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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Packer and Nida

Since our attention has been drawn back to the question of translation versus interpretation by an informative post of Tim Challies on Petersons's Message. (thanks to Lingamish) I thought I would post more of my interview with Dr. Packer. This should also tie in nicely with Dan's discussion of unnecessary clutter, and with the mention of Rodney Decker's article. This article is well worth a close reading, especially in the context of what Dr. Packer told me about the ESV translation philosophy.

I asked Dr. Packer about the inclusion of the TNIV translation of Ιουδαιοι as 'Jewish leaders' in the Statement of Concern about the TNIV. Here is the relevant quote from the Statement of Concern.
    Gender problems are not the only serious problems with the TNIV. For example: How do the TNIV translators know that changing "Jews" to "Jewish leaders," for example in Acts 13:50 and 21:11, does not make a false claim, and obscure a possible corporate meaning?
In today's post I include Dr. Packer's response to my question about how the transition from 'Jews' to 'Jewish leaders' had come about and what his reaction to this was. Here is his response. Unfortunately I did not specify which context was at stake here, so this is only of general interest and does not deal with any particular verse. Rather, what I find interesting is how he presents the two contrasting translation philosphies, his and Nida's.

Dr. Packer:

    It’s a spinoff from extreme sensitivity, extreme unwillingness to say anything that would be offensive to Jews since the holocaust which has given all Protestants a bad conscience about our Protestant performance. Most nations took a step or two in their history towards what ended up in Germany as the holocaust.

    Let me say now on behalf of the ESV which tried consistently to hold to the distinction between translating, that is showing you what was there in the original, and interpreting, which is a matter of telling the contemporary reader what you think it means in areas where more than one view of what it means is possible .

    You know very well in Johns gospel it is just 'Judeans' or 'Jews'. 'Jewish leaders' is probably the right interpretation though it isn’t a grammatical. It can’t be said that 'Ioudaioi' means Jewish leaders - it doesn’t, it just means people who lived in Judea. John could have said 'chief Judeans' but he didn’t, he said 'Judeans'. There are various ways he could have said that. He only said 'oi Joudaioi'. The only safe way is to translate it 'the Jews' and explain that translation isn’t a matter of working in your own preferred interpretation of things.

    Its simply a matter of making it possible for the readers of the translation to see what was there in the original in saying that of course, you realize, we are, people like me, we are returning to an ideal of translation which was rubbished by people like Nida, and which I think you have to return to because Nida foreshortened translation as a process and he made it into interpretation. He said that you must understand that translating is interpreting in a sense that gets away from the first purpose of translation, which is to tell the people what was there.

    All translation is to a certain extent interpretation, that is, in the Darby translation of 1 Tim. 2:16 it is “she shall be preserved in childbearing”, and in the Luther Bible it is "she shall be blessed through childbearing". But to come back to preserved - the difference is between preserved and saved, they are both word for word translations, but you have to make a decision, it is in interpretation.
Dr. Packer:

    Oh that is certain, and there are lots of circumstances like that in scripture, I give you that point without argument. I am still saying there is a difference between trying to give people access to the way in which the sentences were put together, it was thus the thought was expressed in the original, and keeping people from the original by only telling people what you think it means.
My sense from this is that Dr. Packer may want the ESV to maintain a 'quantitative equivalence' with the original, when he says 'the way the sentences are put together'. Therefore, 'word for word' is one of the tests of a good translation.

I have a few difficulties with this. First, how possible is quantitative equivalence, the same number of words in the translation as there are in the original. Sometimes a month worth of writing will only approximate the idea :-) Second, once one settles for a 'word for word' translation, there is still a vast range of words to choose from. Which word is the 'right word' for any particular 'word for word' rendering? It is not always obvious and ultimately depends on interpretation.

Third, can one actually try to translate a Greek word consistently by the same English word in similar contexts. ESV Translation Philosophy "we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original." We know that no English Bible does this, and certainly the ESV no more than any other. Decker's article has more to say about this.

At the same time I am in sympathy with a translation philosphy that does not encourage unnecessary interpretation. While I enjoy and use the Good News Bible, I am also quite attuned to the KJV. But I have been told over and over, "No, Suzanne, that is not an option." (sigh)


At Wed Apr 12, 12:03:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...


