01 October 2009

Lost in Translation

by Frank Turk

This got said yesterday in the comments, and it deserves some treatment on the front page, since this is a one-man show this week:
Wordplay in the Hebrew and Greek is almost always lost in translation. The current translations we have of any philosophy, always copy too much from older English Bibles in deference to their alleged expertise. Worse, any political agendas in the older translations are also slavishly copied.

All this makes the case for JUST TEACHING THE ORIGINAL, so you can get all the delicious wit in the Bible as God intended. My pastor taught us that way, so now I can read Bible in those languages easily, within BibleWorks. Why not make a new practice of teaching Bible the way it was actually written? Frankly the original words are far more easy and fun to remember, once you know them.

Alternative: take a translation and correct it as you go along. If the congregation gets used to it, there will be no angst. Again, that's the approach my pastor took, so one doesn't have to fault past scholar errors, but rather one comes to appreciate the difficulty of translation. :)
Which, for all its good intentions, is pure bunk. For a litmus test, as someone with a very sincere love of the KJV how “slavishly copied” any of the translations produced in the 20th century are.

You know: my wife and I were discussing the Bible last night, and Titus 2:13-15 came up. I know this isn’t the Hebrew, but stick with me here. Here’s what the KJV says:
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
Right? “A peculiar people”, borrowing the language from Deuteronomy. Now, we know in English that this is borrowed from Deuteronomy because the translation recognizes something Paul is doing through allusion, and makes sure to use the word used in Deuteronomy in English again here in Titus.

But we have a problem with the ol’ KJV: this word doesn’t mean what you think it means. We see (and most of us remember) the phrase “a peculiar people”, and we think, “huh: ‘peculiar’. It means ‘unusual’, or ‘unique’,” and we then get sort of knee-capped when we open the trusty ESV and find this:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
What happened to “peculiar”?

The problem, as usual, is you. You don’t speak the same language they spoke in 1611 – and in 1611, the word “peculiar” did not mean “unusual”: it meant “one’s own possession”, coming from its Latin roots relating to the ownership of cattle. So the KJV actually says, “a people for his own possession” just like the ESV does – it just uses an obsolete word meaning to do so.

And I point that out to say this: this is why it is critical to continue to have a vital, ecumenical (meaning: having a consensus among English-speaking churches, as we are talking about translations in English) effort to maintain the translations of the Bible from the original languages into the contemporary tongue. Foundational to the reformational way of thinking about the Bible is that it ought to be accessible to all men, and that translations are not inadequate vehicles.

I said I yesterday that I had three points to make, and that’s my first one: it’s a bogus point of view that a translation of Scripture is inherently faulty or inadequate; translations are sufficient vehicles through which to receive God’s revelation. There are probably a dozen reasons why this is so, but here are the two which I think should matter most to us:

[1] We have to have confidence in God’s word when it is handled by men. If we don’t, we have to reconsider what we mean when we think about preaching.

[2] This is not a perspective evident in Jesus or the Apostles. That the earliest church used the LXX without controversy as the word of God should give us some confidence that even a bad translation possess what God intends for His Word to possess.

That said, here’s my second point: while it is both interesting and in some ways useful to “JUST TEACH THE ORIGINAL”, this work in practice degrades the common man’s confidence in the text, which is an unjustified consequence inherent in the “preach from the Greek/Hebrew” perspective.

I have a very hard time with the phrase “lost in translation”, especially in this context, because frankly it is far more smug than it intends to be, and far less useful than it needs to be. Think about this: let’s imagine that there is some kind of high-octane literature genre which is somehow only able to be communicated in the Hebrew. Maybe it’s only a pun or a rhyme or maybe it’s a tone which is generated by a form of expression. And let’s say that there is actually no way to convey this in the English – that when we translate Ps 103 or something from the Hebrew all we get is wooden prose.

Is the point of our Bibles to titillate us with word-play, or is it to reveal to us the plan of God in Christ?

I don’t want to be a minimalist here because I do think that the Bible is actually great literature, not just words but words used (in a very real sense) in an inspired way. But the idea that we have to “get” all the Hebrew puns and word play in order to get how Moses and all the Prophets spoke of Christ is simply incongruous. I don’t want to call this pursuit idolatry, but there’s a massive difference between studying the Scripture to know that it is true and studying it as if its greatest purpose is as an aesthetic artifact. There is overlap between these two pursuits, but when we say that we have to mistrust translations and “JUST TEACH THE ORIGINAL TEXT”, especially for the sake of noodling out all the lit geek (and I speak as a lit geek) fairy dust, we have gone off the path which is really intended when we sloganeer the phrase “sola scriptura”.

