Bible Translation - Lesson 2

Translation Principle 1

The first principle of interpretation is determining the meaning of words. There are several steps to take in order to accurately interpret the meaning of a word in its context. First, consider the word in its immediate context. Look at the words and phrases surrounding the word in question. Next, consider the word in its broader context. This includes looking at the chapter and book as a whole. Finally, consider the word in its historical and cultural context. This includes looking at the language and culture in which the word was written. Once the meaning of the word is determined, it can be applied to the passage as a whole.

Bill Mounce
Bible Translation
Lesson 2
Watching Now
Translation Principle 1

I. Introduction to Principle 1

A. Significance of Words and Meaning

B. Importance of Context

II. Historical and Cultural Background

A. Original Languages

B. Transmission of Biblical Texts

III. Principles of Interpretation

A. Focus on Words

1. Word Meanings

2. Word Usage

B. Focus on Meaning

1. Authorial Intent

2. Audience Understanding

IV. Application of Principle 1

A. Case Studies

B. Practical Tips for Interpretation

  • You will gain knowledge about translation philosophy, including different methods, how to evaluate a translation, and a comparison of the NIV and ESV translation philosophies, with examples of their differences. Understanding translation philosophy is important when interpreting the Bible.
  • You will learn about the first principle of interpretation which involves determining the meaning of words by looking at the word's immediate context, broader context, and historical and cultural context. By accurately interpreting the meaning of a word, it can be applied to the passage as a whole.
  • In this lesson, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible by exploring topics such as the development of the canon, textual criticism, historical accuracy, and theological coherence.
  • You will gain an understanding of the principles behind why we trust the Bible, including the bibliographical, historical, and internal tests.
  • You will gain knowledge and insight into the process of canonicity, which is the recognition of which books belong in the Bible based on criteria such as apostolicity, orthodoxy, catholicity, and traditional use. Understanding canonicity is essential for recognizing the authority of the Bible and its significance in the Christian faith.

In this course, you will explore the translation philosophy of the Bible, including different methods and the relationship between words and meaning. You also learn how to evaluate translations based on accuracy, clarity, readability, and appropriateness. A comparison is made between the NIV and ESV translations, highlighting their differences. The importance of understanding translation philosophy is emphasized. Another topic covered is the reliability of the Bible, discussing the concept of canon, textual criticism, and the historical accuracy of Scripture. You learn about the principles behind trusting the Bible, including the bibliographical test, historical test, and internal test. Canonicity is also discussed, explaining its significance in recognizing authoritative and inspired books. The criteria for canonicity are apostolicity, orthodoxy, catholicity, and traditional use, with challenges including non-canonical texts and the Gnostic Gospels. Understanding canonicity is crucial for comprehending the Bible's authority.

Dr. Bill Mounce

Bible Translation


Translation Principle 1

Lesson Transcript


I. Translation, Formal Equivalence, and Its Problems

What happened when the grammar of vocabulary is too complicated or if you go word for word you will miss-communicate. What happens in that situation and what do you do? Well, the translation philosophy establishes that. And what will happen in translations, when translators come to these difficult passages where you can’t do word for word, they are going to go to one side or another of the knife blade. They will either go to the side of words or they are going to go to the side of meaning. The ESV falls over to the side of words whereas the NIV falls over to the side of meaning. Stating it another way, when we come to a passage that is a little difficult, the ESV has a tendency to just translate the words and so the function of the translator and the Bible student or the pastor will have to help people understand what those words mean. It is a perfectly legitimate way to translate the Bible.

The NIV is going to fall on the other side and say that the Bible needs to be understandable by people. It needs to be understood by English readers the same way that the Greek was understood by Greek readers. That means we have to work a little differently to get the same meaning across. But the point is, when translations can’t stay on the edge of that knife, are they going to fall over to the side of words which is also the NASB and the ESV or they are going to fall over on the side of meaning which is the NIV and the NLT for example.

