|Bible Research > Interpretation > Translation Methods > How to Translate|
The following is chapter 4 from the book The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy by Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000), and is reproduced here by permission.
To evaluate the issues properly we need to have a sense for what a translation does. But how can we decide what a "good" Bible translation is? We begin with what the Bible itself says. In fact, the Bible itself provides us with some crucial guidance — not with specific instructions about how to translate, but with the foundation, explaining why Bible translation is part of God's plan for the church.
In the Great Commission Jesus instructs the disciples to "make disciples of all nations, ... teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20). This implies that Jesus' teaching will spread among the nations and will be understood and obeyed. But that means that his teaching has to become available to these nations and they speak thousands of different languages. Therefore, when Jesus gave the Great Commission it implied that his followers eventually would have to translate his teaching into many different languages. Translation of Jesus' teaching (and, by implication, the message of the whole Bible) plays a part in the total process of fulfilling the Great Commission.
Acts 2 points to the same conclusion. On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit gave the gift of tongues to the disciples, enabling them miraculously to speak the message in other languages. On that day, the day when the Gospel began to go to all nations, an amazing miracle from God hinted that translation into other languages (but not necessarily miraculous translation!) would be a part of spreading the Gospel message.
But "making disciples" does not mean merely translating the Bible and then throwing the completed version at some prospective disciple. We need to include evangelism and a process of growth that involves much teaching (Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:28). A translation of the Bible lies at the base of this process, but afterwards the teaching is built upon the translation.
The Bible defines our goal. But what difficulties confront translators in practice?
To appreciate some of the difficulties, we need to take a look at the actual process of translation, and at the human languages with which a translator works. God gave us language as one of his greatest gifts. But it is not only a great gift — it is an exceedingly rich and complex gift. That very richness makes translation a challenging operation.
A single word like "dog" or "trunk" in English reveals vast complexity. One dictionary lists no less than four distinct words "dog." It has only one entry for "trunk," but six distinct senses listed under it. 1 How do we decide among these senses?
Native speakers of English usually decide instantly and without effort which sense of a word is right. They use hints deriving from (1) the grammar (is the word a noun, a verb, a direct object, etc.? And what grammatical construction does it fit into?), (2) the relationship to the larger context — that is, the other words, sentences, paragraphs, and the whole communication ("discourse") and (3) the situation (about what circumstances is the speaker talking, and what does he expect us to do in response?). These three factors can be called the grammatical context, the discourse context, and the situational context. They reveal which of several senses of a word the speaker is using.
But occasionally there are ambiguities. At times it is a challenge to know which sense of a word a speaker is using. In fact, when breakdowns in communication occur, it is often because two people are using the same word in different ways.
When we try to translate between two languages, the challenges become even greater. Suppose that we are translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to English. We must deal with the dictionary definitions for both Hebrew and English words. Though two words from the two languages may roughly correspond in meaning (Hebrew ben and English "son," for example), they seldom match exactly.
In many cases, because a word has several different possible meanings, no one word in English may match all the uses in another language. For example, consider the word ruach in Hebrew. A beginner may be told that ruach means "breath, wind, spirit." 2 He might naively assume that this means that the word ruach means an amalgamation of "breath, wind, spirit" all at the same the time. But no—in any one occurrence, only one of these meanings occurs. For example, Genesis 6:17 says, "I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath [ruach] of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die" (RSV). The Hebrew word ruach is correctly translated "breath" in the KJV, NASB, NKJV, RSV, and NIV. Next, 1 Kings 18:45 says, "And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind [ruach], and there was a great rain" (RSV). The same Hebrew word ruach occurs, and KJV, NASB, NKJV, RSV, and NIV all correctly translate with "wind." Job 4:15 says, "A spirit [ruach] glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up" (RSV). KJV, NASB, NKJV, RSV, and NIV all have "spirit," in the sense of a ghostly apparition.
In each case the context clearly indicates which of the three main meanings is appropriate. In general, we seek to find the appropriate English expression that matches the meaning of Hebrew in a particular context.
In translation we also must deal with the meaning of whole phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, not simply isolated words. Each word in a sentence contributes to the meaning. But we want to translate the message, the meaning of the whole, not simply words in isolation. Translators must take into account the many ways in which word meanings interact when they occur in discourse.
We find, for example, that languages differ in the way they put words and sentences together. Greek may use long sentences: Ephesians 1:3-14 is one sentence in Greek. Current English style prefers shorter sentences. Hebrew sentences tend to be shorter still.
The normal order of words in a sentence may differ between languages. For example, if we translate Ephesians 1:15-16 woodenly, word by word, it comes out like this:
On-account-of this also I, having-heard the in you faith in the Lord Jesus and the love the to all the saints, not I stop thanking about you mention making at the prayers my.
That is not how we would say it in English! Many factors contribute to the difference. In English, we distinguish subject, predicate, and object mostly by word order. "Man bites dog" differs from "Dog bites man." In Greek, the difference between subject and object is not usually shown by word order, but by the endings that attach to nouns (called case endings). This device leaves the Greek speaker free to rearrange the word order while keeping the same subject and object.
We find also that grammatical features in one language do not match those in another language in a one-to-one fashion. The beginner learns that the Greek aorist tense means "simple past action." For example, Matthew 4:21 says, "Jesus called them" (NIV). The simple past tense "called" in English corresponds to the Greek aorist tense. But in other cases the Greek aorist tense has nothing to do with past time. In Matthew 5:16 the commandment "Let your light so shine" (RSV) uses the aorist tense, referring to what the disciples should do in the future. The more advanced student has to learn that such a thing regularly happens with the Greek aorist imperative, which is used to issue commands.
Or again, the beginner learns that the Greek conjunction hina means "in order that," and is used to show purpose. For example, Romans 4:13 says, "I have planned many times to come to you in order that [hina] I might have a harvest among you" (NIV). But in other cases the same meaning can be translated with "so that," or "so," or an infinitive in English:
I long to see you, so that [hina] I may impart to you some spiritual gift . (Rom. 1:11, NIV)
Send the crowds away, so [hina] they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food. (Matt. 14:15, NIV)
All this took place to [hina] fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: (Matt. 1:22, NIV)
In other cases, the Greek word hina does not carry the sense of purpose, and may need a different handling in translation:
"Lord, I do not deserve to [hina] have you come under my roof." (Matt. 8:8, NIV)
If you are the Son of God, tell [hina is added here] these stones to become bread. (Matt. 4:3, NIV)
... do to others what you would have [hina is added here] them do to you. (Matt. 7:12 NIV)
In Matthew 4:3 and 7:12, no distinct English word translates the Greek word hina. Instead, the sentence as a whole in English enables us to connect two parts together 3 in a manner corresponding correctly to the meaning in Greek.
We could go on and on discussing such differences. Anyone studying a foreign language begins to notice such differences. But he learns the differences only after he passes an initially naive stage in which he learns over-simple formulas like "The Greek word hina means 'in order that.'"
The naive person may think, "Just translate by putting in equivalent words, one by one." But as we have seen, such a procedure often does not adequately capture the meaning of the original. In fact, translators want to express the same meaning in English as was expressed in the original. To achieve this goal, they find that many times they must not simply translate mechanically, word for word. That is, they do not preserve form. A single word in Hebrew (like ruach, "breath, wind, spirit") is not always translated the same way in English. A single grammatical tense (like the Greek aorist) is not always translated the same way. A single construction (like the Greek conjunction hina) is not always translated the same way. The translator alters these forms in English, precisely in order to express the fullest possible meaning most accurately in English.
This kind of flexibility in translation is not always easy for beginners to achieve. Hence, teachers of translation summarize it in a simple way: "translate meaning, not form."
Naive Bible students can easily make a mistake here. They believe, rightly, that every detail in the message of original manuscripts, including every individual word, was breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16). But then they may wrongly infer that a translation must proceed on a strict, mechanical, word-for-word basis. Such reasoning does not recognize that in the original languages, God himself combined the words into sentences in order to convey a message. We do not do justice to God's speech unless we recognize that he spoke the words in sentences and paragraphs, not in isolation. Faithfully rendering his speech in another language means attending all aspects of God's speech, not just the words in isolation. When we read a letter to a friend, we read the message using the words. Just so when we read God's Word, the Bible. 4
Linguists and teachers of translators developed the theory of "dynamic equivalent" translation to spell out in detail the differences between form and meaning, the differences between different languages, and the kind of practices that lead to sound translation. 5 Central to the theory was the principle of translating meaning in preference to form.Thus, "dynamic equivalence" means choosing an expression that yields equivalent meaning in the target language. "Formal equivalence," by contrast, means choosing an expression that has one-to-one matching forms in the target language, regardless of whether the meaning is the same. The standard theory of dynamic equivalence thus advocates translating meaning rather than form.
Such a summary is clearly on the right track. It encourages translators to concentrate on what is important, and to restructure the form when it is necessary to convey the meaning. Such an emphasis is especially helpful in a situation where communication is difficult, because it is better to transmit at least a minimal core content than to produce a formal equivalent that does not work at all.
