The Exceptional Translations

We talk a lot about word-for-word translation. In a previous posting, Wayne points out “[a] truly word-for-word translation would be an interlinear translation,” So, it seems to me, no translation would then be truly word-for-word. Wayne goes on to offer three possible explanations for what ESV proponents might mean by the phrase as they compare their preferred translation with those translations felt to not be word-for-word:

  1. There is greater concordance of words…
  2. There is a higher degree of formal equivalence…
  3. There is an attempt to translate each word of the original biblical text with some word or words in English.

I think the last is the most likely. And, to be more specific, I think the term word-for-word, as it is used by its proponents, refers to the translation method. I think it has less to do with concordance and/or formal equivalence. These first two explanations appear to me to form metrics which measure the word-for-word quality of the translation. The later, however, is the kernel.

I think this would explain why ESV’s translation of Hebrews, when compared to other NT books, is less conformable to the word-for-word norm. Hebrews doesn’t measure up as well to the “matching a word in the original with a word in the translation” metric. Even though it is still thought of as word-for-word, it evidences exceptions to the method.

Wayne’s use of comparative terms (greater concordance, higher degree) in his assessment of what the ESV team means by word-for-word translation also indicates there are exceptions to the word-for-word rule when this method is followed.  The word attempt in the last explanation clearly shows that exceptions are required.

And this brings us closer to the point of this post.  I think there is a deeper reason word-for-word proponents allow for, even require, exceptions to their otherwise word-for-word method.  And that’s my question:  When following a word-for-word method to translations, why are there exceptions?

Whenever we discuss a translation choice according to a word-for-word perspective, we invariably run head-first into the list of exceptions. Word order is an obvious problem. So, we have to handle that exception. Metaphors sometimes don’t work. Though, thankfully, many Biblical metaphors are quite basic to human life and they tend to work in Western, civilized cultures.  But it’s still true that as the translation process progresses, each metaphor is considered for its value within the destination culture—that is, should an exception be made?  Within the word-for-word perspective there’s hesitancy to translate an original word with more than one destination word. Doing so would also be an exception. However, it is necessary to do so in many cases; so, the exception is allowed. Translating with less words is also frowned on—it is exceptional. John 3:27 presents a common case. The KJV and NKJV (as well as other word-for-word translations such as NASB and ASV) render it “John answered and said…” The ESV allows (rightfully, I think) the exception, ”John answered,” rendering with two words what is four in the original. Puns and other purposeful ambiguities are not even thought of as exceptional. They’re just not handled at all. Admittedly, these communication devices are very difficult to handle by any translation method. They lay outside the purview of the current science of translation. In fact, all these exceptions seem to reside outside of the linguistic theory which supports word-for-word translation.

Why?

Why the exceptions? Why are they even viewed as exceptions? Why doesn’t the theory supporting the word-for-word translation methodology explain these practical, common artifacts of the text? And do so, not as exceptions, but as part and parcel of how the language works?

William James said:

Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there ever floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to… Anyone will renovate his science who will steadily look after the irregular phenomena, and when science is renewed, its new formulas often have more of the voice of the exceptions in them than of what were supposed to be the rules.

I suggest the reason for the exceptions is because the linguistic theory underlying the word-for-word translation method is inherently broken. A renewed translation method will incorporate the exceptional into the norm as, in fact, normal. As I see it, the theory supporting word-for-word translation does not have the explanatory power to incorporate the exceptions into the norm.  It has to handle them as exceptions.  And worse, while William James refers to exceptions “minute and seldom seen,” the exceptions met with in word-for-word Bible translation are significant and frequent.

The problem is: the normal, communicating human being doesn’t view as exceptional the kinds of exceptions required by a word-for-word method. Language simply doesn’t work that way. They think of these artifacts as just normal and natural.  That is, a language provides to the language user a rather coherent system.  And the language user processes a text written in that language in a rather unexceptional way–the user doesn’t have to start, stop, and stutter their way through a text.  This is not to say that authors can’t use the language in creative ways.  It’s to say that the creative ways don’t require exceptional ways of processing them.

But, word-for-word translation method does view them as exceptional?  So, why doesn’t the method sync-up with the normal way language works?  Why are word-for-word translations so exceptional?

44 thoughts on “The Exceptional Translations

  1. Mike Aubrey says:

    I suggest the reason for the exceptions is because the linguistic theory underlying the word-for-word translation method is inherently broken.

    Mike, I would go farther and suggest that there is no linguistic theory underlying the word-for-word translation methods. Instead of theory, what we have is merely the intuitions of the translators about how they think meaning (broadly speaking to include both semantics and pragmatics) functions.

    I really liked to be proven wrong on that one, but I am yet to have seen an explanation of how languages mean from proponents of word-for-word translation.

  2. Aaron Armitage says:

    You say, “the theory supporting word-for-word translation does not have the explanatory power…”

    But translation is not a natural science, it’s a human activity akin to craft or an art. Explanatory power is irrelevant. The usefulness or beauty of the result is all that matters; sacrificing these in favor of a set theory is always bad, even if the theory as such has explanatory power or any other kind of scientific legitimacy. So the question is, what are Bible translations for? If they are intended to be studied closely, then obviously as much of the original as possible must be reflected in the translation. That we cannot reflect *all* of the original is only an objection if you’re insane. If we want literary quality, we give up transparency to some extent, but one thing we do not do is deliberately say everything in the most unsurprising, cliche, boring way we can find after careful empirical research. What else might we want? Ease of reading? But why do we want that? Because we consider the text worth reading, and the reason is either because of its message or its status as literature, so if we compromise the translation’s value for close study or as literature, we compromise on any good reason for ease of reading to begin with. There are, of course, people who get warm fuzzies from reading the Bible, but who don’t care if they ever learn anything. But these people should not be driving translation decisions since, by definition, they don’t actually care about the text.

