Misunderstanding Translations

Misunderstanding Translations

A friend drew my attention to this article on the ESV today, and I’m deeply disappointed in what I found there. I’m going to comment on some key difficulties with that article. But the author also links to this article by John Piper, which doesn’t so much surprise me, as put in context some other things that I’ve seen in his writing.

Let’s look at Piper’s article first. A few days ago, in blogging on Piper’s book The Future of Justification, and specifically on his response to N. T. Wright’s understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:21, I commented on how much Piper’s book seemed to be driven by how certain interpretations would preach. There are a set of doctrines which Piper believes, and he seems to look first for an affirmation of this reformed doctrine that he teaches, and then he’s looking for texts that he can use to preach those messages effectively. It would be easy to overstate that case, because Piper can and does use exegetical arguments for his point of view, and undoubtedly defends certain doctrines because he believes they are Biblical, but there is simply a different flavor in what he writes than there is in N. T. Wright.

But here, when he turns to Bible translation, there are simply numerous points that sound naive to a student of Biblical languages. Since I’m pretty sure Piper is not naive, I am led to believe that he is being drawn to use these arguments due to his strong views on other doctrinal points. Let’s take a look. Piper says:

. . . My biggest concern has to do with preaching. When a paraphrase becomes the standard preaching, reading, memorizing Bible of the church, preaching is weakened—robust expository exultation in the pulpit is made more difficult. Preaching that gives clear explanations and arguments from the wording of specific Biblical texts tends to be undermined when a Bible paraphrases instead of preserving the original wording on good English. And when that kind of preaching is undermined, the whole level of Christian thinking in the church goes down, and a Bible-saturated worldview is weakened, and the ability of the people—and even the pastors themselves-to root their thoughts and affections in firm Biblical ground diminishes.

You will note that he makes explicit what I have been observing. Preaching is driving him on these issues. That’s not entirely bad. The man is clearly a very gifted preacher, and he should be concerned.

But look at the next sentence. “When a paraphrase becomes the standard, preaching is weakened.” The specific example of paraphrasing that he has in view is the NIV. This is not the loose paraphrasing of The Living Bible; we’re talking about the quite conservative translation principles of the NIV. So why is it that he believes preaching is weaked? “Preaching that gives clear explanations and arguments from the wording of specific Biblical texts tends to be undermined when a Bible paraphrases instead of preserving the original wording on [sic] good English.” Did I read that right? Paraphrasing replaces the original wording, and whatever other variety of translation, presumably that used by the ESV, preserves the original reading.

Well, I have news for you folks here. I can read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. I study from those original languages regularly. Nowhere in them is there found a single word that matches the ESV or any other literal English translation. Why? Because the English translations are in English rather than in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. Now somebody is thinking that Piper knows that, so he must mean something else. If you think that, please comment and show me where Piper indicates that he knows that. In fact, in the very sentence I just quoted, he points to the problem of arguments from “the wording of specific Biblical texts.” The only way that you have the “wording of specific Biblical texts” is if you have it in the original languages.

The advocates of literal Bible translation, or formal equivalence which is a more descriptive phrase, play a game of pretend. They try to get English wording that looks as much like Greek (or Hebrew, or Aramaic) wording as it’s possible for English wording to manage, and then they pretend that this is somehow more equivalent to the source language. But that assumes several things, all of which are generally not true.

  1. The meaning is primarily contained independently in the words. This is untrue. Without context, which includes the grammatical form of the words and the syntax in which they are used, one can be dangerously wrong about the meaning of a specific word. Very often the translation unit has to be the phrase or even larger in order to get the original intent.
  2. English words arranged like Greek words will suggest a similar range of meanings to the reader. Again, this is false. In fact, they will almost always suggest a different range of meanings. Context in the target language (English in this case) saves the translator over and over, because an English word that might overlap only slightly with its English counterpart can be clarified through creative use of the context. One word might be translated by a phrase. In other cases a word might be translated by a punctuation mark.
  3. The English reader is best equipped to disambiguate an ambiguous passage, thus the ambiguity should be preserved in the translation. Again, this is horribly naive. It is hard enough conveying a precise meaning for a Greek phrase or sentence in English. It is virtually impossible to convey the same range of possible meanings, with the same weighting in English.

Those are only a few examples.

