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Unless you can read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, you need a translation. But why are there so many, and why are they so often different? Can they be trusted. Bill was the Chair of the ESV translations for ten years and currently sits on the Committee on Bible Translation that is responsible for the NIV. He has a unique view into this question.
C. Translation philosophy
1. Formal equivalence
2. Dynamic equivalence
4. Running commentary
We’ve gone through canonization, and we’ve gone though textual criticism, so chronologically we come up to the whole topic of translation. Again it’s another huge topic, but I want to introduce some basic issues, primarily so that you will know to trust your Bible, even those different from other Bibles, and to give you a little bit of a feel for why they are different.
Let’s start with a problem—several problems. First of all, the Bible isn’t written in English, despite what some people unfortunately think. The New Testament is written in Greek, most of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, and small portions of the Old Testament are written in Aramaic (a later version of Hebrew). If you can’t read Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic you need a translation, that’s one of the problems.
The second problem connected to translations has to do with the nature of languages. Languages are not codes. And this is going to sound really simplistic, but I remember when I first started learning Latin in high school I went in to class thinking that it was like Morse code, where “B” was one thing, “I” was another, and “L” was another. I figured in Greek you would just switch the dots and the dashes. It was this unbelievably simplistic view of languages. I guess I thought there was a one to one correspondence. For example, in English, we say, “I want the water—four words. In German you have four words the word for “I,” and the word for “want.” But of course languages are not codes and there is not exact equivalents. It is virtually impossible to say exactly in one language what is said in another. I don’t care if you are going from Greek and Hebrew to English, or from German to French. That’s why if you listen to simultaneous translators they always speak more than the person speaking—there are nuances in the one language, so it takes a while to say it in the other language.
Let me give you an example of the type of problems we have. What does the word “can” mean in English? “The ability to do,” “a container,” “to fire (can someone),” “a derrière.” My supervisor used to say, “Americans eat what they can and can what they can’t.” See a word doesn’t have a meaning; a word has a bundle of meanings. You can’t find another word in another language that has the same bundle of meanings. You can’t. It’s impossible. Even the word “the.” Well, you say, that’s pretty simply. Certainly there must be a word for “the” in Greek. Not really. There is a word that we translate the, that can also be translated my or your or his or our. See there are not exactly the same bundle of meanings. So how are you going to translate the word “can” from English to another language if you are translating in that direction.
Here is another example and this has to do more with grammar than it does with word meanings. In Romans 6:15, Paul is talking about the role of ongoing sin in the life of a believer. He says, in the NASB, “What then, shall we sin because we are not under law, but under grace? May it never be!” Pretty good translation. ESV translates, “By no means.” You think, “Well that’s odd. ‘May it never be,’ ‘By no means,’ I wonder how that happened?” The new living, NLT, has, “of course not” which is colloquial, and not anywhere near as strong as the Greek. The KJV says “God forbid.” Now forget the fact that the word “God” doesn’t occur and the word “forbid” doesn’t occur either. Actually, I think “God forbid” is the best translation, because the Greek mei genoito is the strongest way in Greek to say that under no circumstances can sin be ok as an ongoing part of a Christian’s life. How can you say that in English? “Of course not?” You can see they are struggling with it, because we don’t have the words mei genoito, and we don’t have to optative, the form of the verb in the Greek. How do you say it? This is an example of a type of problem that we have in translation. Languages are not exactly equivalent, and you simply cannot say exactly in one language what is said in another, with all the nuances and all the force of a language.
The Word “Literal”
Connected to that, let me say something about the word “literal,” because we all want a literal Bible, right? Normally, when we use the word literal, what do we mean by it? If I were to ask, “Larry, do you want a literal Bible?” You’d say “yes.” I’d ask “Well, what does it mean to be literal?” “It’s accurate. It says….” (I can’t even use the right verb here; you’ll know why in a second). You want it to accurately represent what the original is saying. But how do you do that? See here is the problem: a lot of people think literal means word for word and they want a literal translation. “If the Greek has eight words, I want a translation with eight words. If they use a participle, I want a participle. I want to be as close to the Greek as I can.” The word literal, if you look it up in the dictionary it actual has to do with meaning. If you want a literal Bible, and if you use English the way the dictionary says we should, then you are saying I want a Bible that says the same thing that has the same meaning.
