Saturday, April 21, 2007

Thoughts on Translations

Let me start by saying that we are blessed to have a plethora of
translations available to us. The many talented translators of Wycliffe
are working hard to bring ONE translation to people groups, and we
have the luxury of choosing from many excellent translations...
and a few bad ones :-)

Every translation is a compromise. Every single one. When translating
ancient languages it is simply impossible to do a perfect job. A
literal word for word translation is unreadable, and makes little
sense in the target language (English). The other side is a highly
interpretive translation like the NLT, or a paraphrase like the
message or living bible which bears little resemblance to the
original text.

What's the difference? A paraphrase does not seek to maintain the
original text, but tries to convey the meaning of what the text is
about. A translation seeks to translate the original languages into
modern ones. The Message is a current popular paraphrase. The NIV,
NASB, ESV and TNIV are all translations. The NLT is also a
translation, but has more in common with the message than the NASB.

Rather than "proof text" and show you problem passages in various
translations, I am going to work from a passage that I have
translated myself. Psalms 19. I love this passage of scripture, but
it's also a total bear to translate... Thus, there is lots of room
for interpretation. I have tried to be as literal as possible in my
translation. (I didn't include all of the Psalm 19, only the beginning)

Joel's Translation:
The heavens (are) declaring the glory of God, the sky (is)
proclaiming the work of His
hands. Day after day pours forth speech, and night after night
declares knowledge. There is no speech and there are no words, their
voice is not heard. Into all the earth their voice has gone out, and
to the end of the world their words. In them He has placed a tent for
the sun, so it is like a bridegroom coming out from his chamber, it
rejoices like a mighty man to run the course.

Now let's compare this to the message, a paraphrase:

God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the
horizon. Madame Day holds classes every morning, Professor Night
lectures each evening. Their words aren’t heard, their voices aren’t
recorded, But their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken
God makes a huge dome for the sun—a superdome! The morning sun’s a
new husband leaping from his honeymoon bed, The daybreaking sun an
athlete racing to the tape.
(Psalms 19:1-5 MESSAGE)

You can see that Eugene Peterson has made the text come alive, but
the text bears little relation to the original Hebrew. There are a
lot of phrases and ideas that are not present in the original Hebrew
text, but this is Eugene's interpretation of what this passage is
trying to say.

Let's look at the other end of the spectrum, the NASB95:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is
declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And
night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there
words; Their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all
the earth, And their utterances to the end of the world. In them He
has placed a tent for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of
his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course.
(Psalms 19:1-5 NAS95S)

You can see that the NASB is very similar to my translation, props to
me :-) But seriously, where we differ they are likely right. In some
cases there are simple word choice issues where we have chosen
differently and both of us are right.

Now, let's look at the ESV:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above* proclaims
his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night
reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose
voice is not heard. Their measuring line* goes out through all the
earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a
tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his
chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
(Psalms 19:1-5 ESV)

The ESV makes the meaning of this passage a lot clearer than my
translation or the NASB, and yet is seemingly faithful to the
original Hebrew (more on this later).

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of
his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night
they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their
voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their
words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent
for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his
pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
(Psalms 19:1-5 NIV-G/K)

The NIV is very popular, but its language is not as modern as the
ESV, and in many cases it is not as clear as the ESV either. This
passage doesn't illustrate it well, but the big knock on the NIV is
that it is more interpretive. But part of that is that their Greek
translations are more interpretive, whereas their Hebrew translations
are more literal. The big problem with this passage is the NIV
language is a bit out of date.

Now, here's the NLT:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his
craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after
night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their
voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the
earth, and their words to all the world. God has made a home in the
heavens for the sun. It bursts forth like a radiant bridegroom after
his wedding. It rejoices like a great athlete eager to run the race.”
(Psalms 19:1-5 NLT-SE)

You can see how the NLT is far closer to the original than the
Message, and yet still quite interpretive in how the words are
translated. In many ways this is my favorite version of this passage.

Now here's where things get interesting. If you've been reading
closely, you see there is a difference in interpretation, with the ESV

My translation:
Day after day pours forth speech, and night after night declares
There is no speech and there are no words, their voice is not heard.

Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard.

Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.

In my translation, and the NASB's translation, there is no sound.
There is no speech or words that express the speech and knowledge
that day and night declare. The ESV looks at "pours out speech" and
"not heard" as being contradictory, and therefore resolves them by
changing the phrase to include their voice in every speech and language.

The problem is that the Hebrew does not support their conclusion, but
it seems to make more sense their way. This is a case of the ESV team
making an interpretive change to the text.

The NLT has changed "their measuring line" or "line" to message,
which does not have Hebraic support either. Each of these
translations has tried to clarify the passage, but have obscured the
obscure meaning of the original text, and may have changed what the
text is actually trying to say. That is the rub.