Glad to get more of this interview on the web. I might suggest calling the post "Packer on Nida" since it's not really so much a comparison of them as translator philosophers as an excellent quote of Packer about Nida. Just a quibble...

I didn't follow from the quote that word-for-word was the main thrust of his comments as a mark of a faithful translation. I think the second quote by Packer is staggering. It shows very clearly how some people perceive the goal of translation. And as much as I am a child of Nida, I think this position is highly defensible.

At Wed Apr 12, 02:04:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Is it possible to edit the title of a post after publishing or does that make a mess somewhere? When I write my book I shall email you for a title - you do have a way with words.

I think the second quote by Packer is staggering. It shows very clearly how some people perceive the goal of translation. And as much as I am a child of Nida, I think this position is highly defensible.

Can you rephrase this so I can be sure which position you think is highly defensible?

At Wed Apr 12, 02:37:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

You can change post titles under the blogger dashboard by clicking on the Edit button next to the name of your post. Or if you have Quick Editing enabled under Settings you should have a little pencil at the bottom of each post that will allow you to edit that post (and its title).

I'm looking forward to your book!

I think Packer's position is highly defensible which I understand to be that a translation should allow us to see the text behind it even when that might result in awkwardness. You've already heard me praising CEV in the "bitter breakfast" post so I hope you can see that I am open to a more reader-focused translation. I think I posted somewhere else about how recently I was trying to use NLT while checking the Nyungwe translation and the "idiomaticity" of the NLT proved to be a hindrance. In an academic setting, for someone who's interested in the original but doesn't have skills in that area a more form-centric translation would be desirable. Ironically, Packer would probably be more in favor of a literal translation for church use which is just the place I think you should use a natural-sounding translation.

Best of both worlds: Use a form-based translation and a meaning-based translation. Aren't we blessed to have that option in English?!?

At Wed Apr 12, 02:54:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

It really is a matter of degree, isn't it? The ESV has many passages where an interpretation is made and that interpretation is seen in the translation. The ESV has, however, fewer of those instances than does the CEV or The Message. I don't think we can point to very much of a qualitative difference among most of the recent English versions. It's more a quantitative difference, how many interpretations, no matter how well grounded in consensus scholarship, make it into the translation.

I just got back home. I'm too tired right now to look up examples, but there are several in the growing number of reviews of the ESV.

To some extent it is as true of the ESV as it is of other English versions, namely, the interpretations that make it into the translation are those which the translators favor. Many scholars today believe that hoi ioudaioi in John's gospel truly does refer to the Jewish leaders. There are even passages where the semantics would be illogical if this were not the case. I don't think we should suggest that the motives of the TNIV translators or anyone else is to lessen a perception of anti-semiticism in the Bible. Why can't we accept that a possible motive for people translating as they have done, in any version, including the TNIV, ESV, NET Bible, CEV, etc., is for the traditional reasons that specific interpretations occur in all Bible translations? And that reason is that the translators believe that that interpetation more accurately communicates the original meaning than does a literal translation.

For ESV translators to accuse the TNIV translators of interpretive translation is close to the pot calling the kettle black, since the ESV translators, like the TNIV, translators, do not always translate literally. What the ESV translators are really saying, I think, is that they do not approve of some of the interpretations in the TNIV, while they do approve of their own interpretations. That's rather normal and human, I suggest. However the ground has shifted to where it's called a matter of accuracy, rather than of scholarly differences of opinion. I don't think we should redefine the word "accuracy" to be equivalent to what is in agreement with what I believe.

At Wed Apr 12, 05:39:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

There's a serious problem lurking in Packer's statement:

I am still saying there is a difference between trying to give people access to the way in which the sentences were put together, it was thus the thought was expressed in the original, and keeping people from the original by only telling people what you think it means.

The problem is that, having retreated some on the word-for-word front, there is a belief that there is translational safety in sticking to the structure. Nothing could be further from the truth. Trying to preserve structures is even worse than attempting to be a slave to the words.

The meaning is not just not in the words; it's not in the structures either. Just try to mimic the correct syntactic relations in English that are in the Mat. 13:44 verse that I goofed up in my quickie post yesterday.