Another example has to do with the word, hilasterion. This describes what Christ accomplished on the Cross. What was he doing there? We see in Romans 3:25, the old RSV translated using the word, expiation which means that the force which Christ did on the cross was directed toward human guilt and our ability to accept forgiveness. ESV comes along and says, no, it is not expiation but propitiation; what Christ did on the Cross is directed toward God’s wrath and appeasing God’s wrath caused by our sin. Both of those translations fell over on the side of words to convey the meaning of hilasterion. I still

remember with the ESV that we actually opened up Webster’s and read the meaning of propitiation and we wondered whether or not it was accurate. But then the NIV changes this to ‘atoning sacrifice’ which is a great translation. It was a sacrifice that atoned for our sins. But, even that, didn’t convey all the meaning, because hilasterion also refers to the place of atonement. And in the temple, the place of the atonement was on top of the Ark of the Covenant where the blood was sprinkles, where forgiveness was granted. For the Christian, the hilasterion is the Cross. So it’s not just human guilt and God’s wrath against sin, it is also the Cross. An atoning sacrifice covers some of that but not all. It was interesting in the initial release of the New Living Translation translated hilasterion with a very long-phrase. They said it was to take the punishment of our sins to satisfy God’s anger against sin. This is fairly expansive but they were trying to get the meaning of hilasterion across. In the second release of this translation, they changed it to sacrifice for sin. The point of this illustration, we came to a word and the RSV and ESV tried to find a single word to use. And then the NIV and NLT tried to convey the meaning of the Greek word. I could give you thousands of these kinds of illustrations, both with words and phrases and grammar. So translation philosophy has to with which side it is going to err on.

I am going to break the idea of translation down into four different categories; it is general to break them down into two but I think we need to have four. The first group is listed as formal equivalence. The New American Standard and the ESV are good examples of this. This has to do with a grammatical

equivalence. If there are seven words in Greek, we are going to try for seven words in English and if it is a participle in Greek, we will try to a participle in English. Part of formal equivalence is something called accordance where we try to use the same English word for the Greek word in order to be more

transparent. So that when you see ‘city’ in the NASB, you will know that it is translating ‘Paulus’. It is a formal grammatical equivalence that will adhere to the Greek and Hebrew as much as possible. And formal equivalent translations agree that it is not always possible. There are idiomatic language and other ways in which Greek will express itself where you can’t do this word for word thing. But for the most past we are going to really try.

There are some really good things about formal equivalence, one of which being very transparent to the Greek and to the Hebrew. If you know Greek and you are reading the NASB and the ESV, you can usually see how the translation is done behind the English. That is a good thing but I would point out that it is indeed transparent but this doesn’t matter if you don’t know Greek or Hebrew. In addition, within the NASB, they have this policy of italics in the way they insert a word when there is no corresponding English word to it, they put it in italics to show that they have added that word. Formal equivalence is also less interpretative. For example, if you just want to say expiation or propitiation and leave it at that, you will still have had to do some interpretation; you would had to choose between the two words. So, there is less interpretation in these translations compared to some of the others. If anyone ever says to you that they use a Bible that is not interpretative; it just gives me what the Greek and Hebrew says; this isn’t exactly so. It is actually impossible! You need to understand that all translations involve interpretation; there is just no way to get around this point. All translations are interpretative, but formal equivalent translations do tend to be a little less interpretative. So these are the good points: they are transparent and less interpretative.

There are also some fairly serious problems with these translations. The first involves using terrible English. Every once in a while, I will read a sentence and wonder if it is really English or not. So, there is a real problem of having good English structure just for the sake of staying as close to the Greek or

Hebrew. But a second problem with this kind of translation, especially when it comes to the concordance, it can obscure meaning. They are letting you do the interpreting. The best example of this is with the NASB’s translation of the word ‘Paulus’ which occurs 163 times in the New Testament and every single time the NASB translates it as city. They call Nazareth a city, for example. But archaeologists suggest that there were only about 600 people living there in Jesus’ day. This, of course, is not a city; at the most, it is a small town or rather a village. It is not a city. Yet, it is simply not possible to translate correctly, you have to interpret it; there is just no choice. I remember in the ESV, if we had an ambiguous Greek phrase, we would look for a similar ambiguous Greek phrase. Sometimes we would find one but usually you can’t and thus you have to interpret it. In 1st Timothy 3:11, Paul is going through the requirement for church leaders. So he starts with elders and goes through the requirements and then he gets to the deacons. Again, he gives the qualifications and then you come to verse 11 where the Greek word is gunaikas from gyne (goo-nay) and the problem is, it can be translated either wife or woman. There is no English word for both of those so you have to choose and that choice is significant. In the RSV, it is translated, ‘the women, likewise must be serious, no slanderers but temperate in all things.’ If gyne is translated as women, then who are the women? So it has to be the deaconesses.