  3. Mike Aubrey says:

    Aaron,

    Translation is more of a science than people realize. And even word-for-word translations which claim to be transparent, are only transparent in a few respects. Word-for-word translations convey Greek pragmatics extremely poorly in many, many cases.

    As to the question of readability:
    Should the meaning of the text be clear to a reader without having to study it? Paul’s original audience didn’t have to study Paul’s grammar and syntax to understand it. Should we not seek to produce translations that the meaning of the original understandable in English without having to studying its grammar? Studying history and culture is one thing, but grammar is another – one that shouldn’t be necessary.

  4. CharlesPDog says:

    Whoa, Aaron, very strange, very interesting. Over stated. Still.

    BUT
    “There are, of course, people who get warm fuzzies from reading the Bible, but who don’t care if they ever learn anything. But these people should not be driving translation decisions since, by definition, they don’t actually care about the text.”

    What

    if the fuzzies come from

    beauty

    transcending text?

  5. Jim Swindle says:

    Aaron makes some good points. If we believe (following Jesus in Matthew 5:18 and Paul in Galatians 3:16) that not just the thoughts, but the words and even the letters are inspired, then we have reason to be very wary of any translation or paraphrase that over-simplifies what’s said. Such translations generally eliminate most of the literary beauty (they go around killing metaphors), many of the intellectual surprises, and many of the nuances of thought. A humble reader (or a humble translator) may also conclude that translators who greatly simplify are in real danger of making a translation or paraphrase that’s overly tied to the ideas of their own culture.

    I’m not saying there’s no value in a more thought-for-thought version such as the NLT. There’s value there.

    I am, however, saying that there are dangers in going too far with dynamic equivalence. What if someone reads Matthew 5:14 from The Message and builds a doctrine about bringing out the God-colors in the world, not knowing that the original says nothing about bring out anything, much less God-colors? What if there’s a significance to the ideas omitted from the CEV, such as being CALLED great in Matthew 5:19, or being angry with YOUR BROTHER (not just “someone”) in Matthew 5:22? You’ll note that I’ve pulled all of these examples from Matthew 5:14-22. Surely some of the many ideas that are added or subtracted in the entire Bible have some meaning.

    I realize that the dynamic-equivalence translator will say that my examples merely show weaknesses in those particular versions. Yet those are not obscure versions.

    There are certain things that the “word-for-word” translations excel at, which are inherently much more difficult to do well in a thought-for-thought translation.

  6. Mike Aubrey says:

    But Jim, word-for-word translations subtract just as much meaning from the text as functional translations such as the NLT or CEV do. For example, translations that say “your brother” in Matthew 5.19 could be read by someone that its perfectly okay to be angry at people who aren’t your brother.

  7. Mike Aubrey says:

    Sorry, I accidentally posted that comment before I finished it. I also meant 5:22 – not 5:19) Here’s the rest:

    As to Matt 5:19 (being called great), I don’t understand what the significance of “being called great” is as opposed to having “an important position.”

    I don’t understand what you think is weak about those translations, could you flesh this out a bit more?

    I don’t know if I would consider translations that are easy to read, as necessarily simplified translations either. Do you think you could expand that point some more?

    Let’s have some dialog on this.

  8. Dru says:

    It is possible – all too easy in my view – for translation policy to get in the way of producing a good translation.

    As a non-translator it seems to me that good translations keep different approaches in creative tension, faithfulness to the original, getting across what the writer was trying to say, whether one keeps the metaphors and reflects the styles in the original or not, what reading public you are pitching your version at etc etc etc. Different translations balance this in different ways, and as far as I am concerned, I do not see why that is wrong. It means I prefer some translations over others for my own use, but I am entirely prepared to accept that other people prefer different ones. The only viewpoint I would have reservations about is the one that that advocates one translation over all the others for dogmatic reasons, whether it is the KJV only, or one equivalence philosophy over another.

    Here’s an interesting one I noticed only yesterday, Amos 6 v 10. The AV contains the phrase “Hold thy tongue”. Everybody else has something like ‘Hush’ or ‘be silent’. There is no ‘tongue’ in the original. This is not word for word. It must have been chosen as being a more expressive way of translating the idea.

    Not even the NKJV or the ASV retain the AV “Hold thy tongue”. The only other one I have been able to find with this idiomatic, ‘dynamic’, expression is the Geneva version.

    I admit that as an English person, “hold thy tongue” sounds slightly old fashioned and distinctly northern. It is difficult not to change ‘thy’ to ‘thi’, and add a ‘lad’ onto the end. [this may be mystifying to transatlantic readers]. ‘Hold your tongue’ would be perfectly OK to me as modern English. It is immediately understandable to any English first language speaker. Nobody would think it means put your hand in your mouth and grasp your tongue. Even if it is not your own way of saying ‘shut up’, everyone knows that it is a way of saying that. Yet none of the others use it, not even the ones that are closest linked to the AV.

  9. Dan says:

    I am now a fan of the TNIV, but for years I was much more in favor of “word for word” translations. As I’ve read this blog over the past year I have tried to find a way to articulate why I liked the “word for word” translation better.

    The best example I have is Mark 1. When I was in college I took NT Greek. Translating Mark 1 was a great exercise and it was where I probably leaned toward “word for word” translations. Mark uses “immediately” 9 or 11 times in the Greek. At the time I was in college, the NASB was the “word for word” translation we liked. If I remember right, the NASB had all or maybe all but one of the words translated as “immediately.”

