How We Got the Bible: Translations

“Translation… is a difficult, almost impossible, art to master. Languages vary so in their order of words, in their individual metaphors, and in their native idioms. The translator is thus faced with a choice between a literal, word-for-word rendering (which is certain to sound absurd and so be a travesty of the original) and something very much freer (in which cause he is liable to be accused of being unfaithful). – Jerome

Philosophies of Translation

Formal Equivalence (literal, or word-for-word)

• These translations (like the NASB) try to use the same English word for a particular Greek or Hebrew word whenever possible. Their goal is to be comprehensible.
• They also try to reproduce the grammar or syntax of the original language as closely as possible. For example, if the Greek or Hebrew has an infinitive, then an infinitive will be used in English.
• These translations can help us to know when a particular word or phrase was important to a biblical author. For example, whenever Paul uses the Greek word sarx, a formal equivalent translation will use “flesh.”
• However, formal equivalent translations can have problems translating idioms. Idioms are expressions whose meanings are not predictable from the usual meanings of the constituent words. For example, “to kick the bucket” doesn’t have anything to do with actually kicking buckets. Here’s a biblical example from 2 Samuel 18:25: “If he is alone, there is news in his mouth.” (NKJV, ESV) This is a Hebrew idiom that means “he has good news,” but it sounds strange and unnatural when translated into English. This is what Fee and Strauss call “Biblish,” which is an awkward cross between Bible language and real English.

Functional Equivalence (idiomatic, or meaning-based)

• These translations try to reproduce the meaning of the original in natural, easy-to-understand English. Their goal is to be natural. “Advocates of functional equivalence stress that the translation should sound as clear and natural to the contemporary reader as the original text sounded to the original readers.” – Fee and Strauss, 26
• The guiding principle of functional equivalent translations is that accuracy concerns meaning rather than form. It’s not enough to reproduce the exact words of Greek and Hebrew (which is impossible, since something is always lost in translation). You need to convey what the words meant in the original languages as accurately as possible.
• These translations, unlike formal equivalent translations, excel at translating idioms. They would translate the above passage “If he is alone, he is bringing good news.” (NCV, GNT) These translations are especially popular among young people and people who did not grow up in the church, because the words sound more natural to them than the “Biblish” that can be found in many more literal translations.
• However, one drawback to these translations is that the reader has to rely more on the interpretations of the translator. Eugene Peterson is a great student of Biblical languages, but The Message is still the work of one imperfect person.

Mediating (or a cross between A and B)

• These translations (like the NIV and TNIV) try to strike a balance between formal and functional equivalence. Sometimes they are more literal, and sometimes they are more idiomatic. Their goal is to be clear.

Gender and Translation (“gender neutrality” vs. “gender accuracy”)

• Translation of anthropos – The primary meaning of this Greek word is “person,” not “man.” Greek has other words (like aner and arsen) when it means to say “man” or “male.” However, some Bible translations (like the TNIV) have caused controversy by the way they translate this word.
Romans 3:28 (NIV): “for we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law…”
Romans 3:28 (TNIV): “for we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law…”

• Translation of adelphoi – this word can refer to brothers, siblings (brothers and sisters) or people in a close bond or association. It depends on the context. In I Corinthians 1:10, for example, Paul is clearly addressing the entire church, which includes women. Therefore, the TNIV (2005) made a change from the NIV (1978):
I Cor. 1:10 (NIV): “I appeal to you, brothers…”
I Cor. 1:10 (TNIV): “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters…”

• Translation of banim (Hebrew) and huioi (Greek) – Both these words can mean “sons,” “children,” or “descendants,” depending on the context. Newer versions like the TNIV and NRSV are often accused of making changes based on a feminist agenda. However, it is not that simple, as we can see from this example:
Matt. 5:44-45 (KJV): “Love your enemies… that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” The KJV was translated in 1611, long before feminism, and yet here it translates huioi as “children” rather than “sons.”
Matt. 5:44-45 (TNIV): “Love your enemies… that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” The TNIV translators follow the KJV, because they thought that the context did not specifically indicate “sons.”
Matt. 5:44-45 (ESV): “Love your enemies… so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” The translators of the ESV (2001) were unhappy with the perceived liberalism of the NRSV (1990) when it came to gender language, so they have tended to translate huioi as “sons” and adelphoi as “brothers.”

• Translation of masculine resumptive pronouns. These are pronouns (“he,” “she,” or “it”) that follow an indefinite noun or pronoun (“whoever,” “anyone”) and refer back to it.
John 8:51 (NIV): “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The problem here is that the Greek is neuter, but English doesn’t have a neuter personal pronoun. All we have is “it,” which cannot refer to persons. The NIV translators chose to use “he,” even though there is nothing in the Greek to indicate the person who keeps Jesus’ word is specifically male.
John 8:51 (TNIV): “whoever obeys my word will never see death.” The TNIV translators get around this by taking out the pronoun altogether. In other passages, they get around the problem of using masculine resumptive pronouns by using a singular “they.” An example of a singular “they” is “Everybody likes ice cream, don’t they?” Grammatically, “everybody” is singular, but most people use a singular “they” because the sentence “Everybody likes ice cream, doesn’t he or she?” sounds awkward. Because singular “they”s are becoming more accepted in contemporary English, it is more common to see them in recent Bible translations.

The root issue here is that some translators believe that English usage with regard to gender is changing more than other translators. Thirty years ago, “man,” “mankind” and “brothers” could refer to both men and women, but many believe that is no longer the case, and alter their translations accordingly so that modern people can understand.

The “King James Only” Controversy

There are some people who will only use the King James Version for various reasons. Here are a few:
• Because they just like its language best, and are used to it.
• Because they believe that the manuscripts it is based on (the Masoretic Text for the OT and the Textus Receptus for the NT) are better than other manuscripts.
• Because they believe the Masoretic Text and the Textus Receptus were supernaturally preserved over time.
• Because they believe that the KJV translation is itself divinely inspired.
• Because they believe that the KJV is a “new revelation” that can even correct the Greek and Hebrew texts.

“Is there anyone learned or unlearned who, when he takes the [new translation] in his hands and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, will not break out immediately into violent language and call me a forger and profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections in them?” – Jerome, telling the pope that he did not want to translate the Vulgate, which went on to be the standard edition of the Bible for over 1000 years

Further Reading:

Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth.

On the KJV-Only Controversy:
D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism

On the Gender Controversy: (anti-TNIV web site), (pro-TNIV web site)
Mark Strauss, Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy
Wayne Grudem, The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy