Inerrancy in translation?

Posted: 16th December 2007 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

In his latest Bible impression, that of the NASB, Gary reminded me of an earlier comment I made to the effect of “a lot of NASB people tend to view the NASB almost as if it were the original manuscripts.” For the purposes of this rant discussion, I want to expand that characterization to include all people who view formal/literal Bibles as “closer to the words of God”, if not the actual words themselves, than functional or dynamic equivalent translations.

In short, balderdash!

All translations are approximations to and compromises of the original texts and, regardless of translation method, should be viewed as equally errant. To paraphrase Romans 3:23, “all translations are errant and fall short of the glory of the original texts.”

If you want inerrancy, you need to learn and study the original Hebrew and Greek, with a dash of Aramaic. There is no possible way for an English language version of the Bible to be inerrant, if by that you mean that the text formally, functionally, accurately and meaningfully conveys the original message that the author intended, as well as any divinely inspired fuller meanings. There is not 1:1 equivalence between Hebrew, Greek and English, and there will always be compromises. Those compromises mean that you cannot speak of an English language translation as being inerrant, because, as the saying goes, there is always something “lost in translation”.

For you NASB, NRSV and ESV literalists out there, it is fine to parade your Bibles as closer in form to the original texts, but you’ve lost the accuracy of innate meaning, which can only be understood in the idiomatic light of the original languages. You rely on pastors and scholars or the Holy Spirit to explain texts that are difficult to understand because they hew to Hebrew or Greek constructions rather than English. You’ve lost sight of the immensity and grandeur of the forest by counting the branches of each individual tree.

For the CEV, Living Bible and The Message dynamic equivalent supporters, it is fine to parade your Bibles as closer in meaning to the original texts, but you’ve lost the innate form and structure of the original texts, which use formal written structures to emphasize, underscore, heighten, clarify and mystify the reader. You rely on pastors and scholars and the Holy Spirit to show you how the texts are linguistically interconnected because your translations have eliminated literary form in favor of function. You’ve lost sight of the variety and details of the trees while taking in the immense and awesome scope of the forest.

For the middle roaders, the HCSB, T/NIV and NLT devotees, by making varying concessions in both directions, you’ve watered down your texts, making them understandable and accessible to a wide reading audience, but at the cost of the strengths of both formal and functional translation. You’ve weakened both form and function and lost the richness, the character, the spirit of the original texts. You’ve replaced a mature forest with tender saplings that fill the same space, but ripple in the daily breeze.

Believe it or not, this is not a rant against any one translation or even against translation in general. It is simply a call for those of us who speak English to be reminded that we are reading a copy of God’s word as it was originally handed down to humankind. When we elevate any one translation or even translation method as the full meaning/form of God’s word, we are in legalistic error.

To mix another metaphor, individual English translations are not egalitarian – they cannot stand complete by themselves as the full image of God’s word. Each of us needs to recognize the weaknesses of our preferred translation method and add a complementary translation to our shelves. It is pointless to assemble the NASB, ESV and HCSB and say, “I know God’s Word”.

Rather, we need to use the ESV and CEV together, or the NASB and The Message. Revel in difference and challenge yourself to read in a different mode of translation. You might just get a more complete understanding of God’s message… that’s what it’s about, right?

  1. Bryan says:

    Excellent, excellent post. Something we would all do well to keep in mind. Thank you for reminding us that the answer to “NASB or NIV?” is sometimes “yes”

  2. Iyov says:

    A post to offend everyone!

    Seriously, there are far more dimensions on which to rank Bible translations than simply the literal/paraphrase scale.


    * theological biases (e.g., a Christianized reading of the Hebrew Scriptures),

    * textual base (e.g., Masoretic text or eclectic source),

    * presence of supplementary texts in other religious traditions (e.g., the New Testament, the Catholic Deuterocanonicals, the Orthodox Deuterocanonicals, non-canonical books such as Enoch),

    * availability of serious reference materials (e.g., study Bibles, concordances, etc.),

    * acceptability within one’s religious tradition (e.g., imprimaturs),

    * acceptability in other religious traditions or ecumenical settings,

    * acceptability in scholarly circles,

    * elegance of language, including cadence and ability to be read aloud in religious settings (e.g., the superb English of the KJV),

    * connection with historic readings (e.g., the NRSV is close to the mainstream of Bible translations; while the NEB is iconoclastic), and

    * quality of scholarship (e.g., well — you can fill in your own examples — if you can’t say anything nice …)

    Even in the issue of equivalence to form, there are far more issues going on (e.g., alliteration, puns) than most formal translations attempt (the major two modern translations that have attempted to capture this are those of Robert Alter and Everett Fox; the KJV also often captures this.)