    The NIV and others did not translate it nearly as much. The issue for me was this: Mark had a reason for putting that word in there, so why did these “dynamic equivalent” translations take it out? Were they just tired of saying “immediately”?

    That is very rudimentary and the short form of why I think the “word for word” translations carry importance to so many people. If a word isn’t translated, WHY?

    Again, I am now using the TNIV (though I am NOT a fan of the NIV still) and I understand the need to communicate more clearly. Also, I think it’s important that if Mark uses “immediately” so many times translators need to find a way to convey Mark’s urgency rather than just NOT use the word! Certainly they can change up “immediately” and use other words to convey that thought.

    Certainly calling more formal translations “word for word” is inaccurate. They do have their place, and I still consult the ESV, NRSV and the RSV on occasion to gain another view of how a verse may read.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    Jim, “If we believe … that not just the thoughts, but the words and even the letters are inspired, then we have reason to be very wary of any translation” PERIOD. Any translation changes the original letters and words, not just a little bit but completely (unless the target language uses Greek or Hebrew script, and barring a few words which get transliterated). So your argument implies that the Bible should be studied in the original languages. And indeed that is a good thing. But it is not feasible for everyone, so we need translations which everyone can understand.

  11. nathanwells says:

    Mike,
    You said, “Paul’s original audience didn’t have to study Paul’s grammar and syntax to understand it.”

    You make it sound so easy, yet I am not sure it was: “and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16)

    If you don’t understand something written in English, what do you do? Sure, we might not open a grammar book or a book on English syntax, but that’s because we know English – the point I am trying to make is that in order to understand ANYTHING, one must employ the use of grammar and syntax, either consciously or unconsciously.

    So saying that those who first read Paul did not use grammar and syntax as they studied what Paul said is not true, for they are key elements to any language.

    The fact is, if they ignored Paul’s grammar and syntax they would not understand anything he said!

    I think Dan is on to something in regards to “Word-for-word” translations. One of the strengths I feel of “Word-for-word” translation is that it seeks to understand why an author chose a specific word when others were available to him. The term “immediately” for instance. The NIV translators did not think much of the repetition, because it does not read smoothly in English. But did it read smoothly in Greek? Why did the author repeat himself, using THE SAME WORD, when he could have varied it? When you go for dynamic equivalence, you loose some of the author’s intention in choice of words, and rather try to re-write, in ones own words, what was said, based on how you understand it.

    I agree, that “word-for-word” does have it’s downsides, for one, it is not as easily understood without careful reading and study, but I think it has something to offer us that dynamic equivalence cannot offer.

  12. SAWBONES says:

    If we take for granted thar Bible translations are a good thing, as we all doubtless do, and don’t instead expect that all those interested in scripture must become competent in the original languages, then we will always have to be making choices along the Formal Equivalence-Dynamic Equivalence continuum during the activity of Bible translation. (Forgive me for stating the obvious!)

    I for one don’t believe it’s always an “either-or” proposition. I’ve never yet found among the popular Bible translations any that were either always interpretive, expansive or paraphrastic, or which were never so.

    No useful translation except an interlinear one can be strictly word-for-word, since syntax at least must change in translation, and (to cite only one example) to reproduce every use of the definite article in the Greek NT would read and sound quite unnatural in English, but this is not however to say that a predominantly word-for-word translation is not of distinct usefulness and interest to some of us who enjoy close study of the original languages’ structures.
    Since however many readers of scripture will not share such an interest, the stricter formal equivalence translations will have a more limited, “niche” audience.

    The translations which sometimes make truly broad jumps away from strict or close translation of the original languages’ words, specifically those which often attempt to substitute different idioms, or which have as their dominant translation philosophy the attempt to produce “equivalent effect”, have their own usefulness. In my own case, I gain fresh perspective when reading them, though I always take it amiss when I feel that a translation is attempting to “explain it all to me”, or when the text incorporates a significant element of commentary along with translation.

    I currently own or have owned nearly every extant English translation of the Bible, and find something worthwhile in all.

    As for the three explanations about ESV translation theory quoted above by Mike Sangrey, I think the ESV translators are mostly attempting to follow the second. I rather like the ESV, though I wouldn’t “gush” over it the way some of the published reviews do. I consider it a sort of updated RSV.

  13. Mike Aubrey says:

    Nathan:

    You actually just made my point when you wrote:

    “If you don’t understand something written in English, what do you do? Sure, we might not open a grammar book or a book on English syntax, but that’s because we know English – the point I am trying to make is that in order to understand ANYTHING, one must employ the use of grammar and syntax, either consciously or unconsciously.”

    The key word there is unconsciously. Of course we use grammar every time we read and speak, but we don’t study the syntax of English texts when we read them. When they’re difficult to understand, we don’t pull out the Cambridge English Grammar, we go back and read the text more slowly. A good translation should make it possible to understand text without making the English speaker have to analyze it like we’re taught to with word-for-word translations.

    As for the quote from 2 Peter 3:15-16, look at this part of it again:

    “as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand”

    Its not the syntax or the grammar that’s hard to understand, its the ideas in in it – some things are hard to understand.

    Thank you for the response though, I appreciate conversing on this subject.

  14. Mike Aubrey says:

    Why did the author repeat himself, using THE SAME WORD, when he could have varied it? When you go for dynamic equivalence, you loose some of the author’s intention in choice of words, and rather try to re-write, in ones own words, what was said, based on how you understand it.

    Do you loose the author’s intention? What if repetition Greek does something that it doesn’t do in English? Translators who seek to translate meaning rather than form begin by asking the question, “What was the author’s intention by repeating this word and how can we represent that in the target language accurately?”

