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The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

When I wrote yesterday about the HCSB introduction and its use of the label “optimal equivalence” I fully intended to write another post complaining about that introduction. And I will mention the other issue briefly in this post. But something else was drawn to my attention in the meantime.

Let me lay a foundation. Some years ago I was chatting about a particular Bible passage with a young person who was also a new Christian. We were discussing the best rendering of a particular verse in the Old Testament and when I defended the version we were looking at he said, “Wouldn’t ____ (naming a well-known figure) know best, since he reads Hebrew?” Now I didn’t point out that I read Hebrew as well, which was, perhaps, relevant! But I did point out that the translation we were examining had been made by a committee of several people, each of whom read Hebrew, and then it was reviewed by editorial committees, many of whom read Hebrew. They should get some credit!

This is one thing that concerns me when I hear pastors or teachers say, “This is how this text should be translated …” or “What the Greek text really means is ….” I’ve commented before that you’re generally about to be misinformed when someone says that. But even when an expert makes a comment about just what a translation should be, I have concerns. (Note that I’ve never heard someone say “what the Greek text really means” who was well-qualified in the language. They just don’t talk that way.)

My concern even when the linguistic information to follow is accurate is that this suggests to people that our Bible translations are carelessly put together by people with less language skills than the average pastor. Anyone with a few minutes and a reasonable pastor’s library can correct the work of the Bible translation committee! That’s simply not accurate. It also feeds a concern amongst many Christians that they cannot truly get to the meaning of scripture because so much is lost in translation, and they don’t have the time or talent to acquire facility with the source languages.

People like these come up to me in church hallways all the time. They’ve heard me introduced as knowing Greek and Hebrew, usually in exaggerated terms. “Reads Greek as well as you read English,” is one line that’s been used. I don’t know where they get that. No, most English readers exceed my speed at reading Greek. My main claim to fame is that I have kept my Greek and Hebrew up. I read my devotions in the original languages, so my comprehension is better than average, but I have not kept abreast of all the best linguistic scholarship. Nonetheless, people ask me what’s the best Bible translation. Can they trust the translation they’re using? What wonderful insights can I give them quickly that are missing from their Bible version?

These kinds of questions result, I think, from a profound ignorance about how Bible translations are made, who makes them, and the general quality of the work. I don’t want to diminish the value of knowing biblical languages. I wouldn’t trade that training for anything. But the best use to make of such knowledge is to deepen your own understanding of the scriptures, and then express that deeper understanding in words that people in the pews can understand. You don’t have to tell them with every insight how wonderfully smart you are because you know the languages.

The fact is that we have a very good set of translation options. Most—nearly all, I think—significant errors in interpretation can be avoided simply by carefully studying your text in context from your translation, and then comparing a few other translations to check your work. Properly using the linguistic comments of a few commentaries will help you even more. (May I recommend a book that I publish, “In the Original Text It Says …”?)

My point here is that Bible translators, in general, are a skilled and dedicated group of people who have provided a number of excellent translations for the English-speaking world.

Barring a couple of really troubling efforts, such as Jack Blanco’s Clear Word, any critique I offer relates to details and general approach. I don’t intend to call a translation bad unless I say it outright, for example, The Clear Word is a bad translation, if it can even properly be called a translation. So when I publish a couple of posts criticizing something in the HCSB introduction, I’m not trying to tell you it’s a bad translation. It’s not. It’s quite good. As with most translations, I disagree with some renderings.

Here’s some key points I try to remember in order to avoid the potential pitfalls. How successful am I?

