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Which Translations of the Scriptures are Accurate?

Pastor Mark Sarver
Albany Baptist Church

Because I am attempting to address this subject in one lecture and not in a series of lectures, I will not be able to give a detailed comparison of the various translations available. Some of you who wish to investigate this matter further may wish to read Professor Robert Martin's Accuracy of Translation and the New International Version. It is the most helpful treatment of the subject I have read and to a great extent has provided the materials for this lecture. Also helpful is Jakob Van Bruggen's The Future of the Bible.

I. Two divergent philosophies of translation.

A. A description of these two philosophies of translation.

1.  Formal equivalence.

The translator adhering to this philosophy of translation consciously seeks to give a rendering which closely parallels the linguistic form of the original. It is his aim that the structure, grammar and wording of his translation preserve the form of the original text as far as is possible. Professor Robert Martin elaborates:

He is concerned that paragraph corresponds to paragraph, sentence to sentence, clause to clause, phrase to phrase, and word to word. The formal equivalence philosophy or method of translating attempts to say ‘what' the original text says by retaining ‘how' it says it (as far as English grammar allows). Although clear English expression does not always allow the formal equivalence translator to do so, he tries not to adjust the idioms which the original writer used; rather, he attempts to render them more or less literally, so that the reader may be able to perceive something of the way in which the original document employed local linguistic and cultural elements to convey ideas (Robert P. Martin., Accuracy of Translation and the New International Version, Banner of Truth, 1989, p. 8).

2.  Dynamic equivalence.

On the other hand, the dynamic equivalence translator seeks to use the form of language most natural to the reader, whether or not it closely parallels the linguistic form of the original text. He aims at "equivalent effect" rather than reproducing "formal linguistic equivalence." In order to do this he tries to discern what "impact" the original text would have had on its original readers and then he tries to use those contemporary forms of expression which will make a similar impact on the modern reader. Jakob Van Bruggen stated the difference between this and the older philosophy of translation (formal equivalence) this way: "Formerly the central question was what one translated. Today the central question is for whom one is translating" (The Future of the Bible, New York: Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers, 1978, p. 29). Accordingly, the preface to the Good News Bible (Today's English Version) states:

After ascertaining as accurately as possible the meaning of the original, the translator's next task was to express that meaning in a manner and form easily understood by the readers. Since this translation is intended for all who use English as a means of communication, the translators have tried to avoid words and forms not in current or widespread use. . . . Every effort has been made to use language that is natural, clear, simple, and unambiguous. Consequently there has been no attempt to reproduce in English the parts of speech, sentence structure, word order, and grammatical devices of the original languages.

B. The gradated implementation of these two philosophies of translation.

All translations display a mixture of formal and dynamic elements. On one hand, because no two languages are alike, there is no absolute correspondence between the forms of two languages and hence there can be no formal equivalence translation in absolute terms. Sometimes the precise grammatical structure of the Greek or Hebrew has no exact counterpart in English. On the other hand all dynamic equivalence translations must reflect some formal relationship to the original texts, or they could not qualify as translations at all. Nevertheless, every translation has been produced with one or the other approach in mind.

At the risk of oversimplification, I will endeavor to diagram the varying degrees with which various translations and paraphrases have implemented either the principles of formal or dynamic equivalence. Of the four categories below only the center two list those productions which might properly be designated "translations." Within each of these two are three columns. Those listed in the left column have affinity to the category to the left, etc.

Literal
(Extreme Formal
Equivalence)

Formal Equivalence
Translation

Dynamic Equivalence
Translation

Paraphrase
(Extreme Dynamic
Equivalence)

Interlinear

ASV   KJV   NASB
RV NKJV
RSV NIV TEV NEB

Living Bible

The Revised Version (RV), produced in 1885 by a group of 65 British scholars was an attempt to remove the archaisms of the King James Version (KJV) and to utilize the Greek manuscripts discovered since the translation of the KJV. But many of its readers missed the grandeur and smoothness of the KJV and could not get used to the stiff and literal style of the RV. Hence, though it was an initial "success" (two million copies of the Revised New Testament sold within the first few days), it never took its place as a standard Bible suitable for public reading.

The American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901 stands in a brother-sister relationship to the RV, but has been more widely accepted in the United States than the RV was in Britain. Its reputation as a formal equivalence translation is shown by the fact that it became a favorite "pony" for students translating the Greek New Testament.

