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Mounce on Translating Every Word

Mounce on Translating Every Word

I used to use Bill Mounce’s introductory grammar in teaching Greek, and I appreciated his attention to linguistics, though I generally wanted more. (I’ve switched to Dave Black’s Learn to Read New Testament Greek for those rare occasions when I have the opportunity to teach Greek. I’m probably prejudiced as Dave is a friend and I publish the Spanish translation of that book, Aprenda a leer el Griego del Nuevo Testamento.)

In a blog post, Mounce discusses the question of whether one needs to translate every word of the Greek text into English to be faithful to get inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. As one who doesn’t believe “inerrancy” is a good word to describe scripture, I find the question especially interesting. It illustrates the reason why I don’t like the inerrancy debate. So often, despite any efforts by scholars who use the word carefully, inerrancy leads to this sort of distorted question. Mounce correctly points out that the word is not necessarily the correct bearer of meaning to try to translate. Mounce suggests the meaning is found “more at the phrase level,” though I would say that meaning is found at a variety of levels, and that the ideal translator would convey the meaning expressed.

In this case, however, the “ideal” translator is more “ideal” in the sense of being “not real.” No translator can convey everything. If a truly master translator, for example, conveys the precise emotional feel of a Psalm, he or she is very likely to obscure the history. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, does an outstanding job of getting the punch of a parable’s message, and the result is beautiful, almost ideal. Well, until you realize that you’re losing both the historical connection, and also in some ways the possibilities inherent in the story form itself. This is not a criticism of The Message. I love it. I like to read it. But by accomplishing some things, the translator of necessity fails to accomplish some others. Therein lies the value of multiple translations.

Therein also lies the value of sharing one’s thoughts. It is imagined that someone like me, who reads the text in the original language, has somehow truly attained and truly understands. But over and over, I read and translate a passage for myself, and then I read it in other translations and find enrichment because those translators chose different options than I did. Sometimes I’ll say, “No, I think my way is better,” while at others I might correct what I did. Sometimes I just find that the other ways of expressing the meaning round out my understanding, while I can’t really find a translation that conveys the whole.

You can check out some books from Energion Publications on inspiration here.


Galatians 2:16 – A Problem in Translation and Theology

Galatians 2:16 – A Problem in Translation and Theology

I wanted to write a quick note here as this relates to my study tonight, as well as illustrating quite a number of translation problems. Here is our text, with CEV (NOT CEB) to the left, NRSV in the center as a “literal” comparison, and NLT to the right. I’m copying the NRSV notes as they highlight the issue.


But we know that God accepts only those who have faith in Jesus Christ. No one can please God by simply obeying the Law. So we put our faith in Christ Jesus and God accepted us because of our faith.


yet we know that a person is justifiedd not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.e And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ,f and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
Notes: d. Or reckoned as righteous and so elsewhere. e. Or the faith of Jesus Christ. f. Or the faith of Jesus Christ.
(The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ga 2:16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


“Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”

Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Ga 2:16). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

If you look at notes e & f which are identical, you’ll see the problem. The Greek text can justifiably be translated either as “faith in Christ,” that is, our faith directed to Christ, or as “the faith of Christ,” Christ’s faithfulness to us. That’s not an insignificant difference. The NRSV does well here by translating one way and footnoting another. The problem is that people rarely read footnotes. In a Dynamic Equivalence (or functional) version the translator is obliged to make a choice. You cannot clearly express the meaning of the original in a new language if you have not understood it. Having understood it (you think), there is always the possibility that you have misunderstood it.

This is another important reason why I urge people who study the Bible in translation to both use more than one and also to read translator’s footnotes. They can be critical.

(See for some comparisons.)

Study Your Bible in English

Study Your Bible in English

Study Bibles Galore!
Despite My Dislike, All These Bibles were within Arm’s Reach of My Desk

That is, study it in English if English is your native language, and when your knowledge of biblical languages isn’t up to the task. Face it. For most people, even those who have some study of biblical languages. Different levels of study of the languages provide different levels of benefits. But for most people, the best idea is to study the Bible more carefully and thoroughly in the language they actually know.

There’s a sense among people in the pews that knowledge of Greek or Hebrew provides some sort of magic key. This even affects pastors, who want to look up a particular Greek or Hebrew word in order to spice up their sermons or  to find the real meaning of a text. The problem is that looking up a particular Greek or Hebrew word and then wielding that definition like an axe, chopping chips out of the text, more often misleads than enlightens.

