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We encounter varying translation philosophies when we consider the multitude of Bible translations available. One approach is the word-for-word translation philosophy, which aims to faithfully render the original language words and style into corresponding English words and style. In this method, the goal is to maintain the original syntax, sentence structure, and the unique writing style of each biblical author to the greatest extent possible.
On the other hand, the thought-for-thought translation philosophy seeks to accurately convey the intended meaning of the original language text using equivalent English expressions in a more conversational and informal manner. It strives to capture the essence of the biblical message and make it easily understandable in contemporary English.
It’s important to note that many translations fall along a continuum between these two philosophies. For example, translations like the ASV (American Standard Version) and the NASB (New American Standard Bible) lean towards a more literal approach compared to the ESV (English Standard Version). The ESV, in turn, is more literal than the HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible), while the HCSB is more literal than the NIV (New International Version) or the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version). On the other end of the spectrum, paraphrases such as the MSG (The Message) and TLB (The Living Bible) prioritize conveying the message rather than adhering strictly to translation principles, unlike the NLT (New Living Translation), CEV (Contemporary English Version), or TEV (Good News Translation). Furthermore, the NIV attempts to strike a balance between these two philosophies. The HCSB, if we continue with the comparison, positions itself between the NIV and the ESV. Each of these translation philosophies has its strengths and weaknesses, depending on how extreme the translator goes in either direction. However, it’s worth noting that the dynamic equivalent translation philosophy carries certain weaknesses and dangers that may hinder the student of God’s Word.
The primary strengths of literal translations lie in their efforts to preserve the original text, ancient expressions, word connections, and consistent rendering of words. These characteristics enable readers to discern the meaning themselves without relying solely on the translator’s interpretation. Additionally, a literal translation promotes a cohesive understanding of the Bible as a whole, allowing readers to recognize connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
On the other hand, thought-for-thought translations excel in providing immediate understanding, just as the original readers would have experienced. Since the original readers did not have to grapple with grammar, syntax, or idiomatic expressions, modern readers of thought-for-thought translations benefit from these aspects being modernized and presented in an easily readable form. At first glance, this may seem like an ideal approach.
However, those who favor the thought-for-thought translation approach sometimes misuse the statement that “all translation is interpretation.” Dr. Leland Ryken sheds light on this matter by stating, “There is only one sense in which all translation is interpretation, and it is not what dynamic equivalent translators usually mean by their cliché. All translation is lexical or linguistic interpretation. That is, translators must decide what English word or phrase most closely corresponds to a given word of the original text. I myself do not believe that ‘interpretation’ is the best word by which to name this process, but inasmuch as it requires a ‘judgment call’ on the part of translators, there is something akin to interpretation when translators decide whether, for example, the Israelites were led through the wilderness or the desert.”
The translator should not go beyond the “lexical or linguistic interpretation” that Ryland speaks of unless there are very good reasons for doing so, such as a verse that would be unintelligible. When the translator goes beyond into the realms of interpretation, i.e., explaining the literal meaning, “wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne, in place of ‘Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head'” (Ecclesiastes 9:8), what readers are not being told is that the translator or translation committee is removing the reader from the equation. It suggests that there is no need for the reader to understand how to interpret the Word of God correctly because it has already been done for them.
The perception of today’s readers, whether they are young children, teenagers, the elderly, or individuals with learning disabilities, is crucial. They need to see the structure and meaning of the original text through corresponding English words, phrases, and sentence patterns. The original Word of God should be transparent to the reader. Instead of dumbing down the translation, the reader should be elevated to understand it. The focus of a literal translation is on the Word of God in its original form, ensuring that what we have is truly the Word of God and not the words of men. On the other hand, the focus of dynamic equivalent translations is on the reader.
The dynamic equivalent translations perceive today’s readers in the following ways:
“After ascertaining as accurately as possible the meaning of the original, the translator’s next task was to express that meaning in a manner and form easily understood by the readers” (Good News Bible – GNB).