Yet we use the word “literal” more for form than we do for meaning. Here is an example: here is a literal translation—a word for word translation of John 3:16: “So for loved the god the world that the son the only he gave so that every the believing into him not perish, but have life eternal.” Now does anybody want to read a word for word Bible? It’s not English, is it? Now this is just the nature of languages. Language have different vocabulary they have different word order, and they have different grammar. You simply can’t go directly from one language to the next its impossible.
Here is an example that I use, (I’m never sure whether I should use this or not, but it works so well). When was in graduate school, I was struggling with reading German, so I called mom and dad and said, can I go to Germany and learn German. They said fine. So I went to Schwäbisch Hall, a great little tourist town in southern Germany. I went to German school for three months, and absolutely loved it. There were a bunch of Americans there from some American university, who knew a lot more German than I did. They were in the upper division class I was in the beginner’s. It was late fall, and I was talking to my friends. And we weren’t ever supposed to speak in English—we were only supposed to speak in German. That was part of the deal. And I wanted to say I was cold. I is “ich,” “am” is “bin” and “cold” is “kalt.” So I said, “Brrrr, ich bin kalt,” and all twenty of my friends hit the ground rolling in hysterical laughter and I’m going “what did I say? I said, ‘ich bin kalt,’ ‘I am cold,’” and it literally took about two or three minutes for my friends to regain their composure. They said, “Do you have any idea what you said, Bill?” and I said, “No,” and they said, “you said you are sexually frigid,” and I went, “What?” They said if you want to say I am cold you have to say, “It is to me cold,” that’s how you say “I am cold in German.” You know, what can I say.
And you think I would have learned my lesson. It got warm a few days later. And I said “ich bin warm,” and they sat there and rolled their heads. I said to myself, “Will you ever learn? I thought “ich bin warm”!” “I am horny” is what I said, pretty much that crassly as well. You can have the same problem going to Scotland. I was at a restaurant once, and I asked for a napkin and they just sat there and shook their heads—a napkin is a tampon in Scotland. So you can get in all kinds of problems thinking you are being safe and being literal, it doesn’t work in languages. This is what happen because of the nature of language.
Every translation has a philosophy; every translation has to make a choice about what Bible we want to be. It’s that decision that determines how the Bible reads, and that’s why Bibles are different. The ESV was written for people who wanted to study. So we use words like propitiation. “We don’t know what propitiation means.” “Well, look it up.” This is a study Bible. The NIV is somewhere in the middle. They translate the same word, hilasterion, as “atoning sacrifice.” You can figure out what that means. The New Living just completely explains it. It takes about a phrase to explain it. See that’s not because some people can translate, and some can’t. There are different translation philosophies, different audiences and that’s why Bibles tend to be different. Let me give you the most basic division and the most basic questions that translators have to answer.
Some translations are what’s called formal equivalent translations. The New American Standard is the best example of this. A formal equivalent means they want to go as much as is possible word for word. If the Greek takes eight words, we want to use eight words in English. If the Greek uses a participle, we want to use a participle. If the word “the” is there in Greek we want to place a “the” there in English. It’s done with a recognition that’s its not always possible, but they want to be as close word for word to the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts they possibly can. Formally equivalent translations tend to use the same English word for the same Greek word. The translators know that words have bundles of meaning, but as an example, the word pollous occurs some 60 or so times, and we are going to translate it cities, every time. The NASB uses this word for word mentality. There’s obviously certain value to this, for example, if I sit down and read the NASB, I can see the Greek behind it. They have done a really good job; the Greek and Hebrew are very transparent behind it. I think it’s much less interpretive than most, because they are just translating words they are not concerned about meaning. So there is less of the translator involved in the process. Of course the translator is involved in the process, but not as much so as in other philosophies.