  15. Mike Sangrey says:

    Mike Sangrey wrote:
    I suggest the reason for the exceptions is because the linguistic theory underlying the word-for-word translation method is inherently broken.

    Mike Aubrey replied:

    Mike, I would go farther and suggest that there is no linguistic theory underlying the word-for-word translation methods. Instead of theory, what we have is merely the intuitions of the translators about how they think meaning (broadly speaking to include both semantics and pragmatics) functions.

    To be transparent here: When I referred to the underlying linguistic theory I was thinking of an assumed, subconscious, or hypothetical theory. It’s somewhat loosely connected to the code theory of communication. But, I digress.

    So, I completely agree.

  16. Mike Sangrey says:

    Jim wrote:
    Aaron makes some good points. If we believe (following Jesus in Matthew 5:18 and Paul in Galatians 3:16) that not just the thoughts, but the words and even the letters are inspired, then we have reason to be very wary of any translation or paraphrase that over-simplifies what’s said.

    In one way I agree with this. I’m bothered by a translation method that propositionalizes (pardon the neologism) the original and than lays down into the destination text proposition after proposition. I think it empties the text of its full pragmatic effects. I think at least some of the functional translations do this. Somehow, and I’m not sure how, I think Better Bibles will make pragmatic adjustments to the translation draft in order to more effectively deliver the original intention.

    But, I don’t think the doctrine of inspiration necessarily sides with the formally equivalent either. I hear, please correct me if I’m wrong, a presumption of word-oriented translation method within your understanding of inspiration.

    To modify what Kathleen Callow said about thoughts, There are no solo-dancers in the words of a text.

    In other words, while every single word within the sacred text–without exception–is inspired, what is also inspired is their placement in the text, their placement within a lexis (ie. universe of words within a language), their placement within a culture. All the varied kinds of syntactic relationships are inspired. Words don’t dance alone. That relatedness which exists between the words is just as inspired as the words themselves. Dynamic equivalent translations seek to make the destination words dance to the same tune as the original words.

    When one realizes how cohesive a text is, and the coherent result intended by the original author, the doctrine of inspiration expands. It doesn’t contract.

  17. Aaron Armitage says:

    Mike Aubrey;

    First, FE translations do, in fact, follow the rules of English syntax.

    The model of translation you’re advocating, that translators should decide what the text means and then put it however they think best, is hardly a science. It is, however, made on the assumption that the reader cannot possibly be a better student of the text than the translator himself. He cannot be more sanctified, cannot be a more attentive reader, and cannot be free of false assumptions that the translator holds. If the translator thinks that “be called great” means to have an important position, then the reader cannot notice that being called great is a public recognition, since our standard, the translator, has apparently failed to see it, and if the translator thinks that greatness is identical to position, his interpretation is so authoritative that it replaces to text itself. BTW, “called _____” and “great” are both more literary and more colloquial than “important position”.

    It seems that every DE translation I read uses far more exclamation points than any standard style guide would recommend. Just an observation after looking up the passage I discussed above and a few others in the CEV.

    Peter Kirk;

    Everyone can understand a good FE translation.

  18. Mike Sangrey says:

    Aaron wrote:
    Everyone can understand a good FE translation.

    No!

    I talked about translations at a church not so long ago. A husband soon afterwards thanked me. He told me that when they got home his wife, very excited, ran up the stairs to get her “other” translation; the one she felt guilty using and therefore did not use. She wanted so badly to read it because she could understand it; she couldn’t understand the FE one she was told was “the accurate one.”

    I’ve bore the pain of people expressing their anguish over thinking there was something spiritually wrong with them because they can’t understand their Bible. “Spiritual things are spiritually discerned.” (Too bad no one tells them Paul explicates spiritual discernment later in 1 Cor. 12-14, especially 13.) What they needed to know was they were–and are–not alone. Many people can’t understand the FE translations. And, much more importantly, it’s not their fault.

    An FE translation is written to be analysed. Only a subset of the population is skilled at (even enjoys) analysis. And, to be open, I test very high on the analytical scale. FE translation are very important for this use. But, do not be deceived. FE translation can’t be understood by everyone.

  19. Aaron Armitage says:

    Mike Sangrey;

    “I’m bothered by a translation method that propositionalizes (pardon the neologism) the original and than lays down into the destination text proposition after proposition.”

    But DE translations are the ones made on the theory that the only thing the reader needs is (the translator’s understanding of) the meaning.

    “In other words, while every single word within the sacred text–without exception–is inspired, what is also inspired is their placement in the text, their placement within a lexis (ie. universe of words within a language), their placement within a culture. All the varied kinds of syntactic relationships are inspired. Words don’t dance alone. That relatedness which exists between the words is just as inspired as the words themselves. Dynamic equivalent translations seek to make the destination words dance to the same tune as the original words.”

    You object to FE translations because total formal equivalence is impossible. Then you write this? Aside from the fact that we don’t even know the full lexical or cultural context, you’re asking a person (or worse, a committee) to be the greatest theologian AND the greatest writer in Church history.

  20. Jim Swindle says:

    My thanks to those of your who interacted with my earlier comment. I’d especially agree with what Dru said.

    Peter, your wrote, ” ‘If we believe … that not just the thoughts, but the words and even the letters are inspired, then we have reason to be very wary of any translation’ PERIOD.” I’d agree with that, in a sense. However, part of the Lord’s providence and guidance by his Holy Spirit is guiding translators–especially groups of translators, and especially groups of orthodox (not heretical) translators. I realize that there’s a real danger in being over-wooden when translating, but I’ve seen more danger from the other side. As I said, there’s a value in Bibles at various points along the formal-vs.-functional equivalence continuum.