In addition to this basic principle, early "dynamic equivalence" theory spelled out the implications for various kinds of special cases. For example, it said that you may make explicit in the target language information that is linguistically implicit in the original. For instance, suppose that there is no noun for "love" in the target language, but only a verb. When you have a noun for "love" in Greek (agape), you may have to translate in a way that includes an explicit subject and object in the target, "God loves you" or "you love God."
Consider another, more complex case. Compare two translations of Ephesians 1:18:
... that you may know what is the hope of His calling, (NASB)
... that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, (RSV)
The underlying Greek, word-for-word, runs like this: "the hope of-the calling his." Strictly speaking, neither the NASB nor the RSV (nor the KJV nor any other major English translation) is purely "formally equivalent." A pure word-for-word matching results in ungrammatical English. The NASB has done a minimal rearrangement of the words, in order to achieve grammatical English.
But now there is still a difficulty. "Of" in English is not a perfect match for the underlying Greek construction, which uses the genitive case rather than a separate word like "of." "Of" is not an exact equivalent. And in fact, in this case at least, it introduces the possibility of misunderstanding. English readers may easily understand the NASB as meaning "the hope that he will call you." But that is not what Paul means. In Greek the actual meaning is closer to "hope arising from his calling" or "hope pertaining to his calling." The RSV, NIV, and GNB all have "the hope to which he has called you," which heads off the possible misunderstanding, and is one useful solution. They have restructured the form, and thereby clarified the meaning. In the process, they have also put in the extra word "you." That word is not there in Greek. So is it illegitimate in English? No. It is linguistically implicit in Greek. If the Greek explicitly speaks of "his calling," that is, God's calling, it implies that God is calling someone. Who is "the someone?" By implication, it is "you."
The theory of dynamic equivalence allows even more. At times, because of cultural differences, target readers within a particular language and culture are almost bound to misunderstand, not so much the words as the cultural significance of the act. In one target culture, meeting someone with palm branches signifies scorn. So what does one do with Jesus' Palm Sunday entry in John 12:13, where the crowds "took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him" (NIV)? In a case like this, the theory allows the translator to put in the necessary cultural information that was not linguistically there in the original. Instead of saying "they went out to meet him," one says, "They took branches of palm trees and went out to welcome him." The translator compromises on linguistic meaning here (the Greek text does not specify that people were welcoming Jesus), but the theory says it is right to add "to welcome" in order that the total act of communication may be successful.
Dynamic equivalence theory was a useful tool to encourage translators to reckon again and again with meaning, not simply form. It is particularly important when one is training people who start out with a naive understanding of language. Their impulse is often to translate mechanically, word for word, especially when they have a very imperfect grasp of one of the two languages with which they are working. They have, perhaps, learned a simple beginner's rule, such as "Hebrew ben means son." The temptation is just mechanically to replace the word ben with "son" everywhere, ignoring context and ignoring the nuances of meaning to which the context points.
We must understand the context in which the theory of dynamic equivalence developed. In the twentieth century an academic field called "structural linguistics" developed theoretical reflections on the issues of translation. At nearly the same time Wycliffe Bible Translators and other translation agencies began the task of translating the Bible into thousands of languages where people were still unreached with the gospel. The theoretical work of the academics and the practical work of the actual translators grew together as people wrestled with the problems of translation.
The people doing actual Bible translation into thousands of languages found out that translation into tribal languages involves extra challenges. Many of these languages have grammatical systems very different from Indo-European languages. In addition, the recipients, the people in the "target" group, typically have little or no previous knowledge of Christianity. The target language may not have religious vocabulary directly matching some key ideas in the Bible. 6
Because translation into tribal languages struggles with such a mass of difficulty, in its early development the theory put a great emphasis on clarity: "Make sure that what you say is clear. Make it understandable, and set it forth in smooth grammatical form."
That is good advice for missionaries when they first enter a culture. But in the long run this great stress on clarity can tempt people to forget that the Bible in the original languages is not always interested merely in simple clarity and immediate understanding. The Bible makes people think. It develops complex theological reasoning. It presents rich poetic expressions. Peter confesses that some things in Paul are "hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16), and Daniel 9:27 is about as cryptic in Hebrew as it is in the KJV. 7 We do not mean to say that such passages are impossible to understand, but they certainly require study.
Second, because of the unique demands of unreached people, the early theory urged us to make everything explicit. In doing this, it can easily tempt people to believe that there is no difference in meaning at all between explicit and implicit information. But in fact, there are subtle differences, as we shall see.
Finally, though the creators of dynamic equivalence theory recognized in principle that many dimensions contribute to meaning, when it came to putting it into practice, the emphasis on clarity led naturally to a concentration on what is most basic or obvious. As a result, some translators tended to put in the background the other dimensions of meaning..
Much depends on how a translator understands in practice the implications of the theory. The theory can be used very effectively as a guide to all the vexing complexities of real languages. But, if it is oversimplified, it can become an excuse for simply translating a most basic meaning, or most obvious meaning, and ignoring any nuances that go beyond the basics.
Early dynamic equivalence theory worked as well as it did because it was initially applied to translation into tribal languages, translations made for speakers with little or no knowledge of Christianity. In these situations, it was natural to put a high value on simplicity, clarity, and explicit explanation of difficulties.
Subsequently, however, the theory began to be applied to translation into English and European languages. At first, focus tended to be on people with low reading skills: children, people with English as a second language, and people with poor literacy or reading disabilities. But then its use expanded to include the general reading public. The translators may still have had in mind only beginning readers. But marketers would be tempted to spread the completed translation as widely as possible, and to advertise it as if it were ideal for everyone. 8 As this shift occurred, the translation procedures became less appropriate. The marketers were acting almost as if the whole world were able to understand only if everything was carefully digested and simply explained in the actual translation of the Bible. 9
Fortunately, the actual thinking of translators and translation theorists has continued to develop and to refine the initial emphases. The United Bible Societies speaks of "functional equivalent" translation and the Summer Institute of Linguistics of "meaning-based" translation. The Summer Institute of Linguistics, the academic side of Wycliffe Bible Translators, has developed semantic structural analysis and discourse analysis to enable translators to deal more consciously and focally with the structure of whole paragraphs and larger units. 10
Translation theorists have now seen that there were some limitations in the earlier phases of the theory. Ernst-August Gutt, in working with Wycliffe Bible Translators, saw principial problems with earlier dynamic equivalence theory when it was misconstrued as a complete answer. In practice, it tended to neglect some of the subtler aspects of meaning. After extensive theoretical reflection, he comments, "Translators should have a firm grasp of hitherto neglected aspects of meaning. In particular, they should understand that there are important differences between expressing and implicating information, between strong and weak communication." 11
Gutt's advice to translators is to look carefully before you leap. He realizes, as all good translators do, that compromises are inevitable. But he also points out that in many situations the translation by itself cannot and ought not to be expected to carry the entire load of communication. People who read and study the Bible can also be helped by footnotes, Bible helps, beginning commentaries, preachers' explanations, and so forth. This is so even in translation into tribal languages — and how much more in English!
To appreciate fully what Gutt says, many biblical scholars may have to expand their point of view. Biblical scholars spend most of their time thinking and writing about the theological value and interpretive implications of the passages that they study. They write commentaries whose main business is to make explicit the many implications of the text. Therefore, if two wordings leave the theological implications the same, they might be seen as equivalent from the scholar's point of view. The two seem to be "identical in meaning" from the point of view of theological content. But literary stylists and linguists studying discourse can alert us to broaden our focus on other aspects of the text. They note, for example, that subtle differences exist between explicit and implicated information, direct and indirect address, active and passive constructions, second person and third person discourse, and so forth. These produce subtle nuances in the total complex of meaning produced in the total act of communication. Thus, at this level of greater refinement, two radically different wordings are typically not completely identical in meaning.
Many types of subtlety and nuance thus remain to be considered when we try to refine our understanding of meaning. What are they?
We have seen that many words can have more than one sense, depending on context. But even a summary of these various senses is not the whole story. Even within a single main sense we may discover that slightly different connotations or nuances are evoked in different contexts. Dictionary writers undertake to describe the main possibilities for different senses of a word, and they may to some extent note distinct contexts in which different senses occur. But even large-scale descriptions in dictionaries involve summaries and approximations. 12
In addition, in special situations a word can resonate with more than one of its dictionary meanings. For example, the Bible sometimes uses a play on words or uses two different meanings of a word. In Genesis 1-5, a single word adam in Hebrew is used as the designation of the human race (Gen. 1:26, 27), as a descriptive term for the first man (Gen. 2:7, 7, 8), and as a proper name for Adam (Gen. 5:1, 3, 4, 5). In Ezekiel 37 the same Hebrew word ruach is used for breath (37:5), wind (37:9), and Spirit (37:14) all within the scope of one passage. In the famous verse about being "born again" (John 3:7), the key Greek word anothen is probably being used with a double sense: both "again" and "from above." It is impossible to reproduce these features perfectly in one word in English or in most other languages, because no one word in our language can function in all these ways.
Now what do translators do with such situations? They have to admit that in a translation they cannot always achieve everything, and they try to do the best they can with the resources of the language into which they are translating.
