Defining and Redefining Bible Translation Terminology


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DR. DON WILkINS: B.A. UC Irvine, M.Div. Talbot Seminary, Th.M. Talbot Seminary, M.A. UCLA, Ph.D. UCLA. He has worked with The Lockman Foundation (TLF) as a senior translator since 1992 on the NASB.

For some time now, terms ending in the word “equivalent” or one of its variations have been preferred in describing translation philosophies. I have a problem with this word, and all translators really should have the same problem with it: it begs the very question we are debating.

Just to clarify, “begging the question” means that one is assuming the truth of the very proposition that one is attempting to prove. “God exists because he does” would be an obvious example that would fool no one, and to be effective, a question-begging statement or term must be subtle or complex. It also needs to catch on with the right people. “Equivalent” seems to have passed all the tests. It is used freely by translators of all philosophies, and the public seems to be comfortable with it.

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But when we translators use the word, we are flattering ourselves. A look at any good dictionary will reveal that “equivalent” means “equal to” in virtually every way–which is saying a lot. If you’re an avid bargain-hunter, as I am, you know how important the word really is. We often buy store-brand versions of foods because they are the “equivalent” of brand names that are more expensive. If they don’t live up to the claim, then we conclude that they were not really “equivalent.”

I belong to an HMO that provides me generic medications which are “equivalent” to far more expensive brand names. In fact, by law generics are required to be equivalent, and they seem to work well, so I don’t have a problem with the substitutions. I assume that this is an acceptable way for my HMO to keep my rates lower than they might otherwise be.

I am also a do-it-yourselfer, and I try to save money by buying “equivalent” materials now and then. But more importantly, I sometimes cannot find a replacement part made by the “original equipment manufacturer,” so I instead purchase an “equivalent” part not made by the original manufacturer instead. It is important to me to know that the part in question exactly corresponds to the broken part I am replacing. Otherwise, it may not fit, or it may not work properly. If it fails in either respect, I complain that it was not an equivalent after all.


Therefore, when any translator claims that his translation is an equivalent to the OL texts, he is claiming that it is equal to them in virtually every way and that his translation will work just as well as the original would if the user could read the OL text. This is quite a stupendous claim. It should mean that if I have the translation, I can get along without the original, just as my car will run as well with a quality replacement part not made by the car’s manufacturer as it did with the original. I think the advocates of the KJV who believe that it is an inspired translation are perfectly comfortable with it as a replacement for the OL texts, but I cannot believe that any translator of any other English Bible would honestly dare to claim that we no longer needed the OL texts once his translation became available. If I may use a very old word that has become popular again, this strikes me as the height of hubris. Why, then, are we still using the term “equivalent” or its variations to describe Bible translations?

I would suggest another set of terminology, replacing “equivalent” with “correspondent” or “correspondence.” Even then, I would qualify the new term by adding “-based,” so that we understand that we are referring to the goal of translation, not to what is actually achieved in every case. One of the benefits of the concept of “correspondence” is that our modern usage already includes the phrase, “exactly corresponds,” indicating that correspondence can be less than exact. This would be a much more accurate appraisal of translation. For our present purposes, however, I will unhappily use the conventional terminology, flawed as it is, along with other general terms. We will discuss what it all means, and how we are to evaluate it.


Literal Translation

Earlier, for the sake of simplicity, I used the terms “interpretive” and “non-interpretive.” Let’s begin with the philosophy of so-called literal translation, which I classify as non-interpretive. It is easy for me to rate a translation in this category because I can use a simple test: the test of back-translation. Fortunately, this test is also easy to understand even if you have no knowledge of the OL’s.

To perform the test, you do have to be fluent in both the RL and the OL’s. This is how it works: you take a verse from the English translation under examination and translate it into biblical Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic (GHA), depending on where it is found in the Bible. This assumes, of course, that you are not being influenced by your own memory of the verse in the OL, so it is best to use verses with which you are unfamiliar. You should be thinking, how would the original author put this–not how did he put this? Then, you compare the translation with what is actually in the OL text.


The best possible result for a non-interpretive translation would be that your translation matches the OL text. We could truly call this “equivalent.” In view of what I said above in my complaint about “equivalent,” you might protest that this would instead be identical to the OL text and that I am setting too high a standard for “equivalent.” But when we are looking at the OL’s, and especially at Greek, there are too many variables in the text to say that some changes resulting from translation would make absolutely no difference in the meaning. And remember what we require of equivalency in everyday life: an equivalent item has to be as good as the original, fully capable of replacing it. If the original is the word of God, the only version of it that I am comfortable calling “equivalent” is something identical to it.

So then, if I can do a GHA back-translation of a Bible verse that happens to match the OL text, then the English translation is truly equivalent to the original. In practice, there would almost certainly be some differences, including word order due to the lesser flexibility of English compared to Greek. I would allow a little margin for error in granting that I might just as well have chosen the wording in the OL text wherever that was an equally acceptable option to what I actually chose.


Let me give you an example to illustrate. An NT verse that no one is likely to memorize is John 3:25. The NASB reads:

 Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification.

Translating “Therefore” into NT Greek is simple enough because there is a Greek word normally used for it. It always takes the second position in its clause, so, for now, I will focus on “there arose.” In English this use of “there” is just a placeholder that does not mean anything; it merely allows us to put the verb (“arose”) ahead of its subject (“a discussion”). We usually do this to focus on the verb so I would assume that the verb in the Greek is in an emphatic position, which in this case is probably first in the sentence. I do not even need a word for “there” in my Greek sentence thanks to the greater freedom Greek has in word order. My literal Greek so far–interlinear style–would read, “Arose therefore.”

Now I need a Greek word for “arose” in the simple past tense, and I am not sure what to choose because I immediately recognize that the word here is not referring to someone standing up or rising from the dead. Clearly, it is an abstract sense of “arise.” The historical context is that of a group (John’s disciples and a Jew who was not) that had formed for undisclosed reasons. In such a group, I think what we mean when we say that “a discussion arose” is that a discussion took place randomly or for undisclosed reasons. That is, there was no program or agenda for the group that required the discussion. Perhaps they were talking about the pro’s and con’s of locusts and honey as a diet, and that led to hand washing techniques, and then they found themselves talking about baptism.

Thinking along this line, the word for “happen” in Greek comes to my mind, so for now I will try, “Happened therefore.” Now to grammatically complete the clause I need a Greek word for “discussion.” No problem with that; the word “dialog” seems like a good fit, one of the few original Greek words in English that mostly carries its original meaning over into English. I only have a small misgiving that it may be too formal or literary for the NT. I could check my NT lexicon, but in this exercise that would be cheating and, more importantly, might give me too much information, invalidating the exercise.

Now then, I have to back-translate “on the part of,” and I find myself faced with an idiom that probably does not correspond directly to the Greek. That is, I know that Greek does have a common word for “part,” but like the word for “arise,” I doubt that it can be used in this abstract sense. It seems to me that the idea here is one of responsibility; for example, John’s disciples might have brought up the subject of purification. If the NASB translation is accurate, however, John did not specify in his Greek what the disciples did that led to the discussion. It just originated somehow with them. A crude approximation of this idea might be to say that the discussion was “from” them. I prefer to say that the discussion “originated with” them, but then I have to decide whether that is compatible with the idea of “arose” that I have already sorted out. A simpler way to put it would be, “John’s disciples started a discussion with a Jew”; but if that is essentially the same as “originated with,” then neither will do because the randomness of “arose” rules out “John’s disciples started.”

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So I am not comfortable with any Greek that I can think of for “on the part of” here. If I use “from John’s disciples” as a crude choice for the time being, then I would just use a preposition in Greek for “from” that indicates a source, as opposed to separation (e.g. “away from”).

We are almost finished, thankfully. “John’s disciples” is simple: we just need his name in the Greek genitive case, wording the phrase as “the disciples of John,” because Greek does not have the equivalent of “-’s” for nouns to express possession. Typically “the” is omitted in English translations when possession is expressed this way, so I’ll add it. I see no reason to do anything different in the word order from the English translation, except for the beginning of the verse. So after “disciples of John” we will just use the Greek for the idea of “with” found here followed by “Jew.” Note too that we need no Greek word for “a.” The phrase “about purification” is also simple. The Greek has a common preposition for the idea seen here, and there is also a common word for purification.

What we have, then, in the Greek word order is:

    Happened therefore dialog from the disciples of John with Jew about purification.

Let’s polish this up just a little:

Therefore a dialog happened on the part of the disciples of John with a Jew about purification.

You notice first that I compensated for standard English word order and added the indefinite article “a.” Then I put “on the part of” back in because, as I said, “from” is crude but I am at something of a loss for a better alternative. This is a decent interim back-translation into Greek, translated back into readable English. I fear that may sound confusing. If it helps, the actual Greek (in all capital letters as in the OL) put into English letters would read:


John actually wrote:


Now then, we need only to compare the back-translation with the original Greek of the verse to see how close it is and, therefore, how literal or accurate the translation found in the NASB is. It turns out that the OL has the same two words at the beginning (“Therefore happened”). As I suspected, though, “dialog” is wrong, and it turns out that the corresponding Greek word is never used in the NT. The word that John actually employs is one that usually refers to an argument or debate, though it can have a more neutral sense of a discussion based on the idea of an inquiry. There is not enough in the context to explain why the translators preferred “discussion.”


Surprisingly, where the NASB has “on the part of,” the Greek actually has “from” indicating source. What I thought was crude in English clearly was not crude in Greek. The simple way to put it would have been that the disciples started the argument, or discussion, but John could have said that; instead, he chose “happened from.” One could argue that “started” would be a functional equivalent, even though it would require that the subject (“argument/discussion”) and agent (“disciples”) be converted to object and subject respectively. Only John could verify this, however. He would either tell us that it would have made no difference to him, giving “started” the status of a functional equivalent; or, that he was focusing on the argument as the subject rather than on the disciples, and thus rejecting “started” as an option.

The rest of the verse is just as we expected it in Greek, with the result that the English can be called a formal equivalent, or literal. The correspondence in word order may seem entirely unremarkable, but I assure you that it is just as likely for the Greek word order to be unacceptable or at least awkward in English.

Now let’s see how the ESV, HCSB, and NIV for this verse compare in back-translation. The mental process can be done quickly by a competent translator, but I fear that you may have found reading through the explanation a little tedious, so I will aim for brevity this time. I have charted out these three versions of the verse for convenience of comparison.

John 3:25 (ESV)

25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification.

John 3:25 (HCSB)

25 Then a dispute arose between John’s disciples and a Jew about purification.

John 3:25 (NIV)

25 An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing.

The ESV should rival the NASB in formal equivalency; I expect less from the HCSB and less still from the NIV. However, as I will maintain in chapter four, we can expect to find a combination of literal and DE/FE translation in Bibles that fall under DE/FE category.