The ESV may be right. Or they may be very wrong. The NLT may be
right, but the Hebrew word qaw does not mean message, it means line
or measuring cord. The ESV also changes the primary verb in verse 5,
from rejoicing to running. In this particular passage the ESV has
made some very difference choices from the rest. There are several
possibilities why this is so. One, they may have access to better
manuscripts or other materials that the older translations did not
have. That is possible, but that might also be giving them too much
credit. The Septuagint (greek translations of the hebrew text) and
the Latin Vulgate also focus on the rejoicing, not the running.
Therefore, it is likely that the ESV is not correct in how they have
translated this verse.

It's funny that the passage I've chosen happens to be one that the
ESV misses, when it is my current favorite translation. I chose this
passage because I put a great deal of work into my translation and am
very confident in it. Other translations I have done are fast, this
one was for a paper and I spent a lot of time trying to get it
exactly right.

The goal of every translation is to try to give us the best English
approximation of the original meaning of the text. This is a
difficult task. Another problem is that every translation includes
some of the theology of the translator. We may not like to think
that, but it's true. Let's look at an example of this:

Gen. 3:15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”

This is a very good translation, IMHO (ESV, by the way). Now, as
evangelicals, we don't necessarily like "bruise" because it doesn't
sound very bad. The NIV has a more "evangelical friendly" translation:

Gen. 3:15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and
between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you
will strike his heel.”

Now we have Jesus CRUSHING the serpent's head, and the serpent
striking his heel. Now Jesus sounds like the terminator and the
serpent sounds impotent.

So, what about the JPS-Tanakh? This is a Jewish translation:

Gen. 3:15 ¶ I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between
your offspring and hers; They shall strike at your head, And you
shall strike at their heel.”

Hmmm. Now it sounds a lot more like emnity between the serpent and
the nation of israel, and the blows aren't fatal, they are merely

So what's going on?

Well, first off, the Hebrew word translated as "strike" or "bruise"
is Shoof. The only difference between the two spellings is second
person or third person. So the NIV is the least accurate of the non-
Jewish translations, as it uses two different words. They should be
the same, they were in the original text. You can choose strike or
bruise, but you should be consistent. They both are in the same verb
tenses and stems.

What about the JPS. Is it right?

In a word: No. The verb for "strike/bruise" is 3rd/2nd person
masculine singular. In other words: he and you. Likewise, everything
about the ownership of heel is singular. They have (in my view)
intentionally mistranslated this passage to remove the understanding
of this verse as pointing towards Jesus. They have turned singular
phrases into plural ones.

So in this case the ESV is the best translation, the NIV is somewhat
accurate but misleading, and the JPS is downright misleading. This is
why I took the time to study the original languages. Otherwise, how
would I really know that the JPS was wrong?

How about this passage?

Ezek. 2:1 ¶ He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I
will speak to you.” (ESV)


Ezek. 2:1 ¶ And He said to me, “O mortal, stand up on your feet that
I may speak to you.”

Notice anything? The JPS has translated the Hebrew phrase "ben adam"
as "O Mortal" rather than "Son of Man" While this is accurate, the
phrase basically means "mortal" they have gone with a less literal
translation (ben=son adam=man, hebrew construct = son of man) to
obscure the common language with one of the phrases Christ used.

So my point is that the theology of the translator does come into the
translation. The goal is to pick a translation that does as little
editorializing as possible. Again, I think the ESV is the winner here
for accuracy. The Gen 3:15 passage is clearly better in the ESV than
in the NIV or JPS. The TNIV does not fix this problem on the part of
the NIV, by the way.

Another problem is gender neutrality. This creates huge uproar in
evangelical circles.

Here is a great example of the problem:

Rev. 3:20 ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My
voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with
him, and he with Me. (NASB)
Rev. 3:20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my
voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him,
and he with me. (ESV)
Rev. 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears
my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he
with me. (NIV)
Rev. 3:20 Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone
hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and
share a meal with him, and he with me. (NET)
Rev. 3:20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my
voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and
you with me. (NRSV)
Rev. 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears
my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and
they with me. (TNIV)

Now, the problem here is simple: The translations by the NASB, ESV
and NIV are as close to perfect as you can get. They are very
accurate translations of the original Greek. But do people reading it
understand it? As Christians, we look at this passage and think
"Jesus is saying that anyone who responds to His voice will have the
opportunity to dine with Him and have Him in their home." The problem
is that research has shown that for people who do NOT have a church
background, they are more likely to read this verse as applying to
men only. Now this is where things get tricky. I can explain in a few
minutes the issue of gender usage in the bible, and they will
understand that "him" and "he" are generic terms for a person. When
they read, they will have to translate this in their head. Or, as a
translator, I could try to make this clearer. How would I make this
clearer? By removing the "he" and placing a singular gender-neutral
pronoun in its place.