Piper goes on with several reasons why literal translations should be preserved. He says: “A more literal translation respects the original author’s way of writing.” What? Again, the word “naive” comes to mind, but I have a hard time thinking it of Piper. It seems more logical that his commitment to certain doctrinal positions unduly influences him. But I can tell you that style is again terribly difficult to translate. One can aim for a similar level of formality, but actually reflecting the original style? It is actually much easier to respect the style of the original in paraphrasing. I have often thought that the only way to truly respect the style of the book of Hebrews in a translation, for example, would be to completely rewrite it into a more modern sermon style outline. That would, of course, require massive paraphrasing, and would create numerous other areas in which the translation was less reflective of the original, but it might get the picture of the high quality style of the original. What many critics of dynamic equivalent (or functional equivalence) translations fail to realize is that translation always involves compromise. You will convey some things to your readers, and others you will not.

His point #4 on the ESV, however, is bluntly a howler:

A more literal translation which preserves ambiguities that are really there in the original keeps open the possibility of new insight by future Bible readers.

The only place the ambiguities are fully preserved is in the text in the original language, and it is only preserved for those willing to put in the effort to attain an adequate reading level in the source languages to truly work through those possibilities. No translation, on the other hand, can cut off “the possibility of new insight by future Bible readers” unless those readers are naive enough to assume that a translation should be the source of those new insights.

I particularly like the examples used. One is Romans 1:5, “the obedience of faith” in which presumably the ESV is doing the better job of conveying the “ambiguity” to English readers. Now quickly, all you English readers who don’t know Greek, tell me the range of meanings that are possible for the Greek genitive. How will you know what that “of” means in Greek? Well, most of you will not. Many of you will get it from a fallible preacher like John Piper (or me, in a much smaller number of cases), instead of getting it from a fallible translation committee. The problem I have here is that the fallible translation committee is probably much less likely to be in error on the matter than is any one preacher. (I use the word “fallible” so frequently because of Piper’s reference to the fallibility of translators. I think we should be aware that teachers, preachers, and of course bloggers are also fallible, and thus if the end user of our theology gets the meaning of the text from us, he is working through more layers of fallibility than if he simply used a dynamic equivalence translation in the first place.)

Now to return to the first article I mentioned, I see there most of the arguments for literal translations rehashed. But in this case there are a couple more things that need to be flagged for serious concern.

He recommends this:

A good thing to do is to purchase an Interlinear and examine a dynamic equivalent with the Greek text (or Hebrew if possible). The ESV has a reverse interlinear that is quite helpful for this. This allows you to see not just how the ESV translators did on the translation but allows you to see what the literal translation is from the Greek text. There is also an NIV edition of this of which I own myself and I believe you will be surprised to see how much of the NIV goes off from the Greek text.

This is a very dangerous paragraph. First, an interlinear will not let you know how far someone has departed from the Greek text, but rather it will tell you how far your translation departs from the interlinear representation (itself a translation) of the Greek text. All you are doing in this case is comparing one translation to another unless you actually know the language. An interlinear is just a translation–only less. It is a very bad translation. But it goes a step further than the literal translation in deception. It makes people feel that they truly are looking at the text in the source language, when they are not. (I’ve discussed interlinears before here.)

I’m going to largely skip over the material on “politically correct” translations. Suffice it to say that none of the translators of the major Bible versions are trying to be politically correct. What they are trying to do, and in the case of the TNIV doing quite successfully, is translating the intent of the Bibles language on gender into similar meanings in English. The whole debate about gender accuracy throws the entire “literal Bible” error into sharp relief.

Like both of the others I’ve quote here, however, I do not want to tell you not to use one English version or another, if it works for you. But I think both authors fail in their effort to do so, because they strongly suggest that you favor a literal version. My suggestion would be that you instead choose a Bible that you can read easily, and then also have one or two other major versions to which to compare it. Most people today are not going to learn the original languages. Piper suggests that ambiguity in the text is cut off by dynamic equivalence translation (which he inaccurately calls “paraphrasing”). A better approach would be to look at more than one clear, natural translation where you can see each rendering in context. Many English readers would never imagine all the possibilities; that’s what translators are for.

2 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Translations

  1. Perhaps you could e-mail me with a good recommendation for Bible study for someone concerned about these things? I’m trying to come back into my faith but the doubts leave me wary; when I have a good discussion with a pastor I trust, I feel much better.

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