Furthermore, Packer has bought into the false assumption that a translation based in words isn't an interpretation. Baloney! Saying that Ioudaioi means 'Judeans' is every bit as much of an interpretation as saying it means 'Jewish leaders'. Nothing is free. You have to do a full exegesis both ways.

THERE IS NO PLACE TO HIDE. The essence of translation IS interpretation.

Why is this so hard to understand?

At Wed Apr 12, 08:18:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Decker's article makes for some very interesting reading here. Unfortunately I don't have time to post on it right now, but it is excellent and thought-provoking.

At Thu Apr 13, 08:11:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...


For some reason it is hard to understand. People intuitively have a feel for when a translation has crossed the line from translation to interpretation. Perhaps it is that intuition that we should be examining. Translation will by default be a one-to-one correspondence unless it results in ungrammaticality or awkwardness.

Here's an example. I've translated a poem by Antonio Machado below.

Si vivir es bueno,
es mejor soñar,
y mejor que todo,
madre, despertar

by Antonio Machado (1875-1939)
Source: Proverbios y cantares

Version 1:
If living is good,
it's better to dream,
and best of all
mother, is to wake up.

Version 2:
Life is good
but dreaming is better,
and best of all,
Momma, is waking up.

I can argue with someone that version 2 is superior because it captures the spirit of the original, or flows better, or whatever. But most people will still say that version 1 is more accurate. I believe it is that intuition that is at work when people react against a translation like "Jewish leaders." You can tell me that it means that but I don't believe you because there was a perfectly good one-to-one correspondence that existed and you chose to amplify that. Same thing with the "brothers and sisters" business.

At Thu Apr 13, 09:18:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Translation will by default be a one-to-one correspondence unless it results in ungrammaticality or awkwardness.

Lingamish, I suggest that this is a statement of opinion, rather than something that can be supported empirically. Cross-linguistic studies demonstrate over and over that attempts for one-to-one correspondence fail. We might as well give them up and work at trying to find translation equivalence that is not based on form, but on pragmatics, semantics, speech acts, rhetorical intent, etc.

I don't think we need to defend Nida. He did his best for his time. But we don't have a categorical choice between the caricatures of Nida and the form-oriented advocates. We need much richer models of language and communication than we can get from either of these. I think some of this richness can be found in Relevance Theory but we have to be careful there, as with any model, that we don't allow the model to drive us, rather than the data. We never want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is normal humanly to focus so much on some systematization, whether theological or linguistic, and start to find our "truth" within the system rather than remembering that systems are only a tool. They are never a substitute for truth. They can only help us try to find the truth. And when we find enough defects with the systems, sometimes we have to replace with with a system that better accounts for more data. That is what paradigm shifts is about.

Much of the current emphasis on translation "directness", "transparency", the primacy of words in translation, etc. is an over-reaction to the weaknesses within the outdated Nida model. We shouldn't replace one outdated model with another model which doesn't adequately account for the richness of language, including the richness that must be communicated in translation.

And that's why Rich(ard) is now a contributor. So he can communicate Richness, eh?!!


At Thu Apr 13, 10:43:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

The problem is that English and Greek (or English and Spanish, for that matter) are too much alike, so we're fooled into thinking that sticking close to the form leads us to meanings that are somehow "truer".
Let me take you one step further. Do you know what the Shakespeare title Much Ado about Nothing means? Of course you do, or at least you think you do. Because English has changed in the last 400 years, we now miss half of what Shakespeare was saying in this title and don't even know it.

The first thing you have to know is that nothing in Shakespeare's day was pronounced as if it were two words no thing. Secondly in 1600 to note, which was used more like the way we use notice, was used to include situations that we would in today's language call eavesdropping. Put these facts together with the plot of the play, which is driven by misunderstandings from things overheard, and you realize that the title is a pun on the entire play -- Much Ado about Noting, and that's crucially part of the meaning of the title.

My point is that if wordings are too similar, we can read right past them, getting them wrong and not being any the wiser for it.

In my darkest moments I think all Bible translators should have to spend time in linguistic situations in which their lives -- or at least their pocketbooks -- depended on the quality of their translations about ordinary matters. We'd have people lined up cheering for Nida, even in his outmoded 60's form. (Maybe this is why so many translators for minority languages are so distressed at English translations, because they've been in just such high-stakes crosslinguistic situations.)