The ESV and HCSB both have introductory words, “Now” and “Then” respectively. “Now” might seem a simple adverb or marker of time, but in a narrative like this it probably does not have a temporal sense. More likely it just means that the text is moving on to a new subject, as in “now then.” Two Greek words come to mind, the first of which typically means “and” or “but” and can also have the meaning we need here. The other is the same word that was translated “therefore” in the NASB.

The HCSB’s “Then” is a little more ambiguous: it could be from the word “therefore,” or the idea could be “at that time,” representing a different Greek word. I have to make guesses for both the ESV and the HCSB, but at least these introductory words do not seem critical to the meaning. The NIV, by contrast, has no introductory word. Knowing the different philosophies of translation, we would conclude that the NIV omitted a Greek word, rather than assume that the ESV and HCSB added a word where there was none in the Greek.


We next see “discussion,” “dispute,” and “argument” as the subject. We now know from our back-translation of the NASB that all three are legitimate formal-equivalent translations of the Greek. The ESV and HCSB also happen to agree with the NASB on the verb “arose.” I find this interesting, given that we now know that the Greek is “happened.” Why should “arose” be a popular choice here? “Happened” would have sounded awkward, but why not “took place,” or “occurred,” for example? The construction “took place” usually implies planning, as for a scheduled event, so it does not fit the context. The term “occurred” eliminates that problem, but it suggests something random, almost accidental, and topics of discussion do not come up randomly, even when they are unplanned. There always seems to be some chain of reasoning or previous topics that leads to the next topic. It turns out that in literary English at least, “arose” is often chosen for the idea that we need here.

The NIV has “developed,” and this seems appropriate because it suggests some kind of process that resulted in the argument. As I think of how to express this in NT Greek, however, I immediately realize that I would be looking for a different word from “happen,” since that does not imply a process. I can quickly conclude that the NIV choice makes good sense but does not rate high as a literal translation.

You see next that all three versions have “between.” This is crystal-clear in English, so much so that I doubt we would use a different word. The Greek for “between” is not so clear a choice because it mainly refers to spatial placement, as in putting something between two objects. Nevertheless, it is a possibility, and I have two other Greek options, both of which express about the same idea as the English.

However, any Greek construction I propose for “between” will be wrong, as we now know, because the English word indicates nothing about the originator of the argument, and we discovered that in the Greek John made it clear that the disciples started the discussion or argument. So “between” is neither literal nor accurate, and it poses a roadblock to understanding what John meant, because even a competent translator would never guess what is actually in the Greek.

In the grand story of salvation and the subtopic of baptism, it may not be important to know exactly what happened in this encounter between John’s disciples and the Jew; but if there was an argument, we usually want to know who started it.

The rest of the verse mainly provides evidence that exceptions to translation philosophies abound in the Bibles produced under those philosophies. We see that both the ESV and the NIV have the word “some.” There is a Greek word corresponding to it (few languages can get along without “some”), so the choice is easy. If only the NIV had the word, I would hesitate to include it, but since it is in the ESV as well, I would have to seriously consider it. The question is, why does the HCSB not have it? What is gained by omitting it? Nothing that I can see; in fact, keeping the word makes more sense.

Of course what we discover is that “some” is not in the Greek, and thus the HCSB is correct while the ESV has added it, as has the NIV. Overall the ESV is significantly more literal than the HCSB (and certainly more than the NIV), I think; yet here it is less so.

To continue our exercise, note that the NIV has “certain” with “Jew.” Like “some,” the back-translation for this would be simple; the question would be whether “certain” is really translating something in the Greek, and it turns out that it is not. This is curious for the NIV, really–this use of “certain” is a leftover from much older translations, and is often awkward and unnecessary in modern translations.


Now let’s finish the exercise. The verse ends with another preposition (“over/about”) and “purification” or the NIV’s “the matter of ceremonial washing.” The preposition “over” poses a problem a little like “between,” in that the Greek equivalent has the spatial sense of “above,” and that’s not what we need here. “About” makes good sense in the context, so since I am quite sure that the literal Greek “over” would be wrong, I am going to guesstimate a little and choose the Greek for “about.” Also, if I actually have these three Bible translations open before me as I have indicated, then I see “purification” in two of them and the NIV’s multiple-word term, which almost seems to be a definition of “purification.” Furthermore, I doubt very much that the translators of these three versions saw multiple words in the Greek that the NIV translators handled word-for-word, and the ESV and HCSB translators decided to just put “purification” instead. Much more likely, the Greek is just the word “purification” that the NIV translators paraphrased. So my corresponding back-translation in the Greek will be “about purification.”[1] As we know, that is what John’s Greek actually says, so the NASB, ESV, and HCSB all formally correspond to the OL at this closing phrase.

Before moving on, let me first make a comment about literal or formal equivalency translations that stand the test of back-translation. A very old term for this kind of equivalency was “word for word” that I just used above, sometimes hyphenated to serve as an adjective. Technically, it meant that for each word in the OL there was one–and only one–word in the RL; but reasonable usage of the term allowed room for exceptions. More recently, it seems that adherents of interpretive translations have been trying to give non-interpretive translators a black eye by misusing this term, which they abbreviate as WFW. They do this by adding the OL word order into the mix.

I noted earlier[2] that Greek in particular is so flexible in word order that beginning Greek students might view a passage as a kind of jigsaw puzzle to solve by putting all the words in the “right order,” i.e., the order necessary to make sense in English. For the New Testament, you can see the creative order of the Greek in a Greek “interlinear,” i.e., a translation which places the English words directly below or above the Greek words they represent. Much of the translation will make little or no sense due to the word order, and it is this kind of translation that some advocates of interpretive translations are branding as WFW. To anyone unfamiliar with the history of the term, this seems reasonable.

But this really is a misrepresentation of the term, and I can only wish that the misrepresentation stopped there. For many years, “literal” and “word-for-word” have been synonymous terms, and both have been applied to non-interpretive translations. Sadly, it appears that those who are using WFW as a term for interlinear translations have been taking advantage of the historical association of “word-for-word” with non-interpretive translations and describing them as if they were as awkward to read as interlinears. Finding an equally illogical notion with which to compare this is a real challenge. Perhaps it would be like assuming that a wealthy visitor from India had made his fortune from the Indian casino business here in the U.S.

Let me offer just two examples: the first is in a video lecture by Bill Mounce delivered in October 2013 and available online.[3] Mounce is a genuine Greek scholar and a translator for the NIV. We immediately get a sense of his viewpoint from the lecture title, “Translate Words or Meaning,” which seems very much like a reflection of Eugene Nida’s “meaning-based translation” which we will discuss below.[4] For now, if you find the option “words or meaning” a little puzzling, I assure you that you are in good company. It so happens that words have meaning, so another option is to translate the meanings of words. But let’s get back to word order.

In his lecture, Mounce provides an interlinear translation of Romans 12:16 and labels it “WFW,” which he explains as his abbreviation for “word-for-word.” In the Greek the objects of the verb “be of mind” come first in word order, giving the translation a form that no English speaker would use, as Mounce observes. About a minute later in the lecture he calls the NASB a “word-for-word” translation. I confess that I do not know whether this was all a carefully thought-out piece of misdirection on Mounce’s part, or it just turned out that way. By submitting and explaining WFW as a piece of shorthand, he escaped any challenge to applying the term “word-for-word” to an interlinear translation.


The second example can be found in Scott’s and Hays’s Grasping God’s Word.[5] Like Mounce, they provide an interlinear English translation of a verse, Matthew 17:18, and call it a “word-for-word English rendition”:

And rebuked it the Jesus and came out from him the demon and was healed the boy from the hour that.

Scott and Hays even describe this translation as one that is literal, “keeping also the word order.” There is a sense of finality both in their and in Mounce’s use of “word-for-word” or “WFW” for an interlinear translation, as if the scholarly world has permanently redefined the term in this sense. I see no reason to restrict the term in this way, but I suppose it will depend in the end on usage. If the terms word-for-word or WFW do come to be exclusively applied to interlinears, it will be unethical for critics to apply the term to literal translations, as is being done by some now. A rendition of Matthew 17:18 like that cited above, for example, would never be acceptable in a literal translation.

Surely translation terminology is already challenging enough without adding confusion and misrepresentation to it. So then, for non-interpretive or literal translation, the preferred term today seems to be “formal equivalency.” This focuses our attention on the grammatical form, such as a noun, verb, or adjective, though it also needs to include the meaning of the word. Technically, the formal meaning is what it meant to the original readers of the time. We determine this by using the tools I described earlier: lexicons and computer programs that allow us to find occurrences of words in relevant ancient sources.

Let me illustrate the importance of the formal meaning as I have just defined it, by using the word “gay.” If we asked a test group today what the statement, “He was gay” means, most would probably say that “gay” refers to sexual preference. But if the statement came from a novel written a hundred years ago, they would be completely mistaken. We might have to explain to them that people who were alive a hundred years ago understood “gay” to mean “happy,” and never used it to refer to sexual orientation.

Now then, let’s make our test group a dozen or so people engaged in a group Bible study instead. A lot of time can be wasted if the formal meanings of key words are not conveyed by the translations used. To make things worse, the people who lead group Bible studies often have no training in Bible interpretation and do not understand how Bible translation is done.

One of my frustrations about group Bible studies has been the practice of word study by English dictionary. That is, an interesting word in the Bible text is targeted, and then someone looks it up in a big English dictionary, giving the impression that “in-depth” study of the word has just been performed. In reality, the dictionary is only providing the reader various definitions and synonyms for the word chosen by the translator, expanding the range of possible meanings when it was actually the translator’s intent to choose a single word or phrase he considered the best fit for the context. If the word actually is difficult to understand or ambiguous in the English, and if only one, non-interpretive (literal) translation is being used by the group, then there might be some small benefit in seeing what the range of meaning is for the English word in the context. I cannot speak for all translators of non-interpretive translations, but I can say that the NASB translators attempt to carry ambiguity in the OL text over into the RL text. These are cases of intentional ambiguity in the translation.


You may find that last point about ambiguity confusing, so we probably need a time-out. Isn’t clarity in Bible translation always a good thing? It always is a selling point, to be sure. But as a matter of fact, not everything in the Bible was meant to be easy to understand. The apostle Peter said so, when he commented that Paul’s letters contain things that are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). It follows that if the translator is simplifying a passage that is difficult in the OL, and he is thereby narrowing down the meaning, he may actually be mistranslating it. So a difficult or ambiguous word or phrase in the English Bible translation may not be a sign of bad translation practice, but just the opposite.