“Metaphorical language is often difficult for contemporary readers to understand, so at times we have chosen to translate or illuminate the metaphor” (New Living Translation – NLT).
“Because for most readers today, the phrase ‘the Lord of hosts’ and ‘God of hosts’ have little meaning, this version renders them ‘the Lord Almighty’ and ‘God Almighty'” (New International Version – NIV).
“Ancient customs are often unfamiliar to modern readers” (New Century Version – NCV).
“We have used the vocabulary and language structures … of a junior high student” (New Living Translation – NLT).
“The Contemporary English Version has been described as a ‘user-friendly’ and ‘mission-driven’ translation that can be read aloud without stumbling, heard without misunderstanding, and listened to with enjoyment and appreciation because the language is contemporary and the style is lucid and lyrical.”
Eugene Nida, the father of thought-for-thought translation, made a comment about literal translators, stating, “This ‘word worship’ helps people to have confidence, but they don’t understand the text. And as long as they worship words, instead of worshiping God as revealed in Jesus Christ, they feel safe.” The reality is that Nida and his Dynamic Equivalent camp prioritize the modern reader over respecting the Author of the Bible and His choice of words. Bible scholar John MacArthur states that thought-for-thought translations “diminish the glory of divine revelation by being more concerned with the human reader than the divine author.”
Thought-for-thought proponents go beyond translation by modifying words they consider too difficult for modern readers to comprehend. They also take metaphorical language, such as in 2 Kings 2:7 (“Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God…”), and rephrase it as ‘the personal attendant of the king said to Elisha…’ (Good News Bible – GNB). Instead of modernizing the concept of the ancient custom of kings or men of authority leaning on the hand or arm of a servant or someone in an inferior position, they simply remove this aspect from God’s Word. They assume that modern readers are ignorant by simplifying statements they believe would be misunderstood. Additionally, they remove gender-specific language that they find offensive, as evident in their evaluation of the TNIV (Today’s New International Version).
Why do both the NLT and the CEV feel the need to add words that are not in the Greek text, such as “we need”? Is it because they believe inexperienced readers will misuse the text? Is there a liberal progressive mindset that cannot accept a person having more than what they need? Paul is simply stating that we can enjoy all of God’s creation, not just what we need.
Regarding James 3:1-2, The Message paraphrase suggests that James and other teachers like the apostles get it wrong nearly every time they open their mouths. After reading this, who would want to trust the Bible? This is just one example, but there are countless others where creative translators introduce changes into God’s Word. The last comment was meant as comedic sarcasm and is a bit of an exaggeration.
We could continue with numerous examples of the alterations made to God’s Word by these creative translators who ‘get it wrong nearly every time they translate.’
Our chosen texts demonstrate the differences in translation principles, and it is important to consider the meaning and understanding conveyed by each translation. Let us examine the concept of a “tutor” as used by Paul in Galatians. Does our modern understanding of a tutor align with what Paul meant? Did the Galatians have a different understanding? Can “guardian” or “charge” provide a solution? Let’s read the texts and reflect on each translation’s impact. After reading the UASV and NASB translations that use “tutor,” do we get the impression that the law served as a teacher? And what happens to that impression when we read the ESV? What about the NIRV? Does it further cloud our understanding? Let’s review the notes provided below as well.
Galatians 3:23-25 Updated American Standard Version (UASV) 23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
 Lit pedagogue; Gr paidagogos. The tutor in Bible times was not the teacher but rather a guardian who led the student to the teacher.
Galatians 3:23-25 New American Standard Bible (NASB) 23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
Galatians 3:23-25 English Standard Version (ESV) 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
Galatians 3:23-25 New International Reader’s Version (NIRV) 23 Before faith in Christ came, we were held prisoners by the law. We were locked up until faith was made known. 24 So the law was put in charge until Christ came. He came so that we might be made right with God by believing in Christ. 25 But now faith in Christ has come. So we are no longer under the control of the law.
Literal Translation: The literal translation seeks to preserve the structure of the original text and the assumptions of the author and original readers. Only when understanding would be nearly impossible does the literal translation transition to interpretive translation.