    I’m reminded of what one of my professors, Dr. Walter Liefeld, said concerning a preacher who knows and uses Greek. His goal should be that it’s as if there’s an invisible page in front of him, with the Greek on his side and the English on the hearers’ side, and his goal is to enable the hearers to see on their English side what he sees on his Greek side. The goal is not to do a lot of quoting of the Greek, nor to make the hearers think a lot about the fact that they’re seeing English, not Greek. I believe Dr. Liefeld’s goal applies even more to translators than to preachers. To succeed, they must end up somewhere between totally word-for-word and totally book-for-book.

  21. Aaron Armitage says:

    Mike Sangrey;

    But you just got done objecting to the existence of FE translations because they have exceptions and don’t “dance” properly.

    Obviously I can’t comment on someone I never met. All I can say is that the Church should be teaching people how to study the Bible.

  22. Mike Aubrey says:

    Aaron:

    I’m at a loss as to what your first statement is for. I never said that (though it is at times questionable). The question isn’t whether a translation uses English grammar, if its written in English it does, but whether a reader should need to consciously study the grammar in order to understand it. I say that if the original readers didn’t have to, neither should we. That all I meant.

    The model of translation you’re advocating, that translators should decide what the text means and then put it however they think best, is hardly a science.

    No, I do not advocate that model of translation. Where you got that idea, I don’t know. But that’s not it. And debates about what translation model is best won’t go anywhere until people realize that what you’ve just described is not Functional Equivalence translation, nor is it Relevance Theory, or any other currently used model that I’m aware of in organizations that translate the Bible. If its anything its a strawman – a strawman that most people don’t know is a strawman. I would suggest picking up a copy of a book that seeks to explain or teach with any sort of meaning based translation method – perhaps Mildred Larson’s book Meaning Based Translation if you can find a copy at a reasonable price. Either way, what you’ve described is nothing like what I advocate. And I doubt any translator or linguist would.

    As the question of “called great” vs. “important position,” I must ask: Is Matthew a literary writer?

    No, no he is not. He’s a decent writer, better than John and Mark, but the only literary writers in the NT are Luke, at times Paul, and Hebrew. I’m not saying that the CEV is a perfect translation (sorry David Ker), I’m saying that it does some things much better than other translations.

    But if the only real difference between “called great” and “important position” is one of literary style, I’d say that is not a “significant idea” missing from the text, as the author of that comment put it.

  23. Mike Sangrey says:

    Aaron wrote:
    You object to FE translations because total formal equivalence is impossible. Then you write this? in reference to what appears to be me setting an incredibly high bar for the functionally equivalent translation method.

    I’ve come to a deep appreciation for the cohesive nature of a text. It is a self supporting fabric.

    I think you’re reading what I wrote and saying something like, “Good grief! How on earth can a person possibly–and formally–bring over such a huge number of relationships into the destination text? That’s ridiculous! It’s insurmountable!”

    I would agree. In fact, one can do a fair amount of piecemeal damage to the fabric, and it will continue to hold together. This, as I see it, is what an FE translation actually does. It leaves a fair number of smaller holes in the text. However, the fabric still works. It could work better; but, it does work. We just need to “fix” the underlying theory as we’re practising it.

    The purpose of this post is to get people to interact with the fact that whatever the underlying theory to FE looks like, when it is applied in practice, it requires the use of exceptions in order to keep the text from having too many holes.

    So, I’m asking, what would a theory look like that would encompass many of these exceptions?

    It would assume a highly cohesive text. It would deal with the fact that there are other kinds of networked relationships going on within a text than just a sequence of words. That is, it certainly wouldn’t be word-oriented. The original choice of words would be highly determinitive; but, it’s not word built next to word, and so on. It would allow for some of these other relationships to actually take precedence since they cohere together much more thoroughly than what is possible when the theory only allows a word-oriented view of the text.

    For example, when you speak or write, do you build up your “text” with words one at a time? And then, discover as you go along what it is you’re saying? Or do you know what it is you’re going to say and chose your words accordingly? The later shows there’s coherence relationships going on and it predicts you’ll build them into a text. A translation theory should presuppose this artifact of language and not deny it.

  24. nathanwells says:

    Mike A.,
    You wrote: “When they’re difficult to understand, we don’t pull out the Cambridge English Grammar, we go back and read the text more slowly.”

    I agree with you. But I don’t feel the need to pull out my Cambridge English Grammar when I read the NASB, but I do at times read it slow, and notice the grammar and syntax of the words translated. Do you?

    Does any educated English speaker need a Cambridge English Grammar to read the NASB? Maybe a dictionary, but not a grammar that I know of.

    I think you are making a straw man in regards to the difficulty of the grammar and syntax of ANY English Bible version (except maybe the KJV because it is so old, but even then, most of the problem is solved with a dictionary, not a grammar).

    You also wrote in reference to 2 Peter 3:
    “Its not the syntax or the grammar that’s hard to understand, its the ideas in in it – some things are hard to understand.”

    But remember, you also wrote: “Should the meaning of the text be clear to a reader without having to study it?”

    Yes, sometimes they had to study.
    Twisting of the text is also part of the issue in 2 Peter 3. How do you twist someone’s words? By making them say something they didn’t intend. And how do you untwist as it were? By examining the writing carefully, yes, even the grammar and syntax (not by using a grammar book, but just by noting it yourself!).

    I acknowledge different translations have different strengths, but to say a “literal” translation is part of a “translation method [that] is inherently broken” Is quite a harsh criticism. Would the world be better off without the ESV and NASB (to name a few)? Or do you see the value of the ESV for those who want to study the Bible on a deeper level, and not just read it?
    I don’t believe we should give every person who speaks English a NASB or ESV – because you are right – they are more difficult to read BUT, I view them as a superior tool for those wanting to study the Bible and get more involved in the interpretation of Scripture, because I believe the more literal (yes even Young’s Literal) removes more of the veil (to use Luther’s kissing the bride through the veil illustration) and therefore brings up questions that would not have come to the attention of the reader if he just had the Message Bible.