You will see an example of this later when we discuss John 14:30, where the ESV may have hidden the correct meaning from the reader as a result of simplifying the literal “he has nothing in me.”[6] Another example of simplifying the OL for clarity at the cost of eliminating options in meaning can be seen in 1 Peter 3:18, part of the passage famously considered by some to be the most difficult in all the Bible.[7] The verse contains a complicated participial construction translated “having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” in the NASB, with a note that “spirit” may instead be “Spirit” (i.e. the Holy Spirit).

There is a clear balance in the Greek construction reflected by the NASB wording. The ESV likewise respects this same balance while not as accurately depicting the timing of the participles, nor alerting the reader to the option for “spirit”:

…being put to death in the flesh

but made alive in the spirit….

Note for comparison how the construction is handled by the 1984 NIV and the HCSB:

1 Peter 3:18 (NIV, 1984)

18 … He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit

1 Peter 3:18 (HCSB)

18 … after being put to death in the fleshly realm
but made alive in the spiritual realm.

For the NIV translators, it was a short leap from “flesh” to “body,” which is a reasonable interpretation of what Peter means here by “flesh.” In the second clause, however, the balance of Peter’s Greek was lost when the translators chose “by” instead of “in,” where Peter actually wrote (or dictated) identical grammatical constructions. If I may say so, the translators were rocking Peter’s boat. They undoubtedly substituted “by” because they chose “Spirit,” i.e. the Holy Spirit, which further disrupts the balance. The way to steady the boat would have been to change “in the body” to “by people,” interpreting the Greek “flesh” as a reference to the people who crucified Jesus. The Greek construction does not favor this interpretation, but it is plausible and would have eliminated the imbalance, which seemed to have mattered stylistically to Peter.

In the 2011 revision of the NIV, the translators made minor changes to various verses, including this one, that I can only conclude were due to a desire to provide a little more fidelity to the OL (though not nearly enough to make the NIV the equal of a literal translation). So here, “by the Spirit” was changed to “in the Spirit,” which is identical to the alternative provided (but not preferred) by the NASB. By this change the NIV translators restored the grammatical balance that was missing in the 1984 version.

The HCSB offers a very interesting contrast to the NIV. Like the NASB and ESV, it preserves the balance of Peter’s Greek, and it also brings out the timing reflected by the tenses of the participles. However, I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that “in the fleshly realm” is so awkward as to make little sense.[8] More to the point for this discussion, it even seems to exclude Christ’s own flesh as an option for interpretation, when this option is not only plausible but possibly the best choice. We only begin to infer what the translators have in mind when we see “In that state” at the beginning of v. 19, which is an interpretive translation of Peter’s “in which.” Apparently, by “realm” we are to understand something like “state of existence.” Yet it would have been clearer, it seems, to refer simply to Christ’s spirit in contrast to his flesh, so by not using these literal terms the translators indicate that they mean something else.


In any case, by attempting to interpret this difficult text for the reader, the HCSB translators made it more difficult for readers to see other possible meanings in the text, and gave the mistaken impression that the passage is easier or clearer than it actually is–or at least that would be the impression if the HCSB rendering were as clear as the translators undoubtedly intended it to be. I think a strong case can be made that a difficult or mysterious passage should retain most or all of its unique quality in translation. There may be something very special there that will be lost if the difficulty or mystery is camouflaged by the translation.

Before leaving this discussion, I would be remiss and guilty of bias if I did not acknowledge that both the NIV and HCSB provide notes citing literal translations of the Greek in question here. I will have more to say about notes in chapter 7. Certainly the NIV and HCSB are to be commended for having notes on this verse, but, had they been entirely forthright with the reader, they would have made these “Lit” (i.e. “Literally”) notes, not “Or” notes, because the latter category indicates that the wording of the text is as literal a rendering of the Greek as that found in the note. I think we all would acknowledge that marginal notes, even when they are perfectly legible,[9] do not have the same attraction for us that the text does. If the text is clear enough, and the translators are telling us that the wording in a note (which will probably seem less clear if it is literal) is just an option, chances are unfortunately good that we will ignore the note. We should make the effort instead to give translation notes our close attention, regardless of how they are presented.

When we took the preceding time-out to discuss the handling of ambiguity in the OL, I was grumbling about the use of English dictionaries for “in-depth” Bible study, conceding that an English dictionary might be of some limited benefit if a literal translation were being used.[10] If you will indulge me, let me add that an English dictionary probably is of even less benefit when the translation used in a Bible study is interpretive. For an interpretive, or DE/FE translation, the translator has already attempted to use a word or phrase that expresses to his readers what he understands as the concept of the OL text. Therefore, using a dictionary is most likely counterproductive because it may send the reader in a direction different from what the translator intended, and even farther afield from what the OL actually says. If the wording is hard to understand, or ambiguous, then either the translator has miserably failed in the passage in question, or he was translating for an entirely different audience; in either case it is time for the reader to change Bibles.

Before moving on to terms for interpretive translations, I should respond to a valid criticism made by their advocates against literal translations. They have claimed that even translators who do literal, non-interpretive translations do in fact interpret, because when you look up a word in GHA lexicons, you find several different meanings (infrequently a dozen or more), and the translator chooses one of these depending on the context. A principle associated with this practice is that the competent translator chooses a meaning appropriate for a particular context, rather than always using the same English word for the same GHA word.

I concur both with the criticism and the principle. If you dig deeply enough into the translation process, you find that the terminology is not absolute, but relative. In deducing word meaning, one discovers that while there are many words in the biblical texts that do have only one meaning, or more than one that pose no difficulties, there are many others for which the context must decide which meaning is best. In these cases the translator must study and understand the context, to the point that he can answer the question of which possible meaning the author meant when he used the word in question. This is lexical interpretation. It helps that the standard lexicon (BDAG) usually lists a preferred translation for each verse in which the word in question occurs, when the word is not widely used.

However, these translations are, and should be considered, good recommendations only. If the translator questions the validity or accuracy of the preferred translation, he should consider the other options, or even reword the translation if he has adequate research to justify the rewording. By that I mean that he cannot simply make something up which he likes for the context, but rather that his translation must be a valid match for the word elsewhere. To argue that it has a unique meaning for the context in question is lexical extrapolation, not interpretation.[11] It is at best educated guesswork desperately in need of validation, and unfortunately suitable validation can come only in the form of ancient texts yet to be discovered that happen to feature the word used in the same way in the same historical period and context. That such a text, or texts, will be discovered for a given word is just as improbable as it sounds.

While I am referring mainly to words that occur more than once in the Bible, this is true even for unique words like authenteo in 1 Tim. 2:12. We saw in our discussion of the word previously that in the standard classical Greek lexicon, the meaning ranged from “having full power or authority over” to “commit murder.” It should be a simple matter of lexical interpretation to decide that Paul was not referring to committing murder. In the NT lexicon, however, several options are offered under the general meaning of “assuming independent authority.” At a minimum, the translator must study the context and decide which option best fits it. Beyond that, it is possible that none of the options is quite right, and more extensive research of the original sources is needed.

Now it is true that in the process of choosing the best meanings for a word that occurs in different contexts, the translator is using different words to represent a single word in the OL that was used repeatedly by the biblical author(s), so arguably there might actually be a perfect English word to represent the GHA word all of the time. In practice, however, this seldom works out, mainly because it is unlikely that one word in one language will correspond to a word in another language in every possible way, and convey the correct concept in every context. Leland Ryken, who is uncomfortable with the term “lexical interpretation” (almost as much as I am with the term “equivalent”), provides a good example when he notes, “…there is something akin to interpretation when translators decide whether, for example, the Israelites were led through the wilderness or the desert.”[12]

The Epistle to the Hebrews Paul PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

The term “wilderness” translates corresponding words in both Hebrew and Greek that seem to be perfect matches for each other, as can be verified by consulting the LXX (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew OT). The problem is that while “wilderness” is a very good match for both OL words, it is not good enough to work well in every context. The reason is that when “wilderness” is read, one thinks not just of a desert, but of a particular locality, like Death Valley or the Gobi desert. Most of the time, therefore, it makes sense to refer to Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness.

However, when the context seems to focus on the type of environment rather than the locality, “wilderness” borders on being inadequate and may even confuse some readers, because it is often associated with pristine territory, and very often with forested regions. In America, for example, hiking in the wilderness conjures up the idea of communing with nature, a pleasant, almost romantic concept (at least for those who enjoy the great and sometimes rugged outdoors). The type of environment is not specified, and desert might even be the last on the list of possibilities imagined. In this context “wilderness” has a very positive connotation.

In the Bible, however, the words translated “wilderness” almost always indicate desert, sometimes desolation or perhaps just isolated places, though the words seem to consistently have a negative connotation. Consider, for example, Matt. 14:15 where “This place is a wilderness” would sound like an exaggeration and be a poor fit. The NIV has “remote” here, which minimizes any negative connotation. The NASB and ESV both have “desolate,” which is a little better because of the word’s typically negative connotation and the fact that the disciples were describing the place from a negative viewpoint. So in choosing the best terms, the translator may need to engage in lexical interpretation, properly understood.

While I am being generous to critics of literal translation, I will go the extra mile and concede that translators in my camp sometimes interpret grammatical constructions in addition to choosing contextual word meanings. I am referring almost entirely to our handling of Greek participles. WARNING: instructional content coming!

To simplify, I usually describe participles as the words in English with “-ing” endings, though English is not limited to that form. While we use participles frequently, the Greeks were crazy about them. Participles basically break down into two categories: adjectival and adverbial–or better, circumstantial. The adjectival versions are simple enough; it is the circumstantial participle that can be a real challenge. It basically states an action that is logically connected to another verb in the sentence in some way. There are at least nine different connections possible, such as cause, means, and manner.

The challenge for the translator in dealing with these participles is to choose and effectively represent the correct logical connection to the other verb, because the Greek authors very seldom provide any words in the text to identify the connection. This is one area where I am entirely willing to confess that English actually tends to be more precise than Greek, because English speakers prefer to specify these connections. Often the connection is very important, and it frankly amazes me that ancient Greeks frequently left it to their readers to infer the correct one when more than one connection made sense.[13]

There must be other modern languages that use participles in the same way and thus would have no problem with Greek participles. I know, for example, that Spanish has certain constructions corresponding closely to Greek in contrast to their counterparts in English. And there are many cases in the New Testament of Greek participles that can be left in their original forms, as unmodified English participles. But very often–if not most often–handling them this way results in awkward English, so even translators of literal, non-interpretive English Bibles are forced to interpret Greek participles. Fortunately, the logical connection is clear in many, or perhaps even most, contexts. Speaking again for the NASB, I can say that when more than one connection is possible, leading to different interpretations, the translators aim at reproducing the ambiguity.