At Thu Apr 13, 10:56:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Wayne and Rich,

I think all your arguments are right on the mark. But what I'm saying is that popular opinion sees things differently. I'm simply making a point about what "most people" seem to think about translation. Can you agree with my statement that "People intuitively have a feel for when a translation has crossed the line from translation to interpretation?"

At Thu Apr 13, 12:04:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Recently I read on someones blog, was it yours Lingamish, I don't know, that we wouldn't let an untrained person give us their opinion on how to perform brain surgery, why do we do it with Bible translation.

At Thu Apr 13, 06:28:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Yeah, I know that there is a CW about what translation means. But this discussion, as Suzanne's comment above points out, is really about people who publish what amount to inaccurate translations and who ought to know better.

It's basically a problem with language in general. Language is deceptively simple. It's so easy to talk. We do it all the time without thinking. How complex can it be? It's all so obvious.

Oh, yeah?

Take a sentence, any sentence, and a good linguist can start there and develop enough material to write a dissertation. For the most ordinary words, enormous amounts could be written. And don't let me get started on sentence structures.

I'm teaching a freshman seminar on dictionaries. In an attempt to show the wide-eyed freshmen what goes into making a dictionary, we talked about the structure of an article (a lexicographer's word for the complete piece which starts with the word one would look up). When we got to the part about writing the definition, I decided to do a cooperative corpus study of a ordinary but not terribly frequent word with them. For various reasons I ended up choosing the word tip, went to the BNC, and got 660 hits. I downloaded the examples into Excel and we have spent the last 6 hours in lecture talking about the things that will have to go into a proper definition -- something, BTW, no dictionary on the market today has. And I'm not done yet.

Language is arguably the most complex artifact of the human mind. That's what the CW misses entirely.

And we shouldn't be held to that lowest common denominator.

At Thu Apr 13, 08:56:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

CW=Common wisdom, right?

In the end, I think the battle of the translations is not in the hands of translators, linguists or theologians but marketers. Zondervan and Crossways are spending huge amounts on advertising and promotion and umpteen demographically targeted Bibles because they are in the business to make money.

As Wayne stated above, "I don't think we can point to very much of a qualitative difference among most of the recent English versions." And I noted the same thing in my "bitter breakfast" post. For all the wrangling, these translations are largely identical. Marketers earn their big incomes by convincing you that their client's brand of toothpaste is better than the competitor's and furthermore that their "new and improved" version is better than their old standby. Essentially that is what is happening in the arena of English Bible translations.

Oh dear, I've taken a cynical turn. Perhaps I'd better take a break from this conversation until Monday.

I love you BBB folks and thank God for the blessing that you have been to me in the past several months.

May this Easter season be especially blessed for you.

He is risen! He is risen, indeed.

At Sat Apr 15, 03:40:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne commented: "we wouldn't let an untrained person give us their opinion on how to perform brain surgery, why do we do it with Bible translation."

It seems to me that we let untrained people not only give their opinion but actually perform Bible translation, and then publish their results, in many of the best known recent English Bible translations. The translators have generally had good training in exegesis, and they use stylists who have qualifications in English language, but few if any of them have taken any proper training in translation or the underlying general linguistics. (I note however that Vern Poythress, one of the ESV Translation Oversight Committee, does have some training in Bible translation, although the promoters do not see fit to publish this important piece of information at

Why do we let this happen?

At Mon Apr 17, 08:32:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

I'm glad for the discrepancy on translation issues, in a way. I think translations such as the CEV are a blessing, especially for new readers of the Bible.

Scholars, and people who read them- want a translation more like the NRSV or TNIV that does, to a significant degree, retain something of the original. This is especially important when considering debates today such as those over "the righteousness of God" and how to translate hilasterion (Romans). I don't think trained linguists are necessarily that astute theologically. What is needed is a wedding between linguists and theologians. Good theology is grappling with no less than the message of the text, and linguists can help them express it more clearly. Instead, what I often think I'm picking up, is that linguists make the decision, and theologians be darned (ha).

So I opt for the TNIV (an improvement in these kind of regards over the NIV). At the same time being thankful for translations like the NLT. We are truly blessed.


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