was supposedly also offered a role by Wood in ISLAMICISE ME! - a Muslim who became a Christian apologist? He reverted back to Islam after 4 or 5 years in the Christian faith, and after completing his seminary education! I am baffled - not at his apostasy, but him going back to Islam AFTER knowing all the theological, historical and philosophical problems associated with Islam that Wood exposed, at times sitting right next to him (when he was a Christian apologist). If I, for example, lost my faith (Lord forbid) I would likely become an atheist or an apatheist - what I would not become is a Muslim because that religion just does not make any sense with all those gaping holes in it.

      There is no rational way I can think of of reconciling these massive discrepancies in Islam, so I am curious to know how CL Edwards (or Abu Yazid now) could do that and go back to Islam? If after fully knowing (and acknowledging) the problems in Islam if one still goes ahead and accepts as his religion - I wonder if there is any hope for some of the Muslims out there? I say that especially given that Wood's primary thesis is that when Muslims know about the details of their religion from which they are shielded by their imams - they will abandon Islam. Abu Yazid/CL Edwards case is startling reminder that that may not be so. What remains to be seen is whether Abu Yazid is an exception or a pattern. What percentage of Muslims could fall into Abu Yazid's category? Curiously enough he seems to be more entrenched in Islam than before - that is AFTER knowing the problems in Islam and debating against those problems from the Christian perspective as a Christian apologist.

      Interestingly enough now he is against white evangelicals whom he says take advantage of new Muslim converts to Christianity (see the interview below). Sometimes I wonder that no criticism of Christianity is complete without bringing "the white man" up.

      And imagine that Abu Yazid was not even a cradle Muslims to begin with (meaning for Islam to be drilled into his subconscious from very early age...) I cannot but shake the feeling that the probability of there being more Abu Yazid's in the population of cradle Muslims is not insignificant, and I am saddened by it.

      Here is the interview if you havent seen it. The audio is terrible in places.

    4. Good to hear from you, James! :) I haven't blogged as much on my own weblog for various reasons, but I'm doing well. And I hope you're well too! I hope you don't mind if I number my responses, just to organize my responses in my own (often scattered) mind:

      1. I definitely appreciate the KJV too. Not to mention Tyndale and the Geneva Bible.

      2. I like the NASB and the NKJV, though the NASB sounds a bit clunky to me. Of course, the NKJV sounds nice, thanks to its base in the KJV.

      3. Speaking of translations, the CSB (formerly HCSB) might be worth looking into, but I haven't read enough of it to form a strong opinion one way or another on it.

      4. In any case I guess the English language has a plethora of good translations. I mainly use the ESV, but sometimes I'll use the NIV, especially if it's with someone who isn't a native English speaker or sometimes with a child.

      5. If you speak a second language, or at least if you can work through a second language, it's sometimes interesting to compare an English translation with a translation in another language (e.g. French).

      6. Wow, I hadn't heard of C.L. Edwards, now Abu Yazid. Thanks for letting me know about him. I don't know enough about him to have a good explanation for him. Offhand, I guess I'd say some people are emotionally unstable, and that can play a large role in their decisions in life.

      7. Anyway I don't think we can generalize from people like Edwards to Muslims as a whole, so I think there's definitely hope for Muslims becoming Christians! :)

      8. I admit it's possible Wood might be mistaken in his "primary thesis". If so, I would think that's largely because Wood has difficulty discerning people's emotions (especially in light of his self-admitted psychopathy). I suspect Wood doesn't understand the influence of emotions in a person's psychology since he can't relate to them on that level.

      9. Thanks for the link to the interview! I'll take a look now.

      10. Always good hearing from you!

    5. I am doing fine, but my online activity has dramatically reduced since last year. I am visiting Triablogue after months...

      I think you are right about the influence of emotions on decision making, in that it is a dominant factor. CL does say he missed Islam - and quite likely his former Muslim community. He clearly did not feel at home in the Christian church he went to. But were his emotions so strong that he glossed over all the serious difficulties? Well thats was a difficult pill to swallow but you make a valid point. I mean one does not have to be simply emotional, but dishonest or very unclear in his thoughts also to do that. And as mentioned before, it wasnt just going back to Islam that struck me as odd (I can imagine folks reverting to Islam to get back in their families) but being more convinced of it. I guess you are right in that his emotional instability could explain much about this bizarre behavior.