  • Most “errors” reported in a Bible translation are not errors. Yes, I mean that. I have found very few translations for which I cannot find the justification. I may not agree with that justification, but it exists. For example, the following are not errors: Choosing a different textual variant than I prefer, translating a Greek genitive as a different type than I think appropriate, finding the English translation in a different part of the semantic range of a word, choosing a different option for what a clause modifies, using English words that I think are less than well-known by people in the pews. Each of those things can be annoying. I’ll criticize it in the translation. But that simply means that I would make another choice than the translation committee did. In general, there were more of them with higher level degrees. Read my arguments and make your choice. Reserve the word “error” for an error of fact, such as citing that reading incorrectly, proposing a meaning for a word that has no foundation at all, or using an English word that doesn’t fall in the semantic range of the word in the source language. You’ll find that translation committees make very few errors under this latter definition.
  • Say “I disagree” or I would prefer” rather than “this is wrong” or “the right way to translate this is.” It’s not a matter of uncertainty, or not caring about the truth. It’s a matter of giving credit to qualified people who disagree.
  • Don’t preach about translation differences. Preach about the text and the message of the text. You can almost always do this well in English without trotting out your Greek and Hebrew knowledge.
  • Say some good things about Bible translators. I have some concerns about the priority placed on providing more and more English translations as opposed to providing for those who have no translation, or even don’t have the quality we have in English. But these people are doing good work for the Lord and your congregation should know about them and be thankful for them.
  • When the foundation of your difference is theological, make sure people know it. Sometimes our theology influences our translation. It could hardly be otherwise. That overlaps closely with thoroughly studying the context. If I understand Paul’s theology in one way, I am going to be influenced away from a linguistically sustainable translation that has him teaching something else. The theology matters.

But this last point leads me to my other complaint from the HCSB introduction. It’s under the heading “The gender language policy in Bible translation.”

Some people today ignore the Bible’s teachings on distinctive roles of men and women in family and church and have an agenda to eliminate those distinctions in everhy arena of life. These people have begun a program to engineer the removal of a perceived male bias in the English language. The targets of this program have been such traditional linguistic practices as the generic use of “man” or “men,” as well as “he,” “him,” and “his.”

I resemble that remark. Well, not very much. You see, I prefer “people” to “men,” “humankind” to “mankind,” and “brothers and sisters” rather than “brothers” or “brethren.” I’ve found, in surveying folks I teach, that there is a bit of a generation gap on these terms. Younger people tend to hear “men” as referring just to male persons. Older folks understand it generically. So my approach in translation is to translate as I think my audience understands the term.

I was quite amused by a former pastor of mine who complained bitterly about the use of “brothers and sisters” to translate the Greek adelphoi. In the NRSV this is done when the translators thought the referrent was a group including both genders. He preferred the older RSV because of this issue. Yet when he read from the RSV in church and came to “brothers” he’d look up and say, “That means you sisters as well!” He complained about the translation, but he knew about the problem with understanding, and his pastor’s gift kicked in to make sure nobody felt left out.

But having said that, I don’t think I’m ignoring the Bible’s teaching on “distinctive roles of men and women.” I disagree on where lines should be drawn. You may think I’m wrong, but I assure you my motivation is not to avoid the teaching of scripture. I simply read it differently.

Could we not simply say something like, “We believe that gender distinctions should be maintained in the language and have translated according to the Colorado Springs guidelines? (The introduction references these in the next paragraph.)

The issue of gender roles and gender languages is a legitimate topic of debate. What I’m suggesting here is that we don’t make this kind of issue, on either side, a matter of questioning one’s commitment to scripture or the quality of one’s work on Bible translation.

In my little charting program ( I rate translations on such issues. The point is that you can use this information to pick a translation that you are comfortable with. Find the NRSV annoying because of gender language? The ESV handles the issue differently while otherwise following a similar translation philosophy. And so on …


Optimal Equivalence and the HCSB

Optimal Equivalence and the HCSB

It has been some time since I complained about something in a Bible translation, so here goes! In this case it’s not the translation itself, but rather the description of the translation in the introduction.

I used the HCSB in church today, and I noticed something interesting about the way the name of God is used. In most cases, they use LORD for YHWH, but in one case they used Yahweh. According to the introduction, they use Yahweh if there is an emphasis on the name and what the name is. I haven’t looked at how they make this determination, but it would make an interesting study. I’m using the Nook edition, which loses the small caps on LORD, so it comes out as Lord in the edition. The print edition uses the long standing conventions for indicating the name of God.

This was not, however what got on my nerves. Translations handle the name of God in a variety of ways. I just wanted to know how they justified their approach. On the way to finding this explanation I found their description of their translation philosophy. They reject both “dynamic (or functional) equivalence” and “formal equivalence” in favor of “optimal equivalence.”

So what is optimal equivalence? Amongst the various things that seem to characterize it are an acknowledgement that neither formal nor functional equivalence can be followed absolutely, that form cannot completely be separated from meaning, and that the text should be exhaustively analyzed at all levels. Then using “the latest and best language tools and experts, the nearest corresponding semantic and linguistic equivalents are used to convey as much of the information and intention of the original text with as much clarity and readability as possible.”