We know that there were female deacons very early in the church, even in the first 300 years. Interestingly, the feminine form of deacon in Greek apparently wasn’t created until about the 3rd to 4th century. So women were called deacons in the early church. When I was in the pastorate, they wanted to talk about deaconesses; I said no, we are not going to genderise this: women and men together are deacons. That is how the Bible treats it. That is reading gyne as women, i.e. deaconesses. The ESV comes along (I believe there may be a footnote on this) and it says that their wives, likewise, must be

dignified. Well, we are still talking about deacons and now we are talking about the deacon’s wives and Paul goes on to talk about the deacon’s children. The point here, you have to choose between the two meanings. There is no English word that could mean woman or wife; you have to choose. Another really good example is from John 2:4. This is the story of Jesus at the wedding in Canaan where they ran out of wine. The NASV translates, ‘and Jesus said to her (to his mother), woman what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.’ It is the same Greek word, gyne, by the way. In modern English, there is only one way to hear that phrase and that is pejorative (expresses contempt or disapproval). Mary says, hey Jesus, they ran out of wine; do something about it. Jesus says, woman. The only way to hear that in English is in a pejorative, negative and demeaning way; in a way that Jesus would never have said to his mother. Jesus would not have been that cruel. Just saying ‘woman’ miscommunicates here. In the NIV, they said, ‘dear woman.’ There is no Greek word for ‘dear’ but they are trying to soften the pejorative woman and how we hear it in English. They simply say, ‘how does that concern you and me?’ in the NLT; so they don’t even try to translate it because there is no way to say it in English. So when formal equivalence fail at times as often times it does, then they will have to be interpretive.

There is an Old Italian proverb that translates into English as ‘all translators are traitors’. I am told that when you translate from Italian to English, you lose something. This confirms the truth of the maxim. This means that we are all traitors to the meanings of the original text. We might over translate a little in order to do a little more work to convey the meaning or we might under translate a little and not convey all the meaning of the English. But it is virtually impossible to get it perfect when it comes to translation work.

II. Dynamic Equivalence and Its Problems

The next main category is called functional (Dynamic) Equivalent Translation. The NIV and perhaps the NLT fit into this category. In this, they are not concerned about the grammar. They don’t care if this is a participle or if it is seven words in Greek. The question is, what is the Greek saying and what does it mean and what words do I use to convey the same meaning in English? That is the basic distinction. There are some really good things about functional equivalent translations. They convey meaning; they are understandable and they make sense. I remember getting my son a NLT Bible and he was surprised at how well he could understand it. The translators are being a little more interpretive in doing a better job in conveying the meaning of the passage. They also tend to be better English and don’t make the disciples or the writers sound ignorant. They write in good English. The problem with functional equivalent translations, as you might expect, they may become too interpretive. In an attempt to get the meaning across, we add words in order to convey meaning. There is a little more of the translator in the translation with this category. An example of this has to do with a divorced person not being an elder in the church. This comes from 1st Timothy 3:2. The word divorce does not occur in the passage nor does the word married. If you go word for word, the requirement for an elder is that he must be of one woman man or of one wife husband. There is an added problem with English as word order is used to convey meaning; so if you have a verb, you want to know who is doing the action of the verb, the subject being in front the verb. The person or thing receiving the action of the verb is the word following the very, the direct object. But in Greek, there is a different linkage at work, the subject can come after the verb and the direct object can come before the verb or they can all come at the end of a sentence. There is a standard order for Greek sentences but you don’t really have to follow it at all.

One of the things that determine order in Greek is emphasis. When you want to emphasize something, you move it to the front of the sentence and because of this linkage system which is called case endings, you can push the word or phrase you want to emphasize forward in the sentence. We can do this in English by putting a prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence. For this example in 1st Timothy 3:2, the emphasis is on one woman man, on one of wife husband. You have to be really interpretive to translate this idea. The odd thing here is that we can’t find this phrase anywhere else in Greek literature. So a question I have for Paul is to why he used such an odd phrase. In understanding this about whether or not a divorced person can be an elder, we just need to understand the Greek and like many things that we think we understand, we need to have a little more humility in regards to this particular passage; we just don’t know what it means. The ESV translates this to read ‘therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.’ But in translating it this way, we have lost the emphasis on the idea of one. There is more of an emphasis on marriage than the word one. The New RSV says married only once; they are keying off here the emphatic position of one and they are taking it as wife and husband. The NIV 1984 version says the husband of but one wife. The use of but again is the use of an emphatic position of the word one. The New Living Bible reads, ‘he must be faithful to his wife,’ which I think is more correct. We have an old expression, ‘a one-woman kind of guy.’ I am not saying that this is the equivalent here, but this gets at what Paul is trying to say, that the elder must be faithful. The false teachers in Ephesus were sexually active, especially among the young widows and Paul says that this is not what an elder is. This is also the translation of the 2011 NIV of being faithful to his wife. The point to all of this in functional equivalence and as in all translations they have to interpretative and sometimes if they are really committed to conveying the meaning, they have to be a lot more interpretative.

