That They Might Ponder

Bible translation is a tricky task. When you translate, to some degree, you select words that approximate the originals. You have to. For example, the word logos in John 1 doesn’t have an English equivalent that captures all of the meaning of the Greek word. Logos means “word” literally, but it also has a sense of the ultimate idea of things in Greek philosophy. But to make it even more complicated, John 1 begins with “In the beginning…” which would probably cause a Hebrew reader to think of Genesis 1. When he or she heard the word logos, he or she would think of how God spoke the universe into existence. So what John is doing is selecting a word that has various nuances of meaning to different members or his audience. All the meanings are true and intended, so what he goes on to say will most likely blow out the limited categories each audience has placed on the concept of logos. The logos became flesh and dwelt among us. Whoa.

I use that example to make the point that Bible translation is a complicated task. Because of that, there are various approaches to doing it. You can start with a literal, word-for-word translation that then tries to make the sentence make sense in English. But even then, you have to take into consideration the context to decide which English word best fits the Greek word you’re trying to translate. Still, you’re going after each and every word. Another approach is to read the entire unit (sentence/paragraph/phrase) and get the idea of it and then translate it into English. Don’t worry so much about the individual words, get the thought. The first translation approach is called “essentially literal” and goes for word-for-work accuracy. The second is called a “dynamic equivalence” and goes for thought-for-thought accuracy. The ESV and NASB are essentially literal translations and the NIV and NLT are dynamic equivalence translations.

Jim Hamilton, a trusted Bible commentator, recently reflected on his problems with the dynamic equivalence approach. Pay attention to his qualifications first:

Let me be clear: the particular practitioner of the method of dynamic equivalence is not the problem…Moreover, my concern about this issue does not primarily arise from the treatment of gender language. This post is not me ranting against the NIV 2011. This post is me stating that I reject dynamic equivalence translation theory because of the logical outcomes of the method. The method is the problem.

The crux of the problem for Hamilton comes down to this, and I agree: “The method bothers me because God inspired the biblical authors to write certain words, and translations can only be identified as the word of God insofar as ‘they faithfully represent the original’ (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X).” Evangelicals believe that God inspired not just the concepts behind the Biblical text but the very words themselves therefore Evangelicals should translate the Bible that way.

Hamilton goes on to give an interesting example from John’s gospel. He focused the issue on John 9:24 and the word “glory”.  After looking at how a dynamic equivalence translation handles it he notes:

The problem is that the translator has decided to render what (he thinks) the text means rather than translate the words of the author. In doing this, the translator has eliminated one of John’s key words, removing this occurrence of glory, and created a non-existent instance of another one of John’s key words by putting truth in the text when John did not have it there.

“But,” the argument goes, “the _____ (fill in the blank with your favorite dynamic equivalence translation) is much easier to read and understand! I have a hard time following the _____ (fill in the blank with any essentially literal translation)!” Hamilton’s answer to that honors God and man:

Human beings are made in the image of God. They have enormous capacity. Give them a literal, wooden translation, and they might be forced to slow down and think as they read. They might ponder. They might begin to recognize certain Johannine styles of phrasing things–if translators would give them John’s actual words.

Okay, so he overstates the point. To give the readers John’s actual words, you’d have to leave the text untranslated. However, Hamilton’s final words are wise and worth taking literally: “Learn the Biblical languages if you can. If you can’t, stick with the literal translations, and be suspicious of the experts who tell you that words like ‘literal’ really aren’t that helpful.”


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