That, of course, is completely contrary to the intention of other translators who ….

Well, actually, that’s pretty much how translators describe their work. Naming it “optimal equivalence” is just marketing speak. In fact, I think the HCSB has failed in these goals in a number of cases, as do most translations (see my notes on the HCSB). Doubtless were I to put my best effort into accomplishing those goals in a translation, I would fail numerous times. So claiming these ideas as a distinguishing feature of a particular translation is, to put it mildly, a bit misleading. The point is not that the HCSB, contrary to other translations, wants “to convey as much of the information and intention of the original text … as possible.” Rather, they tend to approach that goal in their own particular way, and you can find a statement on that in their introduction as well: “… form cannot be neatly separated from meaning and should not be changed (for example, nouns to verbs or third person ‘they’ to second person ‘you’) unless comprehension demands it.” That suggests that they lean toward formal equivalence, and indeed, my own analysis, done a couple of years ago, supports my initial impression.

I don’t want to be too negative about this particular translation. I actually find it overall quite readable. It’s a credible and usable translation, though not my favorite. The issue is that it is not some sort of break through in translation theory or practice. Everybody tries to accurately convey what’s in their source text via the target language. The question is just what information is regarded as most important (you’re going to lose something) and how that information can best be conveyed.

And that is where the very legitimate differences in translation philosophies occur.

The Other Extreme on Explanation in Translation

The Other Extreme on Explanation in Translation

Yesterday I complained a bit about the explanation that The Voice provides to readers, informing them that since Bathsheba had just completed purification after her period, Uriah couldn’t be the father of the child.

Today I was reading the same passage in the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and there we get the opposite. In verse 4 it reads, “… purifying herself from her uncleannes.” This would be easy for a modern reader to miss. It’s implied from the context. Why would the writer mention this unless it had something to do with the story? But it requires a little bit of background knowledge. How many Christian readers know that ritual cleansing was required following a woman’s period?

A more balanced translation is provided by the NET: “… purifying herself from her menstrual uncleanness.” In addition, as they usually do, the NET provides an informative note. I find such notes less obtrusive. One can read the story as is, or one can take the detour as one prefers.


Promising Series on TNIV, HCSB, and NAB

Promising Series on TNIV, HCSB, and NAB

I think Kevin Sam over at New Epistles has made an excellent choice in selecting these three translations to study as “intermediate” and he’s off to a good start explaining why he’s doing it.

I note his apology for the term “intermediate,” but that is not such a bad choice of language. I rate translations on a scale of one to ten for formality and similarly for functionality (see examples at It is important to realize that these translation types are not narrow pathways to follow, but rather more general principles.

How one combines them in translation, for example choosing formal equivalence except for specific circumstances, can produce some interesting results. In the case of the NAB, for example, I gave a rating of 4 for functionality/idiomaticity and a 9 for formality. The TNIV is 3 and 8 in those two categories, while the HCSB is 2 and 9. This implies that the NAB is using paraphrasing and careful choice of English idioms in specific places, whilst generally following a formal equivalent line.

My practice in producing these ratings is to use a list of verses which contain idiomatic expressions and also to test the translations of sample passages for how many words are strictly justified in a formal sense. In the case of the HCSB, I’m not certain the numbers are valid, because as I read more and more of it, it seems uneven in practice. I may write a bit more on that as I go forward. With a small number of sample passages, it could be possible to get an invalid reading.

In any case, I await the remainder of this series with interest and will be comparing it with my own notes.

Comparing 1 Peter 3:13

Comparing 1 Peter 3:13

Yesterday I commended the HCSB translation of this verse. Today let me give a couple of other options:

  • HCSB: “And who will harm you if you are passionate for what is good?”
  • REB: “Who is going to do your harm if you are devoted to what is good?” [Doesn’t read well, in my view, even though I love the REB]
  • TNIV: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” [Excellent, though I like “passionate” for this context]

Not of these are horrible, nor are a number of others I read. I still like the HCSB best on this one.

Revisiting Acts 17:26

Revisiting Acts 17:26

Yesterday I blogged about the HCSB of Acts 17:26, and in particular the portion that reads something like “made of one ______”. The KJV reads “blood” which is one of the textual variants, while the HCSB says “man” which apparently does not occur in any of the ancient manuscripts.