For laypeople, the approach is often to find “the meaning of the Greek” through a commentary, or even worse through a concordance such as Strong’s. A correspondent once sent me a complete translation of a verse derived from glosses (single word or short phrase translations of a term) in Strong’s, in which not one single word was translated correctly in the context. One could, however, track the English words back through the concordance to a Greek word which did, in fact, occur in the verse.

Words do not have singular meanings. It is more accurate to say they have fields of meaning, sometimes called semantic ranges. I look out the window in front of me and I see a number of things that I would call “trees,” yet they are not identical. Some are larger, some are smaller. At some point there is the transition between “bush” and “tree,” and “bush,” again, covers a range of items. The actual boundary is set by usage. Now that I live in Florida, I have to realize that Floridians call things “hills” that northwesterners would call mounds or bumps, while there’s nothing in easy range of here that a northwesterner would call a mountain.

If you have the time and inclination to learn the biblical languages, by all means do so. But if you don’t, what can you do?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don’t just go to the most literal translation you can find. People often believe that by using the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, or something similar, they are getting closer to the source language. In one way, these versions do get you closer to the original, an I don’t have a problem with using any of them. Just don’t assume that they take care of getting you closer to the original.
  2. Instead of #1, choose 3 or more translations. Try to find translations that are committee translations and represent different theological backgrounds. For example, the NASB, NIV, and NLT are all done by evangelical translation committees. They represent three different approaches to translation, but their committees are all conservative. The NASB is formal, the NIV is a kind of compromise version, while the NLT is dynamic or functional. (There are many more differences in approach to translation. Check my site and/or my book What’s in a Version?.) On the other hand, the NRSV is quite formal/literal while the Revised English Bible is quite functional/dynamic, yet the committees involved are from mainline denominations and thus more liberal. I recommend choosing your three translations to represent different theological traditions and different styles of translating. For protestants, I’d recommend including the New American Bible or the New Jerusalem Bible, which are translated by Catholic committees. The NAB is probably a bit more literal/formal than the NIV and the NJB is dynamic/functional like the NLT or REB.
  3. Instead of spending your time looking for glosses to Greek words in a concordance like Strong’s, spend more time studying relevant passages in English. Don’t find a gloss and then force it into all the verses. Rather, study each passage and look for definitions from the context. I mean definitions of the English words provided by the English context in your English Bible. So if you want to know what the “church” is, don’t worry about the definition of ekklesia in Greek. (Dave Black wrote some good notes on this the other day. If you read what he wrote about the Greek words carefully, you will see some of the difficulties in doing this sort of study unless you are very well versed in the language.) Worry about the definition of “church” (and related terms like “body of Christ”)  in English verses. How does Paul view this in Ephesians 4, for example?
  4. In order to keep from getting stuck with the work of just one committee, compare those translations. While the formal translations may be closer to the form of the Greek or Hebrew, you may not correctly comprehend what that form means. Try the options in one of the dynamic/functional versions. Then listen to the context. Many, many misinterpretations are produced by deciding what a word in the original language is suppose to mean and then forcing the verse to fit that meaning. Ask instead whether the definition you have in mind truly fits. In English, for example, the word “car” might refer to an automobile, the part of an elevator you ride in, or one element of a train. You wouldn’t take the elevator-related definition and force it into a passage about automobiles, would you? Don’t do it to the biblical text either. Consider words like “salvation,” which may refer to a moment of new birth, a continuous process of God’s work in the believer, or the eventual salvation from final death, among other things.
  5. Don’t be afraid of surface reading. Surface reading is a good starting point for study. I like to read an entire book of the Bible through before focusing on a section. That’s harder to do if we’re talking Isaiah or Ezekiel, but for most of the New Testament it’s not that hard. It’s a bit like standing on a mountain looking across a forest before trying to hike through it. You can read rapidly and you don’t need to understand everything. That’s what your later study is for.
  6. Don’t be intimidated. Those of us who read the languages also make plenty of mistakes. We’re subject to all the same human biases. I thank the Lord for the opportunity I’ve had to learn and for the gift of reading the Bible in its original languages. But none of that work gave me the right to lord it over others or to demand that they accept my view because of my study.

Above all, I encourage you to study the scriptures for yourself and listen for God to speak to you. It is the privilege of everyone, not just of clergy or scholars. Many people have given their time and some have even given their lives so that you can have that Bible in your own language. Make the most of it!

