Renouncing the idol of Biblish

Note: the following post is spun off of comments made in John Hobbins’ recent post, How do you render jilted love in language strong as an arm with its veins popping out?

One of the problems of being an English-speaking Christian is that we are linguistically removed from the original written language of the Bible, the word of God that we set the moral compass of our faith by. The vast majority of us do not speak or read Hebrew or Greek and instead rely of translations into English that we can understand.

There has been a number of “essentially literal” translations produced in the past generation, notably the ESV, HCSB, NRSV, NKJV, NASB and even the (T)NIV to some extent. These translations all attempt to be more-or-less transparent to the original Hebrew and Greek, exposing the author(s)’ original words. This literal English style is commonly known as “Biblish” and represents a scholar’s or theologian’s view of Biblical language. In and of itself, there is a great deal of good to learn from this approach.

Yet somehow it seems a line has been crossed. In the attempt to be transparent, it seems that literal translation has become an idol to itself. No longer is it the message, the gospel, that is being emphasized, but the mode of the message, the translation philosophy. Bibles are being sold because they’re “transparent to the original texts”, not because they communicate the message of God. We fall prey to “literal is best” marketing and reject anything that smells unlike our uneducated perception of Hebrew or Greek. We revel in unnatural English because it feels closer to the language of the original texts.

Witness the evangelical leaders who have flocked to literal translations to combat cultural relativism. They find security and safety in language that is based on a different culture than what exists around them today. Nevermind that the culture of the Bible is foreign to everyone living in this generation. The fact that it’s not the culture of today makes it safe to promote, some kind of a golden age of moral absolutes.

The message of the Bible is not the cultural and relational dynamics of the Jews or the Greeks. It transcends that context, just as it transcends our culture today. We ought not use Bibles because “they sound like the Bible”, but because they communicate in language we naturally speak and breathe and can testify in. We ought to be more concerned with communicating the message of the Word than with which words are communicated.

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8 Comments

  1. Foster Lindberg
    Posted February 27, 2008 at 8:29 AM | Permalink

    But Christianity is historical and I think that you underestimate the value of submerging oneself into the culture of the ancients from which the biblical text sprang forth or was breathed into. Are you embracing post modernism by wanting to distance the Christian reader too much from the historical/cultural context of the Bible? And even though I greatly appreciate the mediating translations (NIV, TNIV for the most part, HCSB), I see little value in the really dynamic translations when it comes to equipping disciples in God’s Word. I also think you underestimate the relationship between form and meaning– just as some don’t appreciate how complex the translation process is. For example, when people like John Piper (and no I’m not “reformed”) endorse the ESV over the NIV based upon his belief that the ESV is superior for expository preaching, I don’t see anyone refuting the types of examples he gives (they can be found all over the web). The point being that there appear to examples where form really does matter and where translations like the ESV excel when it comes to preaching and teaching. I believe that some of these evangelical leaders you refer to are concerned about the cultural relativism of today and they maintain that there is more of a relationship between form and meaning than perhaps you do.
    Finally, forgive my exasperation, but for reasons that biblically are self evident, I don’t give too much weight to what non Christian scholars think about Bible translations– or what is accepted by more people who do not adhere to the orthodox historical tenants of the Christian faith.

  2. Posted February 27, 2008 at 12:50 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Foster. I do appreciate the feedback. I think it’s worthwhile to differentiate between historical Christianity and historical English translations of the Bible. Certainly the latter is not “the historical/cultural context of the Bible”. My concern here was questioning if we tend to spend as much time marketing English translations as we do the actual message and meaning of the scripture.

    The point being that there appear to examples where form really does matter and where translations like the ESV excel when it comes to preaching and teaching.

    Did you have an example in mind? I’d be curious to know what type of passage can be more effectively taught from a syntactic approach rather than semantics. Especially when it is the meaning of the text that is being exposited.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I don’t know what “postmodern” means or what it looks like. Though from your comment, it seems to be along the lines of only finding meaning in the context of now? I certainly would reject that with respect to Christianity, though I am still learning about the various traditions after growing up outside of them.

    As for your last comment, I’m not sure if that was aimed at me or not, but I can assure you that I have spent considerable time lately affirming the “orthodox historical tenants of the Christian faith”. I just happen to believe that translation methodology is not one of them.

