N.T. Wright’s Reflections on Bible Translation

Recently we had some discussion regarding N.T. Wright’s translation. Here is his views of translation presented at the SBL in London, July 2011.

I’m glad to report he makes many of the points that BBB has tried to make.

See: The Monarchs and the Message, Reflections on Bible Translation from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-First Century, International SBL Meeting, London, July 2011

What are your thoughts about his thoughts?

7 thoughts on “N.T. Wright’s Reflections on Bible Translation

  1. bobmacdonald says:

    “We want to get the force of the original, but we want to understand it as well. To translate is to distort, but not to translate can be a greater distortion still. Especially when part of the point of the text is to communicate meaning, not just to produce melodious noise.”

    I can only say maybe to his first sentences. We do not communicate meaning or enable understanding when it comes to Scripture. If we believe that God has something to do with the impact of this word,
    then the true meaning may be to run away
    and the true understanding to hold it at bay!

    Is it not better to hide from such a consuming fire
    and cover ourselves with paper clothing
    made of course from the confessions we spin
    around the Bible’s words.

    But then of course I agree with the Bible expressed in one’s own tongue – just so we are not ” at the mercy of whichever priest was claiming to interpret it”.

    But I beg to differ – we are at the mercy of many who interpret! If only they were truly merciful and formed by the one who is all merciful. One cannot help being reminded of the Merchant of Venice – then is man likest God when mercy seasons justice.

    How odd that the great Wright would use mercy in so negative a commonplace when it is binding the kings in the chains of mercy that we are called to do.

    “Those of us who grew up with only one language, and have had to learn others at a later age, are the impoverished exceptions, and I suspect we often project our imagination on to other times and cultures.”

    So why not project the English and have us all learn to read Hebrew and Greek? Not because there is any magic to the Hebrew or Greek but because then we are exposed to the strangeness and the decisions that are made on our behalf.

    “unleash all kinds of new forces which they would be unable to control” – now isn’t that the case indeed! The establishment wants to maintain control over the hoi polloi.

    “Tyndale was translating with radical intent. King James’s men were translating – or rather, editing and adapting Tyndale, the Bishops’ Bible, and the rest – with stabilising intent.”

    “Tyndale had already, as it were, let the English cat out of the bag.” Keeping the cats in the bag (I wrote this before I read the above) was how one minister described the worship service to me years ago. You just can’t have everyone really ‘understanding’ how many decisions are being made in translation.

    Personally, I think it is vital that people know that some Hebrew is impossible to understand!

    “When we come to a word like ‘Christ’: what shall we do then?” Ha – good for him.

    He outlines then several misconstruals – none of which really approach the problem for me.

    “What can the translator do – what must the conscientious translator do – to enable the New Testament itself to make its proper, and deeply subversive, point?”

    Answer: Read the TNK and translate in that ‘Spirit’.

    Why don’t you guys do more Hebrew!

    I expect my comment is too long.

  2. bobmacdonald says:

    “the evidence is thin, and tricky to handle”
    Evidence is certainly what is needed. It does come through the death of the Anointed and is known thereby through the Spirit, but it is not communicated by words or argument or naturalness or accuracy, but mysteriously by the action of the same Spirit who is Lord. (How an Spirit be Lord when Jesus is Lord and Yhwh is Adonai?)

  3. bobmacdonald says:

    “all the world on tiptoe with hope for its own redemption”

    I am glad he got here – but the metaphor is birthing – have a look at חול XYL in the psalms. I think there are several that anticipate – even inform – Paul’s birthing metaphor in Romans 8. (29:8-9, 37:7, 48:7, 77:17, 96:9, 97:4, 114:7) letters also translated as writhe, dance, sand (Abraham ++)

    This alone pushes back the Christian interpretation of the NT into TNK in ways completely unanticipated – but softly, piano, piano. The work is not subject to a human deciphering…. It is the redemption of the one day of Genesis 2:4.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob asked:

    Why don’t you guys do more Hebrew!

    Because so few of us have adequate enough training in Hebrew to comment on it with integrity. I wish, oh, how I wish I had had time to take Hebrew, besides the Greek that I did take. But there wasn’t time in my schedule. And now I am becoming a senior citizen and it is more difficult for me to learn new things. And my schedule still does not allow much time for learning new things. Of course, I could make time. But then some other interesting things I do would have to give way. Sigh!

    Thanks for your comments and spiritual devotedness, Bob.

  5. bobmacdonald says:

    Wayne – thanks for answering – at 60 I started. Now I am hoping for some criticism from some 30 year veterans – I work now pretty much as full time as I can in my retirement reading and thinking about this legacy. Like dental floss, I think it is never too late. (Even though being a 5 year old in this field is as young as any other 5 year old!)

  6. Iver Larsen says:


    Thank you for pointing to this article. It is always interesting to read N. T. Wright. He is a powerful communicator who has a way with words.

    Since this article was written in the context of the 400 year KJV celebration, he spends quite a bit of time comparing Tyndale and KJV. I didn’t know that Tyndale was more down-to-earth while KJV chose a more elevated style that Wright says is (often) above the common people.

    He acknowledges that his theology has influenced his translation and that is true for every translation (especially those that aim to communicate the original message in an understandable way to a different audience than the originally intended.) He briefly interacts with the fact that translation is more than linguistic transfer, because a concept would have many connotations and potential meanings in the original context and the word chosen to translate it will have different connotations and meanings in the new context. As an example he talks about how to translate Christos – “The Anointed One”. The transliteration Christ does not communicate anything like what the original word did. Using “The Anointed One” is linguistically accurate, but what meaning does it convey to a modern reader? Wright did not choose that translation. Some would prefer it and then expect the audience to study the meaning behind it apart from what the translation in itself conveys. I would prefer Messiah for English and Danish, but not for all languages and situations. Wright leans towards “king”, but I get the impression that he uses different words in different ocntexts.

    My main hesitation concerning Wright and his translation is caused by his theological idiosyncracies which he also touches on. He apparently thinks that Greek δικαιοσύνη (righteousness/justice) corresponds to Hebrew חֶסֶד (chesed – covenant loyalty, love and mercy). He did not get that idea from the the Greek dictionary he used (BDAG) so where did he get it? He did not get it from Tyndale, KJV or other translations, so where did it come from? Did it come from the LXX translation of the Hebrew OT? If so, it looks like he only studied Genesis and Exodus. For some reason these two books often dubiously translate chesed with dikaiosunē. Of the 12 occurrences in LXX Genesis-Exodus of dikaiosunē 7 of them translate chesed, but this is peculiar to these two books. We don’t find this in the rest of the LXX. I am not denying that when God is characterised as being chesed (faithful to his covenant) there is an element of God also being righteous. After all, God is always righteous. However, it is mistake to equate the two words as Wright apaprently does and that is in my view why he goes significantly astray in his understanding of Romans, Galatians and Paul in general.

  7. bobmacdonald says:

    My last comment has a typo in it – xyl חַיִל is wealth etc, xvl חוּל is what I was referring to. Should have taken the time to look up the reference. Funny how this memory came to me as I awoke – with all the concern over stock markets these days, I do well to remember both psalm 62.11 – don’t set you heart on it and psalm 49 – you can’t take it with you. Just working on psalm 73 – abounding in wealth are the wicked – yeah!

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