Translating Metaphors and the NLT of Isaiah 43:2

Translating Metaphors and the NLT of Isaiah 43:2

is43-2I am very slow to criticize translations in broad terms. Every time I point out what I consider to be a problematic rendering in some Bible translation, someone will ask me if they should discard that version in exchange for a more accurate one. Any translation will contain renderings that can be questioned. In many cases there were people on the translation committee who questioned the chosen rendering. Translation has a great deal of art to it. Keep that in mind as I criticize this rendering in the New Living Translation.

Here’s the NLT of Isaiah 43:2 —

When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you. (via

Now I think the NLT has captured some of the meaning very clearly. The interesting thing is the translation of the metaphors. The words [of difficulty] and [of oppression] are not explicit in the Hebrew. Now the metaphor probably justifies this reading as a good option for understanding the text. My problem with it is that the metaphor is, in my opinion, equally comprehensible in English as it is in Hebrew. That is, in reading this passage, an English-speaking reader would probably feel free to choose from the same set of events or experiences that might be referenced by the metaphor.

On the other hand, the modern reader might tend not to see the same range of literal understandings. “Through deep waters” doubtless would evoke the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) and possibly the flood. “Through rivers” would likely evoke the story of crossing the Jordan, while “fire of oppression” might well draw on the story of the three Hebrews (Daniel 3), though of course based on dating, that story might even be said to draw on this. In this way the NLT rendering takes away some literal connections to the narrative of Israel’s history/traditions which might easily be missed.

The three metaphors are each translated with a different impact. The first, “deep waters” is left literal. This is perhaps due to the flood, Red Sea (Sea of Reeds), and the Jordan. In the second case we break out the metaphor, though it is closely parallel to the first, but we break it out in a generic sense, “of difficulty,” which says to the reader, “Don’t take this literally, but it has broad application.” Finally, in discussing fire, we get very specific, and say, “fire of oppression.”

But does not that third option reduce the potential for the English reader to less than the Hebrew intends? Yes, sometimes translators have to make this sort of choice, but in this case, I think we take a passage that can be clearly understood when rendered in a largely formal fashion, and actually diminish its impact with explanatory prepositional phrases.

This isn’t a terrible rendering, but at the same time, it struck me as not being one of the better ones in the NLT.


A Note on Translations and Commentaries

A Note on Translations and Commentaries

CBC based on the NLT
Are we veiling the commentary with the translation used?

As I’ve been reading a commentary based on the New Living Translation (NLT), it has been interesting to note how the commentators differ from the readings of the translation on which the commentary is ostensibly based.

For example, as I finished reading the section on Numbers today (pp. 217-443), written by Dale A. Brueggemann, I noted two important translation notes.

  1. 35:12, in which the NLT refers to “relatives” rather than to the singular “goel” or avenger/redeemer, a translation that the commentator says “… may be misleading” (p. 426n). Certainly potentially misleading and may cause one to miss connecting thoughts built on this concept.
  2. 35:20, in which two points are noted. First, the NLT adds “a dangerous object” which is not in the Hebrew source, and also omits “while lying in wait,” which is in the Hebrew. The latter omission the commentator calls “this telling qualification” (p. 427n).

It’s not surprising that a commentator will work for the source text, of course, but it’s interesting to note. You’ll find this sort of disagreement in almost any commentary where the author is required to use a particular translation. Sometimes one could almost say “with the ___ version included” rather than saying it’s a commentary on that version.

With a dynamic equivalence translation, however, the odds are greater that there will be a certain tension between commentator and English text. This is not really surprising. Is it problematic? For many, this disagreement is an argument in favor of more formal equivalence translations.

It seems to me, however, that a formal equivalence translation, besides allowing for misunderstanding, such as when it verbally translates some idioms, also simply leaves greater room for one to imagine the translation agrees with one’s own approach, even when it’s simply a bit ambiguous.

It’s valuable for lay persons who read scripture to become aware of the fact that there are differences in the way translations are done. That’s why I frequently recommend reading from more than one translation. For example, a good counterpoint to the NLT might be the New Revised Standard Version (which also provides from more theological diversity in the translation committee) or the English Standard Version (with an evangelical team similar to that of the NLT).

Quick Thoughts after Reading Different Greek Texts

Quick Thoughts after Reading Different Greek Texts

Reading Greek editionsYesterday I read a few chapters (4 actually) of Hebrews with Stephen’s Textus Receptus (1550) beside my NA27, both from Logos Bible Software. It was an interesting exercise. I noticed a few things I hadn’t noticed before and was reminded of some things I know, but can easily neglect.