Many additional factors contribute to the overall meaning and impact of a piece of language, often in subtle ways. We may list a few of them.
First, genre matters. That is, it matters whether the communication is prose or poetry, sermon or prayer, letter or historical narrative, reasoned discourse or passionate rhetoric. The genre or type of discourse colors the whole.
Second, metaphors matter. Metaphors do not have quite the same meaning as a literal rendering. They set hearers' minds in motion to work out what analogy exists (say) between sinners and sheep, or between growing plants and the kingdom of God, or between the church and a human body. When feasible, a good translation should preserve metaphors, not flatten them. 13
Third, the difference between direct assertion and implication matters. Asserting something directly is not the same as implying it, because in the latter case the reader must exert himself to work out the implication. The author, by implying but not asserting, may be conveying to the reader not only a particular truth, but also his confidence that the reader can see the implication without being hit over the head with it. What is directly said also enjoys a kind of centrality in relation to what is implied. A good translation should try to preserve the difference between direct assertion and implication.
As an example, consider Jesus' parables. A story form like a parable can conceal its meaning from some as well as revealing its meaning to others (Mark 4:10-12). There is a key distinction between direct statements about seeds, how some grow and others do not, and indirect claims about people's hearts. This distinction between the two is what makes the Parable of the Sower function as a way of sorting out those who know the secrets of the kingdom of God from those who do not.
Fourth, register matters. The "register" denotes the variety of language appropriate to a particular social occasion: language may be exalted, stiff, technical, formal, intimate, informal, vulgar, or base. The total meaning of a passage depends on where it falls on a spectrum from "formal" to "informal," from technical to colloquial.
Fifth, style matters. Does a writer uses high literary style or low, complex or simple vocabulary, complex or simple sentences and paragraphs, elegant or simple structures? All of these choices influence the total impression on readers.
Sixth, order of presentation matters. The total experience of reading depends on what a reader already knows, and what he knows depends on what has been introduced at earlier points in a discourse.
Seventh, rate of presentation matters. Do we confront a dense, compact theological argument, or rambling, leisurely discussion of the same subject?
Eighth, the relation between author and reader matters. Is the author sympathetic with his readers, or is he castigating them? Is the relation between author and reader affectionate, friendly, tense, or hostile? A tone of joy or sorrow, excitement or boredom, urgency or leisure may come with a particular discourse.
Ninth, focus and emphasis matter. "It's the dog that bit the man" is subtly different from "It's the man that the dog bit," or "The dog — he's the one that bit the man," or "It's indeed the dog that bit the man," or "It's the dog that did indeed bite the man." What is the author emphasizing in each case, what is he focusing on, and with what purpose does he draw our attention in various directions?
Tenth, allusions and connections with other sentences and discourses matter. Genesis 5:3 says, "When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image, and he named him Seth." (RSV). It enriches us to notice that this verse alludes to Genesis 5:1-2 and 1:26-27, where God created man "in his own image." Of course, Adam is not doing the same thing that God did, but he is doing an analogous thing. And then we are still further enriched by noting that the language of re-creation in Colossians 3:10 builds on the language of Genesis: "... put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (NIV).
The situation is particularly complex because the allusions and connections among passages may be of different kinds and intensities. We find not only direct quotes, but also reuse of similar language without quotation (as in Col. 3:10). We find not only references to the exodus as a literal event in the past, but also as a model for helping us understand Christian redemption (1 Cor. 10:1-11).
Eleventh, repetition of key words matters. The repetition draws the different places in the text more closely together.
Twelfth, paragraph structure matters. The organization and sequence in an argument, not merely the individual pieces, contribute to the total message.
A good translator, then, should try to capture as much of this richness as possible in translation. He should try to avoid recasting the teaching into a totally different shape, which might convey something close to a basic meaning but lose many of the other factors that convey meaning as mentioned above. 14
Nor should a translator assume that he can safely ignore some factors that influence meaning, since these are not "the main point" and therefore (he may think) "unimportant." After all, a translator is a finite human being. As human beings, we cannot possibly anticipate all the ways in which God may use his Word in another language, to speak to a variety of people with their varied personalities, ages, circumstances, needs, sins, and failures. Because we cannot second-guess God, we need to strive to represent all the textures of meaning in the Bible, all the ins and outs of its language, as exactly as we can in a second language.
But as we have seen, because the task is so complex, no translation can attain the ideal and communicate into the second language absolutely everything that is meant in any speech or writing in the first.
So what do translators do in practice? They try to do the best they can. They make hard choices and settle for compromises. Consider Ezekiel 37. The same word ruach occurs several times, with the senses "breath," "wind," and "Spirit" (verses 5, 9, 14). One can represent these different senses in English using the three English words "breath," "wind," and "Spirit." But then one does not adequately show the connection between the three uses, nor the subtlety involved in playing on three different meanings of the same word. English readers may vaguely sense that the three English words "breath," "wind," and "Spirit" are related by analogy, but the impression is not as strong as in Hebrew.
So the translator puts in a footnote, indicating that the same Hebrew word underlies the different English words. This is probably the best solution in English, but it still is not quite the same as the original. Having something in a footnote is not the same as having it in the text. Some readers ignore it, while others interrupt the flow of their reading, which would not be necessary in Hebrew. Moreover, explaining word play explicitly creates a different, more pedantic atmosphere than simply letting readers see for themselves.
The other solutions are not nearly as good. For example, one could use the word "breath" in all occurrences. But now this one English word with its English meaning does not seem to fit well in some of its occurrences. The meaning of verses 9 and 14 is no longer as clear in English — in verse 14 the Lord now says, "I will put my breath in you and you will live." But compare this verse with Ezekiel 36:26, "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit [ruach] I will put within you" (RSV). The thought of renewing the human spirit is definitely present. This promise finds fulfillment in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, who in turn renews our human spirit (Acts 2; Romans 8). If we translate Ezekiel 37:14 using "breath," we miss this implicit reference to the Holy Spirit.
There are still other difficulties. In some verses we are not sure which of two meanings the writer intends. In some of these cases, the writer may intend primarily one, but still evokes some connotation of the other. For example, Job 32:8 says, "But it is the spirit [ruach margin has "Spirit"] in a man, the breath [Hebrew nshama] of the Almighty, that gives him understanding" (NIV). The Hebrew word ruach, meaning either "breath" or "spirit," occurs in the first half of the verse. Which of the two meanings is correct? "Spirit" fits the context, which says that this "spirit" or "Spirit" gives man understanding. The NIV's translation with "spirit" is basically correct. But the parallel line, "the breath of the Almighty," uses a different word for "breath," implying that the connotation of "breath" cannot be eliminated from the earlier use of ruach. The parallel lines play on this second meaning of ruach in a way that cannot be perfectly reproduced in English.
When translators confront these hard choices, how do they decide which way to go? They have a sense of priorities. Some things are more important to convey than others. They begin with something like the basic meaning or obvious meaning of a passage, and that must be conveyed, but they should not stop there. They should move out to encompass as many subordinate aspects as they can. In other words, within the limits of proper use of the receptor language, translators should aim at "maximal equivalence." 15
But a word of caution is in order here. A translator might be tempted to focus only on all the tiny details that are "lost," and that simply "can't be translated." In fact, D. A. Carson's recent book on gender language in translation uses the motto that "translation is treason." 16 (Perhaps Carson meant the motto as a humorous exaggeration; but his book is so serious in tone in other respects that we fear that some readers will not realize that it is humorous.) By concentrating on all the difficulties, the book may at times convey to some readers a highly negative impression about the possibility of translating Scripture accurately at all.
But we must not lose perspective here, for several reasons:
(1)"Translation is treason" comes from an Italian proverb, not from the Bible. No such thing can be found in the Bible, for the Bible does not convey anything like this attitude. "Treason" involves aiding one's enemies through a profound betrayal of one's own country or society. Surely translating the Bible is not such an activity! Translation is a wonderful ability that God has given human beings as part of his gift of language. It functions amazingly well in conveying the meaning of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek portions of the Bible into other languages, so that we can read it, understand it, trust it, and obey it.
(2) God is sovereign over the affairs of the world, including the languages spoken by different people, and his Word commands us to make disciples and teach "all nations" (Matt. 28:19-20). He knew and planned that Christians would be involved in the task of translation, and we may rightly expect that he has put in the various language systems of the world the ability to convey the meaning of the Bible accurately. A standard book on translation theory says bluntly, "Anything which can be said in one language can be said in another." 17
(3) The components that do not carry over easily in a translation generally are not the fundamental or core meanings of passages, but finer details such as additional nuances, overtones, and connections with other words. 18
(4) At the time of the New Testament, many of the people who became Christians had no ability to read the Hebrew Old Testament. They were able to read a Greek translation, however, called the Septuagint. The New Testament authors have no hesitation in using the Septuagint (even though it had many deficiencies), quoting from it as Scripture, and expecting people to believe and obey it. They did not consider the translation of the Word of God from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek as "treason"; they considered it a precious gift from God whereby people could read and understand God's words in their own language.