The preface of the New King James Version (NKJV, 1979) states: "The New King James Version follows the historic precedent of the Authorized Version in maintaining a literal approach to translation, except where the idiom of the original language cannot be translated directly into our tongue." To further buttress its claim (that it is literal where possible), Thomas Nelson Publishers have distributed James D. Price's Complete Equivalence in Bible Translation (Nashville, 1987) as part of its campaign promoting the NKJV.

The New American Standard Bible (NASB, 1963) sought to revise the ASV into modern English. However, as its preface indicates, it represents a slight shift in the direction of dynamic equivalence: "When it was felt that the word-for-word literalness of the ASV was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom" (New American Standard Version, Carol Stream, Illinois: Creation House, Inc., 1971, p. vii).

The Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952) was purportedly an attempt to update the most literal of the formal equivalence translations, the ASV. However, because its revisers apparently were committed to the philosophy of dynamic equivalence, it ended up being a translation that is what one has called "philosophically schizophrenic" (Martin, Accuracy of Translation, p. 10). It has been severely criticized by conservative Christians, not only because of its abandonment of word-for-word translation but also because of the liberal views of most of its revisors. Most famous is its replacement of "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 with "young woman," and "only begotten" in John 1:14 and other passages with "only."

In The Story of the New International Version the NIV Committee on Bible Translation makes this statement: "As for the NIV, its method is an eclectic one with the emphasis for the most part on a flexible use of concordance [i.e., formal equivalence] and equivalence, but with a minimum of literalism, paraphrase, or outright dynamic equivalence" (East Brunswick, New Jersey: International Bible Society, 1978, pp. 12-13). Nevertheless, as we shall see, this translation in practice utilizes the dynamic equivalence methods to such an extent that it must be classified accordingly. True, it does not use the extreme form of dynamic equivalence employed by a paraphrase. And in many places its rendering could be categorized as formal equivalence. But its dynamic equivalence renderings are so frequent that it must be denominated a dynamic equivalence translation.

That the Good News Bible (Today's English Version, TEV, 1976) uses the dynamic equivalence model of translation is obvious, not only from the statements of its preface concerning its philosophy of translation, but also from a quick perusal of its text. And, whereas the effects of such a philosophy upon the NIV were somewhat restrained by the fact that its translators were evangelicals, the consequences of this philosophy were more disastrous in the case of the Good News Bible. For example, several times throughout this translation the phrase death of Christ was substituted for the blood of Christ. The New English Bible (NEB, 1970), similar in style, also betrays a serious departure from orthodoxy.

II. The supreme concern of translation: accuracy.

Every other criteria in choosing a Bible version is dwarfed when placed side by side with the concern of accuracy of translation. The translator must strive for clarity. But, when a choice must be made between the two, clarity must give way to accuracy. At certain points a choice must be made as to which manuscript evidence must be followed. But differences among the manuscripts are infinitesimal compared to differences among translations.

Two considerations stress the paramount importance of accuracy in translation:

A. The nature of the inspiration of the Bible.

We have seen that the [London Baptist] Confession of Faith of 1689 teaches that the result of the inspiration of the Scriptures is a book with "unlimited inerrancy." This means that the very words of the Bible are inspired and that all the words of Scripture are inspired. In other words, we believe in verbal plenary inspiration (cp. I Cor. 2:12-13). To Paul it made all the difference in the world that Abraham spoke, not of "seeds" in the plural, but of "seed" in the singular (Gal. 3:16). John makes a big point of the conditionality of Christ's language in John 21:23. Jesus did not say, "I do not will that he tarry till I come," but "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" (italics added). Our Lord builds the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead upon the present tense of the Old Testament statement, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Matt. 22:31-32). If every word even the tense, mood, etc., of every word is inspired, accuracy of translation is of supreme importance.

On the other hand, the "dynamic" view of inspiration argues that while God inspired the thoughts expressed in the Bible, He left it to the Biblical writers to express those thoughts in their own words. Consequently, as long as the translator has captured the general ideas conveyed by the original text, he has accomplished his task. The dynamic method of translation is but the extension of the dynamic view of inspiration into the realm of translation. But the translator who is most conscious of the doctrine of verbal-plenary inspiration trembles at the thought of giving a loose rendering of God's Word. He is keenly aware of the fact that he is dealing with truth exactly expressed.

