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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Bible Translations: Translation Philosophy

(Continued from here)

Perhaps the most important aspect of an English Bible version that we must consider is its translation philosophy. This may surprise many readers, but every Bible is not a literal translation of the Greek and Hebrew texts used by the translators! There are three basic translation philosophies:

1) Word-for-word (Formal equivalence). This is the translation philosophy that everyone expects their Bible is – a literal translation of the Greek or Hebrew to the English. However, you may also be surprised that even word-for-word translations must make a number of changes and interpretive decisions to render Scripture in intelligible English. Not only are there issues of word order and implied subjects or verbs, but there are also idioms. An English example would be, “son of a gun”. In any other language, a word-for-word translation would imply that the subject was the offspring of a firearm! Thus, idioms must also be translated in a fashion which conveys not necessarily their literal meaning, but their meaning to us. Word-for-word translations attempt to minimize this type of equivalence translation.

2) Thought-for-thought (Dynamic equivalence). Takes the sentences and attempts to convey the thought of the passage in a fashion which best communicates the idea to the readers. Specific words may be changed, added or left out at a far greater rate than with word-for-word.

3) Paraphrase. Similar to thought-for-thought, but extends its generalization to the entire paragraph. This will look wildly different than a word-for-word translation.

4) Optimal Equivalence. A mixture of Word-for-word and thought-for thought. Attempts to bridge the gap between them.

While translation philosophy appears to be made of discrete, separate philosophies, it is really a continuum from one end of the spectrum (word-for-word) to the other (paraphrase). Here is an example of each, from 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

Word-for-word - All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (New King James, NKJV)

Optimal Equivalence - All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (Holman Christian Standard, HCSB)

Thought-for-thought (1) – The Whole Bible was given to us by inspiration from God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives; it straightens us out and helps us do what is right. It is God’s way of making us well prepared at every point, fully equipped to do good to everyone. (The Living Bible, TLB)

Thought-for-thought (2) – Everything in the Scriptures is God’s Word. All of it is useful for teaching and helping people and for correcting them and showing them how to live. The Scriptures train God’s servants to do all kinds of good deeds. (Contemporary English Version, CEV)

Paraphrase – Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another – showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us. (The Message).

Not only do the words and presentation change along the continuum from thought-to-thought to paraphrase, but by the end, parts of the Bible have changed from being useful for four purposes to useful for only one of four purposes! It is clear that the translation philosophy of a Bible will affect what it says, sometimes even more drastically than above. Also, we can see that there are more differences between translations the farther they get from word-for-word. The next post will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each translation philosophy, as well as possible applications for them.

12 Comments:

  • Hammer,
    Although you'll no doubt be mentioning this in the next post, I did want to correct the impression given by this article that word-for-word is the only correct way to translate something. There's a reason that people take different approaches, and the main one is that word-for-word translations can be almost completely impenetrable or unreadable. You admit as much when you say that idioms must be converted, but it's more than just that. For example, Greek often uses vastly longer sentences than English does, and the choice of where to break the sentence can make a large difference to the meaning. There's no such thing as a "true" word-for-word translation - only better and worse ones. Other styles of translation have different purposes. This is, of course, the reason that Muslims regard only the Arabic version of the Koran as worthy of study.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 5/22/2006 03:41:00 AM  

  • I believe that the Greek language has something like 9 words for the English word 'love'...lots of nuance in other languages.

    By Blogger John B., at 5/22/2006 09:47:00 AM  

  • Sorry...I hit the 'enter' key and published my comment before I was done.

    Being Catholic I use a Catholic 'approved' Bible, the New American Bible. The nice thing about my copy of the Bible is that it has lots of notes written by our Church leaders describing the origin, translation and perhaps the meaning of certain words and verses in the Bible. It is noted if a word was translated from Greek and maybe isn't the 'best translation' of the word.

    The best Biblical translation probably has all of the elements you described...literal and interpretive translations.

    BTW...that is the type of hammer that I was thinking of!!!!

    By Blogger John B., at 5/22/2006 09:53:00 AM  

  • I appreciate this post very much. As someone who has always been taught with the KJV, it is really important for me, personally, to understand how the other translations result in different interpretations.

    I, personally, have had issues when Scriptures within the KJV seem to be so loosely translated within other versions. While I have no problem with this, (and I can understand the reasoning, since most of America has little vocabulary and word comprehension)it does really shed some light on how these versions can potentially contribute the breaking down of literal truth.

    My opinion (and I am still very much learning) is that few Scriptures have the ability to translate into a loose and easier-to-comprehend version, so many more have the necessity to be word-for-word. Of course, that is why I consider myself to be a fundamentalist Christian, and attend a very basic and black and white Bible teaching church, where the KJV is preached and thoroughly explained.

    I have also really begun to understand the idea that if a person is truly saved (ie-actually following Jesus) then the translations can sometimes be semantics-(also encompasses the idea of not being any denominations in heaven) however, these semantics can also result in the actual breaking down of the Word, and churches themselves espousing false doctrine.

