Formal and traditional Bible translation

Posted: 28th August 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

There’s been an interesting tangental discussion in TC’s recent post on “Whatever Happened to the HCSB?” regarding categorizing a translation like the ESV. We all know that the ESV’s publisher has utilized the term “essentially literal” to describe their approach, which is a pithy restatement of the classic RSV motto: “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.

I want to throw out the thought that what we mean by “literal” or “formal” translation is actually “traditional” translation in the line of the Tyndale/KJV legacy. Consider the following chart from Zondervan:

Has there been any translation effort in the past 100 years that claimed to be “word for word” or “formal” and was not based on the KJV line? Keep in mind that this line includes the following major translations: KJV, RV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NRSV and ESV. Beyond these translations, the Amplified (AMP) was largely based on the ASV and the NKJV was obviously based on the KJV.

Only the HCSB stands out from the left side of this spectrum as from a wholy new translation tradition, using what Homan calls “optimal equivalence”, a mix of formal and functional translation techniques. The HCSB aside, it is undeniable that virtually every *new* translation project of the past 100+ years has been functional in nature.

I would argue that the goals of the Revised Version (1881-1895) have persisted through all these “formal” translations:

  • adapt [the KJV] to the present state of the English language without changing the idiom and vocabulary
  • adapt [the KJV] to the present standard of Biblical scholarship

In essence, the idiom and vocabulary of the KJV have defined the starting point for formal translation, regardless of whether they hew to a slightly more literal or a “freer” approach.

Perhaps we should speak in terms of “traditional vs. contemporary” translations instead “formal vs. functional”, even though they essentially mean the same thing.

* * * * *

Update – Here’s another chart from IBS, though perhaps an older one given the absence of the ESV and HCSB:

I prefer this layout to the Zondervan chart above, not only for its inclusion of the REB, but by acknowledging that almost all translations engage in dynamic equivalency to some level, with word-for-word and paraphrase being extreme examples.

HT: Cross Cultural Impact via Better Bibles.

  1. Michael says:

    “Has there been any translation effort in the past 100 years that claimed to be “formal” and was not based on the KJV line? Keep in mind that this line includes the following major translations: KJV, RV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NRSV and ESV. Beyond these translations, the Amplified (AMP) was largely based on the ASV and the NKJV was obviously based on the KJV.” Or by default, in the Tyndale family?   In fact, and I am not sure about this, but isn’t every major english translation prior to the KJV (Geneva, Great Bible, Bishop’s Bible, etc.) all based upon on Tyndale as well?

  2. tc robinson says:

    I want to throw out the thought that what we mean by “literal” or “formal” translation is actually “traditional” translation in the line of the Tyndale/KJV legacy.

    El, thanks for the link.  Interesting thought though on what we really mean by “literal/formal.”  I have a question on the chart:  Why is the ESV seen as more literal/formal than both the RSV and KJV?  I hope this is not the result of a Zondervan bias.

  3. Why is the ESV seen as more literal/formal than both the RSV and KJV?

    Well, if nothing else, it is an accurate portrayal of Crossway’s marketing… there is another translation spectrum chart out there somewhere, but I wasn’t able to find it right away – I’ll include it in an update if I (or someone else) find it.

  4. Getting back to HCSB–regarding the “traditional vs. contemporary”, it would seem to be median in this classification also. It retains traditional theological terms yet greatly reduces many of the archaisms found in the ESV and NRSV.Jeff

  5. Interesting idea, but I think the dependence of most of these translations on the KJV (and the Tyndale tradition) is pretty complicated. In fact, the Living Bible itself would probably have to swing over to the “traditional” side in your taxonomy, since it was directly dependent upon the KJV!

    As for your question about other translation charts, here is Tyndale’s. Notice how our chart has the NLT in the middle, just like Zondervan’s has the NIV/TNIV in the middle? 🙂

  6. tc robinson says:

    Well, if nothing else, it is an accurate portrayal of Crossway’s marketing… there is another translation spectrum chart out there somewhere, but I wasn’t able to find it right away – I’ll include it in an update if I (or someone else) find it.

    So are you saying that the Zondervan folks bought into the Crossway marketing in designing this chart?  I find that interesting.

    Keith, I guess it comes down to whoever puts the chart together.  But I do see the catch with the NLT in the middle of the chart.  Your eyes can’t miss it. 🙂

  7. Thanks for the link, Keith – I think your chart is more accurate in that it doesn’t attempt such fine gradation as Zondervan’s. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that the Living Bible did *not* attempt to retain the idiom and vocabulary of the KJV, which is the heartbeat of “traditional” translations.

    @Jeff – yes, the HCSB straddles that line as well, which is what had attracted me to it. Traditional vocabulary, but contemporary idiom. I should caveat that I haven’t spent enough time with the NAB to see if it fits this bill as well, as both Zondervan and Tyndale characterize it close to the NRSV.

  8. @TC: So are you saying that the Zondervan folks bought into the Crossway marketing in designing this chart?

    Well, it would behoove Zondervan’s marketing to show the ESV being as literal as possible and not close to the T/NIV, wouldn’t it?

  9. Interesting!  You have stumbled on a new marketing technique: meta-marketing.  Too funny.

  10. Zondervan has a marketing department?Perhaps marketing didn’t get the memo that Zondervan is now publishing the TNIV.

  11. tc robinson says:

    Well, it would behoove Zondervan’s marketing to show the ESV being as literal as possible and not close to the T/NIV, wouldn’t it?

    It appears that way.  Good counter-punch on Zondervan’s part if indeed this is the case.  Interesting!

  12. Keith wrote: Notice how our chart has the NLT in the middle, just like Zondervan’s has the NIV/TNIV in the middle?

    I shudder to think what Crossway’s chart would look like if the ESV was in the middle…

  13. David Ker says:

    These charts are helpful but an oversimplification. I think that’s enough said. When you drill down they tend to fall apart.So many of these tags tend to be emotive. I’ve tried “classic” vs. “contemporary” to try to steer away from the other terms but those terms have their own sets of triggers. Sigh.

  14. CD-Host says:

    What is interesting is how much unanimity there is on the formal / dynamic axis.  If you pick two translations at random and ask people which is more formal, they generally agree.  Keith is certainly right that what is the center has a lot to do with perspective and marketing.  Even Ryken’s literature puts them in the center: i.e. everything more dynamic is not distinguished in his book.

    In terms of literal and non traditional, the Concordant is a good counter example.  In the last decade you see a lot of translations breaking with Saint Jerome’s idea that the Hebrew should be the basis for the OT and instead going with the LXX.  That’s reversing 1600 years of tradition.