Dynamic Equivalent: The dynamic equivalent, or thought-for-thought translation, transfers the structure and assumptions of the original author and readers (i.e., “tutor”) to the structure and assumptions of the modern reader (i.e., “guardian”). However, the rendering of “guardian” is still an interpretation, albeit a somewhat accurate one, unlike the NIRV’s use of “control.”
Does the use of “guardian” provide a better understanding than “tutor”? Yes, to some extent, but it does not capture the complete picture. Additionally, a person reading “tutor” might think of it in a modern sense and conclude that the “law” served as a teacher, which is an incomplete understanding. Like the childhood tutor of the first century, the Mosaic Law acted as a guardian protecting the Israelites from their surrounding neighbors until the arrival of Christ. Similar to a guardian of children, the Law also imparted some life lessons and discipline along the way. It is evident that after the Exodus from Egypt, the nation of Israel could be perceived as a child in a world of hostile nations and peoples.
It is true that the Bible can be simple and easy to understand at times, but these instances are rare. More often than not, the Bible is extremely complex, difficult, and sophisticated. Consider the passage from Isaiah 38:12-13, which presents challenges in terms of the flow of thought and the presence of figures of speech. Simplifying the language in translation will not necessarily make the passage easier to comprehend.
The claim that the Bible is a simple book is contradicted by passages like Isaiah 38:12-13. Reading the Bible requires stopping and pondering, as it is a meditative book that can be elusive upon initial reading.
In addition to literary difficulties, the Bible contains weighty and intricate theological content. For example, Romans 1:18 states, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (ESV). This passage includes big words and ideas that lean toward technical theological terminology. Removing all traces of technical vocabulary would hinder the full theological meaning.
The Bible often exhibits intricate and artistic organization, including the use of chiasm, where a passage repeats elements in reverse order. The Bible requires careful study and contemplation to grasp its depth and richness.
Why are There So Many New Translations of the Bible?
Over the past 60 years, we have witnessed the continuous release of new English Bible translations. The proliferation of translations has expanded beyond simply providing updated versions, as we now have specialized editions such as church Bibles, ministry Bibles, family Bibles, study Bibles, topical Bibles, apologetic Bibles, and audience-specific Bibles. Furthermore, readers can now choose where they want their Bible to fall on the spectrum of literalness.
While one might question the need for more translations, there are several valid reasons put forth by Bible translators themselves. First, the discovery of manuscripts over the centuries has led to ongoing study and improved understanding. This increased knowledge may necessitate adjustments in translation. Second, our understanding of the biblical languages continues to advance, allowing for more accurate translations. Third, languages evolve over time, with word meanings sometimes changing or even becoming opposite to their original intent. For example, in 1611, “let” in the phrase “I let John go to school” meant “stop” or “restrain.”
Translating the Word of God is no easy task, despite technological advancements that have aided the process. It still takes years to develop a translation. Considerations include the chosen method, process, tools, and sources for translation. The intended audience or target audience is another crucial factor. Is the translation aimed at scholars, teachers, Bible students, churchgoers, specific demographic groups, or individuals with different needs and preferences? Translators must determine the type of translation, whether it should be literal (e.g., UASV, NASB), dynamic equivalent (e.g., NLT, TEV), or a blend of both (e.g., NIV, NJB).
The sources behind Bible translations are extensive. While there are no surviving original manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament, there exist thousands of copies of the original language texts, both in Hebrew and Greek, as well as translations into other languages and quotations from early church Fathers. These sources are considered by modern translators, who also have access to critical texts developed over the past 200 years.
The target audience plays a significant role in Bible translation. In the past, a single translation served the needs of many, as seen with the Tyndale-King James Version. However, with the variety of Bibles available today, it becomes evident that different audiences require different translations. Dynamic equivalent translators argue that scholars, teachers, Bible students, and churchgoers may benefit from distinct translations tailored to their needs. This has led to specialized editions for men, women, teenagers, children, and even African American readers. The question arises: should Bibles be adapted to people’s needs, or should people adapt to the Bible?