Since I read these lectionary texts daily for two weeks, today I encountered it in a different version, this time the TNIV, surely not one that could be accused of supporting anything like “male representation”, and it also read “man” in this case.

I’m not at home right now, so just looking at the immediately available Bible versions, I see the following:

  • REB reads “from one stock”
  • NRSV reads “from one ancestor”
  • CEV reads “from one person”
  • ESV reads “from one man”
  • TEV reads “from one human being”
  • God’s Word (GW) reads “from one man”
  • ISV reads “from one man”

I think that’s enough to see that most of the versions break where I would expect, with the exception of the TNIV. I wonder what their justification is here. It seems to me that since a number of ancient scribes appear to have provided options, but none thought of “man” here, it is unlikely that ancient readers would have understood this to refer specifically to the one man as human ancestor.

I’d be interested in comments on the reasoning behind the use of “man” in this verse.

HCSB Acts 17:26 – ADDING Male Representation?

HCSB Acts 17:26 – ADDING Male Representation?

Besides doing my morning reading from various versions, on those days when I read from the original languages, I sometimes have one of the English versions out for comparison. Today I noticed something rather interesting.

In Acts 17:26, where the Greek reads ex henos, the HCSB reads “From one man”. In addition they footnote it, but not for the addition of the word “man,” but for the textual variant “from one blood.” Now the textual variants are interesting here. Though USB4 gives this a B rating, and the evidence looks pretty strong to me that it should be just ex henos, there were two different suggestions for “one what?” given by the scribes.

First, of course, is “one blood” which is also the reading of the KJV. Second is “one mouth” probably best translated here as “one source.” Somehow none of the scribes thought of clarifying this with the word “man.”

Now “man” is hardly impossible. “One” can be masculine or neuter in this case. But it seems odd that we should wait for the 21st century to get an emphasis on the man rather than the woman whose “one” blood flows through all humanity.

Oddly enough, as I looked at a few difficult to translate passages, I also came across this excellent translation from the HCSB:

And who will harm you if you are passionate for what is good? — 1 Peter 3:13 (HCSB)

I haven’t compared it to my whole collection of modern English versions, but I consider that an excellent rendering. Thus far my impression of the HCSB is that it is quite variable, sometimes seeming clumsy, sometimes having odd renderings, and at other times having some truly excellent stuff, all according to my opinions, of course!

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

One basis I use for comparing Bible translations is the way in which idioms are handled. It’s difficult to measure this precisely, because you have to consider several things:

  • Is the idiom as used comprehensible to modern readers?
  • Does it mean the same thing to modern as to ancient readers?
  • Is there a reasonable English (or other target language) equivalent?
  • How good is the equivalent that was selected by the translation?

Simply noting that an idiom in one language is translated by an idiom in another is not sufficient. Figures of speech work in essentially the same way and require that one ask the same questions.

In Isaiah 49:2 we have a fairly simple figure of speech. In Hebrew, this very literally reads:

He set my mouth like a sharp sword.

Now I don’t know how natural that sounds in English to others, and I’m already running another poll, but to me “sharp” and “words” do go together in a figure of speech, and using mouth for the words spoken is also pretty standard. For example, I don’t think anyone has trouble understanding “potty mouth.” I have only rarely heard that combination with “sharp,” however. There I think we more commonly use “tongue” with “sharp” than “mouth.”

So I classify the translations of the figure of speech in three categories. First would be those that translate the figure of speech or idiom completely literally. (I’d ignore the idiom if the figure of speech is common also in the target language.) The second group adjusts it somewhat to make it more comprehensible. The third translates the figure into natural, but not necessarily idiomatic language. The fourth group (of which I have no examples in this case) would provide an alternate idiom. The following list is not exhaustive:

Translating the words and not the figure

“He made my mouth like a sharpened blade;” (NJPS)

“He made my mouth like a sharp sword,” (NRSV)

Adjusted slightly

In this case, the adjustment is generally “mouth” replaced with “tongue.”

“He made my tongue a sharp sword” (REB)

Translated into clear language (drop figure of speech)

“He made my words as sharp as a sword.” (TEV) [Note here that one figure (mouth for words) is replaced, while the second (sharp) is retained.]

“He made my words of judgment as sharp as a sword.” (NLT)

“He made my words pierce like a sharp sword” (CEV) [In a sense another figure of speech is added, or perhaps “sharp” is merely enhanced, by the addition of the word “pierce.”]