There are several, at least three, major problems with formal equivalent translations. One is that they are just terrible English, and they make Paul sound like an idiot in places. Was Paul this uneducated that he couldn’t put a coherent sentence together? No, sometimes Paul gets mad and its hard to translate his Greek, but he is not incompetent and it makes the Bible feel like really bad literature, which makes it hard to read and hard to memorize. There are other problems connected to that. Having bad English may not be an issue to some people. Second, formally equivalent translations sometimes obscure meaning. The heart and soul of formally equivalent translations is to not interject myself into the translation, but if the Greek says something, I want to say it; I want to get it right. And in many ways they do a great job, but they can obscure meaning as well. For example, every time polis occurs, that’s the Greek word, they translate it city. So they translate “the city of Nazareth.” That’s a bad translation, since there were about 600 people in Nazareth in Jesus’s day. Is 600 people a city? No, 600 people is a wide spot on a road. They are lucky to have their own zip code. It miscommunicates; its not a city; it’s a hamlet; it’s a village, something like that.
Another example is in John 2. (I’m going to pick on all translations by the way, except the ESV of course. No, I could pick on that too). In John 2, at the wedding at Cana, Mary is telling Jesus to take care of the wine problem. And the NASB says, “And Jesus says to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with us, my hour has not yet come.” Do you ever struggle with that? “Woman.” Jesus, wash your mouth out with soap, oh that’s right you are sinless. Why are you being so mean to your mother?” Well the Greek gunei is not mean. It’s just a normal form of address. We don’t have anything remotely like that form of address in English, so the NASB comes along and says, “Woman,” and we hear, its derogatory. That’s not in the Greek at all, that connotation doesn’t exist. That’s why the NIV says, “Dear woman, why do you involve me.” The NIV translators are saying, we’ve got to make people understand its not a bad term for Jesus to call his mother woman. The New Living simply skips it all together. “‘How does that concern you and me,’ Jesus asked?” In a sense that’s not that bad of an option because there is simply no way to say “woman”; “dear woman” is close, but still it raises questions that the Greek doesn’t raise. So these kinds of translation are going to obscure meaning.
The third problem, which is related, is that it is impossible to not be interpretive in translation. If you hear someone say my Bible is not interpretive, they really don’t know what they are talking about. Of course, be nice to them, but they simply don’t know. It is impossible to translate without being interpretive. For example, in 1 Timothy 3, the discussion of elders and deacons, verse 11 is talking about females. The RSV says, “The women likewise should be serious, no slander, temperate, faithful in all things.” The word gunei can be translated “women,” and what the RSV is saying is that they are talking about deaconesses. Now the word deaconess wasn’t created till the second century, so Paul just used woman, context shows its talking about deaconesses. The ESV says “their wives”—which is the other translation of gunei—”their wives likewise must be dignified.” The ESV position was that this verse is not talking about deaconesses, but is talking about the wives of male deacons. Now when you come to gunei, you cannot get around that problem; you have to be interpretive. You look at the context, you look at the exegesis, you look at your theology, you make a decision in your translation. So the NASB suffers from what all translations suffer from, they have to be interpretive. You can’t get away from it. There is an Italian proverb if I could speak Italian I could sound really cool, but it means traitors are traitors. All translators are traitors to the original meaning. You either put too much into it or not enough into it. That’s a gross overstatement, but you get the idea.