So the difference between the philosophies of translation ultimately is one of degree rather than absolute quality. However, as to word meanings, the definitions found in standard lexicons are formal as I have defined the term, whether one finds one, two, or two dozen in a given entry. They are the meanings of the words as the original readers understood them, at least to the extent that the lexicographers can so determine. Beyond that, as we discussed earlier, it is up to the translator to do his own research in original ancient sources to confirm or modify the conclusions of the lexicographers. And it is entirely up to the translator to decide whether to use a word or phrase in the RL that conveys the formal meaning, or instead interpret the OL word to make it easier for the reader to understand what the translator himself understands from the OL.

How to Interpret the Bible-1 INTERPRETING THE BIBLE how-to-study-your-bible1

Dynamic/Functional Equivalent

The terms most often used for interpretive translations are “dynamic” and “functional equivalents” (DE/FE). In the old days, my generation tended to refer to these as paraphrases, distinguishing them from translations. But even then, and especially now, this distinction would be inaccurate. Unless otherwise noted one can almost assume that a DE/FE has been either translated from the OL’s or at least edited using them.

I do not need to restate my objection to the word “equivalent.” The words “dynamic” and “functional” that go with it are significantly different in philosophy, if not necessarily in practice. The terminology seems to have originated with the world-renowned Wycliffe translator Eugene Nida, who passed away in 2011. Nida of course translated primarily for the mission field, encountering tribal groups who had no written language, and whose cultures and surroundings tended to be very different from those of English Bible readers.

The “dynamic” element of the philosophy referred to the goal of producing a translation that would create the same effect on a modern reader that the OL text created on the original readers. Later in his life, Nida shifted away from the term “dynamic” to “functional,” which focuses less on the reader and more on the wording of the translation. It suggests that the translation conveys the same thought as the original, even though the wording may not correspond closely to that of the OL text. It follows that if the translation is successful, it will achieve the purpose of a “dynamic” equivalent, so the two terms are still sometimes used synonymously even if “functional equivalent” is to be preferred. Many people also use the description “thought-for-thought translation.” What it lacks in elegance is perhaps balanced by what it gains in simplicity.

In an interview he did in 2002, Nida used the term “meaning-based translation,” which is another preferred term for what I am calling interpretive translation. In fact, he was citing a criticism that meaning-based translation requires the translator to do exegesis (i.e. interpretation) first. His response was that a translator should do exegesis first, because if he is translating, he ought to know what he is talking about.[14]

This might sound perfectly reasonable and even indispensable to the process of translation, because the inverse of knowing what one is talking about is not knowing what one is talking about, and obviously that is unacceptable. Ironically, I find myself having to interpret Nida’s meaning. If we are talking about the meaning of words in various contexts, then we can be working well within the parameters of non-interpretive (literal) translation, as we will see in chapter 4. But if we are talking about the meaning of a passage as a matter of theology or Bible study, then we are in the realm of interpretive translation, where Nida preferred to live.

Let me use a biblical example to illustrate, noting that it is not a perfect analogy–nor does it need to be. Consider the famous handwriting on the Belshazzar’s wall (Dan. 5:25). We have a good, though not absolutely certain, idea what the words “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” meant, probably “Mina, mina, shekel, and half-shekels.” Technically these were weights that were commonly used as money. Some of the king’s counselors may have thought as much, but it made no sense as read except perhaps as a random amount of money, and I dare say no one was willing risk losing his head over it by volunteering the obvious translation.

Daniel, of course, knew the answer, which was based on the verb forms of the mysterious words: “counted, counted, weighed, divided.” His interpretation went beyond that to spell out Belshazzar’s doom and that of his kingdom.

Now then, it has been traditional to transliterate these famous words into English, i.e. to transpose the Hebrew/Aramaic letters into their English counterparts rather than translate the words. But in most modern Bibles the translations also are noted. Translators discovered what the words meant by consulting lexicons and other research. The exact spelling of each word was important, not just because it distinguished the word from other vocabulary, but also because it indicated the grammatical form.

As it turns out, “mene” and “tekel” could either be nouns or verb forms, but “upharsin” is a noun in form (actually the word is “pharsin”; “u” is “and”). So its form suggests that the other two words are nouns as well. In making this inference we have just done exegesis, or interpretation, based on the immediate context. I would call it non-interpretive because the overall meaning of the handwriting, as Daniel explained it, is not a factor in determining the meaning of the individual words.

When Daniel declared the interpretation, the words he used for “counted” (or “numbered”), “weighed,” and “divided” clearly were the passive verb forms that corresponded to the words written on the wall, and this transformation is what broke the code. If we were to throw out tradition and simply put the translation of the handwriting in the text, we would arguably have three basic choices, and I think we could claim to know what we are talking about for each, to use Nida’s words.

At the non-interpretive level (ignoring the overall meaning of the passage) we could use the money words “Mina, mina, shekel, and half-shekels.” Or, since Daniel made it clear what the real meanings of these words were for Belshazzar and his kingdom, we could instead use “Counted, counted, weighed, divided.” Our third option would be to use other terminology reflecting the full explanations that Daniel gave to Belshazzar, terms that convey the real meaning of the passage. For example, “counted” does not really get the point across, does it?  To me, counting a kingdom sounds more like taking a census. There are probably a number of better options, but one that I can think of is, “finished.”

Granted, the connection of “finished” to “counted” seems a little thin, other than the idea of being finished once one has completed the count. But it certainly is the point in this passage. What about “weighed”? I find the same problem: it fails to get the point across. “Underweight” is better, but it doesn’t sound very good. “Deficient” seems just right, though again the connection to “weighed” is thin. “Divided” would probably be easier to improve, or might even work well enough by itself.

The DE/FE philosophy of translation rests somewhere between the levels of the second and third options, tending more toward the third. Of course there was no need to make substitutions like those we suggested above, even in a more radical DE/FE translation like The Message, because Daniel himself already had everything covered. But the substitutions could have been justified as meaning-based or conveying thought for thought, since it is clear what the intended meaning was.

Also, you probably noticed that I just suggested single-word substitutions, and in the same interview Nida said that he preferred phrases to words.[15] To many DE/FE translators, in fact, phrases seem to be a significant advance over the formal equivalency (i.e. literal) philosophy. So if we took that approach, we could simply borrow directly from Daniel. “Counted” could be “counted and put an end to.” “Tekel” could be “weighed and found deficient”; and “peres” could be “divided and given to.” These would all be fully justified because in this case we have an inspired interpretation that provides the meanings of the words in the handwriting.


Literal Vs. DE/FE: Examples

If there is anything that strikes you as being amiss about the illustration from Daniel, bear in mind that it is just an illustration. You will probably find it helpful if I also cite some examples of literal vs. interpretive translation. Let’s begin by taking the first line of Rom. 8:28, starting with a word-for-word (WFW) translation that I will provide, followed by the NASB and NIV versions of the verse.

Here is a WFW translation: “And we know that to the ones loving God, he causes all things to work together for good….” The verb for “work together” can also refer to working with someone, so another WFW option is, “And we know that in all things he (God) works with the ones loving God, for good….” This is not an interlinear translation, by the way; I am using WFW in its original sense, one English word for one Greek word, with minor exceptions. The first version is almost identical to the Greek in word order as well.

The NASB reads, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God….” You can see that the only significant differences are the substitution of “God” for “he,” which was for clarity, and “those who love” for “the ones loving” for better English. I can tell you that in literal translation, I do not make changes to improve the English that have the side effect of changing the meaning of the original. Maintaining the OL meaning has a higher priority.

Now let’s compare the NIV. Depending on your own preferences, you may find it puzzling that I would choose the NIV as an “interpretive” translation. But if the NIV can be considered more moderate than most interpretive translations, the point is that you can still see a significant difference between it and a translation in the “literal” category like the NASB.

The NIV version of the first line of Rom. 8:28 reads, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him….” You will notice first that the NIV begins the same way that I did the second WFW version above, so “in all things” is a legitimate option. However, there is nothing here to cover the concept of “together” or “with” that is part of the meaning of the Greek verb. Choosing the option “in all things” leaves the translator no alternative except “works with those who love him” to satisfy the requirements of the Greek verb, if one is following the lexicons, which in turn are based on the usage of the verb elsewhere.

So what is going on here with the NIV for this verse? Sometimes an alternative textual reading (see chapter 6) accounts for a difference in translations, but not in this case. It appears instead that the concept of “works with” or “works together” was interpreted generally as just “works,” and it was then easy to connect “those who love him” with “good.” In Greek, “for good to the ones” can legitimately be understood as “for the good of the ones….” If you compare the NIV with the Living Bible or The Message, both of which are significantly more interpretive, you will see that the concept of “with” or “together” is also omitted. I assume that the translators took the main idea of the passage to be that God makes sure that everything happening to those who love him works out for their good. Perhaps the concept of “together/with” was considered a complication that might obscure the main idea.

The important point about DE/FE translation is that the wording is to convey meanings derived from the overall context of a passage as interpreted by the translator. Nida remarked that when he was at UCLA (in the 1930s), his professors never let him translate literally. They declared that they wanted to know the meaning, not just the words.[16] Note the implied distinction, or perhaps even dichotomy, between words and meaning. Their advice seems to have had a lasting impact on Nida.

It is a useful coincidence for our purpose that I did my graduate work in Greek (and Latin) at UCLA, and I can report that my professors never said any such thing about literal translation. In fact, they all focused on the formal meanings of words as determined from the original sources. This has probably had a lasting impact on me. I certainly do not question Nida’s experience; I just think the point should be made that literal translation is actually held in high regard at major institutions. Ultimately, it is probably fair to say that the kind of translation to be done always depends on the target audience, a point we will discuss later.

Before moving on to other examples, let me note that it almost goes without saying that if DE/FE translation allows such flexibility in meaning (compared to non-interpretive translation) as I illustrated above from Daniel and Romans, it also allows equal flexibility in form and expression. The substitution of a phrase for a word in the OL is one example, in the sense that a DE/FE translator is more likely to use a phrase than his non-interpretive counterpart. Matching the grammatical form of the original loses virtually all priority if the translator believes that a different form or construction will better represent the meaning of the passage to the reader in English. The grammatical and structural forms of the original may have no priority to begin with.

Moreover, simplifying the English by substituting an expression with a different form from the OL also seems typical of DE/FE translations. I often see in these translations an easier-reading expression that differs from the OL but contributes nothing to clarifying the meaning of the passage. Strictly speaking, this kind of simplification logically is not an element of DE/FE translation. It is just more compatible with it since the types of changes that are used for simplification have already been approved for the purpose of interpretive translation. For example, since a phrase may better express the translator’s interpretation of an OL word in a particular context, and phrase substitutions therefore are allowed, they may also be used to simplify the expression of any given OL word or construction considered by the translator to be potentially difficult for his readers. Depending on the philosophy of the translation and the target audience, simplification may have a high priority, perhaps equal to or even higher than that of accurately representing the meaning of the OL.