B. The needs of the church.

Paragraph 1 of Chapter 1 of the Confession of Faith emphasizes that in special revelation "it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in divers manners to reveal himself, and to declare his will unto his church," and afterward "for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh . . . to commit the same wholly unto writing. . . ." Paragraph 8 declares the warrant for the translation of the Bible to be the fact that the Hebrew and Greek "are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto and interest in the Scriptures." The Scriptures are primarily, though not exclusively, oriented to the people of God. Eugene Nida makes this point:

Bible translators . . . have often made quite a point of the fact that the language of the New Testament was Koine Greek, the language of ‘the man in the street,' and hence a translation should speak to the man in the street. The truth of the matter is that many New Testament messages were not directed primarily to the man in the street, but to the man in the congregation (Eugene A. Nida, Toward a Science of Translating, Leiden: E.O. Brill, 1964, p. 170).

Often the plea goes forth for a more idiomatic translation easily understood by the man in the street. But no matter how much we may sympathize with the desire to reach sinners with the Bible, we must remember that it was given first of all to the people of God. Professor Martin rightly asserts:

No other claim on the Bible supersedes the church's claim. The church's need of an accurate and reliable standard of faith and practice supersedes every other concern. Indeed, the church has a right to demand that her need must occupy first place in the mind of the translator. The translator must remember that he is a servant of God translating God's book for the benefit of God's people. He has no right placing any other concern ahead of the church's need for accurate translations (Accuracy of Translation, p. 3).

 

III. An examination of the features of dynamic equivalency translations.

Under this third and final head we hope to outline the real and practical effects of the dynamic equivalency philosophy of translation. When the translator no longer adheres to formal equivalency as his model, the results are far-reaching and profound. This is especially so for those whose translations are most consistently governed by dynamic equivalence (as the NEB, TEV and Living Bible). But even those translations which regularly, even if not consistently, employ this method (as the NIV) are seriously affected. By the end of 1986, the NIV reportedly had overtaken the familiar King James Version as America's best selling translation (according to a recent advertisement in Christianity Today). Hence, we will especially note the effects of this theory upon that translation.

A.  Disregard for the grammatical structure and stylistic form of the original.

Whereas a formal equivalence translation will attempt to reflect the grammatical structure of the original, including its complex levels of subordination, a dynamic equivalence translation will often divide complex sentences into simple sentences and even rearrange the order of thoughts contained in those sentences. To the extent that a translation departs from the structure of the original the reader misses the interrelatedness of the Biblical author's argument and the hierarchical structure of that argument. In the chart below note the several examples of single complex sentences in the original and the different number of sentences employed by the various translations to render those single sentences:

Eph. 1:3-14

Eph. 1:15-21

II Thess. 1:3-10

Heb. 1:1-4

ASV

1

1

1

1

KJV

3

1

1

1

NKJV

3

1

2

1

NASB

4

1

4

3

RSV

6

3

4

3

NIV

8

4

8

4

TEV (GNB)

15

5

9

5

 

Compare the number of sentences and the word order in the following translations of James 1:22:

KJV: But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

ASV : But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves.

NIV: Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

TEV: Do not fool yourselves by just listening to his word. Instead, put it into practice.

Living Bible: And remember, it is a message to obey, not just to listen to. So don't fool yourselves.

Often the cry is raised that the "wooden literalism" of the formal equivalence translations burden the reader with complex grammatical structures that are exceedingly difficult for the average reader to comprehend. To this we ask, first, "Who inspired those complex sentences?" Are we to imagine that the original readers of these sentences found it easy to do so? Even Peter admitted that some of Paul's writings contained "some things hard to be understood" (II Pet. 3:16). Second, we ask, "Was it God's intention that the Bible yield its fruit to those who do not care to engage themselves in diligent study?" Professor Martin observes:

It is true that formal equivalence translations do not read as easily as modern newspapers, gossip magazines, or pulp novels; but this should not surprise us. The Bible is not a pulp novel but the Word of the living God. Unlike the modern newspaper, the Bible was never meant to yield the fullness of its message to those who are only willing to expend the absolute minimum of effort necessary. Formal equivalence translations admittedly require more effort on the part of the reader, that is, more study, more investigation, more thought, more prayer; but surely the importance of the subject matter warrants the greater effort expended (Accuracy of Translation, p. 20).