  3. Foster Lindberg
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 9:21 AM | Permalink

    Check out John Piper’s endorsement on the ESV website. Or take a look at the use of meno in 1John and how the dynamic translations translate it compared to the more formal translations. The dymamic translations totally miss the boat in my opinion. John was definitely developing a theme about what abides or remains. Or take a look at how Paul used “all” in 1Cor. 13 and how the theme of “all or nothing’ is lost in the dynamic translations. Or you could look at Col. 1:9 and see how “all” is missing in the dynamic translations. I find the semantic explanations for doing these things less than satisfactory (at the same time as I have already said I really like much about the NIV/TNIV,HCSB–which some may characterize as in between the NIV/TNIV and ESV in translation philosophy). And the HCSB captures most of these types of nuances from what I’ve seen–because it is more literal–not less.

    I also question how we can know what was natural Koine Greek. My understanding is that the N.T. text was significantly influenced by the Hebrew language and Jewish culture. The whole concept of “in Christ” is unnatural to the natural man (person or whatever I am supposed to use now–I say this because I really don’t know).
    Furthermore, some today are saying that the formal translations are misleading. But when I bounce around between more formal and less formal translations I’m not mislead by the formal ones. And I know that all translation requires interpretation, but to maintain that there is just as much interpretation in the ESV as the NIV or NLT, as some imply, I don’t understand. Why is it that the ESV, NASB, NKJV-aside from textual issues, are so similar in most places and the dynamic translations are so different in many, many places? Doesn’t this indicate that more interpretation is involved in the dynamic translations? And if this is a superior translation method why do the dynamic translations disagree with one another in so many places? This seems more like commentary to me. And if you reply that the differences are because translators are bringing out different nuances– that just seems to make my point.
    As for postmodern, I was referring to the age we live in where history is viewed (as just one example) as what one makes it, not what actually occurred. I was picking up on your comment that “the message of the Bible is not the cultural and relational dynamics of the Jews or the Greeks”. While I agree that the “message” transcends those or any culture, it is vital to understanding the message that we understand as best we can the language, culture, and historical context the message originated from. So when it comes to translating, I would maintain that it is important to maintain some historic and cultural distance.

    As for my reference to what non-Christian scholars think, I was referrring to the comments made in the article on a scholars top ten Bibles.

    I also think that alleging that people who prefer literal translations are engaged in idol worship is judging the heart. Furthermore, I believe that most of the people who endorse essentially literal translations do so based on very thoughtful considerations. Packer, Collins, Mounce, Winter, Grudem, et al, have put forth some very cogent arguments for their position. I don’t believe they are idol worshippers or are marketing a translation philosophy above communicating the meaning of the Scriptures. Your argument that people who endorse the essentially literal method are doing so begs the question. They maintain that the best way to accurately convey the meaning of the text is to do so by adhering more to form when possible and they give examples.

    Finally, I see very little on how all this relates to making disciples–which takes hard study and life application. While some dynamic translations may be helpful to children or people with very low reading levels–we shouldn’t leave them there. We should equip folks with the full counsel of God.

  4. Posted February 29, 2008 at 5:25 AM | Permalink

    Thank you for the response; I do appreciate your willingness to engage this conversation and fear that time has not allowed me to respond with as much thought. Perhaps this weekend I will be able to thoughtfully sit down and consider all of your note. For now, though, a few thoughts:

    Why is it that the ESV, NASB, NKJV-aside from textual issues, are so similar in most places and the dynamic translations are so different in many, many places?

    One expects similarity when considering revisions of revisions of revisions. All of the translations you’ve cited are part of the same “family” on the translation tree, whereas the (T)NIV, HCSB and the NEB/REB all represent completely new ground-up translation projects. I use the REB, HCSB and NASB as my preferred translations and find value in the translation thought behind each of them.

    While I agree that the “message” transcends those or any culture, it is vital to understanding the message that we understand as best we can the language, culture, and historical context the message originated from. So when it comes to translating, I would maintain that it is important to maintain some historic and cultural distance.

    I completely agree that knowing the original context and culture of the Biblical texts is critical. I just not as sure whether the purpose of translation is to preserve the original context in language or to find an equivalent way of presenting the text in the context of the target language. And by “equivalent” I don’t mean word-for-word structures, e.g. a syntactic translation.