“He made my words like a sharp sword;” (HCSB) [The HCSB regularly surprises me, sometimes with incredibly obscure translations, and sometimes with exceptionally clear ones.]

This comparison also raises a question with the NLT text. Should the words “of judgment” be added here? Is it perfectly clear that it is words of judgment alone that pierce like a sharp sword? On first reading, I am not happy with the NLT addition there. It makes plain something that is not plain in the text, and may even be incorrect. My mind could be changed, however.

Nelson Study Bible Note Problems

Nelson Study Bible Note Problems

I’m not going to link to a specific edition on this, because there is no ISBN in the edition from which I’m working. It appears to be a match for this item on, and to be essentially the same notes as this item, though I cannot be absolutely certain. If you have a similar version, you can simply check your notes to see if they say the same thing as mine.

First, of course, I’m a bit prejudiced because I think the NKJV is one of the less useful translations. It is literal, but less readable than the ESV or the HCSB. I don’t call any of the major modern versions bad Bibles, but the NKJV is fairly low on my list.

What I want to comment on today, however, is the notes, part of Nelson’s Complete Study System. I used this Bible today for my lectionary reading. Each morning I read both the current week’s lectionary passages and the next week’s, thus giving me 14 opportunities to meditate on them. I use different Bible versions and also read the notes if I’m using an edition that has notes.

In my reading on Isaiah 42:1-9 today, I noticed this note in a “wordfocus” block:

. . .While ‘ebed can mean slave (Gen. 43:18), slavery in Israel was different than in most places in the ancient Middle East. Slavery was regulated by the Law of Moses, which prohibited indefinite slavery and required that slaves be freed on the Sabbath (seventh) year (Ex. 21:2)–and the Year of Jubilee–the fiftieth year (Lev. 25:25-28). . . .

Now there is certainly value in pointing out the slavery laws in Israel, and comparing them to those in the ancient near east. Notice, however, that if one reads on in Leviticus 25, there is something that is not mentioned in this little note, and it is significant.

44But as for your male slave or your female slave who are yours, from among the nations who are around you you may acquire both male slave and female slave. 45And also from among those who are [foreigners] living in your land and from those who are sojourning among you you may acquire them and from their clan that is with them which they bring forth in your land, and they will be your possession, 46and you may leave them to your sons after you to possess; they may enslave them permanently. Only with your brethren, the children of Israel, each person must not make his brother labor harshly.

The problem here is that the note implies that somehow Israel’s form of slavery was entirely benign, without mentioning the exception to the rule. Anyone from the nations around or from foreigners who were in their land could be bought and possessed permanently.

This is important because there are two ways of handling slavery passages in the Bible. The first is to try to deny the similarity between the slavery practices in the Bible and that in other countries or in more recent times, such as slavery in the United States. The second is to view the rules of slavery as a cultural accommodation, i.e. slavery was not good, but was not yet forbidden.

I take the second approach. My point about this note is that that the editors of these notes presumably take the opposite one, but that they gloss over a substantial element of the Israelite rules for slavery. This is one of the ways in which study notes can be deceptive, even unintentionally.

The second note comes on Psalm 40:1, in which it discusses the words translated “waited patiently” in the NKJV:

The Hebrew translated I waited patiently is literally “waiting I waited.” The emphasis of this phrase is not really on patience but on the fact that David waited solely on the Lord. . . .

I have to wonder where they got this interpretation. The phrase “waiting I waited” is simply not good English. It is formally equivalent to the Hebrew, but this is one of those cases where the literal translation does not suggest the right set of options to English ears. It is a Hebrew idiom of intensification. I WAITED! Now you may think of a few options, such as the intensity of the expectation, or the length of the wait, but the verbal structure itself does not specify who is waited on, or anything about how this person is the sole person on whom the Psalmist waits.

The context suggests that YHWH was the sole one in whom the Psalmist placed his hope, but the verb form suggests only the intensity of the experience. For modern American English, I don’t even like the word “waited” here, though the REB and the NRSV both use “waited patiently.” I would prefer the JPS Tanakh’s “I put my hope in the LORD.” They lose the intensification, but I think they catch the essence of the verb more clearly.

What I would hope to show from these examples is the danger of depending on notes, along with the value of looking at more than one translation. Looking at more than one set of notes is also a valuable hedge against incomplete or misleading notes.