    While different people may make different values on translations, I would like to point out that the NRSV scores high in the evaluation of many people in the above criteria.

    But I do think your clumping into three broad groups is rather unfair. The NRSV is rather close to the NASB95. Certainly the NRSV is closer to the NASB95 than it is to either the HCSB or the T/NIV.

  3. Jesus Saenz says:

    Bravo, ElSheddai!

    For many years I used the NKJV, recently I started using the ESV as my main translation but I use the NASB, KJV, NKJV as well as the 1599 Geneva Bible. I will be looking to purchase a NLT and a T/NIV in the near future… maybe even a NRSV as well. I am a proponent of a Bible quiver, not just different Bibles to fill specific needs but also a quiver of translations.

  4. Iyov wrote:

    [T]here are far more dimensions on which to rank Bible translations than simply the literal/paraphrase scale.

    Certainly! As you know, I have been exploring some of those alternate comparison methods. It just happened that the seed of this excursion was based on an observation of NASB and ESV users who promoted those translations as “closest to the original Word”.

    While different people may make different values on translations, I would like to point out that the NRSV scores high in the evaluation of many people in the above criteria.

    Indeed it does, and I came to a similar conclusion in the post link above. As for the categorization of the NRSV, it doesn’t materially change the nature of my post, so I’ll be happy to edit it into the form-driven grouping.

  5. I often wonder too if the biggest difference is mostly just stylistic differences – a couple translations can use different words which are actually synonyms of each other (based on the same Greek word) that are chosen more for stylistic reasons more than anything.

  6. Rich Rhodes says:

    For at least some of us inerrancy is not the basic issue; it’s interpretation. Granted the way the supporters of FE see it, the problem with interpretation as a part of the translation process is based on the doctrine of inerrancy. The less the translator interprets, the closer the translation is to the inerrant original. The problem is that every translation is an interpretation. (That may be what you are trying to say here.)

    FE supporters mistakenly believe that you can avoid interpreting the text by sticking to something that looks like the original wording and structure. The argument that I have been making over on Better Bibles is that FE translations actually mean something significantly different than what the original text meant, i.e., a FE translation is as much of an interpretation as a DE translation, but it is the worse for the fact that the interpretation is made and accepted unawares.

    Speaking in terms of losing something in translation, my claims are three:

    1) a FE translation ALWAYS loses more than a serious DE translation, especially in places where it is possible to lose almost nothing, and

    2) for most of the Scripture it is possible to lose almost nothing.

    3) for most of the cases in which people complain the loudest about the lost associations of DE, the communicative value of such secondary meanings is so much less important than the primary meaning that the cost of trying to keep the associations at the expense of a phrasing that distorts the primary meanings is too high to be acceptable.

  7. Rich wrote:

    The problem is that every translation is an interpretation. (That may be what you are trying to say here.)

    In essence, yes. And that even though the styles of interpretation are different, they still all lose something in translation. So it is disingenuous to say that literal FE translation is closer to the inerrant original text. FE loses just as much as DE (if not more, as you claim), just in different ways.

    This has been somewhat of an awakening for me, as I’ve spent most of the last 20 years almost exclusively using traditional FE translations, primarily the NASB and ESV. When I started to read Paul’s writings in the REB 5-6 years ago, I couldn’t believe how much more sense his arguments and logic made. I not willing to say that I’ve swung the pendulum exclusively to DE, but I’ve certainly been searching those translations out to find a more fluid expression of the underlying meaning of scripture.

  8. Kevin Sam says:

    Nice post too ElShaddai. I agree in your last comment that DE makes it easier to understand Paul’s logic and arguments, especially Romans. In my personal studies, I usually pick up a DE first, then go to an FE afterwards because I want to understand more clearly what its saying. So like you, I’m prefering DE more and more.

  9. Jason says:

    your article is balderdash! that is not what Romans chapter 3 verse 23 is saying at all. you gotta get your facts straight buddy.

  10. that is not what Romans chapter 3 verse 23 is saying at all

    Really? Look up the definition of *paraphrase* and apply it to the topic at hand, then come back if you want to bash “my facts”.