ESV and Grudem article critique
Critique of the English Standard Version and “Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out By God” by Wayne Grudem in Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation. Wheaton, Il.: Crossway Books, 2005
By Kermit Titrud
[Wayne is a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version.]
First I would like to state that I appreciated Wayne Grudem as one of my professors at TEDS and as a brother in the Lord. Due to my closeness to him, I would rather address him for now on by his first name. I could only wish Wayne had done translation work for another language other than English. It is very obvious to those of us who have done translation work in a language other than our own that Wayne is extremely naïve when it comes to languages and translation work.
In his article Wayne argues for “essentially literal” translations over “dynamic equivalence” translations stating that “all the words of Scripture are the words of God.” (p. 56). In the logic of Wayne, if all the words of Scripture are the words of God, therefore all the words of Scripture should be explicitly expressed in the translation process, that is basically each word in the original should show up somehow in the translation.
What are “essentially literal translations”? According to Wayne, “The main point is that essentially literal translations attempt to represent the meaning of every word in the original in some way or other in the resulting translation.” Actually this is also the attempt of dynamic equivalence translations (also known as meaning based or thought-for-thought translations). The difference would be in that the dynamic equivalence translations recognize that one often needs to change the form of the words in the original, whereas the literal translations try to keep the form, even though it would result in something less than natural.
Wayne goes on to give examples where he feels that the dynamic-equivalence translations failed. His first example is 1 Kings 2:10 which reads in the KJV and ESV as “David slept with his fathers” whereas in the NLT it reads as “David died.” He argues that “defenders of essentially literal translations will reply that even modern readers who have never heard this idiom before will understand it because the rest of the sentence says that David was buried” (p. 21). I wonder if Wayne and the other defenders have actually checked this out. I immediately checked it with the three American teenagers I was staying with who are missionary kids and have read much of the Bible. I read this verse to them and asked how they understood it. One said that David was buried in the same tomb as his fathers. One said that David stayed in his father’s house. The other one said David stayed in the same town as they did. I remember that I myself for many years was somewhat confused by this and kind of thought like one of the kids I interviewed that it meant David was buried in the same burial place as his fathers. Or it could mean that since David has more than one father, he slept with his father and fathers-in-law. This was actually expressed as one possibility by one of the teenagers.
Wayne gives a number of examples where “DYNAMIC EQUIVALENCE TRANSLATIONS OFTEN LEAVE OUT THE MEANING OF SOME WORDS THAT ARE IN THE ORIGINAL TEXT” (p. 30). Wayne fails to understand that if meaning was left out from a particular “dynamic equivalence” translation, it is not the fault of the philosophy behind dynamic equivalence, but the fault in that particular translation. A component was just missed by the translators, missing the mark. For dynamic equivalence translations try to portray all the meaning and inferences found in the original. Unfortunately a number of Wayne’s examples are taken from The Message. However The Message would not be classified as a dynamic equivalence translation. The Message is much too free, adding adverbs and adjectives and concepts and inferences that are not in the original. True The Message is “dynamic”, but it would not be classified as a dynamic equivalence translation. A number of other examples Wayne gives from translations that would be indeed considered dynamic equivalence translations are instances when these translations just missed the mark, that is inaccurately translated the passage for a dynamic equivalence.
I could give many examples where the ESV (English Standard Version) also failed LEAVING OUT THE MEANING OF SOME WORDS THAT ARE IN THE ORIGINAL TEXT. But only a few will be sufficient.
Example: 2 Cor. 5:6
The ESV reads: “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.”
