Translating the Bible II

In October 2011, I linked to some articles that contended for the strengths and weaknesses of the ESV and NIV translations’ approaches to translation: formal equivalence (ESV) and dynamic equivalence (NIV).

In May, Justin Taylor linked to two articles from the last decade that advocated for the formal equivalence approach, both of which were worth reading.

The first one that I read, English professor Alan Jacobs’ case for the ESV in First Things, was especially good. Jacobs is disturbed that some translations do not pass on the metaphors used intentionally in the Bible. He offers this explanation:

The answer—as I have noted in these pages in another context (“Preachers without Poetry,” August/September 1999)—lies in the great divorce between literary people and biblical scholars. When King James commissioned his Companies of Translators, the people most thoroughly educated in the various humanistic disciplines were also those most learned in the biblical tongues. The celebrated “poetic” or “literary” qualities of the KJV are a function of this long-lost union. But in the last two centuries the training of biblical scholars in what has come to be called the “grammatical-historical” method has assumed a character alien to the literary and rhetorical education rooted in the schools of the Roman Empire. A model of Christian learning shared—not altogether but to some degree—by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin had virtually disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century.

This happened largely as a result of Protestant theologians’ responses to Catholic charges that they, lacking guidance and correction from a Magisterium, were liable to say pretty much anything about the Bible. The charge stung: What was to prevent this or that Protestant leader from offering a bizarre interpretation of some passage of Scripture and claiming as warrant for it the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? From the need to answer this charge arose the characteristic trait of Protestant biblical scholarship: an obsession with method. Method would be the Protestant scholar’s Magisterium—that is, his or her principle of constraint and limitation; therefore, ultimately, training in biblical exegesis would become training in the kinds of intellectual skills that could be described in methodological terms: grammar, textual history, historical philology, and so on. Sensitivity to metaphorical nuance is perforce not a part of this training; nor is general literary knowledge. Thus C. S. Lewis’ complaint that a scholar whose “literary experiences of [the biblical] texts lack any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general” is not wholly reliable as a guide. “If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavor.”

The other, by New Testament professor Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, was also very good.



  1. I like more literal translations, too, and even more, translations which expose the machinery of translation, including italics for added words, variant phrases, context, etc. I like it not only because of its richness, nuance, and complexity, but also because we cannot be absolutely certain of the intended meaning and that machinery helps us justify our interpretation.

    But it is significant that the argument against functional (i.e. dynamic) equivalence is that it is not, in fact, functionally equivalent. Either not at all equivalent in the case of a poor translation, or more often, it is only equivalent for a limited function and not for all functions.

    At some point, we have to decide what Scripture meant to its original audience or, at the very least, what it should mean to us today, because we want to apply it to our lives and even our particular situation. And such application is necessarily a question of functional equivalence. The ambiguity of rich, literal translations works against us here.

    So, I think both forms of translation have their roles, we just have to take some care to avoid conflating them.

    It was fascinating to read about the perils of translating symbols based upon the familiarity of the audience (e.g. lamb vs. pig and shepherd vs. pigherder).

    Thanks for sharing, Scott!

    • Glad that you enjoyed it! I, too, like as much transparency as possible. I like the way that the KJV and the NASB have the italicized words. I think that the nice thing about them is that they let you do your own FE, which as you said is the step of application. I’m glad for the availability of different versions, though!

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