  25. Mike Aubrey says:

    Nathan:

    That’s probably the best response comment I’ve read tonight, in fact, I can agree with a few of your points. But would still like to response:

    I think you are making a straw man in regards to the difficulty of the grammar and syntax of ANY English Bible version (except maybe the KJV because it is so old, but even then, most of the problem is solved with a dictionary, not a grammar).

    You’re partially true. I confess on in the point I was making here, I was a bit rash. But in light of the rest of your most recent comment, I might be able to salvage part of it because I think some of your comments here get to the heart of the issue, at least what I consider the heart of the issue (that literal translations are better for studying). Let me try to do that in answer your questions to me:

    Would the world be better off without the ESV and NASB (to name a few)?

    No. The more translations the better. No translation is perfect. We should be using as many as possible. Though from the opposite of what some have said, I think a formal translation should be used in conjunction with a functional one (as opposed to visa versa).

    Or do you see the value of the ESV for those who want to study the Bible on a deeper level, and not just read it?

    I don’t think the ability to study the Bible at a deeper level resides in translation type or method. A “deeper level” of study is better sought in studying Jewish and Greco-Roman culture and history than using the NASB. If you want deeper study of scripture with respect to translation, you’re better off using 15 translations and work hard at understanding why their different rather than saying one is more accurate from the get-go simply because it a formal translation.

    Finally you write, I view them as a superior tool for those wanting to study the Bible and get more involved in the interpretation of Scripture, because I believe the more literal (yes even Young’s Literal) removes more of the veil (to use Luther’s kissing the bride through the veil illustration) and therefore brings up questions that would not have come to the attention of the reader if he just had the Message Bible.

    I don’t consider them a superior tool. I’ve put a whole lot of effort into learning Hellenistic Greek because I care about scripture and I can about translation. My goal has been to know the language as well as possible (my wife and I even practice speaking to each other). I think the idea that literal translations get us closer to the Greek is a facade. Smoke and mirrors. Its kissing the bride through a pencil drawing of the bride.

    And I highly doubt that Luther would have accepted his illustration as being applicable to translation from what I have read. In his “An Open Letter on Translation” (where he response to criticisms about not being literal enough in translating the Bible into German from the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew), he writes:

    Now when the angel greets Mary, he says: “Greetings to you, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Well up to this point, this has simply been translated from simple Latin, but tell me is that good German? Since when does a German speak like that- being “full of grace”? One would have to think about a keg “full of” beer or a purse “full of” money. So i translated it: “You gracious one”. This way a German can at last think about what the angel meant by this greeting. Yet the papists rant about me corrupting the angelic greeting- and I still have not used the most satisfactory German translation. What if I had used the most satisfactory German and translated the salutation: “God says hello, Mary dear” (for that is what the angel was intending to say and what he would have said had he even been German!). If I had, I believe that they would have hanged themselves out of their great devotion to dear Mary and because I have destroyed the greeting.”

    Now I don’t necessarily expect you to be convinced by what I’m saying, I merely hope you might take these thoughts into consideration.

  26. Patrick Rietveld says:

    Nathan Wells I view them as a superior tool for those wanting to study the Bible and get more involved in the interpretation of Scripture, because I believe the more literal (…) brings up questions that would not have come to the attention of the reader if he just had the Message Bible.

    Yes, there are more questions, but do they help you find the answers?

    I just translated Luke 22:20 which has no main verb here. ESV translates here fairly literal: And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, this cup that is poured out, (etc). I don’t think this translation gives the answer to: likewise what? The previous verse has four verbs: 2 participles (having taken and having thanked) and 2 main verbs (he broke and he gave). Which of these 4 are being compared in verse 20? Here the NLT has After supper he took another cup of wine and said. I don’t know why I should call a more literal translation a more superior tool. Because the questions you get from a more literal translation might distract you from the REAL questions that are definitely preserved by a lot of DE translations.

    By the way, is FE Functional Equivalence or Formal Equivalence? The sentence that FE translations are understood by everyone makes a bit more sense when you read it as Functional equivalence.

  27. Peter Kirk says:

    FE translations do, in fact, follow the rules of English syntax.

    Some do some of the time. Not all do all of the time. There are numerous examples of foreign syntax, for example those listed by Mark Strauss in ESV but some other FE translations are probably just as guilty as this.

    the assumption that the reader cannot possibly be a better student of the text than the translator himself.

    Indeed, Aaron. There is an assumption that the translator can read and properly understand the text in the original language, and that the typical intended reader of the translation cannot – because otherwise they would read the original, not the translation. There is an assumption that the translator will be able to understand certain subtleties in the text which are clear in the original but not fully accessible to the reader of any translation. There is also usually a fact, rather than an assumption, that the translator is a professional Bible scholar whereas the typical intended reader (at least of any general purpose translation) is not. I hope it is also safe to assume that the translators, and not just the readers, are spiritually discerning; as Jim wrote, “part of the Lord’s providence and guidance by his Holy Spirit is guiding translators”. It is crass anti-intellectualism for ordinary untrained readers to set themselves up as better able to understand the text than professional translators are.

  28. Wayne Leman says:

    By the way, is FE Functional Equivalence or Formal Equivalence? The sentence that FE translations are understood by everyone makes a bit more sense when you read it as Functional equivalence.

