Measuring translation accuracy by homogeneity of results?

Posted: 25th March 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

My mind was jogged last night after looking at some blog stats, reminding me that I’d wanted to post a follow-up to a discussion argument in the comments to a post on Biblish that I’d made back in December. The root of my original post was that the marketing and endorsement of literal/formal translations as “more accurate” to the original languages seemed to me to be a falsehood bordering on idolatry.

Foster Lindberg challenged several aspects of my post, eventually getting to this statement:

[E]ssentially 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 [sic] requires interpretation–but my point stands).

I responded:

I […] 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.

Certainly there a place for formal translations (and I refer to several – notably the NASB, as well as the more moderate HCSB and NRSV), but I have to keep disagreeing with Mr. Lindberg that the homogeneity of results among “word for word” translations is proof that formal translation is a superior technique, resulting in greater accuracy and exegetical potential.

If anything, homogeneous results only prove that these different versions (revisions) haven’t fallen far from the source tree of Biblish† and represent an English language tradition that is as errant as any other translation approach. To that respect, different translation bloodlines like the NEB/REB, NIV/TNIV, HCSB and LB/NLT help to move us beyond the pale of Biblish and broaden our understanding and appreciation of what God’s Word says.

It is popular to recommend that every Bible “bookshelf” should have formal and functional alternatives. And certainly I’d second the recommendation to have multiple translations available. But I’d argue for considering translation bloodlines as well. Don’t limit yourself to one translation tree – pick freely from two, three or more and consider the richness of how God’s Word opens itself to study.

The major modern (Protestant) translation “bloodlines” are going to be [1] Biblish (KJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, NASB), [2] NIV (and TNIV), and [3] NLT. Swap in the HCSB or REB as a median alternative to the NIV, depending on whether your preference lies closer to formal or literary qualities (I like them both!). And don’t forget options like the NAB, NJB or CEV.

* * * * *

† I continue to define “Biblish” as the grammatical language constructs of the KJV and later RV/ASV translations revisions (later revised to varying degrees in the RSV, NRSV, ESV, NASB and Amplified Bible translations). This is purposely archaic language that is intended to create a sense of separation and foreignness between the text and the English reader, such that the latter experiences “God” outside the familiar realm of their currently corrupted cultural context.

I realize that this is a more narrow definition of “Biblish” than others use. Others include the literal translations of Hebrew and Greek idioms as a defining factor, as well as the use of theological language like propitiation, atonement, justification, salvation, grace, etc.

* Update * Iyov has posted a lengthy critique of my definition of Biblish as it relates to the KJV translation. In predictably brilliant detail, he has provided considerable context for the KJV that I was previously not aware of. I can now only plead ignorance and ask for the reader’s patience with me.

  1. Lingamish says:

    I think your definition of biblish is a good one.

  2. TC says:

    Elshaddai,

    This war on Bible translations will go on long after we are gone.

    There’re so many issues in Bible translating. It’s not easy. The reader is going to be persuaded one with or the other. Even the Christian community that he’s a part of, is going to help decided the version he uses.

    And at another level, some people just don’t care and don’t know what you mean by formal and functional and what is in the middle. That’s the truth.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks for this. It is worth noting that even supposedly independent more formal translation lines like (T)NIV, HCSB and NET in fact rely heavily on the Tyndale translation tradition in their word for word renderings, especially those of biblical key terms. This tradition is partly mediated through “lexicons” like BDAG which are often little more than lists of Tyndale tradition glosses. This explains a lot of the similarity between these translations.

  4. TC says:

    Peter,

    Great observation on the influence of lexicons! I believe you correct.

  5. Nathan Stitt says:

    Wow. I finally caught up with the prior discussion a couple months back. I’d read a few of the posts but hadn’t made all the rounds until just now. I really enjoy having many English translations to refer to, and also am starting to go to the source languages. I see it as having my cake and eating it too.

  6. Thanks for the insight, Peter. I’ve not used a lexicon before, but I’ve compared the HCSB and ESV, noting the similar basic language, but noting the differences in grammar between the two. To that, the HCSB seems to iron out that “foreignness” aspect and make it a more accessible translation for the average reader.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks for this helpful post. You’re right about different bloodlines of translations. I still can’t buy the idea that we need to use non-English syntax to create a foreign feeling in a translation. I think it is the cultural elements themselves that are included in the biblical language texts that should give them most of the foreignness, including

    -counting days from sunset to sunset
    -greeting people with a kiss
    -washing people’s feet
    -different clothing
    -meat offered to idols
    etc.