William Tyndale, the translator of the first printed English Bible, aimed to make Scripture accessible to all English-speaking people. His translation was intended for the plowboy as well as the educated. Tyndale did not dumb down the translation for the plowboy, but rather expected individuals to invest time and effort to understand God’s Word. He produced an accurate translation that ranged from informal to formal, depending on the original text. He did not compromise the complexity of the text to cater solely to the less educated. Tyndale believed that people could grow in their understanding of the English language and Scripture.
The Type of Translation
What approach will the translation committee take when translating the critical texts of the Old and New Testaments? Will they base their translation on existing versions or create an entirely new one? Some committees opt for revisions, such as the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in 1946-1952, which built upon the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV). Revisions aim to eliminate archaic language and address any inaccuracies. Another example is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) in 1990, which revised the RSV. Both the ASV and RSV followed the translation philosophy of William Tyndale, often retaining his wording. However, the NRSV departed from these principles, resulting in a considerably less literal translation.
If the committee decides to create a new translation, they will still consider existing translations but primarily focus on critical texts. For the Old Testament, this would include the Biblia Hebraica Kittel (BHK) and Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), while for the New Testament, it would include the Westcott and Hort (WH), United Bible Societies (UBS5), and Nestle-Aland (NA28) texts. The translation process involves utilizing textual commentaries, Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, grammars, exegetical commentaries, translation handbooks, and special investigations. Many experienced translators prefer creating new translations rather than revising existing ones.
Another decision faced by translation committees is whether to opt for a literal or dynamic equivalent translation. The goal of a literal translation is to faithfully capture the original text’s wording and the unique style of each biblical writer. The emphasis is on reproducing what the writer penned both in words and style. In contrast, the dynamic equivalent method seeks to convey the interpretive meaning of the original text, focusing on the message rather than a literal rendering. While a literal translation focuses on the text itself, a dynamic equivalent translation focuses on the reader’s understanding.
When producing a literal translation, the committee must determine the level of literalness without sacrificing the original meaning. Consistency in rendering original words is important, allowing the same word to be used when the context permits. Additionally, different writing styles among the New Testament authors must be captured. For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke cover Jesus’ life and ministry but use different words and arrangements. Mark’s writing is fresh, natural, and animated, while Luke exhibits a professional approach with attention to detail, influenced by his medical background. Matthew falls between Mark and Luke in terms of style.
Maintaining an author’s style can be challenging as their style may evolve. This is especially noticeable with the Apostle Paul, who wrote more books than other New Testament authors. His writing showcases a wide range, from elevated prose to moving eloquence and dry explanations. Paul’s extensive vocabulary, including 900 words specific to him, demonstrates his mastery of speech.
Many Bible translations include footnotes or translator notes to aid readers’ understanding. These notes explain customs, culture, textual issues, translation choices, original language words, and alternative renderings. They also clarify the meaning of names, persons, and places mentioned in the Bible, as well as provide modern equivalents for money, weights, measures, and calendar dates. Extensive research is required for these footnotes, in addition to the translation itself. Other aspects to consider when contemplating a new translation include the layout of the text, chapter and verse organization, font style, and more.
The Need for New Translations
The global proclamation of the gospel necessitates the availability of new translations in various languages. However, in English, an actual literal translation has only existed since the 1901 American Standard Version, specifically the New American Standard Bible (NASB2020). The Updated American Standard Version (UASV) to be completed in 2021 will be the only actual literal Bible translation available.
Nevertheless, producing a new translation is a formidable task that requires years of labor from numerous individuals, even with the aid of modern technology. The need for new English translations is not as urgent as the existing options are more than sufficient and simply require periodic revision and updating. After 16 years of extensive work, the UASV will be completed by the end of 2021. Currently, it can be read online as it is being finalized book-by-book.
The primary aim of these translations is to faithfully convey what God said through human authors rather than imposing the translator’s interpretation. Accuracy and faithfulness to the original text are paramount, leaving the interpretation of the meaning to the readers themselves.