Simplification by major structural changes to the OL often is praised by critics, without concern for what is lost in accuracy or meaning. As an NASB translator I have often read or heard the adjective “wooden” applied to the NASB, and a good example of the criticism can be found in The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World by Glen Scorgie et al. There the authors cite the translations of Matthew 13:20 found in the NASB and the 1984 NIV, and they comment,

Here the NASB is so woodenly literal that the result is a cumbersome, awkward, poorly constructed English sentence. The NIV, on the other hand, has a natural and smooth style without sacrificing accuracy.[17]

As it turns out, the NIV translators were dissatisfied with their own translation and decided to make more substantial revisions to the verse for the 2011 NIV. Let’s compare all three versions:

Matthew 13:20 (NASB)

20 The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;

Matthew 13:20 (NIV, 1984)

20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.

1 Peter 3:18 (NIV, 2011)

20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.

If we focus first on the latter half of the verse, something very interesting immediately becomes apparent: all three versions are virtually identical from the phrase “who hears” to the end, and the same can be said for the 1984 NIV and the NASB from the word “is.” The only difference is “immediately” vs. “at once,” which are synonymous (“immediately” may be more modern). The reason is that the translations are all literal for this part of the verse. It is common for literal and DE/FE translations to agree in many places (more on this in chapter 4).

I dare say, therefore, that when Scorgie and his coauthors criticize the NASB wording, they are not referring to this latter half of the verse. Instead, they undoubtedly are taking offense primarily to the pronoun “this” which refers back to “The one” in the NASB and the 1984 NIV, and secondarily to the use of the passive voice in “was sown.” If your word processor is like mine, it hates all passive verbs, and unfortunately does not have sense enough to know when I have a good reason to use a passive construction.

I remember having it drilled into my head in an elementary English class that using “this” in the seemingly redundant way found here–which we all do in common spoken English, if we are willing to admit it–was a stylistic mortal sin. When we are tempted to commit this terrible sin, a switch is supposed to go off in the part of our brains that is responsible for civilized behavior, deleting the pronoun before it reaches our tongues. So I will concede to Scorgie and his colleagues that the use of “this” in the translation of the verse is not refined English.

On the other hand, as you may have guessed by now, “this” is in the Greek, and it was optional in the OL, so we can assume that Jesus used it by choice and not because it was required or merely idiomatic to the language. Technically, it is called a deictic pronoun, meaning that it points things out. If you look in the Greek of the passage, Jesus used it four times (vv. 19, 20, 22, and 23), referring to the four kinds of people on whom seed metaphorically was sown. He was clearly, perhaps even emphatically distinguishing the four. When we see that, the sin of using the pronoun redundantly in English does not seem so terrible.

Does Scorgie’s criticism remain valid? The sin of the redundant “this” is still a sin in English. However, I note that the NIV is praised for its natural, smooth style “without sacrificing accuracy.”   The pronoun “this” is deleted three times, and the deictic force that it has in distinguishing the four kinds of individuals is thereby lost.

Looking at the other differences between the NASB and the NIV, I already called attention to the passive “was sown” construction. I am of the belief that there is still a place for the passive voice in our communication, despite what our grammar and style checkers tell us. Technically, the passive is a way to focus attention on the object of an active verb, and it is an option–not a requirement–for the writer or speaker. So for whatever reason, Jesus had his disciples visualizing the seed being tossed in various directions by the sower. The 1984 NIV’s “one who received the seed” changes the verb from the passive “was sown” to the active “received” with a different subject, reversing our point of view from the seed that is tossed to the ground that receives it. Not a major difference, perhaps, but definitely a difference, and potentially something of interest when it is followed through. Is the change worth it simply to avoid the passive voice so disliked by stylists?

Finally, compare the 2011 NIV above. This version of the verse reads very much like a commentary for the first half. The verb “falling” replaced “received” (evidently the literal “sown” was never considered acceptable), “refers to” replaced “is” in the passage, and “someone” replaced “the man who” (literally “the one who”). It is a basic explanation of what is going on in the verse, rather than a translation of the words. There is also a major change in the meaning, however. It is the ground–representing the man–that receives the seed and responds, and the withering or growth of the plant represents the response of the man. In the 2011 NIV the translators seem to have wanted to simplify the interpretation by making the seed refer to the person who hears the word.

Now let’s consider some more examples of literal vs. DE/FE translation. One of the more challenging passages for translators is John 14:30-31,[18] occurring just before Jesus’ well-known metaphor of the vine and the branches. In the longer recorded discourses of Jesus, one of which includes these verses, the content can be difficult because it is intimate, directed toward the twelve disciples instead of Jesus’ larger body of followers or the general public. It may also be “translation Greek,” i.e. in this case possibly John’s translation of words originally spoke in Aramaic, which can be rougher than normal Greek. However, we usually do not know for certain when we have translation Greek, and for practical purposes it may not matter even when we are certain.[19] The task remains to translate the OL text.

I will begin with a word-for-word translation of these two verses:

I will no longer/more speak much with you, for the ruler of the world is coming; and he has nothing in me, but so that the world may know that I love the Father, and/even just as the Father commanded me, so I do. Get up, let us go from here.

I worded the opening adverb as “no longer/much” because it can be understood temporally (“longer”) or as a reference to quantity (“much”), and the context is the decisive factor. In practice, this is the kind of variable that can reasonably be interpreted more than one way because the context may not provide a clear direction. Yet translators must make a choice, and the wording of the translation examined will of course reveal their choice.

I did the same thing with the second “and” in the verse, because the Greek word can also be translated “even” to indicate emphasis on what follows. This is done infrequently, however, and usually the choice is clear because “and” would make no sense in the context. That is not the case here, as I will explain below.

For Rom. 8:28 as discussed above, I compared only the NASB as a literal translation with the NIV as an interpretive translation. But not all “literal” translations are created equal, so this time I will include the ESV and the HCSB, both of which have been categorized as literal, or more “accurate” than interpretive translations. I will also include the New Living Translation as an example in the DE/FE category that is generally more interpretive than the NIV.

Let me start again with the NASB. This time we have two versions to take into account, the earlier edition as seen with the 1977 copyright, and the 1995 Update edition. They are identical for verse 30 and almost so for the first line of verse 31, so let’s examine verse 30 by itself:

I will not speak much more with you, for the ruler of the world is coming, and he has nothing in Me….

This is virtually identical to the word-for-word rendering. You will notice that the NASB translators chose the quantity option “much more” over the temporal “no longer.” The translators focused on the Greek word found here for “much,” understanding it as the object of “speak,” and viewed the adverb “no longer/more” as its modifier. The contextual meaning would be that Jesus did not have much more to discuss with them. The alternative meaning with “no longer” would be that Jesus would no longer say much, implying that from that point on Jesus would only have shorter conversations with his disciples. This arguably makes less sense than the translation chosen.

Now let’s look at verse 31, first as it appeared in the earlier NASB edition, then as it is in the 1995 edition.

John 14:31 (NASB, 1977)

31 but that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go from here.

John 14:31 (NASB, 1995)

31 but so that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me. Get up, let us go from here.

The addition of “so” in the Update was done just to clarify that the Greek is stating a purpose. A little more noteworthy is the “even” in the earlier edition. It is a word of emphasis which I did not include in the WFW translation because it is not there in the Greek. Sometimes “even” is just loosely associated with the Greek word found here for “so.”

What really deserves our attention is the phrase “I do exactly as,” which replaces “and/even just as…so I do,” taking the “and” as “even.” Specifically, the adverb “exactly” replaces the construction “even just as…so,” three words in the Greek (“just as” is one word in the Greek).

The biggest question here for the translator is whether the Greek word understood as “even” can legitimately be taken that way. I noted above that the word usually means “and”; “also” is another common option, and “even” normally is an option only when one of these other meanings makes no sense in the context.  Moreover, this particular combination of Greek words does not seem to occur elsewhere to mean “even just as,” but only “and just as.” What justification could there be for the NASB translators’ choice of “exactly,” without “and”?

I can think of three explanations: 1) there is a case of the construction “even as” in Luke 18:11 which corresponds to what we find here; it is not an exact match, but close enough to be relevant, so “exactly” covers “and,” which is understood as “even.” 2) Jesus’ language at this moment may have been a little disjointed due to the stress of the moment, perhaps resulting in awkward Greek (whether his own or John’s translation Greek), so “and” need not be translated. 3) Contrary to the first explanation, the word “exactly” does not cover “and,” which is being omitted for the sake of better English. If it is kept, then Jesus’ statement is even more complex than it first appears. His main point is that he is about to do something so that the world will know his love for the Father. He adds to this point that he does exactly what his Father commands Him, thus the addition of “and.” We have, then, two separate statements[20] that both depend on “I do” as their main verb: “I do [what I do] so that the world will know that I love the Father, and I do [what I do] as the Father gave me commandment.” Arguably this is too convoluted for the reader to follow.

I prefer the first explanation; but you may wonder, if defending “exactly” without “and” is such a challenge, why not just keep “and,” as in the 1977 NASB? If we do, then we are left either with the complex construction I just explained and an incomplete thought, or we have English that is grammatically incomplete.

If we go with the complex construction, then “so I do” must be assumed as the main clause with “so that the world may know….” The problem is that “do” is incomplete by itself because it raises the question of what Jesus does (or is about to do) that will convince the world of his love for the father.  By contrast, “so I do” makes perfect sense with “as the Father gave Me commandment”; that is, Jesus is obedient. This combination also makes sense with the purpose clause, “so that the world may know that I love…” (i.e. love is proved by obedience), and since taking the “and” as “even” is possible, we can now see what led to the wording in the 1995 NASB.

How can the construction become grammatically incomplete? First, no matter what we do, the purpose clause (“so that…”) is incomplete by itself; it requires an independent clause to complete it grammatically and make sense of it. We can see by comparing various Bibles that there are other translators who disagreed with the solution found in the original NASB (and earlier Bibles), but at the same time they preferred “and” to “even,” rejecting the solution featured in the 1995 Update. Second, the combination “as the Father commanded Me, so I do” is grammatically complete and requires no connection to the purpose clause.

So if we take the Greek as “and” rather than “even,” the “as…so” construction is from the simplest viewpoint just an additional thought to the purpose clause, leaving that clause with nothing to attach to it. Let me illustrate. I have a low-pitched voice and my wife does not always hear me clearly. She might very well hear, “So that it gets there on time.” Obviously this would be meaningless without some context, and even with context, figuring out what is missing might be difficult at best. Fortunately for us, she can just ask me to fill in the blank. This scenario will be helpful as we examine other translations.

As for the NASB, faced with a hard choice, the translators of the 1995 edition rejected the earlier version of the verse that replicated the ASV (and the KJV), and instead chose an option that they knew was grammatically sound English[21] while also defensible from the Greek. Since it is not a literal translation, however, they supplied a marginal note providing a literal wording that includes “and” (more on this practice in chapter 7).