The the second of our four kinds of translation is called dynamic equivalence, and the NIV is the best example of a dynamic equivalent translation. These translations are not concerned to translate words; they are concerned to translate meaning. In that sense, that is the fundamental decision that translators have to make. Am I going to simply translate the words and let you figure it out, or am I going to translate what the original means. And the form is called dynamic, because they don’t care how many Greek words its takes to say something, they don’t care about the grammar, they don’t care that it’s a participle. If I can say the same thing in English with a finite verb or with an adjective, I’m going to do it. Dynamic equivalence says translation process is dynamic; we don’t have to stick to the same grammatical forms, but what we are trying to do is get an equivalence of meaning.
The problem with dynamic equivalent translations is that they are more interpretive. The more you go down this path—and it’s a continuum; it’s not a stair step; it’s a very smooth continuum—away from word to word, away form translating word to translating meaning, more and more of the translator’s theology gets put into the translation. And so they get more interpretive and therefore less trustworthy in a sense. For example, can someone who is divorced be an elder in a church? The only passage is 1 Timothy 3:2. If you translate 1 Timothy 3:2 word for word, it’s “of-one-of-woman man.” But the problem is the word for woman and man could also be wife or husband so it could also be translated, “of-one-of-wife husband.” So first of all, you have to make a choice on whether you are taking about married people or not. How are you going to translate this? The ESV translates “an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.” Almost everyone was married and we figured the point wasn’t whether they had to be married or not—that was just the culture; almost everyone was married. “The husband of one wife—that’s what we did. (I say we because dad and I were two of the translators on the ESV. That’s why we are sort of biased to it. It’s also why we have some good stories about it, but that is another talk). That’s as close as we could get to the Greek, where it had some meaning and we weren’t interjecting ourselves too far into it because this is a difficult passage.
The NRSV translates this as “married only once.” The NIV, and tell me if you can hear, “the husband of, but one wife.” There is no word “but” in there. I don’t know why the NIV choose “but.” One of the possible interpretations is that elders can’t be polygamous, and the “but” may be there to help you understand that. I don’t know. The New Living says, “he must be faithful to his wife.” I actually think that is the right interpretation. It’s in the commentary if you want to read the reasons for it. I think it’s an odd Greek idiom; it has no parallel in Greek literature. The construction “of-one-of-woman man” doesn’t exist anywhere else in Greek literature. It’s an idiom Paul is making up and it seems to me that he must be saying he must be faithful. Does the word faithful occur in the Greek? No, but that’s what it means. You can see the problem: as you get more interpretive, you get more meaning, it gets clearer, it flows better, it reads better and more of the translators are in between the lines of your Bible. That’s dynamic equivalent. Translate words: formal. Translate meaning: dynamic. You can understand the problems. There two other categories as well.
Paraphrase is very much a thought for thought translation, just further down on the spectrum. NASB is more formal, NIV is more dynamic, then you get the rest of the paraphrases. There are some very good paraphrases, like the NLT. I don’t call the New Living a translation, I think it’s very periphrastic. I really like the NLT. I know a bunch of the guys that helped translate it. They are good scholars; they are good people; and they are conservative. I read the New Living almost as a commentary. “I wonder what Craig thinks on Galatians. Oh ok.” There is so much of the translator in these things that it gets dangerous. Another magnificent paraphrase is JB Phillips, translated in the fox holes of London during the bombing of London, and he writes only as an Englishman can write. Can you think of another example that’s really good? Romans 12: “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold,” as opposed to “don’t be conformed to this world.” Magnificent paraphrase, but it is a paraphrase.
