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Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Impossibility of Verbal Plenary Translation

Henry Neufeld has just responded to Mark Driscoll's new article, Theological reasons for why Mars Hill preaches out of the ESV. Henry argues, correctly in my opinion, that Driscoll is wrong in claiming that a proper approach to Bible translation will result in using theological jargon terms such as "justification" and "propitiation" because Driscoll's claim
actually reflects an argument used for many years by KJV Only advocates, who compare every new version to the KJV, and then call every change from the KJV in a modern version a change in the scriptures. They accuse the modern versions of altering the words of scripture. But what words are altered? The words of a translation that has no authority whatsoever over the source texts. When a translator uses a word/phrase in the receptor language to reflect a word/phrase in the source language, that doesn’t make the two equivalent. It is simply the way that translator thought was best to convey the thought of the text in the source language in the receptor language. It is critically important to state this correctly: The translator(s) of a new Bible translation do not alter the words of scripture, they reflect the words of scripture in a different way, using different words.
Believe it or not, words such as "justification," "propitiation," "sanctification," "flesh," "predestination", and "repentance" do not appear in the original biblical texts. There is no sound linguistic or theological reason why the original biblical words which have been translated by those theological terms cannot be translated by ordinary English words which mean the same thing as the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words did.

There is too much circular argumentation in many of the claims made today for the superiority of so-called word-for-word translations--not to mention the fact that pure word-for-word translation is an impossibility. The versions which Driscoll lists as being word-for-word translations are not really word-for-word translations:
ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV
Only interlinear translations are word-for-word translations. Every version in Driscoll's list of word-for-word translation rearranges word order and makes many other adjustments so that English readers can better understand what the original biblical language text meant. The introduction of each version in Driscoll's list makes this clear. The translators of the ESV make this clear for their translation:
The ESV is an “essentially literal” translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on “word-for-word” correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original. [emphasis added]
The ESV is more word-for-word than the NLT, but there is not a qualitative difference between the two. It is, rather, a quantitative difference.

Henry Neufeld is right: verbal plenary translation is impossible. It is high time that claims to the contrary are properly confronted. And sound alternatives need to be as widely distributed as the fallacious statements made by Driscoll, Grudem, and others like them today who advocate word-for-word translation.

Henry had many more important well-founded things to say in his blog post. Please read it.

Finally, a word to those who believe in verbal, plenary inspiration: the thrust of Henry's post is about verbal, plenary (that is word-for-word) translation, not inspiration. We can believe in verbal, plenary inspiration while recognizing that true word-for-word translation is an impossibility.

8 Comments:

At Sun Jan 07, 10:35:00 AM, Blogger Henry Neufeld said...

Wayne,

I want to agree with you and reemphasize that none of my arguments are against verbal plenary inspiration, but rather deal only with the possibility of word for word translation.

I do not myself accept verbal plenary inspiration, but none of my arguments in my post are opposed to it.

 
At Sun Jan 07, 12:55:00 PM, Blogger Molly said...

Very thought-provoking stuff!

 
At Sun Jan 07, 02:42:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

See also my comments on this same issue.

 
At Sun Jan 07, 03:39:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

Believe it or not, words such as "justification," "propitiation," "sanctification," "flesh," "predestination", and "repentance" do not appear in the original biblical texts. There is no sound linguistic or theological reason why the original biblical words which have been translated by those theological terms cannot be translated by ordinary English words which mean the same thing as the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words did.

I've done simultaneous translation and written translation. One of the things I've discovered is that proper translation demands that the translator understand the text she is translating. Even if a translator is fluent in both the source and target languages, she will err if she cannot understand the text. Thus, only a mathematician can actually translate mathematical works, etc.

This is often problematic for ancient religious texts, because the meaning is not clear and the subject of active debate. This is clearly the case with the Hebrew Scriptures, where we have numerous conflicting explanations (including some in the Christian Scriptures) of what the text "means."

Turning to the Christian scriptures, is there any text whose meaning is debated more than Romans? Think of the range of opinions among modern commentators such as Cranfield, Fitzmeyer Maccoby Moo, Sanders, and Wright. If we added ancient and medieval commentators to the list, the debate could be expanded to include the theological issues in the debate over the Reformation.

I disagree with the implications that (a) we always understand what the original words meant; (b) that there is a consensus over what they meant; and (c) there are English equivalents to original words expressing theological ideas. Was I the only one who grew up with lectures echoing in his ear about this point -- for example, I remember hearing over and over again that "agape" has no exact equivalent in English.

How then to deal with these problematic words? I can imagine several approaches, all of which have validity:

(a) leave the original words untranslated, as Greek words;

(b) create new "technical" words as equivalents;

(c) translate them into rough English analogues, with careful notation expressing that the words are not exact equivalents.

Finally, while I hardly wish to endorse the New Perspective (which I find painfully intolerant), I do think it is foolhardy to try to read a text such as Romans without some understanding of first century Semitic and Hellenistic cultures.

 
At Sun Jan 07, 04:07:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Molly, thanks for what you wrote about this on your own blog Adventures of Mercy. Since you are apparently too shy to give this link (or perhaps you don't know how to), I hope you don't mind me doing so.

Thanks, by the way, to Henry, for pointing me to Adventures in Mercy. I have just written a post on my own blog based on other parts of what Driscoll wrote and also on what Molly wrote in the posts which Henry linked to. As a quick taster, I argue that Driscoll is inconsistent in being complementarian while holding to the orthodox position (denied by Philip Lancaster) that God is without gender.

 
At Mon Jan 08, 05:46:00 AM, Blogger John Radcliffe said...

I find it ironic (and sad) that someone who claims to value so highly accuracy and precision in translations of the Bible should be so lax in quoting them:

Mark Driscoll said:

Translations such as the New Revised Standard accommodate this by wrongly translating "male and female" in Genesis 1:27 as the androgynous "humankind."

Here’s what it actually says (with the footnotes in "[…]"):

"So God created humankind [Heb adam] in his image,
in the image of God he created them [Heb him];
male and female he created them." (Gen 1:27, NRSV)

I'm neither defending nor criticising the NRSV's rendering: just quoting it correctly!

 
At Mon Jan 08, 06:18:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

John, thank you for your correction. I appreciate that you are only quoting NRSV. But NRSV has a factual error here. It correctly says that the Hebrew word translated "humankind" is (in transliteration) adam. But it is in error, or at least inconsistent in its footnote marking, in apparently claiming that the word translated "them" is him; in fact the Hebrew word is אֹתוֹ oto. When the translators of respected scholarly versions seem to confuse transliterated Hebrew words and literal English renderings of them, it is not surprising that less scholarly people like Mark Driscoll do the same.

 
At Mon Jan 08, 08:09:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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