We need to bear in mind two complementary aspects of the Bible, its simplicity and its profundity. On the one hand, the Bible's basic message is simple. God designed the Bible so that it can instruct simple-minded people as well as the learned (Prov. 1:4; Ps. 19:7; 1 Cor. 1:18-31). The Bible sets forth the message of salvation in so many ways and so many places that no one has an excuse for missing it. As a result, even a flawed, muddled translation of the Bible can lead people to salvation. We can rejoice in the ways in which God uses even very imperfect translations to convey spiritual food to his people.
On the other hand, the Bible is also an incredibly profound book. The wisdom of God in the Bible is unsearchably rich and deep (Rom. 11:33-36; Isa. 40:28; Eph. 3:18-21). While a simple summary of the Bible may indeed express the meaning of salvation, the summary cannot capture everything. God invites us to go on, to hear more, to learn more, to sit at Jesus' feet (Luke 10:39), to digest the vast richness of biblical wisdom. God calls on us to grow in wisdom by meditating on and absorbing his Word (Prov. 1:2-7; Ps. 1; 119:11,15, etc.).
A translator needs to respect this rich wisdom. Of course a translator needs to present the basic message, but in dealing with the Bible in all its richness and wisdom, no translator should be content with a minimum. Translators of the Bible should represent as much as possible of the full richness of meanings, instructions, exhortations, and examples found in the Bible in the original languages.
How much of what the Bible says in the original languages is important, then? All of it is important, for it has all been given to us by God! Paul tells us, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16).
God's people have known this instinctively for centuries. They have studied, meditated on, pondered, prayed over, and memorized the Bible as the very word of God. The more detailed attention they have given to it, the more of its richness they have discovered. In this way, it is vastly superior to every other book in the world. There is more richness of meaning in it than we can ever discover.
How can this be? The main reason is that behind the Bible lies the infinite wisdom of God. In human history, great minds have produced great books. But God's mind is infinitely greater than any human mind, and what the Bible says is nothing less than his communication to us.
But a second reason for the richness and complexity of the Bible is that God has created human language in such a way that it is able to convey a vast amount of meaning. The more we look at the Bible, written as it is in ordinary human languages, the more we can see that many dimensions contribute to the total meaning and texture of its message. Of course, there is something like "basic meaning," what a sentence says most obviously. But stylists, students of literature, discourse analysts, and other specialists can see more. By conscious reflection they confirm what Bible students have instinctively known for centuries: the Bible is a highly complex book. At every point, multidimensional textures interlock with what is obvious. If we begin to analyze any particular Bible passage, many things contribute to its full meaning.
Once we recognize the richness of the Bible, and once we set it as our goal to bring into English as much of the meaning of the original text as possible, how much should we preserve the form and structure of the original Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek text in our translation? And how much of the form should we restructure in order to convey the meaning more effectively in English?
The obvious answer is, "The translator should do as much restructuring as he needs in order to represent the meaning fully in English."
But in doing a translation there are limits to how much restructuring is appropriate. To take it to the other extreme from a purely word-for-word translation, a systematic theology attempts to represent "the meaning" of the Bible in English by setting out its main teachings in systematic form. It is a radical restructuring and rearranging (and explaining) of the Bible. But that of course is not what a translation should do. The translation should be the base on which English readers build as they formulate their theology, but the translation should not turn into a writing of a doctrinal summary of the Bible.
So the translator might adopt a more modest goal. He might say, "I will do the minimum of rearrangement necessary to make grammatical English sentences." But there are still some problems that arise. For example, what about idioms? Idioms are a groups of words in one language that take on a specialized meaning distinct from the meanings of the individual words considered separately. To "hit the sack" in American English means to go to bed. But if it were translated literally into another language, it would be understood (literally) to mean, "to strike a cloth bag with one's hand." So it is with the Bible expressions that were clear in the original languages may not be clear in translation when they are carried over in this minimal way.
Problems arise not only with idioms but with other kinds of expressions. Remember the example from Ephesians 1:18. A word-for-word translation from Greek produces "the hope of-the calling his." A minimal rearrangement results in "the hope of his calling." But English readers might understand this as meaning "the hope that he will call you," rather than what Paul intended. So the RSV, NIV, and GNB have "the hope to which he has called you."
Restructuring of this kind offers the possibility of improving clarity and understanding. Well and good. But it also introduces the possibility of subtle unanticipated problems. The RSV, NIV, and GNB introduced the word "you." That word is not completely wrong. But it does not correspond to any word in Greek, and in English it results in a meaning slightly more definite than the Greek. "His calling" in Greek has to do with God's calling people. As a word picture, it opens the horizon to anyone whom God calls. "You" is more specific, more concrete, more focused on the Ephesians. In addition, the RSV/NIV/GNB wording suggests that the whole point of God's calling is to have hope. The Greek leaves one more open to the broader possibility, namely that God's call to be a Christian includes many aspects, only one of which is the hope for fulfillment of his plan. This latter view is the one that in fact occurs elsewhere in Paul (Eph. 4:1; 1 Cor. 1:9; etc.).
The differences here are subtle, so it is easy to overlook them. Certainly, we want first of all to make sure that we capture in translation something like the "main meaning," that is, the meaning that is big and obvious. It does no good to go after subtleties if readers are going to miss the main point. "Hope to which he has called you" probably expresses the main point better than "hope of his calling," because it heads off the "big" misunderstanding that many might fall into, namely, misunderstanding it as "hope that he will call you." But the restructuring ("hope to which he has called you") also has potential liabilities, and we need to be aware of that.
Approaches that engage in paraphrasing restructure the material more thoroughly, and in the process become even more venturesome. For Ephesians 1:18 GW has the expression "the confidence that he calls you to have," and NLT has "the wonderful future he has promised to those he called." In these cases the alterations in meaning are quite noticeable. In GW "confidence" has lost the future-pointing connotation of "hope." Moreover, "confidence" is purely subjective, whereas "hope" in Paul's writings evokes something more, something objective, namely, the future new heavens and new earth, and our life in it. Unlike GW, the NLT's expression "the wonderful future he has promised to those he called" has the future element, all right, but lacks the subjective side of "hope," and introduces from nowhere the idea of "promise." Whereas "the hope to which he has called you" restructured a bit, these paraphrases restructure a lot and use words that convey a smaller part of the original meaning. 19
Still another problem with the paraphrases is that they undermine the connections between Ephesians 1:18 and other passages where Paul talks about hope. The idea of "hope" is a noteworthy one in Paul, and it hinders deeper understanding of the Bible when English readers are not able to appreciate the connections between passages where Paul uses the same word in approximately the same way. 20
The problem with changing the word "hope" to something else, and thereby loosening the connections with the idea of "hope" in other Pauline passages, recurs in paraphrases with a huge number of other passages as well. Part of the meaning of a passage comes from the connections that one text enjoys with many others. These connections take the form not merely of direct quotations from earlier parts of the Bible, but common wording and subtle allusions. When paraphrases restructure the text, use simpler words that capture a smaller part of the original meaning, and add explanatory phrases, the complex and multiple connections with other texts simply cannot be captured.
There is a lesson here. When people start paraphrasing in the manner of GW and the NLT, changes in meaning result. No doubt the paraphrasers try hard. But some nuances drop out, while other nuances appear out of nowhere. Moreover, greater liberty in paraphrase means greater risks. If a translator abandons the form of the original, any misunderstanding in his interpretation may have drastic effects on the translation. By contrast, if the translator preserves the form of the original when it conveys meaning in a satisfactory way, he may not always have to decide between different possible interpretations of the original, because the different possibilities that were there in the original (and that the original readers had to work at understanding) will be carried over into the translation as well.
No one simple recipe will always work. "Preserve the form" will not always work because it sometimes obscures the meaning. "Preserve the meaning while ignoring the form" will not work either, because form and meaning are not neatly separable, and the form often affects the meaning. 21 Speech and writing operate in too many dimensions for a rough paraphrase to get everything right. 22
What has been done in actual practice? Translations fall along a spectrum. Some try harder to preserve form; others freely paraphrase. How shall we describe this spectrum?
One common way is to call one end of the spectrum "formal equivalence" and the other end "dynamic equivalence." But now we have a potential problem with terminology. The label "dynamic equivalence" can mean different things to different people. As used by some people, it can mean a highly paraphrastic approach to translation, an approach that in fact does not pay attention to nuances of meaning. Or it can mean all that was best in the early theory of dynamic equivalence. Or, it can mean all that is best in the ongoing developments, including refinements that may still come in the future. "Meaning-based translation," the term used at SIL, is probably better as a description of ideal translation. To avoid confusing these many meanings, we will label the one end "preservation of form" and the other "change in form."
The KJV, NASB, and NKJV try harder to preserve the form. They are therefore sometimes called translations that use the principle of formal equivalence. But even these translations from time to time engage in more than minimal grammatical adjustments. They all pay attention to meaning as well as form. Hence, "formal equivalence" is not the best term for them. They do try harder to preserve form, and hence are closer to the end labeled "preservation of form."
