CANA translation

Remember the first recorded miracle of Jesus? That’s right. He turned water into wine when the wine ran out at a wedding feast.

Good Bible translation is like that miracle wine. Such translation can take words that are like water, good for you, adequate for understanding, but without much flavor, and make a miracle out of them, impacting you, leaving you with a taste in your mouth that you cannot forget.

CAN has been a traditional acronym among missionary Bible translators. It stands for Clear, Accurate, Natural. Those are the qualities that our Bible translation courses have taught that a good Bible translation should have. Such a translation should be as Clear as the original (but no clearer and certainly not more obscure). Above all, it must be Accurate. And it should follow the Natural patterns of the target language, at least as much as the original biblical texts followed the natural patterns of their languages. (And, yes, there were times when for poetic effect or authorial lapses, natural patterns were not followed but they are in the minority not the majority of biblical text passages.)

For years missionary Bible translators were taught the CAN approach. It was good. It produced translations which were of high quality. But sometimes the translations were not used much. Sometimes they languished in warehouses. Reasons for the lack of use have been numerous, including people’s feeling of inferiority about their own language in contrast to a higher prestige LWC (language of wider communication), such as Spanish, English, or French.

But in more recent decades, those who care about unused translations have noted another important reason why translations are not used, Acceptability. No matter how Clear, Accurate, and Natural a Bible translation might be, if church gatekeepers and parishioners do not like a translation it will not be used.

There are many reasons why a translation may not be liked. The reasons are often discussed on this blog. One that is very important to many Bible users is that a Bible translation may not sound the way people think a Bible should sound. If there has been one or more Bible translations already in the language which have gained a prestige status, they will not be displaced by a newer Bible translation unless the newer translation also has the traditional sound. For such Bible users, for any new translation to replace an older one, the new one has to be “traditioned” (a verb used by John Hobbins).

Bible version acceptance is a point that John Hobbins keeps repeating in his posts and comments and it is a point which can make or break a new translation. Hobbins, like other ministers, may personally prefer some other Bible translation(s), but he knows that if the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t sound like the Lord’s Prayer to his congregation, he might just as well leave the prayer out of the liturgy than to try to have it prayed in clearer, more accurate, or more natural English. [John, I hope I’m not putting words in your mouth here. If I am, we can change your name to Pastor John Doe since the principle remains: people don’t want anyone to “mess” (another of John’s terms about Bible versions!!) with their Bible.]

I don’t have a favorite English Bible version. Instead, I have several favorites which serve me well, often for different purposes.

I can’t say which is the most accurate English Bible versions. A few days ago I was again asked by someone which is the most accurate English Bible version. I answered honestly, “It is not possible to say. There are many accurate English Bible versions. Almost every English Bible translation team has attempted to make translation accuracy their highest goal.”

I can tell you which Bible versions impact me the most spiritually. I hope that is one of the criteria that pastors and congregations use to evaluate which version to use as pulpit and pew Bibles. But I don’t know that it is.

I do know that people want their Bible to sound like a Bible. If we honestly believe that people would get a more accurate, clearer understanding of the Bible through some non-traditional sounding Bible, we have to be willing to set an example to others of the benefits that can come from CAN Bible translations. If we do, and if some people gain spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually from a Bible version outside a traditional mold, it requires a miracle that helps people Accept the newer version.

Such acceptance is a CANA miracle. The miracle at Cana was only one of Jesus’ miracles. And Bible miracles still take place through traditional sounding Bible versions. But there is something special about “the taste of new wine” (that would make a good book title, eh?!!) that satisfies the celebrants at CANA.

17 thoughts on “CANA translation

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Good post, Wayne. We should note that our fellow blogger Iver Larsen was one of the first to expound this fourth criterion of acceptability, in his paper:

    Larsen, I. (2001) The Fourth Criterion of a Good Translation. Notes on Translation (SIL) 15 (1) 40-53.

  2. John Hobbins says:

    Hi Wayne,

    I think the addition of a fourth criterion is essential; without adherence to it, there is not much chance for the miracle of Cana to take place.

    For many Christians, in order to be acceptable a translation has to be traditional in the sense of expressing and conserving a way of thinking about the faith and putting it into practice that unites one generation of believers to the next. The apostle Paul urged the Thessalonians to stand fast in the traditions they had received, both by word and by script.

    God has chosen you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, so that you might obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught, either by our [word] or by our letter. 1 Thes 2:13b-15 (HCSB)

    Furthermore, what if we were to choose to follow the example of the first Christians, to be precise, those whose writings are preserved in the New Testament?

    They did not make use of clear and natural standard Greek, but chose instead to write in a mixed register which contained calques from Hebrew and Aramaic, semitized Greek, and Septuagintalisms (roughly equivalent to King James-isms). In translation, will we preserve that mixed register, or will we level it? Even if we choose not to map it unto English piece by piece, what is the *functional equivalent* of this mixed register?