B.  The Addition of words with no counterpart in the original.

Sometimes even formal equivalence translations are constrained to add words not found in the original text, but which are deemed necessary for the sake of clarity. But this is a far more frequent phenomenon in dynamic equivalence translations. Furthermore, as a general rule formal equivalence translations indicate words supplied by the translator by means of italics. By way of contrast, dynamic equivalence translations tend to be paraphrastic in so many places it would be well-nigh impossible to determine which words have been added and so should be italicized.

At Matt. 23:32 to what literally may be rendered, "Fill up then the measure of your fathers," the NIV adds the interpretive words "of the sin." "Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers." Could it be, though, that Jesus is saying that the scribes and Pharisees will fill up the measure of divine wrath to be poured out upon them?

At Mark 9:24 for "help my unbelief" the NIV has "help me overcome my unbelief." Again, does not this interpretive addition limit the scope of the prayer? Could it be that the suppliant is also requesting pardon?

At John 10:36 hegiasen (lit., "sanctified," "set apart") is rendered "set apart as his very own" by the NIV. The interpretive words, "as his very own" have no equivalent in the original text. Moreover they fly in the face of the common interpretation of that text, namely, that Jesus is referring to being set apart for his sacred mission by His Father. But the interpretive addition of the NIV prevents the reader from considering this alternative interpretation.

Other NIV additions significantly affecting the interpretation of the passages in question occur in Acts 5:20 ("new"), Matt. 13:32 ("your"), John 2:4 ("Dear"), Heb. 13:4 ("should be"), I Pet. 4:6 ("now"), I Cor. 6:18 ("other"), I Cor. 7:9 ("with passion") and II Cor. 11:29 ("inwardly"). Space precludes listing those many places where words which do not significantly alter the meaning but which have no counterpart in the original have been added by the NIV translators.

Even more blatant are the additions of the Good News Bible (TEV). When in John 1:42 Jesus gave Simon his new name, He said, "Thou shalt be called Cephas (which is by interpretation, Peter)." TEV cannot resist interpretive comment: "Your name will be Cephas. (This is the same as Peter, and means ‘Rock')." In his account of Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman John relates the woman's surprise that Jesus asked for a drink and then explains, "For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (John 4:9). But TEV, attempting to be more graphic than the Holy Spirit, gives this explanation: "For Jews will not use the same dishes that Samaritans use." Paul's fervent appeal to the Galatians, "My little children, of whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you" (Gal. 4:19) is given this expansion in TEV: "My dear children! Once again, just like a mother in childbirth, I feel the same kind of pain for you, until Christ's nature is formed in you." By adding the word "nature" TEV has removed the actual presence of Christ from the believer.

C.  The omission of words in the translation.

While it is exceedingly rare for formal equivalence translators to omit words given by inspiration, dynamic equivalence translators frequently treat conjunctions, articles, particles, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs and even phrases as surplus verbiage. Luke concludes his description of the earnestness of the Berean believers in searching the Scriptures daily with this statement: "Many of them therefore believed" (Acts 17:12). His use of the connective "therefore" makes it clear that the reading of the Scriptures was instrumental in producing faith. But the NIV adds "Jews" and subtracts "therefore" from the text and says, "Many of the Jews believed." Likewise TEV excludes the particle: "Many of them believed." After describing the opposition stirred up by the Jews against Paul and his company at Iconium (Acts 14:1-2), the Greek is very emphatic: "Long time therefore they tarried there speaking boldly in the Lord" (v. 3). The NIV and TEV omit the "therefore," thus destroying the logical connection between these verses a connection put there by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

One of the distinctive features of Mark's gospel is his use of connectives: "and," "immediately," and "lo" or "behold." But the NIV and TEV continually leave these words untranslated (e.g., omitting "behold" 37 out of 62 times in the NIV). Throughout these translations similar omissions abound.

D.  The erosion of Biblical technical terminology.

Like any other field of study which has a specialized concern, the Christian faith has its own technical vocabulary. Many of the terms it uses are best understood, not by the examination of similar literature written during the same era, but by a thorough acquaintance with the use of these terms in the Bible. In Biblical times it was just as necessary for new converts to absorb the Christian meaning of these terms from the way that the Scriptures use them as it is now. These words communicate the Christian message with precision. Their elimination, in the interest of communicating in "everyday language," erodes this precision.

