Yes, that's right: I'm going to explain it all to you, right here and now.
Okay, seriously, not doable. But Tim Challieswho may or may not still think of me as James, if at alljust wrote on Eugene Peterson's personal issues with literal translations, and his rationale for providing a turbo-charged, super-duper dynamic version. That in turn provoked me to impart what I hope are some clarifying points about translations. To wit:
- All translations unavoidably paraphrase to some extent. To re-phrase one of Steve Martin's old schticks, "It's like the Greeks (and the Hebrews) have a different word for everything!" Not only do they have a different word, but they have a different word-order, and a different dynamic for how the sentences are structured ("syntax"it's not just about whiskey).
- For this reason, if you don't know Greek or Hebrew, woodenly literal translations such as Young's, or interlinear versions, do not really get you any closer to understanding the original text. They may leave you further away, in fact. "Translation" and "wooden equivalence" are not synonyms.
- No translation can ever communicate everything that is in the original text. They certainly can convey it accurately enough, and truly enough; they're just not substitutes, if your life-calling is to teach that God-breathed text. Does a good black and white TV faithfully present a color movie? Absolutely. Same-as? No.
- There is a place for paraphrases, if they are clearly understood and marketed as paraphrases, and not held to substitute for the real deal. Think of a paraphrase as a very short running commentary. F. F. Bruce, I think, had the right idea in his commentary on Romans in the TNTC series. He had his more detailed commentary, but he also included a free paraphrase of Romans, which presented what he thought to be the flow of Paul's thought. Pastors regularly do this, and that can be immensely helpful. But they don't then write down all their paraphrases, bind it in leather, gold-edge the pages, and call it a "Bible."
- Here is the real problem with all paraphrases, and all "dynamic equivalent" (DE) "translations": they all remove the work of interpretation out of the hands of the readers, often without notice.
That last point is my main point, so that's where we'll spread our tent.
As Reformed Baptestants, or whatever we call ourselves, we don't believe in a magisterium. We believe that God spoke His word to His people (i.e. Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2, Hebrews 1:1-2, etc.). We do not believe that He then immediately yanked it out of our hands and entrusted it to some caste, some sacred special class, given decoder rings direct from Heaven, and authorized to tell the unwashed ignoranti what the text Really Means. We affirm the perspicuity of Scripture, and the truth that God's Word was composed, sent, and intended for His peopleall of them.
But what DE necessarily does, to some degree, is to take that key out of people's hands, and keep it, too often without notice. To some degree, dynamic equivalence necessarily says in effect, "Okay, the text says A, but what it really means is B"and B is all that the unwashed masses get. Sometimes they get a footnote. Often, they don't even know that there was an "A." The decision to replace it was made for them.
To the degree that a DE moves into the arena of paraphrase, while calling itself a "translation," the translators set themselves up as a de facto magisterium.
For instance, take my favorite DE "translation" to bash: the New International Version (NIV). I adduce two examples.
The first example is the NIV's rendering of sarx, commonly translated in more literal versions as "flesh." The NIV itself sometimes translates it that way (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:16). But in certain Pauline uses, it renders sarx as "sinful nature" (i.e. Romans 7:5, 18, 25; 8:3ff, Gal. 5:13, 16f, 19, 24; etc.)
Now, maybe Paul means "sinful nature" when he says "flesh." Of course, had he meant that, he could have said so in so many words (phusis hamartias, for instance, or psuche hamartias, or some such). But Paul didn't say that, he said sarx. Is Paul actually saying that the Christian has two natures, like Christ? Christ had divine and human natures; does the Christian have a sinful nature and a new naturetwo full-blown, active, complete natures, existing side-by-side?
Some Christians think so. But some Christians don't. Some think the Christian has one nature (a new nature), but is still constantly plagued by "the remnants of sin"sarx, the flesh.
The English-only reader of the NIV does not know that there are those two options, unless he checks the footnotes. The "translators" made the decision for him. He doesn't have the burden of interpretationnor even the option of interpretation. The ambiguity has been moved to a footnote.
Not that this is all the NIV does with sarx. In Galatians 3:3 it is "human effort" ; and in 4:23 and 29 kata sarka ("according to the flesh") is "in the ordinary way." None of these paraphrases is admitted in a footnote.
Or take a subtler example: Matthew 17:1. The NIV has, "After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves." Certainly seems straightforward enough; no heavily-doctrinally-controversial words there. Where's the beef?
The trouble is not what's there. It's what isn't there. When Matthew wrote this, he wrote "And [Greek kai] after six days." That little conjunction, "and," is dropped without note in the NIV.
How can that possibly matter? It is true that both Hebrew and Greek were a lot more profligate than we in using little conjunctions which we translate "and" or "but" or "now." It is also true that literally translating every one of them (particularly with the waw in the Old Testament) can make for pretty awkward English.
But here, it serves a purpose. It reminds the reader that Matthew did not create the chapter divisions, and that chapter 17 is part of a continuing narrativenot "next week on 'The Gospel of Matthew.'" It alerts the reader to the fact that Matthew 17 immediately follows the preceding eventsand, I think, gives us a key to interpreting the very difficult promise in Matthew 16:27-28, which immediately precedes. But the English-only reader of the NIV lacks that clue.
Don't focus on those two instances. If commenters start arguing over my interpretations, they'll only prove my point. I offer them as illustrations. Focus on this: to one degree or another, the dynamic-equivalence "translator" takes the key of interpretation out of the hand of the reader, and keeps it for himself, without notice. In relatively "tighter" DE versions, such as the NIV, the wrong done (in my view) is usually limited. When we get into abominable PC-fad-driven versions such as the TNIV, the wrong is more egregious, as the reader is led to believe singular passages (such as Psalm 1) are really plurals. And in wildly "free" versions that are passed off as translations, the gulf is great indeed.
If you've read this far, and have any notion that I'm saying, "It's so simple! Just translate literally!", then I've failed to communicate very well, in my own language! It's far from simple. My point is that the "solution" of the DE school of thought is far riskier, far less obviously necessary, and potentially a bit more threatening to the priesthood of all believers, than they tend to admit.
(In case anyone cares to read further, I make some more remarks about translations in this essay.)