However the ESV left out a critical Greek word. The Greek word kai is found between these two clauses. It is obvious contextually and grammatically that this kai is an adverb which was not translated in the ESV. As such the ESV makes no sense whatsoever. How does our being of good courage relate to our knowing that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord? The NLT hit it right on: “So we are always confident, even though we know that as long as we live in these bodies we are not at home with the Lord.” Here the ESV failed to translate the meaning of the kai. By the way so did a number of “dynamic equivalent” translations such as the TEV, NCV, and God’s Word. On the other hand the more literal translation NRSV got it right with a translation similar to the NLT. The NIV and NET did translate the kai, but unfortunately interpreted it as a conjunction with “and”, which does not make logical sense, nor would the grammar allow it. Note that the first participle “being of good courage” is present tense, whereas the second participle is aorist, hence more than likely the second participle is dependent upon the first. Since they are not of like grammatical units, the kai more than likely should not be viewed as a conjunction. If the individual words are so important according to Wayne, why then did the ESV not translate the kai, and why did they translate these participles as indicatives and with the same tense?
The ESV also added “we” in the translation, not found in the original. I do not fault the ESV here in doing so, just making a point that it too “ADD[S] MEANING THAT IS NOT IN THE ORIGINAL TEXT.” (p. 45)
Wayne bemoans the fact that dynamic equivalence translations again and again leave out the meaning of words that are there in the original Hebrew and Greek texts. Sure I could find tons of examples where this is done in dynamic equivalence translations. But I could find many more examples of distortions of the meaning found in the “essentially literal” translations. These are essentially word for word translation. Wayne does not like to call them “formal equivalence” since he says the “word ‘form’ places too much emphasis on reproducing the exact word order of the original language, something that just makes for awkward translation” (p. 20). However for the most part this is exactly what the ESV is, a very awkward translation.
A good example of this is found in Mark 1:11 which reads in the ESV: “with you I am well pleased.” I have asked a number of English speakers (from the U.S., England, Australia, and New Zealand) if they would ever say this to their children. None of them would. It is very awkward English. I could give thousands of such examples of this found in the ESV. The words are English, but the construction is Greek or Hebrew and is not natural for English speakers.
Below I give a couple of examples of distorting the word of God when it is translated literally, or “essentially” literal. I’ll call it formal equivalence, for this is indeed what the ESV is.
Genesis 4:1 reads: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife.” I asked the three teenagers I was staying with what this meant. I read the whole verse to them. One said that since Adam was married to Eve, he of course knew her. The second one said that since Eve was taken from Adam’s rib, Adam of course knew himself. The third one said that it took him a while to really get to know her and accept her – to understand her. He had to learn about the animals so it took him awhile to learn about her. [I (being a male myself) might add that since Eve was a woman, it took some time to figure her out. Of course a female might comment that being a man, Adam was somewhat dense, resulting in him taking some time to understand how she ticked.] Doing a Bible study being dependent upon the ESV could result in all kinds of distorted opinions.
Psalms 1:1 reads: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners.”
The problem is that this teaches we are not to stand in the way of sinners. We are to allow sinners to rape, steal, kill or whatever they want to do. For in English to “stand in the way of someone” means to block them, to hinder them, to prevent them from doing something. Of course the Hebrew idiom for “stand in the way” means to associate with someone.
I could give thousands of such examples. Suffice it to say that Wayne and those who are believers in (essentially) literal translations fail to realize that although “every word” in the Scriptures is inspired, these individual words are found in context. We find meaning in the words when we look at the context. We know what the words “it”, “is”, “up”, “to”, and “you” normally means, but what they normally mean is light years away from what they mean in the context of “it is up to you.” We know what “dog” and “cat” normally means. But again the animal component of “dog” and “cat” is lost with the expression, “It’s raining cats and dogs”. Wayne and those who push essential literal translations fail to understand the basic principles of translating accurately. One needs to translate the words according to their context. Wayne argues from verses such as Matt. 4:4 that “the expression ‘every word’ coupled with the fact that the words proceed from the ‘mouth of God’ places further emphasis on the very words themselves.” If that is the case then David did not die, because the Hebrew word reads “sleeps”, and David is indeed side by side with his fathers, and David has more than one father (maybe referring to his fathers-in-law). Wayne fails to recognize that the words coming out from the mouth of God are found in context. They are not in isolation. I find it strange that my professor for advanced Greek Exegesis, who taught the importance of interpreting Scripture by looking at the context, would suggest that there is some intrinsic value to these words in isolation. And if there is so much value in the individual words, then why does one find so many words in the Greek and Hebrew that were not translated by Wayne and company? Why compromise translating literally with “essentially” literal? They realize that it would not make any sense to the reader if they translated literally. However they fail to realize that the reader is also to a great degree either confused or mislead as well by an “essentially” literal translation. They fear that the more dynamic equivalent type translations distort the Word of God, not realizing that it is these “essentially” literal translations that produce the cults and sects. The Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses and other cults and sects do not read the dynamic equivalent translations. They prefer the “essentially” literal ones.