    The Word of God has little within the covers that can be viewed as mere semantics, when one is a Christian. A person needs to understand each verse, for what it is, as much as humanly possible. Semantics may exist in non-life or death writings, but not within the Bible.

    By Blogger Rightthinker, at 5/22/2006 12:06:00 PM  

  • "The Word of God has little within the covers that can be viewed as mere semantics, when one is a Christian."

    To revisit something that is absolutely crucial to remember when thinking about the Bible: it is the Word of God in a secondary sense only. "The Word of God" is properly a title of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. This Scripture itself attests to. The Bible is "the word of God" only in a subordinate sense to that.

    There is a tendency in some circles to elevate Scripture itself to Godhood, giving it an authority unto itself. There's a phrase that describes the God of those who hold this position: "Father, Son and Holy Scripture." It's a danger that we must be wary of when discussing things like the philosophy of the Bible, what Sven called "scriptural apollinarianism".

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 5/22/2006 01:34:00 PM  

  • I completely see what you are saying, but the Scripture itself certainly isn't godhood, to me, but does hold much authority. If it isn't the ultimate authority, then we are faced with a situation of trying to imagine what God would decide for us on earth, without posessing His ultimate knowledge.

    If we were able to sit down with Jesus Himself, as we will be able to do one day, we could discuss all of what is held in the Scripture with Him. However, we must form ideas of what to follow, based on His inspired Word. That is what leads many to desire to follow the most literal translation, possible.

    It isn't a matter of holding the Bible to godhood, but a matter of understanding that God gave us His instruction, and we are compelled to follow it for what it is worth. What it is worth is salvation, because it is our only guide for living. That's why I asserted that I don't believe there to be much in the way of semantics, within the Bible.

    By Blogger Rightthinker, at 5/22/2006 01:47:00 PM  

  • John,
    We'll get there!

    John B.,
    I would have been surprised if you used anything else. We'll get into the reasons for the "official approval" soon, but it won't be a slam on the RC Church. I warn you against taking the notes as anything more than conjecture, though - for any translation. That will also become clear.
    You and Rightthinker combined to make a good point on version worship vs. Christ worship - thanks!

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 5/23/2006 04:55:00 PM  

  • "If [the Bible] isn't the ultimate authority, then we are faced with a situation of trying to imagine what God would decide for us on earth, without posessing His ultimate knowledge."

    But that's exactly the position we are in, surely? We don't possess "His ultimate knowledge"; we've only got that portion of it that has been revealed to us. The Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation, but doesn't contain everything that it is possible to say about salvation, or about a great many other things.

    "If we were able to sit down with Jesus Himself, as we will be able to do one day, we could discuss all of what is held in the Scripture with Him. However, we must form ideas of what to follow, based on His inspired Word."

    But, again, surely we can "sit down with Jesus" and discuss things with Him. Or, at least, if we hold to the normal ideas about what prayer is, we can. So, we form ideas of what to follow by listening to God as we read the inspired word (lower-case w). The Word (upper-case W) is Christ alone.

    "What it is worth is salvation, because it is our only guide for living. That's why I asserted that I don't believe there to be much in the way of semantics, within the Bible."

    So, you don't believe there to be much in the way of semantics because, if there was, it would be harder to understand the guide? Surely, though, that's backwards. The way to see whether there are issues of semantics (or ambiguity, or contradiction, or vagueness) in the Bible is to read it and see whether there are, not to state at the outset that there cannot be any. To decide beforehand that we cannot allow any such things to exist causes us to misread what is there because we read through that prior belief.

    The mere fact that our Bible is translated from foreign languages means that there must be issues of semantics in there, because it is impossible to translate word-for-word from one language into another - the nuances always defeat you. The problems are even worse when the source languages are dead, as both Hebrew and Greek are. And when the source language is structured as differently from English as Hebrew is, it means that the task is simply impossible - there is always a degree of interpretation, often quite a lot of it.

    Anyhow, some of this will crop up in Hammer's future articles, but I thought it worth flagging up here also.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 5/24/2006 08:34:00 AM  

  • John,

    My entire point is not that we can't sit down with Jesus and pray. I would sincerely hope that that particular important aspect of a walk with Christ, is a given. My entire point, is that there is a reason for the breathed Word of God.

    So, to avoid confusion, and actually alteration of that Word, we may benefit from reading it as word-for-word as possible. The Bible does say in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works". If read word-for-word, that gives us a pretty good impression of the need for literal translation and interpretation.

    You don't pray about truth you look into the Bible for it. One can certainly ask God for better understanding of how to apply those truths, but our sinful nature makes us completely capable of loosening up the Word to make it more digestable or more easily hospitable to our world. Jeremiah 17:9 cautions us against using our subjective feelings to interpret the Word.

    Acts 17:11 gives us another illustration on Biblical understanding, "These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so."