The problem is that English does not have a clear, singular gender-
neutral pronoun. The closest thing we have is "they" which, by the
way, has many singular uses in our culture. For example "A member of
our group bought a TV, but they didn't like it so they returned it"

So the NRSV tried to solve the problem without using "they" which
COULD be construed as being plural, but they have created a direct
second person tense to this verse (you) that is not there, so they
have obscured the verse and made, IMHO, an unacceptable sacrifice in

The TNIV has, IMHO, the best translation here. But it drives the
Evangelicals NUTS because "them" and "they" COULD imply that Jesus
will only eat with a group of people, not an individual. This is a
valid argument, but not the best one. While it is possible, the terms
have a clear singular use in the English language, so the passage
does not insist on plural understanding. Because the non-gender
neutral pronouns are known to confuse people who do not have
Christian backgrounds, it is, again IMHO, the lesser of the evils to
have the potential of someone reading this as a plural only event
than have a woman or young girl read this as excluding her.

And after all that, who uses the word "Behold!" anymore?

So, hopefully this gives you a basic understanding of some of the
issues at hand.

Now, on to the question of which is the best translation... :-)

The best approach is to use more than one translation. Let me give
you a caveat: I think when you teach or write, you should try to
stick to one translation exclusively unless they mistranslate
something. I say this for two reasons. One, it is important to give
people the understanding that, for the most part, their bible is
accurate. I think when we use ten translations in ten citations we
open people up to feeling like they cannot trust their bible or they
have no hope of really understanding it unless they are willing to
read ten translations simultaneously. Two, it is important that we
really look to see what the passage is saying, not look for a
translation that supports what we WANT the passage to say. The
Genesis 3:15 passage I cited above is a good example of this.

So, understanding that for study you should use more than one
translation, but you should publicly try to stick to one, let's
evaluate a few translations:

KJV - Yeah, nobody here really thinks they should use this. There are
problems with the KJV that are worth understanding though. (1) It is
translated from the greek text known as "Textus Receptus" which does
not use the best manuscripts, and is quite different than the better
greek texts. (2) It is translated without the benefit of the last 400
years of scholarly research. A lot has been learned in those 400
years about the texts, the culture, etc. (3) Very few people
understand 400 year old English clearly.

NKJV - A pretty good literal translation that sounds a lot like the
verses you might have memorized as a kid, but with better english and
no "thees" and "thous" The problem is that it is translated from the
Textus Receptus, which doesn't hold a candle to the better modern
manuscripts. As a result, some readings can be very different. I like
this bible for memorizing, but I don't use it for study or teaching.

RSV - Probably the most popular bible in scholarly circles, this
version from the 1950's is very accurate and seems to be reasonably
free of bias. The problem is that it's 50 years old, has 50 year old
english, and its gender accuracy is confusing to many modern readers
without a Christian background.

NRSV - Accepted in scholarly circles, not so popular in churches.
Some odd choices made in translation (see rev 3:20 above) and many
people accuse it of being "liberal" for translations such as Isaiah
7:14 which translates the Hebrew as "young woman" instead of
"virgin." The problem is that both are correct. Remember my point
about your theology affecting your translation? Not recommended,
there are better choices.

ESV - This was developed as a successor to the RSV (not the NRSV),
and I think it offers the current best balance between readability
and accuracy. Not perfect. It does attempt to address the gender
issue, but footnoting many things such as translations of adelphos as
"brothers" but then putting "or brothers and sisters" in the
footnotes. The problem, IMHO, is that it doesn't go far enough. The
revelation 3:20 passage is a great example of this.

NIV - By _far_ the most popular translation on the market right now.
It is not as accurate as the ESV, but is more readable and generally
is better english. Problems: It is now over 30 years old, and
language has changed. There are some very poorly translated passages
(see Hebrews 11:11), It has the same gender issues as the ESV and
RSV, but doesn't address them as well as the ESV. The biggest
advantage of this translation is that it is well accepted and there
are TONS of resources available such as study bibles etc.

TNIV - A good update to the NIV. They fixed almost all of the
"problem" passages of the NIV (see Hebrews 11:11 again, there are
more but not worth bringing up) and have tried to bring the language
into the 21st century. Problems: Still interpretive, and goes too far
in gender-neutral language (IMHO). They have obscured key meanings in
passages by trying too hard to be gender neutral. This translation
has created a HUGE amount of debate, and so it is not a good choice
to use in teaching or writing, as it will create a headache for you.