Now let’s examine the ESV. It reads,

I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here.

You may notice first that the ESV actually prefers “no longer talk much,” taking the alternative that implies Jesus would thereafter have shorter conversations; so even though I would consider that less likely than the NASB choice, the ESV translators disagree with me. Perhaps they are right. Notice, also, that the ESV has “talk” instead of “speak.” You might think that “say” would be a better, or smoother, choice than either. However, the Greek word used is a better match for either “talk” or “speak,” so this is a case where accuracy has won out over easier English.

A small, perhaps even minor, difference is the choice of “this world” where the Greek actually has “the world.” It is linguistically justifiable because “the” (called in grammar the “article”) in Greek is capable of having the sense of “this,” and an interpreter can reasonably argue that Jesus was implicitly making a distinction between his heavenly world and ours that is under the power of Satan. The argument to the contrary would be that Jesus could have said “this” if he meant it.

The biggest difference between the NASB and the ESV here is “and he has nothing in me” versus “He has no claim on me” (the “and” is in the Greek, and the NASB is following the punctuation in the edited edition of the Greek). It seems clear that “no claim on me” makes more sense than “nothing in me,” but “no claim” is an interpretation of the Greek for “nothing” and there is no note in the ESV providing the literal wording.

This might be a non-issue if we knew that “no claim” was the only possible meaning. Unfortunately, if the actual Greek is an idiom, we cannot identify its meaning, and the text that immediately precedes and follows it does not give us enough information to be able to narrow down the meaning. It also happens that “he has nothing in me” is similar to a Hebrew idiom that would mean something like, “he has no business with me,” and this would also work in the context. Thus it is quite possible that “no claim on me” is the wrong interpretation, and no other options (including the literal wording) have been provided to the reader. By comparison, the NASB translators chose to reproduce the literal Greek, leaving it to the reader to determine the meaning.[22]

Two other differences are noteworthy. The first is a slight loss of emphasis in the words, “I do as the Father,” where the NASB has “exactly as.” This may be an example of simplifying the English. Recall that the Greek actually reads, “and just as…so,” and that the words “just as” come from a single Greek word. The emphatic “just” is in a sense optional; but the resulting combination from leaving it out, i.e. “as…so” still is arguably emphatic compared to “as” by itself.

The remaining difference is the word order. The ESV has the clause “so that the world may know…the Father” at the end of the sentence instead of at the beginning of the verse, where it is in the Greek. Actually this is also an emphasis issue, focusing the reader’s attention first on the “so that” construction. Most likely the ESV translators changed the order from that of the OL to smooth out the English. This is advisable in many cases to avoid very awkward English, but the original OL order was considered acceptable by the NASB translators. So in this case smoother or easier English seems to have been given a higher priority than literal correspondence in the ESV.

Finally, note that the ESV translators took basically the same approach as their NASB counterparts in omitting the “and” before “just as.” Indeed, if we inserted it, we would have an impossible ESV reading: “but I do and as the Father has commanded me….” Also, since the ESV does not carry over any emphasis, we cannot say that the “and” could be accounted for by it.

Now let’s compare the HCSB:

I will not talk with you much longer, because the ruler of the world is coming. He has no power over Me. On the contrary, I am going away so that the world may know that I love the Father. Just as the Father commanded Me, so I do.

Get up; let’s leave this place.

First, the HCSB has the temporal interpretation of the opening adverb. In doing this the translators viewed the Greek for “much” not as the object of “talk,” but as a modifier of the adverb, i.e. “not much longer.” I think the Greek slightly favors “much” as the object of “talk,” but the HCSB interpretation is quite acceptable.

As in the ESV, a big difference between the NASB and the HCSB is the HCSB’s “He has no power over Me” for “he has nothing in Me.” Clearly “has no power over” is an interpretation of the Greek, but the HCSB has a note supplying the wording of the OL, unlike the ESV. This is a significant advantage for the reader. On the other hand, the phrase “on me” (ESV) has some plausibility as a translation of the Greek,[23] while “over me” does not. I have to conclude that the HCSB translators drew their translation from the overall context, not the actual Greek. This lines up with the DE/FE philosophy of translation.[24]

Now then, what did the translators do with the “and/even” problem in v. 31? They took the Greek word to be “and,” but deleted it as the beginning of a new sentence: “Just as the Father commanded Me, so I do.” Omitting the initial “And” of some new sentences in the OL’s is acceptable to improve the English translation. The translators evidently did not think that the “so that” clause made good sense as the purpose of “I do,” and that the Greek word they took as “and” could be handled any other way. However, separating “Just as…I do” from “so that…” left nothing with which to connect the purpose clause, making it an incomplete sentence which would read, “On the contrary, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”

This is like my illustration “So that it gets there on time” above. Something important is missing. As you may have guessed, I was thinking of mailing an important letter. But even given this context, the missing main clause is uncertain because several options are plausible–make sure it has enough postage, get it in the mail before five, take care of it today, etc. Most importantly, all my wife would have to do is ask me to repeat what I said, and barring short-term memory loss I could do that.

By their choices, the HCSB translators forced themselves into the position of having to supply a main clause on which to base the purpose clause. I suppose some people might say that we just have to ask Jesus what he meant, but translators are obligated to find something in the context that can provide or at least support a missing statement that they choose to supply. As we can see, they chose to add, “I am going away.”

What was the source of the addition? It clearly appears to be the same statement in v. 28 (HCSB). This is of course a contextual interpretation as justified in DE/FE translation philosophy. So the question becomes, is it the correct choice, or at least a good choice? We can only do our own interpretation. One problem that arises immediately is that Jesus directed this statement specifically to his disciples in v. 28, telling them that they should be happy that he is going to the Father. He does say this to his opponents in 8:21, but it is not clear how, if at all, “the world” would know of his love for the father from his going away–even if they thought he was committing suicide (v. 22). It would seem that only the disciples would understand the meaning of his departure (if indeed even they would).

I would like to be able to say that the translators left the reader a clue in the note following “away” that states: “Probably refers to the cross.” But there are two things about this note that I find a little baffling: 1) there is no indication that the addition is not in the Greek (contrast the note on “He has no power over me” in v. 30), and 2) since it is an interpretive addition, why say “Probably”? If “I am going away” were in the Greek, I could understand the cross as a “probable” interpretation; but surely the translators knew what they themselves had in mind when they inserted the addition. Moreover, the note is of no help in explaining how the world will know of Jesus’ love for the Father.

As for the practice of adding words to the text, it is not unusual to do this in the translation of the OL when the thought is implied and necessary for the English to make sense. Even the NASB has additions of this kind in various places; however, the additions are put in italic type to let the reader know that they are not in the OL. The OL text is also translated in such a way that it will make sense without the italic type, whenever possible, and any changes to the structure of the OL text are avoided.

We need to examine one more construction in the HCSB, the phrase: “leave this place” at the end of v. 31. The Greek has a single word meaning “from here,” which is found in both the NASB and the ESV. I would say that “go from here” is clear enough and not difficult English, while “leave this place” may be slightly more idiomatic English. The HCSB translators converted “go from” to “leave,” and “here” to “this place.” They may have intended to give a slightly negative connotation to the location by choosing “this place,” and if so, the choice would also be a contextual interpretation because the Greek itself does not carry that connotation.

Now let’s see what we find in interpretive (DE/FE) translations. It happens that the 2011 revision of the NIV incorporated some changes in these verses from previous editions, and a comparison is useful. The 1984 NIV reads,

I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

Come now; let us leave.

The 2011 NIV reads,

I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

Come now; let us leave.

The 1984 translation began with a purely temporal interpretation of the adverb “no longer/more,” which is entirely legitimate, but for the 2011 edition we can see that the quantity option “much more” was preferred. Perhaps they agreed that this makes more sense in the context. Notice also the change from “speak with” to “say…to,” which is quite subtle. This undoubtedly was the work of an English stylist[25] who felt that giving “speak” a direct object was awkward, and I think I agree with that assessment to some extent. If I were to describe a very quiet person, I could probably say, “He speaks a word or two at a time.” If someone disagreed, she might say, “No, he speaks more than that.” But I immediately realize that the more comfortable word is “says.” I invite you to use the word “speak” in a few sentences and see what you think.

So let’s say that we agree with the stylist that “speak” with “much more” as a direct object is awkward. The obvious solution–which also leads to what we find in the 2011 NIV–is to use “say.” Will the Greek allow “say” as a legitimate translation? Yes, and no. “Say” is a tolerable[26] translation of the Greek verb, but the rest of the clause has “with you.” Do we ever use “say” and “with” together? How does “say much more with you” sound? To me, this seems worse than just keeping “speak,” because “speak” and “with” go well together.

I can almost hear you telling me, the solution obviously is “say to,” as the NIV has it. Yes, that sounds natural and appropriate. Is “to” a legitimate translation of the Greek? No. The Greek is “with,” in the sense of having a word, or a conversation with someone. In fact, “say to you” occurs many times elsewhere in the New Testament, and it has a different, and very simple, construction. Perhaps the NIV translators felt that “say to you” is close enough because it is Jesus speaking, after all, and if you or I were among his disciples, would we talk, or just listen? In the end I suspect the decision was that better English was more important here than greater accuracy. But in point of fact, Jesus was telling his disciples that their conversations were coming to an end. This also happens to fit the historical context: the teacher/disciple relationship was one of conversation, not of jotting down lecture notes.

Moving on in the verse, the choice of “prince” is a little surprising because it calls up the word found in the KJV that is not as simple and accurate as “ruler,” which is found in the other translations. When you think of “prince,” one of two options probably come to mind: a king’s son, or, in a looser sense, a good man, one who is altruistic or considerate (cp. “He’s a real prince of a guy”). It seems clear that Jesus is referring to Satan, who hardly matches either description, and ordinarily a different Greek word is used for “prince.” Nevertheless, “prince” was kept in the 2011 edition, so there must be many people who like it.

Next we encounter the variation “this world” that we discussed above, and it poses no problem, especially for an interpretive translation.

As we would now expect, the NIV replaces the OL’s “he has nothing in me,” reading with either “He has no hold on me” (1984), or “He has no hold over me” (2011). The 1984 version is nearly identical to the ESV, except that the ESV has “claim” instead of “hold.” So I think that what we said about the ESV for the construction applies to the 1984 NIV as well.