    When people write FE they mean Formal Equivalence. I don’t know if I have seen an abbreviation for Functional Equivalence. Functional Equivalence translations are those which preserve the functions of the forms in the original biblical texts.

  29. Aaron Armitage says:

    Mike Aubrey;

    “No, I do not advocate that model of translation. Where you got that idea, I don’t know. But that’s not it.”

    I got it from the fact that this is what the type of translation you favor does. It may be that the translators themselves would choose to characterize their activities differently. That’s irrelevant.

    “But if the only real difference between “called great” and “important position” is one of literary style, I’d say that is not a “significant idea” missing from the text, as the author of that comment put it.”

    As I already pointed out, being called great is a public recognition, which is completely absent from “important position”.

    This is a case of what I pointed out just above: someone decided what the phrase meant, and then put it into his own words, which were “important position”.

    Mike Sangrey;

    “I think you’re reading what I wrote and saying something like, “Good grief! How on earth can a person possibly–and formally–bring over such a huge number of relationships into the destination text? That’s ridiculous! It’s insurmountable!””

    You don’t need to make the translation formal for the project to be ridiculous.

    Peter Kirk;

    “Indeed, Aaron. There is an assumption that the translator can read and properly understand the text in the original language, and that the typical intended reader of the translation cannot – because otherwise they would read the original, not the translation. There is an assumption that the translator will be able to understand certain subtleties in the text which are clear in the original but not fully accessible to the reader of any translation. There is also usually a fact, rather than an assumption, that the translator is a professional Bible scholar whereas the typical intended reader (at least of any general purpose translation) is not. I hope it is also safe to assume that the translators, and not just the readers, are spiritually discerning; as Jim wrote, “part of the Lord’s providence and guidance by his Holy Spirit is guiding translators”. It is crass anti-intellectualism for ordinary untrained readers to set themselves up as better able to understand the text than professional translators are.”

    Okay, let’s test this by an example: recently on this blog someone advocated translating Christ as “the one that God promised would help people enjoy a better life”. Are you prepared to tell me that a professional translator who thinks this is a good translation or adequate description of Jesus understands the New Testament at all, let alone better than everyone who lacks Greek?

  30. Peter Kirk says:

    Aaron, I don’t claim that every rendering in every version is good. But my Christian brother Dan who rendered “Christ” in this way knows his target audience better than you or me, and knows his New Testament very well. I would suggest that if you don’t understand that this phrase is a good summary of the core meaning of “Christ” in the NT you are the one who doesn’t understand it well – although I do fear that “better life” can be misunderstood with too much focus on the here and now. But I don’t think I would use such a long phrase in a general purpose Bible translation.

  31. Aaron Armitage says:

    That’s not a misunderstanding, it’s what the words mean. If that’s not what was intended, it’s the writer’s fault for using English incompetently. Even supposing that the target audience, who apparently find Scripture and Christianity completely foreign, nevertheless know to substitute some sort of spiritual point for what was written, “help” is wrong. Is, in fact, a damnable heresy called Pelagianism. There is no target audience for whom heresy is an appropriate message.

  32. Mike Sangrey says:

    Aaron wrote:
    Even supposing that the target audience, who apparently find Scripture and Christianity completely foreign, nevertheless know to substitute some sort of spiritual point for what was written, “help” is wrong. Is, in fact, a damnable heresy called Pelagianism.

    Ok. Then let’s negate it so we can get a better translation by negating the heresy.

    “the one that God promised would not help people enjoy a better life”

    Well, that certainly doesn’t work.

    In other words, the problem here is not with the translation; it is the presumption that one can get such a huge theological conclusion from the use of a single word.

    If you applied this hermeneutic to many, many other passages (you pick the translation) that use the word help with God as the actor and people as the recipients, would you come to the same conclusion that the translation is Pelagian? Let’s at least be equitable with our judgments.

    Peter is right. If the intended audience were asked whether the clause indicates that they, in fact, secure the better life, I doubt they would reply, “yes.” But, ultimately, it’s the intended audience that gets to decide how they understand the text. The question then is whether that understanding and the resulting life agrees with a sound exegesis. That’s the true test of a translation.

  33. Jim Swindle says:

    I think there’s a real temptation for the modern, dynamic-equivalence translator to make a translation that’s both clearer and less deep than the more formal-equivalence translations. He can replace “Christ” with “the promised one” or “the chosen deliverer” or “the anointed one” or something else. She can replace “baptize” with “submerge in water.” He can replace “the heavens” in Genesis 1:1 with “the sky.” She can replace all sorts of things with decisions that leave little to the imagination and that take firm stands on things concerning which generations of Christians have disagreed. Such a translation helps bring clarity, but it also closes the door to the possibility of the reader understanding the text better than the translator intended.

  34. Peter Kirk says:

    Aaron, don’t you believe in a “better life” after death? If you do, you disprove your own claim that the words “better life” mean life here and now. It’s all a matter of context.

    Jim, I hope your tongue is firmly in your cheek when you wrote of “the possibility of the reader understanding the text better than the translator intended”. Any reader who claims to be able to do this is pretending to something impossible.

  35. Mike Sangrey says:

    Aaron wrote:
    Did you forget that the English language includes the word “give”?

    I think the answer to that question, at least if I take it in its plain sense, is “Obviously, no.”

    If you’re interested in the readership moving toward an understanding of how to translate better so as to achieve Better Bibles, then please clarify what you mean.

    To others reading this: I find these kinds of occurrences so very interesting, from a linguistic perspective. I struggle with the emotive parts, certainly. But I choose to set my natural inclinations aside. What I want more than anything else is Better Bibles.