    The Bereans were more noble in their character in this passage, because they worked to understand the breathed Word of God, not necessarily a more workable version of it.

    Now, again, if a man or a woman is saved through the understanding of a Bible version other than the KJV, then Amen! I have no issue with other versions. My only concern is that these can easily be broken down over time, and it is obvious that some of the denominations that have little resemblance to a Christian church have done so.

    Some denominations stand behind their "ultra-modern" views, because they utilize Bibles that have such a small remainder of truth that they look more like a secular inspirational guide for life than a Bible. That stemmed from a desire of man to alter God's Word to make it more comfortable for them.

    My comment on semantics is that there is nothing "unimportant" in the Bible. The word "semantics" if often use to imply that something is a quibble point-something really unimportant to the entire concept. I think many view much of the Bible as semantics-and that is where I have a concern. Not with any translation, but that some translations may allow for the view that certain areas are messages of semantics.


    There is much I agree with in your statements regarding the translation, John. I just wanted to expand on my view.

    By Blogger Rightthinker, at 5/24/2006 12:06:00 PM  

  • "to avoid confusion, and actually alteration of that Word, we may benefit from reading it as word-for-word as possible"

    I wouldn't dispute that aspect of things at all.

    "If read word-for-word, that [2 Tim 3] gives us a pretty good impression of the need for literal translation and interpretation."

    Actually, I'd say that what it gives is a very good impression of the role that interpretation plays in our use of the Bible! For it says that all Scripture is useful for these purposes - and its use depends on how we can apply it to our lives. Of course, this requires that we know what it says, but far more that we have wisdom in understanding and applying it.

    "You don't pray about truth you look into the Bible for it."

    And here we have it - the central issue. For I most certainly do pray about the truth! I also look into the Bible for it, but actually understanding what we read is quite a different thing. Even more so when using so-called "word for word" translations, which are often far more opaque than the looser translations. For the words are one thing, the understanding another.

    "Some denominations stand behind their "ultra-modern" views, because they utilize Bibles that have such a small remainder of truth that they look more like a secular inspirational guide for life than a Bible."

    Come on, that's a bit strong! It's not like the NIV (to take a favourite of the KJV crowd) detracts from the primacy of Christ. Or, indeed, does anything more than gloss over a few subtle points. And that is the price we pay for a translation that's actually readable and comprehensible.

    And before anyone gets high and mighty about the supposed excellence of the KJV, I'll remind you that (whatever its merits) it is a translation into 400-year-old English. And English has changed rather a lot in that time. The translation from ancient tongues into English (whether done word for word or not) will always fall out of date and become less accurate simply because words have drifted in meaning and nuance. And that's without having to take into account the possibility that scholars might actually learn to read the ancient languages more accurately over the years.

    "My comment on semantics is that there is nothing "unimportant" in the Bible."

    OK then - but that's not the obvious meaning of "semantics", which refers properly to the study of meaning, especially the meaning of words. So, in fact, the whole exercise of translation is surely one huge application of semantics!

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 5/24/2006 02:02:00 PM  

  • "Some denominations stand behind their "ultra-modern" views, because they utilize Bibles that have such a small remainder of truth that they look more like a secular inspirational guide for life than a Bible."

    "Come on, that's a bit strong!"

    No, I don't think it is a bit strong, at all. For example, the TNIV is gender neutral. Some charismatic, Methodist and Lutheran churches are using this Bible. For a denomination that has allowed women to hold leadership positions within the church, that is a HUGE justification for their practices, and not just semantics. Although, I have no real interest in that. I don't attend their church.

    I don't really see where else my thoughts on this can go at this point in the discussion. John, while my usage of semantics wasn't the proper form, it is certainly the way many people in the United States use the form of the word. For ease of ending a worthless debate on the word semantics, I will retract my comment. It is obvious my point there is missed.

    I hope your "high and mighty" comment wasn't directed at me because I prefer to study the KJV. That's why there are other versions, and why I fully endorsed the use of any Bible version that leads to understanding salvation! It is a matter of preference.

    You also took my "not praying about truth" comment out of context when you quoted it. I said we are to pray about the understanding of the truth. I was trying to illustrate that I don't think we should pray about the actual truth. The truth is right there.

    Anyway, I'll be gone for a while on vacation with the family. It will be good to see where this discussion goes from here. However, it is a good time for me to bow out of the commentary, since I'm leaving, and it is apparent that I'm having difficulty conveying my point.

    Have a great week everyone!

    By Blogger Rightthinker, at 5/24/2006 09:30:00 PM  

  • The English language has lots of words for love too: love, affection, caring, like, adore, concern, etc.

    Problems with translation aren't because one language has more nuance than another. It's because the semantic range of terms in the languages don't usually match up perfectly, because the way different languages put words together can't always be matched in other languages, and because idioms, puns, and figures of speech don't translate at all loss of meaning.

    By Blogger Jeremy Pierce, at 5/28/2006 12:08:00 AM  

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