The NLT, GW, and CEV freely restructure the form, often paraphrasing, so they belong on the end that changes form. GNB and NCV are usually less paraphrastic, less likely to engage in more venturesome transformations, but are usually considered to be examples that illustrate change in form. Other translations are in between, with the RSV closer to the side of preserving form, and the NIV in the middle. 23
We can put these versions on a spectrum to give a visual representation of the range of translation policies. We place translations with more preservation of form nearer to one end, and translations with more change in form nearer to the other end. Because there are trade-offs, some of the translations employ policies that place them nearer to the middle. 24
In fact, we would expect that in all these cases many of the translators were intuitively sensitive to language. They intuitively knew the basic truths that dynamic equivalence theory has articulated in explicit theoretical form. That is, they knew that their basic task was to translate "meaning," not "form." All of them changed the form of the original when they had to, in order to convey an intelligible meaning. But many of them also knew intuitively that there are trade-offs when one starts radically paraphrasing. So different translations with different purposes, sometimes targeting different audiences, may have ended up at different points along the spectrum, in the degree to which they felt free to restructure or paraphrase. The more radically paraphrastic versions may have had in mind non-Christians and beginning readers, as a result of which they put a very high premium on simplicity and clarity.
We are sympathetic with the struggles that translators have at any point on this spectrum. But we must face a central fact: at a fine-grained level translators cannot avoid trade-offs. The end of the spectrum toward preservation comes closer to a one-to-one match, and often retains meaning nuances that are lost in restructuring. But it loses a little in readability. It tends to produce sentences that have to be thought out rather than have their meaning all "on the surface." And it risks producing some sentences that are in fact misunderstood or produce real struggles for understanding, especially for beginning Bible readers.
Beginning students of Hebrew and Greek are often impressed with preservation of form, because it seems to create an "exact match" with the original. But the exactness of the match is sometimes illusory. The match in form may not actually match well in meaning in some specific cases. Hence, translation theory rightly pushes these students to recognize the limitations of preserving form.
At the other end of the spectrum, with paraphrastic translations, the translation has great readability and accessibility even to non-Christians and beginning readers. The text "springs alive," because the idiom is so thoroughly natural and contemporary. It is a pleasure to read and often an exciting, spiritually enlivening experience. 25 But by putting such a premium on smooth readability, the translation trades off meaning nuances, so that what the reader receives differs subtly from the original.
Naive readers may easily be over-impressed with these versions, and not realize what they are missing. A paraphrastic version seems so effortless. It also seems to be saying the same thing as any other version does, unless one makes detailed, verse-by-verse comparisons between two translations. And even if one does, how can one know, without comparison with the original languages, how big the problems are? On the other hand, when a naive reader takes in hand a translation that preserves form, he intuitively senses some of the strain and difficulty as he makes his way through the more difficult English. To a certain extent, he can judge for himself whether he can deal with it. Thus, preservation-of-form translations make some of their limitations quickly evident. But the other end does not. We need to be aware that, in fact, problems arise at both ends.
We think that there is a room for a spectrum of approaches here, provided that readers understand the limitations as well as the advantages of the different approaches. As a start, one might give to a non-Christian friend a Bible portion, like the Gospel of Mark, from one of the more paraphrastic versions, so that he quickly hears the Bible's main message. But if a person becomes a Christian, one wants him to move beyond this stage. The more mature Bible student will want to have a translation with more preservation of form, like the NASB, NKJV, or RSV. The NIV is a good "middle-of-the-road" compromise that can simultaneously serve many needs though it is not quite as good for detailed study as translations that preserve form, nor quite as easy for a beginning reader to read as the translations that change form.
In the light of the difficulties that attach to translating the Bible, translators may console themselves by saying that "all translation is interpretation." There is some truth in this, in that all translation requires that the translator first do interpretation. The most accurate translation can only be accomplished when a translator first interprets thoroughly and understands the meaning of the original, including all its nuances in all their dimensions. Only then is he ready to produce a translation that conveys not only the main meaning but all the nuances of the original. In that sense, every translation represents the translator's best understanding or "interpretation" of the original.
But the motto, "all translation is interpretation," is turned into another meaning if people then use it as a blanket justification for rewriting the text in the way that an interpretive commentary would do. An interpretive commentary expounds the implications of a text, and makes explicit what the original text leaves implicit. This has not generally been the job of mainstream translation, nor do we think it is what a general-purpose Bible translation should do.
However, we must recognize that much of the American religious public has become lazy about the Bible and busy with other affairs. Many ordinary Christians do not read commentaries, and many Christian bookstores (at least the ones that we have visited around the U.S.) do not even stock more serious commentaries. So translators may be tempted to try to "help" the readers of the Bible by including extra information in the text explicitly, in order to make it easy for them. They may put in paraphrases. They may explain metaphors in ordinary prose. They may expand tightly packed theological exposition. By doing so, they attempt to help readers to understand some parts of the Bible's message more easily and quickly. There are benefits here, especially for beginners. But if they label the paraphrases "The Bible" and call them a "translation," they have blurred the line between translation and commentary. Christians need to be aware of the limitations, not only the benefits, of such versions, and to move beyond them as they mature in their own study.
To return to our original claim, we must be clear that the meaning of any Bible passage includes not only its "basic content," but also the nuances arising from style, focus, emphasis, allusion, metaphorical color, and many other dimensions. All translations should endeavor to include as much as they can. But differences of priorities among the different translation strategies will sometimes lead to different solutions in detail.
[Note to readers: The following section is more technical and some readers may wish to skip this section and go immediately to the next chapter.]
In this chapter we have only attempted to summarize some main features among the numerous issues in Bible translation. Our summary is just that — a summary. It is the tip of the iceberg. Translation specialists have written whole books on translation theory. 26 These books also invoke a much larger body of linguistic theory found in linguistic textbooks. But the books themselves, complex as they may be, only supply a "warm-up" for the real job, the actual practice of translation. Theoretical generalizations can never anticipate all the details in complexity that we may encounter in translating a specific verse into a specific target language. To these specifics we must turn our attention in subsequent chapters.
But we should first observe that there are several levels of depth at which people approach translation. First, there is level 1, the naive approach. Many people with no experience with a second language naively imagine that translation is easy. Just find the corresponding word and plug it in. People just beginning to learn a second language often operate at this level. They learn quick, oversimplified correspondences. "Hebrew ben means son." "Greek aorist tense means simple past action." Such simplifications are natural at the beginning. But of course they are only a beginning. At the next level, level 2, they have to "unlearn" these simple summaries, as they find out that the simple correspondences were in fact over-simple. Unfortunately, some students apparently never "unlearn" them — such is the difficulty of progressing to the stage of theoretical sophistication in understanding (level 2).
Next is level 2, the theoretically-informed approach. Aided by teachers and textbooks, people learn that the naive approach is over-simple. They learn standard theoretically-informed distinctions between form and meaning, sense and reference, dynamic-equivalent and formal-equivalent translation. They learn how to use these theoretical tools to avoid fallacies in interpretation and in translation. Our discussions above about idioms, about multiple senses of a single word, about different translations of Greek hina, all illustrate this level. The first few sections of this chapter operate almost entirely on this level. 27
Most textbooks in translation, in linguistics, and in biblical hermeneutics operate at this level, for very good reason. 28 Seminary professors and teachers of would-be translators constantly work at this level in the classroom. They have to work with each new entering class of naive students in order to make them theoretically informed. Typical texts in translation theory operate at this level, to train naive students to be theoretically informed about the reasons for restructuring form. James Barr's book The Semantics of Biblical Language and D. A. Carson's book Exegetical Fallacies are excellent texts operating on this level. 29 Their examples taken from scholarly writings show that not only complete novices but established biblical scholars can commit linguistic "bloopers" when they are not theoretically informed by linguistics.
Then there is level 3, the discerning approach. At this level people recognize, often intuitively, that the theoretical apparatus belonging to the second level is only a summary. The phenomena of language and human communication vastly surpass it in complexity. Theoretical distinctions still have their use in guarding against fallacies. But they cannot substitute for the complex process of weighing the intertwining effects of multidimensional associations and textures in language. We have dipped a little into this level with our list of subtle influences on meaning, such as genre, metaphors, implication, emphasis, and so on. Of course, any particular item on the list can itself be subjected to some theoretical scheme. But the scheme never exhausts the reality. And of course the list is only a summary, and could never be exhaustive. The interlocking of these dimensions, as well as the distinct effect of any one dimension, creates additional richness. Interpretation and translation at this level are arts, not sciences. Translation does not take place by mechanical application of a theoretical formula, but by discernment.
Our examples of subtleties in meaning also operate at this level. The difference between putting in or leaving out "you" in Ephesians 1:18 belongs to this level. The example from Ezekiel 37, where the text plays on three different meanings of ruach ("breath, wind, spirit"), also belongs to this level.