There is a forth category, that I call running commentary; there is not a technical word for it. The Living Bible is far past it. Kenneth Taylor may have sold 40 million of these, and these may be great assurance to people, but they’re not Bibles. There is so much made up stuff throughout, a lot of good stuff, but a lot of made up stuff. The Message is great running commentary on the Bible. It’s not a Bible; it’s simply so far down the line that you can’t say “thus saith the Lord” and quote that book. So you have this long range. Let me give you an example using Romans 16:16. The NIV translates it, “greet one another with a holy kiss.” What’s a holy kiss? Well the NIV said figure it out. Phillips’s translation is, “greet one another with a brotherly kiss.” Maybe that’s not Phillips, maybe that’s another translation, but you can see what they are trying to do. They are saying, “What you would a brotherly kiss look like in our culture?” A kiss on the cheek, right? The Living Bible says, “Shake hands warmly with each other.” Now having said something negative about the New Living, let me say something positive: that’s exactly what it means. That is exactly what Paul means. What is the current acceptable way of warmly greeting someone? You shake hands with them, maybe now we should say, “Give them a quick hug”; I don’t know. The Living nailed it. That’s exactly what Paul means. What he said was, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” So this is the basic issue, and this is where translations are different. There is a spectrum from word for word, to translate meaning, to thought for thought, to my good ideas mixed in with the Bibles. Each one has its use doesn’t it?
Let me give you some final comments. First of all, trust your Bibles. The translators have done a really good job. In one of the books I wrote, I did a tremendous amount of comparison between the translations. I expected to find them to contradict themselves all over the place, but that’s not what happens. Some are ambiguous; some are a little more specific; some are a little more word for word; other translations are going to identify the meaning, like the NLT—I rarely disagree with their interpretation of the verse. You can trust them. These are goods ways to understand. I think knowing Greek is great. There are some people who need to do it, but you can really be comfortable with your translations.
I don’t want to interject a bunch of question and doubts, I just want you to know why they are different. I really want to encourage you to read more than one. Don’t read the NASB and the ESV—don’t read two formally equivalent translations. And certainly don’t read two paraphrases—don’t read Phillips and the NLT. I would encourage you to pick one primary Bible that is closer to the formally equivalent side, so that you can trust the words more, because we hang onto words, you notice that? You see a word in a verse, and you want to hang on it—you want to make sure that word is there in the Greek. The encouragement is to get something like an NASB or an NRSV or an ESV, or maybe even an NIV, which are going to be more on the word for word side. I think that should be a primary study Bible. Then, by all means, find something on the other side of the spectrum. Get a Phillips, get a New Living and read them together, and when you read them together, you can be really confident that what you are seeing is what the text says. So that would be my encouragement for you.
If you would like to see a chart of translations, I swiped this off the Zondervan website so you can get an idea. Far left are the word for word, interlinears, and the NASB. As you start going more thought for thought, translating meaning instead of words, you have RSV, KJV, NKJV, and NRSV. NRSV is hard to peg, because it is more literal of a translation—it is more word for word, but it won’t use male oriented language, so “brother” becomes “person.” So that pushes it further this other side. Next are the NIV, then Zondervan’s new Bible, the TNIV. Then you are moving down here to NLT, Good News, the Living Bible, and the Message. So that gives you a good idea of where translations are. I think that chart is accurate. If you want more information, there this character Bill Mounce, who wrote a book called Greek for the Rest of Us. This whole issue from canonization through transmission through translation is in the book, and he included all of his lecture in the back of his book. You can also go to www.biblicaltraining.org and listen to the lecture if you want, without buying the book. There’s a lot more information, and there is also a bibliography in that book.
Student Question: “When and how did the numerical verses come into being?”
Response: “The verses came into being somewhere around the twelfth century. There are several different schemes, and you will find for example the NASB is is different in some places than the NIV. Greek was originally written in all capital letters and no spaces, and is very difficult to read. Somewhere around the twelfth century, they went to upper and lower case. Centuries later, the verses were added with periods and commas. That all got added in later, so you can ignore that stuff if you want.”
Thank you! We will get going on Mark. It’s really important that you read Mark before you come.
Let’s pray. Father, we thank you for time once again. We pray Father that amidst all of the questions and the possibilities, that you will deepen our hearts, give us a faith to believe, and an absolute and total trust in your word—that the books that are there, that they are the ones that you wanted there, that you control them through out the centuries, that the translations are good and we can bet our lives on the message that’s in them, because that’s exactly what we are doing. In Jesus’s name, amen.