As for the variation “over me” found in the 2011 edition, the Greek preposition can legitimately be translated “on,” but not “over.” Again, English style undoubtedly became an issue. The phrase “hold over” suggests general control over someone; a “hold on” someone, if we compare the two phrases, seems more specifically to suggest a restraint. So it would appear that “hold over” is more natural English and would better fit the context. On the other hand, if I had been on the committee translating the Gospel of John, I would have argued for a word that fits the Greek preposition (e.g. “in” or possibly “on”) and a different word for “hold,” since the Greek just has “nothing.” Anything suitable for the context would have been permissible. Chances are that the translators tried out other options and kept coming back to “hold” (although “claim” won over the ESV translators) as the idea they liked best. I would have found this frustrating; you can see why translators on committees have to be able to play nice with others. By the way, neither the NIV nor the ESV supplies a note providing the literal translation, as the HCSB does.

When we come to the purpose clause in v. 31, the 1984 NIV is as creative as the HCSB (which of course came later), but in a very different way. The introductory “so that” of the original Greek clause is gone. Instead, the clause, which would be incomplete by itself, was converted to the main clause. This solves the problem of the troublesome “and”: the “I do” clause can simply be the second of two things (grammatical objects) that the world “must learn.” To make this clear, the NIV translators inserted “that” (not in the Greek) after “and.”

Is such a modification of the grammatical structure of the OL text justified? What the translators did, as I see it, was to convert a purpose to a goal. There is no grammatical formula for doing this,[27] but the two concepts are certainly similar. One way they differ is that a purpose always accompanies an action that it explains or justifies, while a goal can be expressed independently. This is why changing the structure of v. 31 worked; “must learn” became an independent idea, and the construction was no longer grammatically incomplete. I would guess that there was great rejoicing after agreement was reached on the wording, because it must have seemed a brilliant solution to a prickly problem in the Greek.

Well then, let’s fast-forward to the 2011 NIV revision. One would think that the 1984 version of this verse would have been the envy of translators the world over, and hallowed within the haunts of the NIV translation committee. Instead, we find in the 2011 revision something else that, if anything, bears more resemblance to the HCSB. The purpose construction “so that” was introduced, conforming to the grammar of the Greek–and matching most other translations. This in turn reintroduced the problem with “and” that the 1984 wording had so elegantly solved: the translators now had a grammatically incomplete construction.

I have no way of knowing whether the NIV translators considered the option of rendering the Greek as “even” rather than “and” as reflected in the NASB, or the option of simply ignoring it as we see in the ESV. I do think it was a noble choice not to ignore it, but this in turn forced them to supply an independent clause from the context to complete the construction, as was done for the HCSB in adding “I am going away.”  Since there are no translation notes, the reader cannot see the wording of the OL.

If you agree with me that the HCSB’s “I am going away” is problematic, I think it’s fair to say that what the NIV translators chose is even more so: “he [i.e. Satan the prince] comes.” The question is, how will the coming of Satan teach the world of Jesus’ love for the Father, or of his obedience to the Father? How will the world even know of the coming of Satan? These are legitimate questions because we are dealing with material inserted by the translators which is supposed to explain what is going on, and is based on their interpretation of the context. If it were instead the original Greek, it would be our task to understand and interpret it as Scripture.

Why did the NIV translators choose this particular addition, and why did they not just retain the wording of the 1984 NIV? I think the answer to the first question most likely is that they could not find anything in the wider context that really made good sense here, so they chose to repeat the idea that was stated most recently, and it was Jesus’ statement in v. 30 that the prince is coming. They could have made something up based entirely on their interpretation of the situation, so I commend them on sticking to ideas that were actually expressed by Jesus.

I think what led to the rejection of the 1984 wording that seemed so elegant was a very commendable victory of intellectual honesty over elegance. You probably remember that we noted how converting the purpose clause to an independent statement expressing a goal solved the grammatical problem. Looking at the bigger picture, however, it created another problem. It was something like taking apart a misbehaving kitchen appliance and putting it back together only to discover that you have a couple of screws left over, then you solve that problem by throwing the screws away.

That is, once the NIV translators came to the conclusion that the Greek had “and” before “just as” (or “exactly”), they could no longer justify the 1984 wording, which actually jettisoned the problem without solving it. They had to admit that this reading clearly implied that Jesus was leaving something important unsaid, whether his disciples understood what it was or they were as uncertain as we are. Very often great speakers drive home a point by what they leave unexpressed but implicit. So the NIV translators undoubtedly decided that their real task for this construction was to make explicit what Jesus had left implicit.

Before concluding our analysis of this verse in the NIV I would like to add a personal note, i.e. that as a translator I continue to struggle with the wording of the Greek “and” vs. “exactly” as seen in the NASB. If “gut instincts” have any value, mine tell me that “and just as” is the more natural reading–even though I prefer “exactly”–and that Jesus most likely was communicating something unsaid. Moreover, I do not think it would be at all strange if the disciples did not know what it was. We know they could be oblivious to what Jesus was teaching them at times, and even if that were not the case, I suspect we can all point to times when an authority figure has communicated something to us with a nod or special look, and we were not sure what he or she meant but were uncomfortable to ask.

This is not to say that I doubt the justification or plausibility of the NASB wording of v. 31. As I view the context, nothing makes as much sense as the NASB wording, and if I felt compelled to insert an addition to complete the “and” construction, the most honest choice would be a blank. Unfortunately that is not a viable option for a published Bible. But I also need to say that I would be very uncomfortable with the NASB wording if a note were not included providing the reader with the literal, and featuring “and.” By contrast, I think that adding a statement to Jesus’ actual words without any indication to the reader that it is an addition should be considered unacceptable. At the least it has the potential to introduce chaos into Bible study when different translations are compared. Enough said.

As we finish our analysis of the NIV reading, simplicity undoubtedly explains the wording of the last sentence, “Get up, let us go from here” in the OL text. “Get up” or “rise” sometimes was just a call to action, not an actual rising from a prone or sitting position, so “Come now” is not an unreasonable substitution. It is a little odd, I think, like “prince” found earlier because “come now” has a somewhat different meaning in modern English–at least in many contexts, where something like “be reasonable” is meant. The “here” in the Greek was just omitted. It probably was considered a little awkward and unnecessary for the contextual meaning. The reading of the 1984 edition was retained in the 2011 edition (no reason to change it).

Now then, let’s compare the New Living Translation, which reads as follows:

I don’t have much more time to talk to you, because the ruler of this world approaches. He has no power over me, but I will do what the Father requires of me, so that the world will know that I love the Father. Come, let’s be going.

In this Bible, which is toward the end of the interpretive range, fidelity to the structure of the OL has little or no priority and the translators were free to ignore details in order to convey their understanding of the text. At the beginning of the passage the temporal interpretation of the adverb is preferred, which of course is perfectly acceptable. But then “I will no longer speak” becomes “I don’t have…time to talk,” changing the verb “speak” to “have…time to talk,” blurring the distinction between the verb and the adverb in the OL text and putting the statement in a rather casual style.

The choice of “approaches” seems a little odd. This is another contextual decision by the translators because the Greek word found here just means “come,” and there are other Greek words to express “approach.” The more accurate “is coming” sounds, to my ear at least, more sinister in this context; but not only that, “approaches,” the simple present tense, sounds like an awkward biblical term and is not required by the Greek. Surely “is approaching” would be better.

The clause “He has no power over me” is identical to the HCSB (excepting the lowercase “me”), so what we said earlier about the HCSB wording applies here as well. There is no footnote to inform the reader of the literal Greek, but we would not necessarily expect one at this level of DE/FE translation.

The construction with the purpose clause in v. 31 is handled basically the same way as in the ESV. The “and” before “just as” is omitted and there is no emphasis. The tense of “I do” is changed from the Greek present to the English future “will do,” which is a reasonable interpretation because the present can include the immediate future. The translators probably felt that the point was what the Father was about to order Jesus to do. However, is this the correct interpretation? Jesus could have used the future tense; by using the present he may have meant that it is his consistent practice to obey the Father. Theology might be the motivation for replacing “commanded me” with “requires of me,” which is a little softer in connotation than a command. We thus see the greater role that the interpretation of the translators takes in this philosophy of translation.

The final statement, “Come, let’s be going” is quite similar to the NIV’s “Come now; let us leave,” but probably an improvement over it, given the freedom of the translation philosophy. “Come” by itself is a little weaker than the idea of the Greek, but also a little closer to the meaning than “come now.” However, it is difficult to find the right nuance of the Greek short of using the literal “get up.” One could criticize “be going” as not expressing the idea of departure and therefore not as accurate as the NIV’s “leave”; but “let’s be going” connotes the idea of leaving, and it is more like contemporary English than “let us leave.” For both translations, the respective translators probably viewed the Greek “here” as unnecessary.

I think this passage has served us well not only by revealing differences between literal and DE/FE translations, but also by illustrating some of the complexities and problems that translators face, which might go completely unnoticed by readers. I mentioned earlier that translators need to make additions to the English in some passages.[28] As we have just seen, some translators felt that this was necessary for John 14:31. There are many other passages where the need is beyond question. Let me offer an OT verse as an example: Is. 40:19. The structure of the Hebrew here is simple, as can be seen in a word-for-word translation:

The idol, a craftsman[29] has cast, a smith covers it with gold, and a smith chains of silver.

The object of “cast,” the idol, has been placed in a prominent position, as if it were the subject, and the result is a little awkward for English. The term “smith,” used twice, can refer more specifically to a goldsmith or a silversmith, so these terms can be used as substitutes. However, a verb is not included in the last clause, also resulting in awkward English. I will use the same Bible translations as above for comparison.

The NASB translators made three additions to fill out the English:

As for the idol, a craftsman casts it, a goldsmith plates it with gold, and a silversmith fashions chains of silver.

Following NASB policy for additions, the phrase “As for” and the verb “fashions” are put in italic to let the reader know that they are not in the OL text. “As for” smooths out the English, and it was chosen to avoid limiting the range of possible interpretations. One can infer that “the idol” is being unfavorably compared to God, in response to the question of v. 18. Another option is that the answer to v. 18 is simply “none,” and that v. 19 goes on to describe the idol as just a piece of expensive metal, like meaningless jewelry, which is fabricated on the ancient equivalent of an assembly line. Seeing “As for” in italic, the reader can choose to ignore it and work through possible interpretations of the original Hebrew as represented by the literal English translation.

The verb “fashions” was added as a reasonable possibility in describing the work of a silversmith. Ordinarily we look to the nearest verb that precedes as being implied when none is provided, but in this case “covers” (“plates”) does not make good sense with “chains” as an object. The word “it” is added after “casts” to complete the construction in English. The translators could be criticized for not placing “it” in italic text, but sometimes italic becomes distracting, and it was a judgment call to use plain text since there is no doubt about the contextual meaning (i.e. “it” was the only reasonable option).