There is a third category that I call the paraphrase. Perhaps the New Living Translation belongs to this category. Well, it is actually in between these two categories, and there are places where it is incredible periphrastic. The Jamie Phillip’s translation is a fantastic translation, one that I really love. My mother

became a Christian reading this Bible. It is very periphrastic and interpretative reading very much in modern and in his case, British English. These translations are good if you understand what is going on. The good part is that it will often say things in different ways which helps you look at the verse in a different way. An example would be from Romans 12:2, the NIV says, ‘do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Phillips comes along and says, ‘don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your mind from within.’ So we have words like squeeze, transform, remold and renewing; this is not strictly a translation but instead more of a paraphrase. This helps you to understand, and in this case very accurately as to what Paul is saying. By the way, let me say something about the Phillips translation. All of the translations, other than the Phillips and the Living, were done by committees. I would never try to do a translation by myself, especially not one that was going to be disseminated widely. You really need committees because we all hear things differently and so we want to bounce words off each other. So translations are generally done by committees and this is what makes J.B. Phillips so unusual, in that he was able to produce a reliable paraphrase by himself. It is certainly helpful in conveying meaning.

What’s bad about these translations is that they are usually very interpretative and when you read them, you just don’t know whether you are reading the Bible or reading additional words that are interpretative in terms of the meaning. That is why I would never study from an NLT or the Phillips. I love to read them and there is a time to read them. There is so much of the translator (the ideas of the translator) in these paraphrases, so much so that you have to be very careful; you certainly can’t do word studies based on a paraphrase. You just don’t know whether or not a word has been added in or translated. An example would be Acts 27:17 where Paul is on his trip to Rome and they are in the middle of a storm fearing that the ship would hit the rocks. The ESV translates verse 17, ‘fearing that they would run aground on the Seritus; they lowered the gear (a sea anchor) and thus they were driven along.’ This is not clear English. They were driver along toward the Seritus with the sea anchor slowing them down. The NIV says that this Seritus is actually the sand bars of Seritus. So the Seritus is a place where there are sand bars. The NLT translates it as being afraid of being driven across the sand bars of Seritus off the African coast. This is not in the Bible and personally, I think the NLT crossed over the line between translator and expositor. It is hard enough to read it as the sand bars of Seritus. It helps to understand where the ship was headed. This is an extreme example for the NLT, but this illustrates what is good and bad about paraphrasing. They are very interpretative in trying to help you understand the meaning.

III. Running Commentaries

There is a fourth category that belongs to the original Living Bible and the Message Bible. I just call them running commentaries. There is so much of Kenneth Taylor in the Living Bible, but God used that Bible as a tool to save thousands of people bringing them to a relationship in Christ. There are so many good things in it, but you really couldn’t study from this Bible. There is also so much of Eugene Peters in the Message Bible which you can’t study from it either. I tell people to read them to see what the translator means and see more modern ways of expressing Biblical truth. But I would never call them a Bible as such.

Paul tells us the Roman church should greet one another and in the NIV, it says to greet one another with a holy kiss. But what is a holy kiss? It doesn’t really convey meaning as such. The Good News Bible later called the TEV, says to greet one another with a brotherly kiss. They interpreted the word holy as brotherly in a way that Christian brothers and sisters would greet one another. Brother gets closer to what the meaning really means, but later the Good News changed it to greet one another with the kiss of peace which seems like a very odd translation. They wanted to get away from the word brother. The original living says to shake hands warmly with each other and this is also a really good translation of this holy kiss. Phillips says to give each other a hearty handshake all around. The second edition of the NLT says to greet each other in Christian love. Just like they did with woman in John 2, they simply through the idea of a kiss out; there is no way to convey what a holy kiss is. So just greet one another in Christian love. How would you translate holy kiss? I think what Paul means when brothers and sisters are together; they are to greet each other in the standard way in which people greet each other, but with affection and purity perhaps. I guess today it is a hug; for me, I don’t like hugging other women. This was especially so when I was a pastor, I liked to shake people’s hands, so shaking hands warmly with each other is okay by me. But shaking hands instead of hugging a person is almost taken in a negative sense, now. Paul is telling the Roman church to greet each other and really mean it.