    For many Christians, not just pastors who I suppose are benighted by definition, but ordinary laypersons, the functional equivalent they have found acceptable is a translation with a measure of quaint, unnatural language, a quotient of clumsy syntax, more or less what was already the case with the Septuagint and the Vulgate, not to mention KJV in English, which have all of said characteristics.

    For further reading, I recommend:

    Dirk Delabastita on “intermediate” level of translation norms, pages 46 and following here:

    For an up-to-date discussion of the profile of New Testament Greek – it turns out that it is anything but “popular speech” – I recommend:

    New Testament Greek as Popular Speech: Adolf Deissmann in Retrospect
    A Case Study in Luke’s Greek, by Albert L.A. Hogeterp, ZNW 102 (2011) 178–200

    I can send the pdf to whomever asks for it, jfhobbins at gmail dot com.

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks, Peter. I had forgotten who was the author of that article, but it was what was in my mind. Sorry, Iver. I’m getting older and more forgetful but people are still important to me!

  4. Iver Larsen says:

    I know what you mean. I am getting older, too.

    This morning I was preaching in a church that supports our work in Bible translation and has also adopted “our” translation in Danish as their standard Bible. (We are on furlough).

    Of course, when we worked on the translation, acceptability was important to us. It is not at all a traditional translation of the kind that John promotes, but it has many footnotes. We also tried to make the poetic sections poetic, including acrostics. One elderly lady said to us that she was so happy for this translation. It had a great spiritual impact on her which the traditional translation did not have to the same degree. She did not talk about accuracy, clarity or naturalness, although we have tried hard to aim at all three. She said: I am so happy that I have a Bible I can trust.

    Trustworthiness is a different (and maybe better?) way of expressing acceptability. Of course, several things can cause a person to accept a translation as trustworthy or not trustworthy. The Danish Bible Soceity recently published an idiomatic translation of the NT which has not been accepted by evangelical Christians. One of several reasons is that the book introductions were written from a very liberal theological standpoint. They have now been removed in a revised version.

  5. exegete77 says:

    I am glad to see this aspect considered. I have for the past 10 years spoken and written about the importance of a Biblical translation maintaining continuity of faith expression. This seems to be reflected in what John wrote in his second paragraph. I look forward to reading the paper.

    Thanks Wayne, John, and Iver.

    Rich S.

  6. Dannii says:

    John, most of your comment seems to me to be only tangentially related to the topic… that said, it also seems like you are arguing that acceptability is an excuse for failing the other three criteria. Shouldn’t we instead maximise the first three while stretching acceptability until just before it breaks? Of course you also have to talk about audience here, for just as different audiences will differ on the first three criteria, they will also find different things acceptable and not.

    I’ve been wondering about acceptability for a while… do you think translations sometimes betray their translation principles in key memory verses? If you look up verses like Genesis 1:1 and John 3:16 and the Lord’s prayer most translations look super similar, even though they might look very different in other verses. Is this deliberate, or do these verse coincidentally have similar translations no matter what the translators’ principles are?

  7. Iver Larsen says:


    You are quite right that the audience is crucial. These four criteria are general principles, but the application of them will be different for different audiences. That can mean both individuals and larger groups like denominations. The four criteria will often pull in different directions, so they must always be balanced against each other. In actual translation work where the aim is for the translation to be as widely used by the intended audience as possible, acceptability is the most important of the four and will sometimes override one or more of the other three criteria.

    Those denominations that have a lot of liturgy will probably prefer a very conservative approach and accept very few changes to those texts that are used in their liturgy, for instance, the Lord’s prayer. Clarity and naturalness take a back seat for the sake of acceptability. Churches with little or no liturgy will be much less conservative in this respect and more ready to accept a clear and accurate Bible translation.

    As you said, very well-known verses will often be translated in a way that is more conservative than other verses. For John 3:16, the new NIV did not change the old NIV which was very close to the KJV. A few modern versions like the NET have chosen a different exegesis of οὕτως (so, likewise) in combination with ὥστε (to such a great and unexpected extent that). I think the NET is inaccurate when it says in the text: “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave…”, but to aruge that involves a lot of Greek. The NET note gives a fuller explanation of the issue. What the tradition has is not part of a linguistic argument.

    Another challenge in 3:16 is the Greek word ἀπόληται (be destroyed). GNB and GW both said “die”. When the GNB was revised and simplified in the form of the CEV, they attempted “never really die”. I doubt that this is clear, although it is better than simply “die”. The problem with “die” is that it will probably be understood in the physical death sense only, whereas “perish, be lost” in this context refers to spitirual death and destruction, the opposite of eternal life.

