"Jou Got Some ‘Splainin’ To Do!"

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:

  1. verse 4: “I will give the Philistines into your hand”
  2. verse 6: “he had come down with an ephod in his hand”
  3. verse 7: “God has given him into my hand”
  4. verse 11: “Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand?”
  5. verse 12: “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?”
  6. verse 14: “God did not give him into his hand”
  7. verse 16: “Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God”
  8. verse 17: “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you”
  9. 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:

  1. The expression “give into the hand” (verses 4, 7, 11, 12, 14, and 20) means to deliver someone into the power of someone else.
  2. The expression “in his hand” (verse 6) means “in his possession”
  3. The expression “strengthened his hand” (verse 16) means to encourage.
  4. 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.

6 thoughts on “"Jou Got Some ‘Splainin’ To Do!"

  1. Dan Dermyer says:

    It does seem to me that you have to make the choice between explaining what word is being translated and how it is being translated.

    Hand is a great example, because it has these several denotations.

    So should the preacher/teacher try to say–it is the same Hebrew word, and then spend the time explaining the differing usage, or should he spend the time saying, by the way, even though the word is used differently within the text, it is the same word?

    It does seem that sometimes a great point can be made, sometimes. But sometimes it can be artifically laid upon a text as well, in particular where the same word is used differently.

  2. Peter Kirk says:

    The NIV and TNIV, for all their “dynamic equivalence,” …

    What “dynamic equivalence”? These are not dynamic equivalence translations, but basically formal equivalence translations with some dynamic renderings, perhaps a quarter of the way along the scale from formal to dynamic.

    On your more general point, it makes some sense, but I think this depends to a great extent on the kind of preaching and the audience or congregation. I know some preachers use their sermons as excuses to show off their great learning about minor points in the original languages. And some congregations prefer to have their ears tickled with such things (2 Timothy 4:3) than to be challenged on great matters like love, justice and eternal salvation. Now it may be that your pastor had some important point of application to make in teaching that the Hebrew word in question is used nine times in this passage of scripture. But, given the diversity of senses in which the word is used, I can’t think what it could have been. It is very rare, I would think, that a significant point for application of scripture to a general congregation can be found in its form only without reference to its meaning, as seems to be true with this minor point. Of course such things may be of interest to scholars, but they should be working with the original language text. So I’m afraid I don’t see this as a valid argument for a concordant translation – and it fails as an argument for a formal equivalent translation which is less than concordant, like even NASB as you discovered here.

  3. Iyov says:

    These are not dynamic equivalence translations, but basically formal equivalence translations with some dynamic renderings, perhaps a quarter of the way along the scale from formal to dynamic.

    Fascinating. How do you measure that? You say it with such precision.

  4. Peter Kirk says:

    You say it with such precision.

    No, Iyov, I say it tentatively as an approximate estimate, as indicated by the word “perhaps”. This is based on my personal estimation of the relative closeness of NIV to completely formal equivalence translations like ESV and to true dynamic equivalence translations like GNT (TEV). But I think you will find similar estimates on various comparative tables of Bible translations, although some put NIV right in the centre.

  5. Iyov says:

    Let’s focus on what it means.

    Do you mean: 3/4s of all translations are more dynamic than the TNIV? (This seems clearly false — and anyway, you’d need to explain what set you are taking the translations over.)

    Or do you mean: You have some metric of how “dynamic” a translation is and this is your estimate? If so, please explain the metric.

    I can, perhaps, understand a statement such as “X is more dynamic than Y” (although it is a very difficult challenge to show that.) But imagine three people:

    A says: The TNIV scores 75% on the formal-dynamic scale

    B says: The TNIV scores 50% on the formal-dynamic scale

    C says: The TNIV scores 25% on the formal dynamic scale

    How would you propose to determine who was correct? (If you say you would take a poll, you are merely begging the question, since those polled have the right to ask — what do you mean by your ranking?)

    The temperature in Antarctica is colder than the temperature in the Arctic, which in turn is colder than the temperature in Greenland, which in turn is colder than the temperature in Finland. Does this mean that the temperature in Greenland is 3/4s of the way towards a warm place on the geographical scale?

    Alice is 5 feet tall
    Bob is 5 feet 1 inch tall
    Carol is 5 feet 2 inches tall
    Donald is 7 feet 6 inches tall

    Does this mean that Carol is 3/4s of the way towards being a tall person on the height scale?

    I must say, this sounds like nonsense. This is one reason it is hard for me to take “translation theory” seriously.

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    Iyov, thank you for pushing me to explain myself more carefully on this one.

    Do you mean: 3/4s of all translations are more dynamic than the TNIV?

    No. This is clearly not true, at least in English, because there has been a profusion or more literal translations and relatively few dynamic ones. But these other translations are irrelevant.

    Or do you mean: You have some metric of how “dynamic” a translation is and this is your estimate? If so, please explain the metric.

    Yes, this is what I mean.

    The metric I am using is a simple one, you might think an over-simplistic one but it was really a throwaway comment that you are taking me up on. I am basing this on the frequency of readings in NIV similar to those of formal equivalence translations like RSV, relative to the frequency of readings which are very different for reasons that can be explained as because of dynamic equivalence. If I leave out of the equation places where true dynamic equivalence translations are effectively the same as formal equivalence ones, because the formal rendering is also a good dynamic one, I can get a relative measure of how dynamic a translation is. I have to use the formal equivalence translation as the base because there may be multiple acceptable dynamic renderings of the passage.

    In other words, I am looking at the number of differences between NIV and RSV divided by the number of differences between TEV/GNT and RSV, excluding differences which are simply of wording not related to translation principles.

    I hope you consider this metric a reasonable and meaningful measure of the relative position of various translations on the formal-dynamic scale.

    I haven’t actually done a quantitative study along these lines, like the one which you (if it was you) and Rick did between NRSV and NASB. It might be interesting to do one, but I don’t have time just at the moment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s