Then there is level 4, the reflective approach. At this level people endeavor theoretically to analyze and make explicit the complexities sensed intuitively at level 3 (the discerning approach), but earlier put to one side at level 2 (the theoretically-informed approach). 30 Ernst-August Gutt's refinement to earlier dynamic equivalence theory belong to this level. Understandably, not as much has been done at this level, and in the existing state of linguistic scholarship we may not be ready for its execution on a broad scale. 31
We may sketchily illustrate how the levels (which are themselves idealizations) crop up in the discussion of form and meaning. The naive approach (level 1) virtually equates form and meaning, or confuses them. The naive approach expects to translate a single word in the same way every time. It thinks that the form of the Hebrew word ruach matches meaning in a one-to-one fashion, so that ruach always means "breath, wind, spirit" rolled together in a confused mass.
Or a naive person introduces an argument based on form. He may say, "The Hebrew word banim, plural of the word ben "son," is masculine plural. Since it is masculine, it should be translated 'sons,' not 'children.'" But in fact this confuses masculine gender, a grammatical feature, a form, with the meaning component "male." In fact, in many contexts banim (masculine form!) means "children" (both male and female included in meaning). This fact is recognized, for example, in the KJV translation "children [ben in masculine plural construct state] of Israel."
Or someone says, "The Greek pronoun auton in the accusative means him." In fact, the two are related, but the bald generalization is far too simple. Or "we must always translate Greek masculine with English masculine." In fact, translation involves meaning transfer, whereas this rule results in preserving masculine form at all costs.
The theoretically informed approach (level 2) carefully distinguishes form and meaning, based on the theoretical distinction between "signifier" and "signified" going back to Ferdinand de Saussure (1906). 32
At this level we observe that in its various occurrences the Hebrew word ruach has the same form, but different meanings. We translate the meaning in each context (for example, "wind" in 1 Kings 18:45), not the form. We note also that there can be idiomatic constructions. For example, the Hebrew phrase ben hayil, literally "son of might," is not literally talking about the biological descendent of "might." It is one of a fair number of expressions with ben ("son") 33 that is better translated by taking the expression as a whole: thus NIV translates "brave man" (1 Sam. 14:52) and the RSV and NASB translate "valiant man." We preserve the meaning, but alter the form.
At this level we likewise observe that the Hebrew word banim, in the plural, often refers inclusively to males and females. The form is masculine, whereas the meaning is to denote a mixed group. 34 Likewise, one observes that the Greek word auton ("him") is used to refer back to any masculine antecedent. 35 The masculine in the Greek language does not function in a manner parallel to masculine in English, since gender agreement in Greek affects virtually every noun and adjective. Gender belongs to impersonal as well as personal expressions. "Truth" (aletheia) is feminine; "word" (logos) is masculine; "fig" (sukon) is neuter; "summer fig" (olunthos) is masculine. Thus, the masculine gender must be carefully distinguished from the semantic meaning component, "male." We see at this level that the requirement of always translating masculine to masculine confuses form (masculine) with meaning (male). 36
The discerning approach (level 3) realizes intuitively that form and meaning are not neatly separable. The perfect distinction of form and meaning is an idealization. The distinction is a theoretical construct—useful but dependent on ideally purified conceptions of "form" and "meaning." In real everyday use, forms may carry subtle meaning-associations. For example, consider the following two sentences translating Proverbs 17:11: 37
RSV: An evil man seeks only rebellion, and a cruel messenger will be sent against him.
NRSV: Evil people seek only rebellion, but a cruel messenger will be sent against them.
This proverb states a general principle that is applicable to any evil person. The two translations express the truth using different forms in two places. But they express approximately the same truth, that is, the same meaning. In terms of form "man" is grammatically singular and masculine. "People" is grammatically plural and not marked for gender. But in both cases the truth thereby expressed holds for a plurality of people of both sexes. The forms differ, but the meaning is "the same" — that is, when we ignore subtle nuances and concentrate on "basic" meaning.
But subtle differences crop up when we look more closely. The most obvious difference occurs with the word "man." "Man" in this context can mean either a human being or a male human being. If it means "male human being," the male human being is being used as an example that can be generalized to include females. But the starting point is still a male example. What occurs in the Hebrew original of Proverbs 17:11? The Hebrew here does not use a separate word for "man." It does not convey in a pronounced way, "only male." So the RSV translation may convey to some people a nuance not there in Hebrew. It would be better to translate, "An evil person seeks only rebellion, and a cruel messenger will be sent against him."
Another problem arises because of the use of the plural "people" in the NRSV. This change in form still conveys the same meaning approximately. But there are also some differences. The starting picture in the RSV is a singular individual, used to illustrate the general principle. The starting picture in the NRSV is a plurality of people. As a result, the NRSV leaves us with an ambiguity as to how the statement applies to any one individual. Are the "evil people" acting separately, with a cruel messenger begin sent to each one? Or are they acting together, with a cruel messenger being sent to them as a group? The mention of a single "cruel messenger" suggests that we are to think of a single messenger coming against all of them together. The change in form from singular to plural turns out to have subtle meaning implications that the NRSV may not have anticipated. The underlying Hebrew uses singular forms, and conveys the idea of an individual as the starting example. In this case, using singulars in English is better. 38
The reflective approach (level 4) brings the intuitions of level 3 to conscious attention, and proceeds to analyze their workings. At this level we explore by explicit, disciplined analysis how form and meaning are intimately intertwined. 39 For example, we may explicitly analyze how Ezekiel 37 can achieve its affects by playing on more than one sense of the same word ruach ("breath, wind, spirit"). Or we analyze how it is that in general proverbial statements, the distinction in form between singular and plural can have meaning implications (see Chapter 7).
Why bother with all these levels? All of us must still come back to weighing the translations of particular verses. But the awareness of vast complexity may help us to remember the two sides: the simplicity and accessibility of the Bible's message on the one hand, and the depth of its wisdom on the other.
It is possible for scholars and professional translators to underestimate this depth. Scholars so commonly deal with naive students that the challenges that we must later pose at levels 3 and 4 may be misheard as simple naivete at level 1.
Many of the defenders of gender-neutral policy have accused the critics of naively equating form and meaning (level 1). And of course on occasion they may be right, because, as Barr's and Carson's books remind us, even seasoned scholars can commit linguistic bloopers. 40 But at heart, the critics of gender-neutral translations are concerned with discerning subtleties (level 3). In response to the criticisms, the defenders of gender-neutral translations appeal to standard 41 linguistic theory and translation theory (level 2, the theoretically informed approach) to defeat the critics and vindicate gender-neutrality. But in doing so they have not touched the real issue, which involves level 3, the subtle interplay of form and meaning in textual detail.
We can now understand sympathetically the reaction of some advocates of gender-neutrality. For example, when the controversy about the NIVI broke out, 42 scholars may have perceived the controversy as a reaction from a naive Christian public (level 1). This public, being naive, did not understand the scholarly decisions based on theoretically-informed translation theory (level 2). The rolling back of decisions made by the NIV's Committee on Bible Translation might have seemed therefore to be a regression towards incompetence: the CBT, with a base in linguistic theory, felt it was being drowned out by the volume of uninformed, naive protest from level 1. This result was maddening.
Unfortunately, it may not have dawned on scholars that native speakers of English have very deep sensitivities and intuitions about their native tongue. That is, as native speakers they have an intuitive sense of subtleties (level 3), even when they are totally untrained in linguistics and translation theory (naive at level 1). These intuitive instincts detected some subtle factors not consciously within the focus of standard theoretical frameworks at level 2. 43
The situation became more difficult because the scholarly critics of gender-neutral translations as well as the defenders of gender-neutrality wanted to address the general Christian public, not just fellow scholars. The scholarly critics therefore simplified their language in order to make plain what the issue was. But since the issue usually involved differences in nuances, the nuances had to be given disproportionate emphasis in order to make them clearly visible to the naive (that is, those operating at level 1). And the critics often simplified their statements for the sake of communication. These critics' simplifications could easily appear to be a result of naivete on the part of the critics, not just naivete in the audience. Hence, the scholarly defenders had all the more temptation to regard the scholarly critics themselves as naive. 44
As another example we may take Carson's book, The Inclusive Language Debate. The book repeatedly gives the impression that opponents 45 lack sufficient competence even to discuss the issue: "The argument ... is profoundly mistaken in principle. It understands neither translation nor gender systems" (p. 98); "it should be obvious by now that [one side in this conflict] is betraying ignorance of translation problems and the nature of gender and number systems in different languages" (p. 108); "the CSG are open to far more and far more serious linguistic objections than the CBT principles" (p. 111); "where the critics are right, they have not been so on the ground of a linguistically informed critique of gender-inclusive translations" (p. 144); "it betrays a serious ignorance of language structures, including gender systems, and of the nature of translation, when a shift in the system of a receptor language is tagged with evil epithets, or the resulting translations are judged mistranslations" (p. 187); "The undergirding understanding of language and translation (and occasionally even exegesis) is sufficiently flawed that the attack will not long prove successful or widely convincing" (p. 163); "But these principles are profoundly flawed, even when they are saying some important things" (p. 194).