In dynamic equivalence translations new terminology is frequently (though not consistently) substituted for the following key theological terms:

dikaio at Rom. 2:13 and 3:20 in the NIV; at Rom. 2:13; 3:20; 5:1 and Gal. 2:16 (justify) in TEV.

huiothesia at Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:5 in the NIV; at Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; (adoption) Eph. 1:5 in TEV.

must rion at Matt. 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10; I Cor. 2:7; 4:1; II Thess. 2:7 and (mystery) I Tim. 3:9 in both the NIV and TEV; regularly in other places in TEV.

hilast rion at Rom. 3:25; I John 2:2 and 4:10 in the NIV and TEV; also in Luke 18:13
(propitiation) and Heb. 2:17 in TEV.

sarx at Rom. 7:5, 18, 25; 8:3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13; 13:14; I Cor. 5:5; Gal. 5:13, (flesh) 16, 17, 19, 24; 6:8; Eph. 2:3; Col. 2:11, 13 in both the NIV and TEV.

E.  The levelling of cultural distinctives.

A formal equivalence translation allows the modern reader to identify himself as much as possible with the customs and modes of expression familiar to the original readers. But dynamic equivalence translations tend toward "cultural levelling," expressing Biblical ideas in terms of modern customs and modes of expression. For example, "Greet one another with a holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16) becomes "Give one another a hearty handshake all round" in Phillips's paraphrase. NIV translators have not engaged in cultural levelling to the same degree as others have. But "girding up the loins of your mind" by them is rendered "prepare your minds for action" (I Pet. 1:13; cp. Luke 12:35). "Although he owns the whole estate" is substituted for "though he is lord of all" in Gal. 4:1. "Every soul of man" becomes "every human being" at Rom. 2:9. Also see Gal. 1:16; Eph. 2:2, 3; 3:5.

F.  The presentation of the interpretation of Scripture as Scripture.

Though all translators must at times make decisions involving interpretation (e.g., the selection of word equivalents or the representation of the relation of clauses within a sentence), all translations do not engage in interpretation to the same extent. Formal equivalence translators do so only when the necessity of making a grammatical decision compels them to render a text one way or another. On the other hand, dynamic equivalence translators frequently insert their interpretive opinions when unnecessary. In those places where they make a sound judgment the damage done is not as great. Even in such places they have gone beyond the bounds of their task as translators, and the reader is not given the opportunity of considering other interpretations. But

where the interpretive translator actually misleads his reader he has done him an even greater disservice.

Iain Murray correctly observed:

When the Bible is being translated, its own doctrine as to its verbal inspiration imposes limitations on the translators' function. The Scripture teaches us that, as God's word written, its form as well as its thought is inspired. The translator of Scripture has, therefore, above all else, to follow the text: it is not his business to interpret it or to explain it (Banner of Truth, October 1976, p. 31).

Examples of interpretive theologizing in the NIV are: Matt. 6:22; John 1:16; 14:30; Rom. 1:5, 17; 8:3, 28; I Cor. 7:1, 4, 36; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 4:9; Col. 1:25; 3:5; I Thess. 4:4; I Tim. 1:16; Heb. 12:4; I Pet. 3:7.

G.  Paraphrasing the Biblical text.

Professor Martin (Accuracy of Translation, pp. 63-64) gives an extensive list of those places where the NIV has paraphrased the text. We have reproduced below only those examples cited from the book of Matthew. Formal equivalence translation is indicated by the abbreviation FET.

Reference

(FET)

(NIV)

Matt. 1:25 he knew her not he had no union with her
Matt. 2:10 they rejoiced with exceeding great joy they were overjoyed
Matt. 6:14 if you forgive men their trespasses if you forgive men when they sin against you
Matt. 8:25 we perish we're going to drown
Matt. 10:22 for my name's sake because of me
Matt. 12:49 and he stretched forth his hand towards his disciples and said pointing to his disciples, he said
Matt. 13:33 in three measures of meal into a large amount of flour
Matt. 15:28 let it be to you as you desire your request is granted
Matt. 22:16 you are true you are a man of integrity
Matt. 23:3 for they say, and do not for they do not practice what they preach
Matt. 25:21 enter into the joy of your Lord come and share your master's happiness
Matt. 26:10 she has worked a good work unto me she has done a beautiful thing to me
Matt. 26:25 you have said yes, it is you