You may also wonder about “casts,” since the actual Hebrew is “has cast.”  Hebrew verbs have only two tenses (using the term “tense” loosely), and it can be difficult to choose the best English word to represent the tense. In poetry, which is the form of Isaiah’s prophecy, the Hebrew tenses can be especially difficult to pin down and tend even to overlap in meaning. Moreover, even in prose, the tense found here often translates as an English present when the action described is performed frequently or habitually. Given the ambiguity, the translators thought that “casts” best fits the context. They could have included a marginal note supplying “has cast,” and perhaps they should have. The decision not to include a note was made because “casts” is fully supported by Hebrew grammar and style.

The ESV, in contrast to the NASB, has this:

An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains.

The word “the” found with “idol” in the OL text is replaced with “An,” which I would call a minor interpretive choice. Then, the translators chose to place greater emphasis on “idol” with the exclamation point. This is an option because we know from the OL that the word is in a prominent position (but not how prominent it is). I think the translators’ intent was to make “idol” the answer to the question raised in v. 8, i.e. “you would compare God to an idol!” It makes sense, but as I explained above, it is not the only possibility.

More noteworthy is the fact that the ESV translators omitted the additional “smith” in the OL text. They assumed that the “goldsmith” does both the overlay work and the silver chains. This is certainly plausible if we have no indication that the OL text suggests otherwise, but it does not line up well with the OL as can be seen in the word-for-word translation above. We have to infer that the second “smith” is really the same as the first “smith,” even though the text does not indicate it.[30] Also, logically, if the “craftsman” who is first mentioned is a different person from the first “smith,” we have no reason to doubt that three different people worked on the idol, each applying their particular skills. Does it make a difference in the overall meaning? Possibly. Having three professional metal workers instead of just two emphasizes the time and effort foolishly expended on a meaningless object, and also underscores the fact that it is a purely human creation.

Since we do not know specifically what Isaiah had in mind as the verb for producing the silver chains, any reasonable suggestion is possible, but casting seems unlikely. The advantage of “fashions” (NASB) is that it is general enough cover whatever the smith does.

Finally, we should note that the ESV adds “for it” in the last clause, which is a reasonable inference (i.e. chains for the idol). The problem, however, is the same for all other additions in the ESV: unless a note is supplied, nothing in the text alerts the reader to the fact that the addition is not in the OL text.

The NIV reading of the verse is similar to the NASB, but with noteworthy differences, including wording found in the ESV:

As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.

The translators took the same approach with “idol” as the NASB, except that, as in the ESV, they used “an” instead of “the” which is in the Hebrew. They also added “it” as the object of “casts,” and like the NASB translators, they decided that “fashions” was a good choice for the final verb. Since, like the ESV, it is not NIV policy to alert the reader to words not in the OL text, “As for,” “it,” and “fashions” are all in plain text.

The NIV translators also omitted the additional “smith” in the OL text. It would be historically incorrect to say that the NIV translators followed the ESV in doing so, rather than the reverse. I also try to use the word “follow” sparingly in comparisons, because it can denote a deliberate borrowing which may or may not have actually happened. When I do use the word, I mean only that one translation has the same reading as another that was published previously to it, not that the translator(s) of the one necessarily copied the reading of the other.

As we did in the preceding example, let’s examine the reading of the New Living Translation for this verse:

Can he be compared to an idol formed in a mold,
overlaid with gold, and decorated with silver chains?

We can see at once a greater flexibility in wording than we find in the NIV. The added words “Can he be compared to” make “idol” the clear answer to the question posed in v. 18, leaving no other option. Then, instead of the active verb “casts” with “craftsman” as its subject, the NLT has the phrase “formed in a mold” in a passive construction that eliminates “craftsman” as the subject. The verb “cast” probably was considered too difficult or unfamiliar for NLT readers, and it was replaced with the phrase, which essentially is the definition of “cast.”

The same change from active to passive was done with the next verb, “overlaid,” eliminating “smith” as the subject. In the last clause the verb “decorated” is supplied, referring not to the chains but back to the idol. This necessitates the addition of “with” (not in the Hebrew) to connect the chains with the added verb. Again there is no subject, even though “smith” is the subject of the clause in the OL text. This is all within the parameters of DE/FE translation philosophy.

I suspect that the NLT translators made the grammatical verb changes from active to passive in part to eliminate the problem with the second “smith,” which the ESV and NIV translators interpreted to be one and the same as the first “smith.” Aside from that, however, the changes reflect the overall interpretation of the context by the NLT translators. We can probably infer that in their view, the human individuals working on the idol were of no significance, but only the different stages of the fabrication process itself, which probably stand out more if the workers mentioned in the OL text are omitted.

Though being an advocate of literal Bible translation, I hope that I have been fair in describing interpretive, DE/FE translation. In THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO BIBLE TRANSLATION, we will discuss why the Bible is worthy of the meticulous attention we give to its translation and far more.



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[1] Incidentally, this kind of common-sense analysis is used in the process of textual criticism, which we will discuss in chapter 5.

[2] See above p. 20.

[3] Log on to the following URL: Mounce begins his discussion of an interlinear translation of Romans 12:16 a little after the six-minute mark.

[4] See p. 53 below.

[5] Duvall, J. Scott; Hays, J. Daniel (2012-05-01). Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (Kindle Locations 494-507). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[6] See below, p. 71.

[7] This is truly ironic, given Peter’s comment in 2 Peter 3:16.

[8] In all likelihood someone on the translation committee argued that the Greek was a dative or locative “of sphere” or something similar, and the resulting wording is almost a definition of the construction, suitable as an example in a Greek grammar but not in a translation for the public.

[9] I find it hard to read text that is much smaller than 9 points, and it seems as if the size of some marginal notes is just a few points, requiring a magnifying glass (or microscope?).

[10] See above, p. 47.

[11] This is, however, a fundamental difference between literal and DE/FE translation policy, as will be seen below in the discussion of the latter.  The common saying that “all translation is interpretation” (Ryken, 2009, 27) can theoretically be claimed for lexical interpretation by either camp, but in DE/FE translation it can be used (or misused) as justification to give a word an unsupported meaning that better fits the context in the view of the translator. This practice is unacceptable in literal translation because it defies the test of accountability and amounts to “mind-reading” the biblical author. One can compare it to the handling of speeches in ancient classical Greek histories, where it was common to cite not only what actually was said by the speaker (such as a military commander) but also what “should have been said” or might have been said, by putting words in the speaker’s mouth. At least the historian sometimes alerted his readers to what he was doing with the speech.

[12] Ryken, 2009, 27.

[13] This is not to say that the same thing is never done in important English documents. A remarkable example is the wording of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The word “being” is a participle, and here the logical connection between “being necessary” and the main verb “shall not be infringed” is not clarified by any adverb or other construction. Indeed, this is just the way a Greek would write, and the author of the amendment, James Madison, studied Greek and Latin at the institution that became Princeton University. The connection, though, is very important in modern debates about gun ownership. If it is causal, as advocates of gun control maintain, then it can be argued that the right is limited to members of a state militia or other official military force and does not apply to private gun ownership. Advocates of the latter have argued that the connection is simply one of example, not limiting ownership to membership in a militia, and thus not banning private ownership. In Greek, this connection would be specified as “attendant circumstance” or some other category interpreting the participle as circumstantial or exemplary as opposed to causal.

[14] David Neff, “Interview: Eugene Nida on Meaning-full Translations,” Christianity Today 46, no. 11 (Oct. 7 2002): 46-49. Online:, p. 3.

[15] Neff, online p. 2.

[16] Neff, online p. 1.

[17] Scorgie, Glen G.; Strauss, Mark L.; Voth, Steven M. (2009-05-18). The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World (Kindle Locations 844-849). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[18] My choice of this passage was largely random as I was looking for less familiar verses. As we will see, the choice proved to be fortuitous because it provides an opportunity to explore challenging issues faced by translators.

[19] For example, the tense structure of Hebrew/Aramaic is very simplistic compared to that of Greek, and what is recorded in the Greek (e.g. the “shall have been” phrases in Matt. 16:19 and 18:18) is sometimes more sophisticated than what was actually said, if the original statement was made in Hebrew or Aramaic. But as a matter of faith, the doctrine of inspiration–implying inerrancy–guarantees that the records are accurate, even if the writers added more precision to the original statements, in which case they were doing some interpretation in the process of their translation. It probably does not need to be said that the modern translator–who is not divinely inspired–cannot do the same thing with the same justification.

[20] Technically, the first, “so that” statement is a purpose clause that would be dependent on “I do,” while the “as” statement is a comparative clause dependent on “I do.”

[21] Grammatically correct English is one of the principles in the NASB philosophy of translation, so the change to this verse was consistent with the philosophy. Indeed, the previous wording was more of an exception justified by the traditional translation of the verse.

[22] My colleagues and I have an unwritten note for passages like this: “Ask your pastor.” We would never actually insert the note, but it would not be unprecedented. The standard lexicon sometimes has a note like “see commentaries” for difficult words, and the ancient rabbis, when they encountered a seemingly unsolvable difficulty, liked to say that Elijah will explain all things when he returns.

[23] The Greek preposition can have the spatial sense of “on,” as in “on the mountain.” However, “claim on me” has an abstract use of “on,” and whether this is really valid is questionable. Interestingly, using “on me” with the literal “nothing” would result in a colloquial English idiom that makes good sense, indicating “no crime he can charge me with,” but this would give yet another, questionable meaning to “on.”

[24] In my reading of it, the HCSB has a kind of hybrid character throughout (as does the ESV to a somewhat lesser extent), and this is perhaps typical of recent translations for which the stated goal is both a high degree of accuracy and readability. The HCSB Introduction calls this “optimal equivalence.”

[25] The use of stylists in translation can be controversial, so let me emphatically state first that I am not implying that stylists had the final edit. My assumption is that one or more English experts worked as stylists with the translators, and the final outcome of any reading at worst represented a compromise within the limits of the translation philosophy. Second, expert translators of OL’s tend to become experts in English as well, and might have the same discussions and arguments about style that I am describing here even without the assistance of professional stylists.

[26] “Say” is not as accurate as “speak” or “talk”; see p. 54.

[27] As a grammatical formula, one can for example convert an active sentence (“Some days you eat the bear”) to a passive sentence (“Other days you are eaten by the bear”) by changing the verb from active to passive, and making the object of the active verb (i.e. the bear) the agent of the passive verb.

[28] See p. 60.

[29] In the Hebrew, “craftsman” actually follows “cast,” as verb-subject-object is typical Hebrew word order. An interlinear translation would be “The idol has cast a craftsman,” which would completely reverse the meaning of the Hebrew if read as an ordinary English subject-verb-object clause, and consequently make no sense. As I pointed out earlier (pp. 35-36), traditional word-for-word translation does make sense as it adapts the OL to English word order (or whatever language the RL happens to be).

[30] We would expect “the” or something similar with the second “smith,” or no second subject at all, just as the ESV has it.

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