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    One difficulty which seems to me to underscore both the importance and conundrum with the acceptability criteria is that one can’t really footnote it. Danni’s comment alludes to this. I think it would be difficult to state in a footnote that the driving criteria used to determine the translation choice was the audience’s lack of acceptability to otherwise more accurate renderings, particularly choices which communicate more accurately. I think the same could be said with prefatory material. How does one explain to the intended audience that their accepting the translation was a key criteria in its translation decisions?

  9. Iver Larsen says:


    I can think of one particular passage in our translation where a reader said in very strong terms that if this verse was not changed she would refuse to use the whole translation. So we changed the translation at this point and added a footnote, but we did not say in the footnote that some people had not accepted a certain rendering. We explained some of the background behind this particular Greek word and mentioned other possible translation options. I don’t see the conundrum. Acceptability is such a basic and obvious criterion that we don’t need to mention it. That is not what the readers look for or expect in a footnote nor in a preface.

    One other Christian leader commented that the reason they could accept the translation of a theologically contentious verse was that various options were given in footnotes. As long as their preferred rendering was in the footnote, it was acceptable, especially if the given translation was open to several possible interpretations. (This was the challenging “born of water and spirit” in John 3:5, where we decided to be literal and obscure for the sake of acceptability – A Lutheran, idiomatic translation by the Bible Society had rendered “born of water” as “being baptized”, but that is unacceptable to many people, myself included. They don’t say that it is not acceptable to them. They simply say that it is wrong.)

  10. Mike Sangrey says:

    Let’s make a really large assumption for the sake of discussion–a thought experiment if you like. Let’s assume my understanding of γλῶσσα as used in 1 Cor. 14 is right. I say that such an understanding is a large assumption because there’s a significantly sized population which would strongly disagree with me. I do not judge them–I may, in fact, be wrong.

    I think γλῶσσα refers quite simply to foreign languages.

    Now, here’s the issue. Like I said, this is a thought experiment. If I’m right, and we’re assuming I am, then tongues is inaccurate, unclear, and unnatural as a translation choice. However, doing otherwise is simply unacceptable to a significant and important segment of the audience.

    I think a lot about optimizing the process of translation. What I mean be that is not the translating activity itself. I’m referring to quality control points one would build into the process of translation so that the process of translation itself improves. In other words, I’m not referring to making a better translation, I’m referring to making a better translation process.

    So, given the big assumption, should a translation seek to move the audience toward acceptance (ie the ‘A’) of an improved clarity, accuracy, and natural (CAN) translation? Or should a translation maintain the status quo of a diminished CAN by promoting the ‘A’ to chief importance?

    We don’t have to talk about γλῶσσα (perhaps shouldn’t). My reason for using it is to make sure we don’t talk about a simple case with an easy, single-instance, solution. I’m interested in specifics, but ones which help provide a more general purpose solution. Obviously, given the way γλῶσσα is woven into the text, the solutions can’t be immediate.

    How do we optimize the translation process so that over time we move toward an accurate exegesis being clearly communicated to the audience.

  11. Iver Larsen says:


    That is a very nice thought experiment. Let me play along with your assumption and talk about the process.

    As you imply in your last sentence the translation process has two steps, (a) exegesis and (b) communicating the exegetical choices made in a CANA way. They must be kept separate, even though translators often think both at the same time. It is mainly when we have a challenge that it becomes essential to separate the two steps.

    How would you come to an accurate and acceptable exegesis? That is the first step before you can even talk about an acceptable communication. In this case you would engage in dialogue with that sizeable population that actually speak in tongues and therefore have firsthand knowledge about the meaning of it. I assume from your comment that you are an outsider to that group. It is parallel to discussing the meaning of “salvation” with people who are saved.

    You could engage this group by asking: Do you people agree that the meaning of this expression in 1 Cor 14 is adequately communicated by saying “foreign languages”? The answer would be something like this – and I am speaking as an insider here: “No, that is confusing and inaccurate. You see, I have learned to speak some foreign languages, and some of them I speak better than others. In each case it was a tedious process to learn them. When I speak in those languages, I know what I am saying and I am speaking to people who also know those languages. However, when I speak in tongues, I do not know what I am saying and usually others around me do not know either. It is not a language that I have learned to speak. There is a different variety in Acts 2, where only the first of these descriptions apply, but that is different from the usage in 1 Cor 14, the more common speaking in tongues.”

    You might then say: “So, if we want to use the same expression for the two varieties in 1 Cor 14 and Acts 2, then the crucial semantic component of meaning is that we are talking about a language that the person has not learned and does not understand.” I might respond: “Yes, you are right”.