It is unfortunate that in several crucial areas Carson has simply not understood our position or the position of the Colorado Springs Guidelines accurately (we explain this in more detail later in this book). Perhaps some of the fault was ours for failing to represent our position with sufficient clarity. Yet we have never advocated ideas such as "the English language is not changing" (p. 112), or "it is always inappropriate to render a singular by a plural" (p. 105), or that Hebrew and English "have the same gender systems" (p. 97). When Carson's allegations of scholarly incompetence (cited above) are combined with the attribution to us of simplistic and erroneous positions that we do not hold, and when the beginning and the end of the book paint a picture of irrational, violent "Bible rage" that bursts forth from gender-neutral translation opponents (pp. 15-16, 35, 194), the effect on readers (whose only knowledge of our position may be through Carson's book) will be a strongly negative one. 46
It is legitimate for Carson to try to address those readers who may have very naive ideas, and simplistically equate form and meaning (level 1). It is legitimate for him to make the point that translation is far more complex than that by offering theoretically-informed instruction (level 2). But we confess we are profoundly disappointed with his misrepresentations of our position.
In fact the central issues arise primarily from what is uncovered in a discerning approach (level 3). They involve subtleties. The advice to treat the dispute as level-1 naivete only blocks rather than encourages discernment. It therefore results in a situation that requires even more effort to overcome (as in the reflective approach). It is primarily the differences in meaning that come to light from the discerning approach (level 3 intuition) and the reflective approach (level 4 analysis) that we consider in the remainder of this book.
1. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1987).
2. BDB gives precisely these three terms at the beginning of its entry for ruach (BDB, p. 924).
3. Roughly speaking, "tell" and "these stones to become bread" are connected in English in a way corresponding to the function of hina in Greek; likewise, "what you would have" and "them do to you" are so connected. But the meaning derives from the whole construction, and cannot be neatly assigned to just one word in it.
4. The New Testament writers frequently quote from the Septuagint, thereby illustrating that a translation that is not always word-for-word is serviceable. The King James Version, in the places that deviate from pure formal equivalence, also recognizes that translation must convey the meaning of the whole, not merely the words in isolation.
5. See especially Eugene Nida, Toward a Science of Translating; With Special Reference to Principles and Procedures Involved in Bible Translating (Leiden: Brill, 1964); Eugene Nida and Charles R. Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation (Leiden: Brill, 1969); both of which were early landmarks in the field. A more recent representative is Jan de Waard and Eugene A. Nida, From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1986). Carson says that since 1986 advocates of dynamic equivalence have preferred the term "functional equivalence" (Carson, The Inclusive-Language Debate [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998], p. 71). However, Osborne uses both phrases interchangeably in his argument for inclusive-language translations (Grant Osborne, "Do Inclusive-Language Bibles Distort Scripture? No," Christianity Today 41:12 [Oct. 27, 1997], 33-39). Mark Strauss also uses both the phrase "dynamic equivalence" and "functional equivalence" for this theory of translation (Strauss, Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation & Gender Accuracy [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998], pp. 82-83). We will use the term "dynamic equivalence theory" to describe the early developments. Later in this chapter we describe later developments, which are probably best described by other labels.
6. The problem can be illustrated from the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Greek word for "God," theos, in the pagan, polytheistic Greek context, meant one of the "gods" of the Greek pantheon. No word in Greek perfectly meshed with the Old Testament teaching about the one true God. When the Old Testament was originally translated from Hebrew to Greek, the translators had to decide what was the best rendering within the constraints of Greek vocabulary. The Greek word harmartia, with the meaning "failure, fault," can mean "guilt" within a philosophical context. But it does not perfectly mesh with Old Testament teaching about sin before a holy, infinite God.
7. In the KJV, Daniel 9:27 says, "And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate."
8. See the discussion of marketing under "niche translations" in Chapter 10.
9. Note, for example, Stephen Prickett's concern that an emphasis on clarity and simplicity may result in flattening out the depth and complexity of the original text (Stephen Prickett, Words and the Word: Language, Poetics and Biblical Interpretation [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], pp. 4-35).
10. For the beginnings of these developments, see John Beekman and John Callow, Translating the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), and Kathleen Callow, Discourse Considerations in Translating the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974).
11. Ernst-August Gutt, Relevance Theory: A Guide to Successful Communication in Translation (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992), 72. See also Ernst-August Gutt, Translation and Relevance: Cognition and Context (Oxford/Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991). Mark Strauss says, "The technical writings and research emerging from major international translation organizations like Wycliffe Bible Translators and the United Bible Society view it as a given that dynamic or functional equivalence is the only legitimate method of true translation" (Distorting, p. 83). This statement does not yet acknowledge the complexities with which Gutt wrestles.
12. For example, the standard Hebrew-English lexicon (BDB) tells us that the Hebrew word rimmon means "pomegranate." It naturally does not include a rather minute detail, namely that in Hebrew the word may possibly have connotative associations with love that are not present in English, but that may be evoked in some contexts in Hebrew. When the Song of Solomon says, "Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate" (RSV), G. Lloyd Carr's commentary adds, "Pomegranate wine had a reputation in Egypt as an aphrodisiac, where, as in Mesopotamia, pomegranates were used in love potions" (Carr, The Song of Solomon [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984], pp. 116-117).
13. As always, there are complexities. In some cases, a metaphor or simile easily intelligible in one cultural and linguistic setting may pose difficulty when minimally translated for people with no knowledge of the original setting. Isaiah 1:18 says that "... your sins ... shall be as white as snow" (NIV). What if we are translating into a tropical culture that has never seen snow?
14. In addition, another kind of problem arises if the translator tries to make everything explicit in translation. Instead of a translation he ends up with a commentary that spells out many implications of the original. The change from implicit to explicit communication is, in itself, a subtle change in meaning.
15. Mark Strauss, Distorting, pp. 77, 84, and Carson, Debate, p. 70, both indicate approval of the principle that translators should try to bring over into the receptor language as much of the meaning of the original as they can.
16. Variations on "all translation is treason" occur at several points (Carson, Debate, p. 47; similarly, pp. 68, 117, 130, and 187). See especially his chapter 3, "Translation and Treason: An Inevitable and Impossible Task," and chapter 4, "Gender and Sex around the World: A Translator's Nightmare." Though Carson's emphasis is on the difficulty of translation work, he does state at one point that "any element in any text can be translated, except for some forms" (p. 68), and he quotes with approval the statement of Eugene A. Nida and Charles R. Taber, "Anything that can be said in one language can be said in another, unless the form is an essential part of the message" (p. 203, n. 18, quoting Nida and Taber's book The Theory and Practice of Translation, Helps for Translators 8 [Leiden: Brill, 1974], p. 4).
17. Mildred L. Larson, Meaning-based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), p. 11. However, the basic truth does need qualification. As Larson explains, sometimes it takes many words or even a longer explanation to signify in one language what is signified by just one word in another language. And some details of nuance, dependent on form, are very difficult to convey fully in another language.
18. These are the kinds of things that Carson mentions, for example, in Debate, pp. 48-65.
19. These paraphrases do convey genuinely biblical teachings, such as the idea that God gives us promises, and the idea that God wants us to have confidence or trust in him. But these teachings are to be found explicitly in other passages. In translation, we need to convey the meaning of this passage (Eph. 1:18), not meanings of other passages elsewhere in the Bible.
20. On the other hand, one must beware of equating or lumping together all the meanings in all the occurrences of a particular word. For example, the Hebrew word ruach, in any one verse, usually takes one of its three main meanings, not all three lumped together. James Barr rightly castigates "illegitimate totality transfer" (The Semantics of Biblical Language [London: Oxford University press, 1961], especially pp. 218-222). In the situation in Paul's letters, the occurrence of the same word "hope" in several different places, or the occurrence of the same word in Greek for first-century readers, is a subtle extra clue encouraging students to notice the common threads of thought in the different passages, and to synthesize the teachings in all the passages into a larger whole. The teaching still arises from the sentences and passages as a whole, and is not merely embedded in the word "hope" itself. This sort of concordant reinforcement of teachings is fully compatible with the knowledge that the word "hope" by itself has only a limited dictionary-type meaning.
21. We have never argued for, nor did the Colorado Springs Guidelines advocate, a general principle that "formal equivalents" are always a more accurate method of translating, though supporters of inclusive-language Bibles have sometimes represented us as claiming that. Sometimes there are direct, "formal" equivalents that translate meaning well, but the fact that we argue for some of these does not mean that we claim that formal equivalents will always translate meaning well. Carson sometimes represents our position as a misguided attempt merely to preserve the "form" of expression in Hebrew or Greek: "Dr. Grudem's argument is simply an appeal for formal equivalence" (Carson, Debate, p. 98). He portrays our position as "the argument that attaches a particular equivalent in gender assignment to faithfulness to the Word of God" and says this is "profoundly mistaken in principle" and it "understands neither translation nor gender systems" (ibid.). But our earlier writings repeatedly emphasized loss of meaning, not mere loss of similarity in form, and we regret that our position has been often misrepresented as merely an ill-informed attempt to preserve forms. To take one example, here is the rest of Wayne Grudem's section on "representative generics" that Dr. Carson quotes and dismisses as "simply an appeal for formal equivalence" (Debate, p. 98). Readers may judge for themselves whether Grudem's main concern was mere "form" (as Carson claimed) or loss of nuance and therefore loss of some of the details of meaning that were in the original. (Italics have been added wherever the emphasis was on translating meaning.)
