Yesterday, Peter posted on the challenges of arriving at a single translation which most English-speaking Christians could standardize on. One of the challenges he mentions is the whole question of whether translations should aim at “formal equivalence” or “dynamic equivalence.” In my previous post, I wrote about my own “translational journey,” explaining that I have always gravitated toward translations which feature good readable English as opposed to those which try not to depart from the original Greek and Hebrew wording. Thus, translations such as the NIV, TNIV, NLT, and HCSB all tend to sound better to my ears than translations like the NASB or ESV. Nevertheless, I do think there is a place for translations which aim at formal equivalence, a belief which was reinforced to me this past Sunday.
My church has standardized on the ESV, and this Sunday’s sermon text was 1 Samuel 23. In his sermon, the pastor pointed out that the word “hand” is used no less than nine times in this chapter. Here are those nine occurrences as translated by the ESV:
- verse 4: “I will give the Philistines into your hand”
- verse 6: “he had come down with an ephod in his hand”
- verse 7: “God has given him into my hand”
- verse 11: “Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand?”
- verse 12: “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?”
- verse 14: “God did not give him into his hand”
- verse 16: “Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God”
- verse 17: “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you”
- verse 20: “our part shall be to surrender him into the king’s hand”
By translating these verses “literally,” the ESV makes the repetition of this word obvious, but most of these uses of the word “hand” do not sound natural to modern English speakers. For purposes of comparison with other translations, we can divide these uses of “hand” into four distinct kinds of expression:
- The expression “give into the hand” (verses 4, 7, 11, 12, 14, and 20) means to deliver someone into the power of someone else.
- The expression “in his hand” (verse 6) means “in his possession”
- The expression “strengthened his hand” (verse 16) means to encourage.
- The expression “[his] hand . . . shall not find you” (verse 17) means he will not succeed in capturing you.
It is interesting to see what other translations do with these expressions. The HCSB translates “give into the hand” with the more natural-sounding expression “hand over.” This rendering preserves the use of the word “hand,” but uses it as a verb rather than a noun. The NLT uses “hand over” twice, but also renders this expression as “help conquer” and “betray.” The NIV and TNIV, for all their “dynamic equivalence,” actually stick with the literal “into the hand” expression about half the time, choosing “surrender to” and “hand over” the other times.
All but the most formally equivalent translations chose to drop the “hand” reference in verse 6, where Abiathar is described as coming to David with an “ephod in his hand.” Most chose simply to say that he brought an ephod “with him.”
Likewise, few translations preserve the description in verse 16 of Jonathan strengthening David’s “hand.” I’ve always loved the NIV’s “helped him find strength in God.” The NLT renders it as “encouraged him to stay strong in his faith in God,” and the HCSB reads, “encouraged him in his faith in God.” Even the NASB translates this expression simply as “encouraged him.”
Most interpretive translations render the expression “his hand shall not find you” with something along the lines of “he will not lay a hand on you,” preserving the “hand” reference in a way that sounds natural. A few, like the NLT, lose the “hand” reference by rendering it as “He will never find you.”
Personally, I think all of these translations are more or less valid, and they all sound more natural than the ESV’s literal renderings. But if, like my pastor, I were preaching a sermon on this chapter and I wanted to emphasize its literary use of repetition, I would choose the ESV to preach from. This is not because I think a more literal translation is somehow “truer” to the original Hebrew or Greek, but because such a translation would enable me to convey a significant aspect of the Hebrew text without having to tell the congregation, “This is what the Hebrew really says.” Why undermine their confidence in the accuracy of another translation which is more “dynamically equivalent”?
When preaching or teaching, one always has to decide what kind of “explaining” one wants to do. If you’re preaching from a more wooden translation, you’ll spend more time explaining what the text means in plain English, and less time explaining what the Hebrew or Greek really says. If you’re preaching from a more dynamic translation, the meaning of the English is more clear, but you may spend more time pointing out various nuances of the Greek or Hebrew text. Depending on the text and the focus of the sermon, it may be wise to preach from the translation which will require the least amount of explaining.