    Ok, now that we have arrived at a common exegesis that seems to be acceptable to both groups, at least to the group who knows what it means and feels most strongly about it, how can we translate it? I would say there are two options. You can have a more idiomatic translation that attempts to describe the meaning, e.g. “speak a language I do not know” or “speak a language I have never learnt”. Or you can have a shorter version that is not immediately clear, but is understood as a technical term for a concept that is unknown to a sizeable portion of the intended audience, but was known to the original audience and is known to a sizeable portion of the intended audience – and is already more or less established as a technical term.

    If we look at the tradition in English translations, KJV had “speaketh in an [unknown] tongue”. Provided “tongue” is understood as language, this would be acceptable, if not ideal. GNB said: “speak in strange tongues”. That fails on all accounts. It is neither acceptable, accurate, clear or natural. GW has “speaks in another language”. This is clear and natural, but inaccurate and unacceptable to the insider group. These translations were obviously done by outsiders without input from insiders. NLT has “speak in tongues” with a footnote (or in unknown languages). In this case, both the translation and the footnote are acceptable to insiders. The text has the technical term and the note has the more idiomatic description. NLT is different from all other English versions in that it was obviously done with significant input from those who actually do know what speaking in tongues mean. The plural “in tongues” is much better than “in a tongue” for the Greek expression “tongue-speaking”. When you tongue-speak it feels as if your tongue is speaking, and it can be in different languages. The words do not come from your mind, but from your spirit, or said in a different way: from God’s Spirit working in you.

  12. Gary Simmons says:

    “How do we optimize the translation process so that over time we move toward an accurate exegesis being clearly communicated to the audience?”

    Our concern is not so much with removing the metonymy as ensuring the reading in the text is open to both interpretations. That being the case, I think that the neutral ideas proposed by Iver are going to be less than neutral. No one reading the text for the first time will say “this could be an angelic language or a human language.” Unless having witnessed a tongue-speaking experience, she will likely assume it is the earthly languages she is more used to. Yet some outsiders have enough of an understanding of tongue-speaking to realize that it is not an earthly language. I fear that between “tongues” or “unknown languages”, the scales are tipped one way or the other for new readers.

    And, for those who are not first-time readers, I would expect confirmation bias to kick in and interpret it in the way that they have interpreted it in their previous versions.

    Is the intent of pursuing a neutral reading to bring attention to the audience that the text is exegetically ambiguous, or is it simply to render it in such a way that confirmation bias will kick in on both sides, making everyone happy?

  13. Iver Larsen says:


    If we think of the exegetical process, we are trying to find the most crucial semantic components. Whether it is an earthly or angelic language is not important and not part of the meaning of the technical term. I am surprised that you say that some outsiders have enough of an understanding to realize that it is not an earthly language. If they do have that understanding, it is not shared by insiders. In some cases it IS an earthly language, and I am not sure what is meant by an angelic language anyway. When angels communicate to people, they use the language of the audience. Maybe they have their own language for insider communication?

    First time readers are unlikely to get a clear understanding of unknown concepts of any kind, or they may have a mistaken understanding. What do people think when they first hear the word “angel”? A small cute baby with wings? Or a child that is well behaved? What do people think when they first hear “Holy Spirit”? Unknown ideas and concepts have to be learned. There is a limit to what a translation can do.

    When a passage or a concept is disputed, it is common to try a somewhat neutral and open-ended rendering which recognizes a real or perceived ambiguity. In many cases footnotes are used to give further background information about the various exegetical options. The main reason for the acceptability criterion is to allow people with different interpretations and traditions to be happy. For instance, it is common to use a loan word for “baptism” because people have so many different traditions about both the meaning and the form. To me, that is simply a fact of life as a Bible translator.

  14. Wayne Leman says:

    Adam, it is already affecting it. It remains to be seen whether NIV2011 can survive. I think it will. I think the atmosphere is different now from when the TNIV was first published. Those who oppose the changes in NIV2011 have more options now, especially ESV and HSCB, both of which have a loyal following, ESV more, but I have heard from the HSCB team that they are happy with their sales.

  15. Gary Simmons says:

    Iver: I spoke poorly. What I should have said was: “Some outsiders at least understand enough of the concept of tongues to understand that it is a paranormal experience of speaking a language.” Yet this is associated specifically with the word “tongues”, and so a more specific rendering of “speak a language I don’t know” would not immediately be connected with that. Breaking that connection may be a good thing, however, since they could very well have misperceptions.

    Generally, on those few occasions in which I’ve spoken to tongue-speakers about WHAT language it is, they said it was an angelic or not earthly language. Most of the time when I’ve talked about the subject, however, the question of what sort of language it was never came up. I suppose it’s possible that since they experience something supernatural they must have unwittingly assumed that the language itself is also unearthly.

    Your point about the concept of angel, Iver, is well said, as is the last paragraph. Ambiguity must be addressed fairly so that we do not unduly exclude interpretations that are actually viable. As for ambiguities that are only perceived, well… that’s another topic for another day.

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