The point is this: the Bible has many "pure generics," and it has many "representative generics." In order to bring over into English the full sense of these expressions as nearly as possible, English translations should translate the pure generics in Hebrew and Greek as pure generics in English, and the representative generics in Hebrew and Greek as representative generics in English. That would preserve their distinctive nuances. However, these more recent gender-neutral Bibles translate the pure generics as pure generics, and they also translate the representative generics as pure generics. "Blessed is the man..." becomes "blessed are those...." "I will come in to him" becomes "I will come in to them." Someone may object that these really "mean the same thing," but the feminists who protested against representative generics twenty or thirty years ago certainly did not see them as equivalent in meaning. They objected to representative generics precisely because they singled out a male human being as representative of a group, and thus they had male-oriented overtones. It is precisely these overtones that are filtered out in modern gender-neutral translations. In these new translations, the nuances of the representative generics are lost. Of course, what is lost is precisely what the early feminists objected to — the masculine overtones of these representative generics, for they nearly always have a male ("he," "man," "brother") standing for the whole group. Therefore the masculine overtones have been systematically filtered out. Is this really bringing over "meaning for meaning" or "thought for thought" into English? It is not even bringing over "thought for thought" as accurately as it could be done, for the thought is changed: the male overtones are filtered out. The male overtones are what much of our culture objects to today, and they are the part of the meaning that is lost in gender-neutral translations. This does not really increase accuracy or even increase understanding of the representative generic idea that is in the original. Rather, it obliterates this idea. Accuracy in translation is lost, and the meaning is distorted. (Wayne Grudem, "What's Wrong with Gender-Neutral Bible Translations?" [Libertyville, Ill.: CBMW, 1997], pp. 15-16).
Such a concern for preserving meaning can be found over and over again in our previous writings. To claim (as Carson and Strauss do in their books) that we merely seek to transfer the equivalent form from Hebrew or Greek into English is simply to misrepresent our position.
22. Mark Strauss is technically correct when he says, " ... the primary goal of a good translation must always be meaning rather than form" (Distorting, p. 83). We ourselves have said the same thing earlier in this chapter. But the interrelationships between meaning and form are complex, so that changes in form frequently entail subtle changes in meaning. Strauss tends to gloss over these subtle changes, and so (though he may not have intended it) he gives people an excuse for settling for a minimum such as may be found in a paraphrase.
23. Kenneth N. Taylor's The Living Bible Paraphrased and Eugene H. Peterson's The Message are in still another category. They try to imagine what the Bible's message would look like if set partially in a modern environment, so they could be called very free paraphrases with much explanatory and illustrative material added.
24. This chart is an approximate summary of complex sets of translation policies. People may differ with the exact placement of one or another translation with respect to the one to the right or left of it, but in general they are at the appropriate place on the spectrum.
25. The Holy Spirit uses the text to bring spiritual life, just as he may use a sermon. But the good use of a flawed medium does not constitute an endorsement of the flaws.
26. The books already cited may serve as a sample: Nida, Science; Nida and Taber, Theory; de Waard and Nida, From One Language; Larson, Meaning-based Translation; Gutt, Relevance Theory; Gutt, Translation and Relevance; Beekman and Callow, Translating the Word of God; Callow, Discourse
27. Reflective discussions (level 4) of complexities normally intuitively discerned (level 3) begin approximately with the section entitled, "Types of complexity." In fact, this separation into "levels" is itself an idealization; the real situation, as usual, is more complex.
28. In the field of theoretical linguistics and translation theory, there is another good reason for staying at this level most of the time. Language and translation are in fact so complicated that vast simplifications and restrictions of focus were virtually necessary to make a fundamental advance in the early days. In addition, in the United States the transformational-generative school as well as earlier behaviorist-leaning approaches prized a more mechanical, formal approach that tended to neglect nuance.
29. James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961); D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984).
30. Teachers operating at a theoretically-informed level (level 2) may be aware of the complexities of discerning intuitive subtleties (level 3) and reflective analysis (level 4). But for pedagogical reasons they simplify and avoid these complexities in classroom and textbook discussion. They have their hands full teaching people who still operate naively, at level 1! In fact, bringing in discerning complexities (level 3) too early simply confuses students. Because the discerning approach threaten to undermine the purity of the theoretically-informed distinctions (level 2), any focus on these complexities could be counterproductive, unintentionally encouraging some students to regress to level-1 naivete.
31. Some of Kenneth L. Pike's works, such as Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior, 2d ed. (The Hague/Paris: Mouton, 1967), and Linguistic Concepts: An Introduction to Tagmemics (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), suggest a way forward. But Pike, like everyone else, was constrained by the demands of teaching naive students! It seems possible also to postulate a fifth level, where we reflect on the theological underpinnings of language found in the Second Person of the Trinity, who is the divine Word.
32. One standard English translation is Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1966).
33. See BDB, p. 121, meaning 8.
34. There is a feminine form banot ("daughters") used when referring exclusively to females. But it and the masculine banim are the only two choices in the plural. So what does one do when referring to mixed groups including males and females? One regularly use banim in the masculine. The masculine form is the "default" form, used whenever one is not referring to an exclusively female group. In terms of meaning, the masculine plural form banim contains no implication that it is "sons" only and not also "daughters."
35. As usual, there are exceptions.
36. Carson, Debate, and Strauss, Distorting, also operate at the theoretically-informed level (level 2) most of the time (though Carson, Debate, pp. 47-76, in his chapter on the difficulties of translation, includes quite a few examples of subtle losses in translation, thus illustrating higher levels). With reasonable uniformity they expound theoretically-informed principles to teach naive readers. Carson's exposition of differences in gender systems is a particularly elaborate case (Debate, pp. 77-98). Just such elaborate data sets from many languages form the inductive basis for the theoretically-informed general distinction between form and meaning, and the dynamic equivalence theory's principle of preserving meaning, not form. The particularities of any one gender system are "form," while a translation into a particular language using its gender system represents "meaning." Extended exposure to linguistic data like Carson's is very useful in training naive people to rise to an understanding of what linguistic theory has in mind with the form-meaning distinction. Carson's exposition of gender is also useful for the purposes of this present book, because it also illustrates the fact that theoretically-informed principles deliberately leave to one side the complexities and nuances of level 3.
37. See Chapter 7 for fuller discussion.
38. Note, however, that we do not thereby undermine the valid theoretically-informed observation that in some cases a singular form in one language may be translated by a plural form in another, in order to convey maximal meaning. Carson's exposition of gender includes an illustration from discerning approach (level 3) at one point, when it touches on the intricate details of finding the right word for "God" in the Pévé language (Carson, Debate, pp. 93-95; based on Rodney Venberg, "The Problem of a Female Deity in Translation," Bible Translator 22/2 : 68-70). The translator, Rodney Venberg, guided by theoretically-informed analysis, suggested to the Pévé tribe more than one translation option that the native speakers intuitively rejected (Debate, p. 94). The complexities exist, but the theoretically-informed distinction between form and meaning must pass over them.
39. Kenneth Pike's conception of the form-meaning composite surpasses in penetration the Saussurian ideal separation of form and meaning. It does so in an explicit, theoretically-disciplined discussion, thus illustrating a reflective approach at level 4 (Pike, Language, especially pp. 62-63 and 516-517; but the larger context of Language must be understood to grasp the full import of his conception).
40. Barr, Semantics; Carson, Fallacies.
41. Of course there is no universally accepted "standard" linguistic theory, but rather a variety of competing schools and research programs. But within any one school there is still a core body of established theory that students are expected to learn. This core body, including theoretical framework, theoretical tools, and theoretical generalizations, is what we have in view.
42. For the history of the controversy, see Chapter 2.
43. We return to this issue in Chapter 15.
44. The same observations could apply to various sections of this book. As indicated in the preface, we are writing to a broad audience. Hence we must simplify. But such simplification should not be misread as level-1 naivete.
45. Several of the people who wrote the Colorado Springs Guidelines had extensive training in Greek and Hebrew and had taught at the graduate level for many years, so Carson's claims may seem implausible. But, as we noted already, it is possible even for experienced scholars to commit blunders. The issue here is not really any amount of expertise in the specialized theories in various fields at level 2, or the ability in practice to stay clear of blunders violating the principles articulated at level 2, but discernment (level 3). In the end, in the special context of discerning complexities, the "standard" theories (level 2) are irrelevant, because their high generality, their idealization, and their goal of simplifying in order to teach students prevent them from addressing the crucial questions of nuance. Ironically, in this special context, appealing to the standard theoretically-informed principles demonstrates ignorance — a failure in understanding the problem.
46. We would appeal at this point to Carson's statements about taking care how we characterize the other side in this debate: "Slogans and demonizing those who disagree with us will not help .... In large part this little book is nothing more than an attempt to lower the temperature, slow the pace of debate..." (p. 37); "Each side needs to try harder to avoid demonizing the other side" (p. 195).
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