I started into biblical languages to get past the gatekeepers. I wanted to read the original text for myself and discover what was there without depending on others. In that goal I failed. It’s amazing the number of little things you can notice when you look at different edited texts. And that is what our Greek New Testaments these days are. (I’ll stick with discussing the Greek, though I could make similar, but not identical, points about Hebrew.) Someone studies the manuscripts available, or existing editions, or starts with an edition and just looks at particular variants, and produces a text which I then read. I can take the Nestle-Aland 27th edition text and read it from their edition, or from the UBSIV Bible I also have which uses the same text. They list different variants. Why? Because the editors determine that for the purposes of this edition, those are the variants you need to see.

Now it happens I’m fairly happy with most of their choices, though one reason I have various editions is so that I can check on other details. In my reading yesterday, for example, I noticed quite a number of differences in word order. It would be quite a daunting task to cover all those differences in a textual apparatus, but they might actually be meaningful. I’m very careful doing so, but I have been known to argue emphasis based on word order. Do I have the right word order?

My point is not to make one feel helpless. Rather, I think we should be thankful to those who have gone to the work to provide us with these tools. I’m thankful that I can read my Greek New Testament in an edition that combines information from thousands of sources and then gives me notes on a selected set of the most important variants. Hebrews 12:1 has its crowd of witnesses. Whenever I study the Bible, I am standing on a substantial pyramid of other peoples’ shoulders.

At the same time I have to remember that there is a time to get out of the rut of the ordinary and to look at things that are substantially different. I’m now interested in studying variations in word order, though I doubt I will ever have the time. Nonetheless, it looks like a field that could be fascinating to research and study.

Lessons? 1) Always go for the source, even if you won’t really get there. 2) Be thankful to those who have gone before!

Translating Hebrews 2:6-8 – Gender, Number, and Breaking the Discourse

Translating Hebrews 2:6-8 – Gender, Number, and Breaking the Discourse

dreamstimefree_235996_smI’ve written about this a couple of times before, though using the NIV1984 and NIV2011, in A Gender Neutral Example – Hebrews 2:6-8 and Quick Follow-up on Hebrews 2:6-8.

I covered most of the key issues in those two short posts, but to summarize quickly, I note the questions of how one should translated the quotation of Psalm 8:4-6 as it is presented in Hebrews 2:6-8. One of the questions is the text. In some cases translators have “corrected” New Testament quotations of Hebrew scriptures by using readings from the Massoretic  text even when the NT writer is quoting from the LXX. In this passage “for a little while” gets a footnote to the MT in some translations.

The question for the translator is whether to reconcile the texts, in this case make Hebrews 2:6-8 correspond to the text of Psalm 8:4-6, so that a reader is not confused (or even challenged) by the difference, or whether the texts should be translated faithfully in each instance. In the case of either decision, what should be indicated in the footnotes?

I was reading this passage today in the NRSV, immediately after having read it in Greek. Here it is:

6 But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
8 subjecting all things under their feet.”

In this case there is a footnote (one of several), which reads: ”

Gk or the son of man that you care for him? In the Hebrew of Psalm 8:4-6 both man and son of man refer to all humankind

In fact, the plural continues into the remainder of verse 8, which is not quoted: “Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control.” It is not the authors argument here that everything is placed under the command of humanity in general, but rather of one human being, Jesus. I fully agree with the translators (and their footnote), that Psalm 8 is referring, in its original context, to humankind in general, and our relationship, as a whole, to God—our place in creation.

By translating the quotation “accurately,” as it occurs in a different text and location, the translators have disrupted the discourse of this passage. So while I will not call this an error (it’s certainly intentional, and I can formulate the arguments for doing it, even though I find them dismally unconvincing), I do think it’s a very unfortunate approach. One could let readers know that the quoted text, in its historical context, refers to humanity as a whole, but that it is being used here specifically of one particular human male, Jesus.

In fact, one could argue that acknowledging “humankind” in Psalm 8 need not be inconsistent with the usage here, as we will shortly see the author of Hebrews continue with the argument that Jesus must very much be one of us (humankind) in order to be able to redeem us. One could discuss the idea of being “in Christ,” though that is not the language of Hebrews. In Hebrews the language is one of kinship and community.

I do think that this makes it harder, though not impossible to follow the flow of the authors argument in this passage.

Translating Poetry

Translating Poetry

On March 24, 2016, blog entry marked 11:40 AM, Dave Black talks about translating poetry and links to his essay on the topic from a Festschrift, available via Google Docs.