    I am not a translator and have only been recently learning about the various things that are considered during the translation process. If you haven’t already, try to check out Wayne Leman’s recent posts on Better Bibles Blog on the topic of translation equivalence.

    I also think that alleging that people who prefer literal translations are engaged in idol worship is judging the heart.

    That’s not what I said. I said that that the marketing of Bibles seems to have shifted focus to positioning formal translation as closer to God’s Word than other translation techniques. The mode is sold, not the message. That’s the idol.

    But now I’ve written more than I intended and more than I had time for. I thank you again for your comments and for your devotion to the Word of God. Your passion is evidence of being “in Christ”.

  5. Foster Lindberg
    Posted February 29, 2008 at 8:11 AM | Permalink

    Yes I am familiar with the Better Bibles Blog and my arguments are certaintly applicable to some of the positions stated there. A few notes. First, the NASB is not a part of the same family tree as the NKJV and ESV. The NASB is not in the Tyndale line. Second, the HCSB and the ESV are much closer to each other than the NLT is to the CEV or the REB, because of the points I previously made. Third, I think you agree with me more than you realize if two of the three Bibles you use are the NASB and the HCSB.

  6. Posted February 29, 2008 at 9:15 AM | Permalink

    First, the NASB is not a part of the same family tree as the NKJV and ESV. The NASB is not in the Tyndale line.

    I included the NASB because it is a revision of the ASV, which was a (slight) revision of the RV, a revision of the KJV. I view the NASB and RSV as brothers, both being revisions of the ASV; the ESV obviously being a minor revision of the RSV, a “brother” to the NRSV.

    One could argue that the ESV and NASB are related, inasmuch as they are “evangelical corrections” to the “liberal” mainline thought behind the NRSV and RSV, respectively.

    One might also dispute at what generation of revision a translation becomes its own rather than a descendant, but I still see the NASB as being in this overall translation family.

    Second, the HCSB and the ESV are much closer to each other than the NLT is to the CEV or the REB, because of the points I previously made.

    I agree that the HCSB and ESV are similar translations. I’ve previously posted a comparison from Romans to illustrate that (look up “wretched translations” in the search box). The difference is that the HCSB, to my ears, uses contemporary grammar while the ESV preserves the older constructions of the RSV (and Tyndale lineage). I prefer the HCSB.

    I think you agree with me more than you realize if two of the three Bibles you use are the NASB and the HCSB.

    I agree. I am certainly not arguing that there is not a place for formal translations, as I regularly use them myself. My argument is against the marketing message that “word-for-word” translations bring readers closer to the Word of God than semantic or functional translations.

  7. Foster Lindberg
    Posted March 3, 2008 at 8:37 AM | Permalink

    You are still not really addressing my point. The essentially literal translations are much closer to each other than the dynamic ones are to each other. I believe this shows why the former method is superior–and preserves more of the interpretive potential than the dynamic translations, which emphasize a particular nuance or basic idea of the text, or explain the thing altogether.
    The dynamic translations often render the same verses in ways that are very different from each other. This, I believe indicates that they are more interpretive and more prone to be commentary (and yes I understand that all transaltion requires interpretation–but my point stands). And this is why it is not just a “marketing message” to say that the essentially literal translations bring you closer to the Word of God. Many sincere scholars and Bible users believe this is true–and that proponents of dynamic translation theory have not provided a satisfactory response to this point.

  8. Posted March 3, 2008 at 8:17 PM | Permalink

    I understand your point. I just don’t agree that a formal translation approach is any less or more interpretative than a functional approach, no matter how much homogeneity between translations there is. I disagree that formal translations are “more literal” to God’s Word because I don’t agree with you on what “literal” means. You place greater importance on the syntactic form of the original texts; I place greater importance on the semantic meaning of the original texts. That’s not to say that I don’t place importance on syntactic translations; however, I believe that God’s Word transcends the original languages and that it’s not incumbent on us to preserve the formal aspects of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in order to understand that message.

    I’m not sure that it’s worth continuing this discussion here as I really don’t see any resolution other than to agree to disagree at this point. I want to be clear that I do appreciate the conversation and will try to look at this issue again in the near future, perhaps in a different post to allow other voices to weigh in.