    The interesting linguistic perspective is this. Aaron’s statement is a clear example of a statement that’s not clear. I could “plum the depths” of it, explore multiple different meanings, analyze it to death. I could even assume I know what it means and reply accordingly. However, the best I could possible hope for is a very high expectation that I have misunderstood. That’s the problem with a lack of clarity in the text.

    All professional translators recognize that. So, their intent is a translated text that accurately communicates. It does not matter what methodology they adhere to. I’m not referring to special use “translations” which are really not translations at all. In this later case, these are tools specially designed for specific uses.

    The point of the above post is that a formally equivalent (FE)translation method must use exceptions to the underlying theory in order to accomplish clarity. Since the individual solutions are exceptional, the application of those solutions varies in quality.

    The point is: a theory which is better than the theory underlying FE would embrace the exceptions as normal. It would explain the exceptions, not as exceptions, but as a natural result of what the theory says.

  36. Mike Sangrey says:

    Jim wrote:
    She can replace all sorts of things with decisions that leave little to the imagination and that take firm stands on things concerning which generations of Christians have disagreed.

    But why have they disagreed? Has it been, at least in the vast majority of cases, because they have a solid understanding of the original text? Or, has it been because the translated texts have been ambiguous? These are difficult questions; I don’t deny that.

    And that brings me to this: I think there is a whole pile of PhD theses that could be written that explore the question: Why have Christians disagreed over what the Bible says?

    I’m afraid that what I think we would see is the vast (and I mean vast) majority of cases would be things like: logical fallacies, obvious misunderstanding of the original context, various linguistic failures (eg etymological fallacy), disagreements over something the encompassing text says nothing about, failure of the general Christian populace to take in newly acquired knowledge in a timely fashion, etc.

  37. David Frank says:

    Aaron Armitage first wrote that he objected to the use of the verb “help” in the translation of Christ as “the one that God promised would help people enjoy a better life.” Mike, when asked later if you had forgotten about the English word “give,” I understand that to be Aaron’s oblique way of suggesting that “give” would be a better verb than “help” if you want to spell out the meaning of the term Christ. This probably would have been better discussed in conjunction with Dan Sindlinger’s post on “Translating ‘Christ.'”

    Mike, in addition to the list you made of why people argue about what the Bible is saying, I would add another one that doesn’t have much to do with how the Bible is translated: Different people focus on different passages and themes in the scriptures.

  38. Aaron Armitage says:

    Peter Kirk;

    “Aaron, don’t you believe in a “better life” after death? If you do, you disprove your own claim that the words “better life” mean life here and now. It’s all a matter of context.”

    The context is an intended audience who know nothing of Christianity or the Bible. Why are you assuming they’ll know to spiritualize an expression which by itself means worldly well-being?

    Even with your gloss, it misses the basic point, especially for the untaught. A better life can mean meeting Grandma again, or even a Muslim paradise of wine and houris. Jesus came to save us from sin so that we could delight in a holy God. Anything less is at best grossly insufficient.

    “Jim, I hope your tongue is firmly in your cheek when you wrote of “the possibility of the reader understanding the text better than the translator intended”. Any reader who claims to be able to do this is pretending to something impossible.”

    He certainly can if the translator is playing fair.

    Here’s one for you, since from my reading of your blog you seem to be an egalitarian (and because this is one which my favorite translations do wrong, although my ESV has the right version in the footnotes): 1 Timothy 3:11. Is it qualifications for deacon’s wives or for female deacons? If the translator puts “their wives”, the reader is denied the possibility that female deacons are permitted. Or if he puts “deaconess” or “women deacons”, he is forced to a conclusion that may not, in fact, be valid. Incidentally, my own church is highly complementarian and has a deaconess, precisely because of the close reading of that verse. In the original, since the pastor knows Greek, but there is no good reason laymen cannot be given the ambiguity.

    David Frank;

    “Aaron Armitage first wrote that he objected to the use of the verb “help” in the translation of Christ as “the one that God promised would help people enjoy a better life.” Mike, when asked later if you had forgotten about the English word “give,” I understand that to be Aaron’s oblique way of suggesting that “give” would be a better verb than “help” if you want to spell out the meaning of the term Christ.”

    More precisely, that the jump from my objection to “help” that I would rather see “not help” is irrational.

  39. Mike Sangrey says:

    Aaron wrote:
    More precisely, that the jump from my objection to “help” that I would rather see “not help” is irrational.

    I certainly didn’t suggest anything like this.

  40. Mike Sangrey says:

    You made the claim that the word ‘help’ “is a damnable heresy called Pelagianism. That is, you focused on the word help.

    So, I understood that to be: the word help, in that context, implies Pelagianism. I turned that into the contra-positive. That is: not Pelagianism implies not help.

    I did that because it’s easier to see that the contrapositive is not true. So, I did that to expose what the real problem is. The real problem is the assumption, and the failure, in the logic that one can build large theological results from a single word. And that was my point.

    In other words, your leap of “logic” was not translation related; but it related to a false hermeneutic. As far as translation goes, it was, and is, a red herring and a non sequitor.

  41. Aaron Armitage says:

    Then:

    More precisely, that the jump from my objection to “help” that I would rather see “not help” is irrational.

    I certainly didn’t suggest anything like this.”

    Now:

    “not Pelagianism implies not help.”

    So I was right in the first place.

    “I did that because it’s easier to see that the contrapositive is not true.”

    Which is a logical fallacy called the strawman.

    “So, I did that to expose what the real problem is. The real problem is the assumption, and the failure, in the logic that one can build large theological results from a single word. And that was my point.”

    No, you played a verbal game and got caught in it. Your exposure fails to follow from your flatfooted attempt at a reductio, not to mention that it makes a hash of some of the most important parts of Church history.

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