Reading Dave’s comments about translating poetry reminded me of one of my favorite translations of poetry from any language to any other, Max Knight’s translations of Christian Morgenstern’s German poetry. You can find samples here. I particularly like Der Lattenzaun/The Picket Fence, but Die Trichter/The Funnels, which Knight translates twice, provides another good example.

Translation is a creative activity. When the material is very technical, the room available for creative activity, or better the necessity for it, may be lower, but it’s still there. Communication is not easy, no matter what one is trying to communicate, and when one is trying to communicate many things (and often a good writer is doing just that), the translation becomes more difficult.

In the case of Bible translation, we multiply these problems because we are trying to translate a variety of literary genres across a gap of history and culture, which, in addition, either have or have acquired theological meanings that may relate to times before or after their composition. There’s a great deal of freight in the text and hanging onto it for dear life lest it be lost along the way.

Into this perilous swamp comes the translator, trying to jump from one foothold to another, always hoping the foothold is not the back of a sunbathing alligator. (Try translating that murky metaphor for comprehension by a desert-dwelling tribe. I dare you!)

But I don’t see the difficulty of translation as a major problem for Christianity. The major problem I see is that we are afraid of the creativity of translation. We should, embrace it, enjoy it, learn from it, and live it.

Now that I think about it, we’re afraid of the creativity of communicating, discussing, and embodying the message in our own language.

As I read a passage like the first chapter of Ezekiel I see a prophet’s creativity challenged. Ezekiel struggles for words. (I wrote a bit about this earlier on the Energion Discussion Network.) One commentator “cleaned up” Ezekiel’s prose and made it rational and orderly, discarding a large portion of the chapter in the process.

But Ezekiel the prophet is trying to be a translator for us, translating his experience of, his vision of God into terms that can communicate with us. It isn’t easy for Ezekiel. It isn’t easy for me. I don’t think it’s easy for any translator.

I want the translator to be a good linguist, but I also want him to be able to feel and experience along with Ezekiel and then creatively transfer this vision of God to me as an English reader. Will I get precisely what Ezekiel got? No. Not a chance. But I can get a glimpse of God’s glory as Ezekiel did, as I hope the translator did, and as I hope is conveyed through a good, creative translation.

Poetry especially deserves this sort of creativity. And we shouldn’t fear it. People often act as if any sort of creativity in Bible translation means the message is being lost. But that is our modern desire for a compendium of facts about God.

I came out of my MA program in seminary with a compendium of facts and I promptly left the church. I came back struggling with texts I found hard to comprehend, hard to translate, and even harder to live.

The struggle is greater than the catalog. Every. Single. Time.

But the facts conveyed by a vision like Ezekiel 1 or a powerful, intricately structured poem such as Psalm 104 are actually relatively few. The glory conveyed is beyond comprehension. I’ll go for not one creative translation (even my own), but for many. I want to try to comprehend the “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and there’s no way I’ll do that with just the facts.

God could have provided us with a systematic theology, carefully tagged with paragraph and subparagraph numbers, footnoted with additional explanations, structured so as to miss nothing. God didn’t do that. I think God did it intentionally.

That’s why I’m less critical than others of Bible translators, less willing to say they got it wrong. It’s not that I think they are without error. It’s just that I have such great respect for their willingness to get in there and try.

I think it would be wonderful if we all encouraged them and gave them the freedom to creatively pass to us the message they experience.

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18, NRSV)

Or perhaps:

… And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. (2 Cor. 3:16-18, The Message)

Or perhaps …

It’s not by our efforts to get it all right that we remove the veil and see clearly. It’s by turning to the Lord. The Lord is the one who can make us see clearly in spiritual things, because the Lord is Spirit. So when we look in this way, we can contemplate the Lord’s glory and that is what will transform us from glory to glory. (1 Cor 3:16-18, my paraphrase, applying it now, good until the next time I read it)

Thomas Hudgins Looks at Literal in Translation

Thomas Hudgins Looks at Literal in Translation

The term “literal,” when used regarding translation, can drive translators quite mad, I think. But it is a commonly used word in the pews and the hallways of churches. “We don’t take things that literally around here,” is something I hear regularly in United Methodist churches. Which leaves the question of just how do we take it, if we bother to take it at all, quite unanswered.

Thomas Hudgins, in his post Thinking about What’s Literal says, “This whole concept of ‘literal’ is really misleading.”

Go read his post and discover what concept of “literal” he’s talking about and why he thinks it’s misleading.