Wayne criticizes the “thought-for-thought” translations with their rendering of going generic with “discipline” and “punishment”. He argues, “Is the word shebet (“rod”) not breathed out by God? Is it not a word God wants his people to have?” I wonder if Wayne as a church planter in other cultures would then enforce upon the people that they must punish their kids with a rod – that it should not be with a spanking or with a strap or with some other form of discipline. It must be with a rod, because this form of punishment is what God “breathed out”. Also would Wayne suggest that only the sons should be punished with a rod, for what God breathed was the masculine singular son (ben)?
A rod (shebet) denotes a part of a tree from which a staff or weapon could be made (so Bruce K. Waltke - The Book of PROVERBS Chapters 1-15 of The New International Commentary on the Old Testament). However often the first thing that comes to mind with young people today is a metal object or at least some kind of very hard object – giving the connotation of severe punishment, something that could easily break bones.
I found it interesting that the ESV translated Proverbs 13:24 with “son”. The “thought for thought” versions translated it with the generic “child”, probably with the understanding that when God breathed out this verse, He probably was not meaning that only sons be punished and that daughters are not to be punished. Apparently the ESV translators believe otherwise, only that sons are to be punished and we should not discipline daughters (of course I’m speaking tongue in cheek here).
On the other hand the ESV seems to be inconsistent with how they translated the singular masculine noun, for in Proverbs 22:15 the ESV reads: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child….” However the Hebrew word here (na’ar) is masculine singular as reflected in the NRSV with “boy”. If God breathed a masculine singular here (as in 13:24), then why did the ESV translate this with a generic “child”?
In refuting the dynamic equivalence translations for their rendering of Rom. 16:16 with something other than “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” Wayne comments “should we not first translate the words accurately so that readers can know exactly what Paul was saying at that time?” (p. 44). If this is the case then why did the ESV translate 1 Kings 21:21 as:
“Behold, I will bring disaster upon you. I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.” This is not what the Hebrew reads. The KJV more correctly reflects the “words accurately” stating “exactly what” Elijah “was saying at that time":
“Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity, and will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel.”
The Hebrew reads “[one-who]-urinates on/against-a-wall.” These are the exact words of Elijah, not “every male.” In the logic of Wayne, God or Elijah could have used the Hebrew word “male” - ish, but he did not, he used “piss”. A Wayne Grudem could argue that by not translating the Hebrew words as they stand, one does not see the possible coarseness being expressed by Elijah.
In all honesty, I have no problem with the rendering of the ESV here changing the Hebrew of “pissing/urinating on the wall” to “male” and adding “every” which is not in the Hebrew and not “breathed by God”. Wayne though needs to recognize that by doing so the ESV becomes one of those dynamic equivalence translations.
See also an excellent article by Allan Chapple: ‘The English Standard Version: A Review Article’, Reformed Theological Review, August 2003, 62/2
ESV: “sit down at my footstool”
NASB: “sit down by my footstool”
NRSV footnote: “sit under my footstool”
Greek: upo – which normally means “under”
So ESV is indeed “interpreting”.
Greek does not have quotation marks
ESV puts only 18a in quotation marks, contrary to NASB.
Thus again ESV is involved in “interpreting”.
James 4:5 “He yearns jealously over the spirit…”
Again ESV is interpreting. It could be “Spirit”
See the many options of interpreting this passage.
Wayne's article is available as a free download from his current seminary website.