NIRV - A "dumbed down" version of the NIV. Avoid.

Message - This is a great devotional, but I have great concern about
considering it scripture. Eugene Peterson is a brilliant man with a
great knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, but he is only a man. When you
read the message you are taking at face value Eugene's
interpretations of each passage. Any difficult meanings will be
decided for you by Eugene, and if he's wrong, you won't be able to
decide that for yourself. This may be a great tool for some, but not
for me.

NET - The best part of this translation is the translation notes.
They are very helpful in understanding the original language and why
passages are translated a certain way. To be honest, I often times do
not like their translation, but the notes are awesome. I highly
recommend this version, with the notes, for personal study. I would
not teach or write from this version.

NLT - This is an attempt to make a "Living Bible" that is not a
paraphrase, but a translation. It is very readable and popular for
devotions. The problem is that it is very interpretive. A couple of
years ago I had a long argument with a friend of mine about a
theological issue. We went back and forth, and it ultimately came
down to the fact that he was reading a passage in the NLT. At one
point he said "You need to read this in the NLT" to which I replied
"No, you need to read it in a translation that is accurate!" The end
result? The NLT interpretation was wrong. I don't remember the
passage anymore, because it was a good natured argument between
friends, but it taught me a lesson about the potential danger of
highly interpretive translations. I think this is a good translation
for personal devotions and study as long as you have another
translation handy when you find a passage challenging or saying
something different than you thought it did...

God's Word - Not well known, pretty interpretive, doesn't read that
well. It's an attempt to be easy to understand, but I think it misses
the mark.

NASB95 - Very accurate, not good english, hard to read and memorize.
I think this is a great bible to use for personal study, but the
language is a bit too cryptic for teaching. It's fine to use for
writing, but not necessarily your best choice.

JPS Tanakh - Old Testament Only, obviously. Not a very good
translation. I always look at their translations after I have done a
Hebrew translation, and the JPS surprises me at how far off it is at

New World Translation - Jehovah's Witness version of the bible that
is specific to their theology and uses the word "Jehovah" a lot.
Interesting, that, since Jehovah is a mistake made by taking the
consonants for Yahweh and the Vowels for Adonai and combining them.
But I digress. Obviously you want to avoid this one. Not even
remotely accurate.

HCSB - This is a translation made by the southern baptists in
response to the TNIV. It is very southern baptist. It may be a great
translation, but it is going to suffer from the gender confusion
issues discussed above. I have no experience with it.

I have no experience with the Catholic translations so I cannot
comment on those.

There are many other translations out there. I have only covered a
few of the more popular ones. My personal favorite is the ESV. I use
it for personal study, for devotions, and for writing. I use the NIV
whenever I am writing for HDC, as that is our "official" translation.
The ESV is not perfect, however. You saw by my Psalms 19 example that
they can mistranslate passages in their interpretation. They also do
not go far enough in trying to clarify the gender specific language
in the bible.

Honestly, when asked for the perfect bible to give a non-believer I
don't have a good answer right now. The ESV is a great tool, but the
gender issues might be a problem. The NIV is nice and easy to read
but a little out of date and has more gender issues than the ESV. The
TNIV goes too far in the quest to clarify gender language and ends up
obscuring passages. The NLT is very easy to read but too
interpretive, putting too much reliance on someone else's understanding.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we have so many translations. I think
we still need another...

If you asked me for the perfect bible to give to a non-Christian I
would probably go with either the TNIV or the NLT, and then down the
road introduce them to the ESV, but I don't like those options. And
so I keep studying :-)



Lowell said...

I appreciate your thoughts on this important issue. Help me understand your final recommendation for the perfect translation to give a non-believer. If the TNIV obscures meaning by going too far with gender neutrality and the NLT is inaccurate, why give them to someone seeking truth?

I'm hoping that you choose to soften your objections a bit rather than changing your final recommendation.

renewingmind said...


Thanks for the note. I think my choice for a non-believer would probably be the TNIV. While I stand by my objections about translation accuracy, if people truly don't understand the inclusiveness of the gender specific language in scripture, then it seems like a mistake to start them with a bible that uses English in that manner.

The type of issues that are created by the attempts at gender neutral language are less of a problem than the issues created by someone who doesn't understand that the passages apply to them, or to women, or whatever the case may be.

All of the main translations get the fundamentals right (plus a lot more). The core doctrines are intact, and for a non-believer what matters is that they can understand that they are a sinner, that they are separate from God, and that there is a free gift of salvation available to them via faith in Jesus Christ. The NLT and TNIV are more than fine for that, they are good bibles.

It is only when one begins to dig deep into scripture that the translation becomes more important, and really that is the point at which if you don't work in the original languages you should be using more than one translation anyway...