Third and finally today: You are, for better and worse, stuck with English as your mother tongue. Ultimately, you personally have to speak to others in English. That means that at some point, you have to agree with someone about what, for example, the book of Romans says in English in order to tell others about it. You are far better served from a body of Christ (read: local church) perspective to have a common translation which serves as a basis for discipleship and catechesis, rather than demanding, absurdly and in a very suspiciously-Galatian manner, that someone first learn the Greek and/or the Hebrew before he can be a proper disciple and student of the word.

There is nothing wrong with learning Greek and Hebrew if you are so gifted and inclined. But it turns out that nowhere in Scripture is the ability to read Hebrew a requirement for the elder in spite of the requirement that he be able to rightly-handle the word of God. And for us to either feel like we are second-class for not being Hebrew readers, or to imply that English translations as a class are inferior to the point of being useless from the pulpit, makes us people who really don’t understand the Gospel very well.

The Gospel is proclaimed so that people from every tribe, tongue and nation will worship and give glory to God, and enjoy Him forever. In the Kingdom – in the New Earth – there is no indication that we will all be speaking Greek. If that’s the case when Christ finally has all his enemies as his footstool, maybe we should see some value in the tongues which then praise him today when we are declaring to them that they should.

That’s the context for Leland Ryken’s book, and we should be grateful to God that he cares enough about this subject to be passionate about it. And whether we agree with his philosophy of translation or not, we should be that passionate that all people have the word of God in their own language – because even in translation, it is the word of God.


Stuart Brogden said...

Mucho excellent 3 points - my personal thanks. I love the KJV, recognize its limitations; currently use an ESV study Bible and thoroughly enjoy it - knowing it ain't the Autograph either :-)

FX Turk said...

To Scott Bailey, from the other comment thread:

| Frank, as usual you show your
| Christian charity by not being able
| to answer a question without
| demeaning. I am openly admitting
| that I do not know Ryken's book and
| I am asking questions about what
| you represent from what I know
| from working within these
| languages. Sorry I have not read
| every book and author on translation
| theory.

See: to point out that someone is criticizing a book he has never read is demeaning, but to claim that there’s a problem with said book because the author (allegedly) has not knowledge of some foreign language is “asking questions”.

The reader can decide what sort of thing that contrast is.

| It's such a small limited field
| I'm sure I should be doing better. A
| more charitable disposition towards
| a Christian brother might be OK.
| That's an irony I'll let the discerning
| reader work out.

Indeed. I am sure they already have. I’d like to see the list of uncharitable things I said in my original reply to you, Scott.

| Hebrew poetry is quite difficult
| becasue it leaves out many of the
| words we take for granted in normal
| discourse such as the definite
| article, the relative particle,
| personal suffixes, conjunctions,
| etc., which makes it unintelligible if
| translated literally.

This would be a key reason for you to read either of Ryken’s books: to resolve your lack of information (how’s that for charity?) about what he says about this subject in particular.

| I would ultimately submit that in
| many ways the difference between
| "formal" and "dynamic" is in some
| ways a false dichotomy, probably
| even more so if one considers
| functional. They are all translations
| and at the end of the day while in
| some cases literal may be "better"
| than dynamic in others literal can
| actually obfuscate what the author
| was intending in the original
| language. Therefore to slavishly
| prefer literal can be
| counterproductive.

Yeah: again, reading Ryken’s book would help you clear some of the bramble here.

| I suppose my last concern is that if a
| pastor is supposed to explain all of
| these idioms and literal confusions
| how many are equipped for such
| exegesis? I'm not trying to limit this
| to the realm of experts but how
| many pastors would find it overly
| time consuming, and overly
| difficult, to translate the Bible from
| English into English?

I think the problem, really, is that this view you are presenting lacks confidence in translation as a practice, or the text as a source, or both. We can work that out in detail if you have a free week.

| Your misrepresentations aside, and
| since you so kindly asked: I would
| say that translation is about
| representing the text with as much
| lexical and rhetorical accuracy as
| possible, which betrays most likely
| what translation theory I would
| support.

Aha. My misrepresentations. I see.

I’d like to see your personal translation of Psalm 119 – even only the first 30 or so verses as we count them. It would be educational to find out from you what improvements in “rhetorical accuracy” would be necessary there to aid the English reader.

At your leisure, of course.

Rick Frueh said...

To insist on "original to colloquial" can also generate pride. I am sure we continue to have difficulty in obeying the English before we get too legalistic about the original languages.

FX Turk said...



JR said...

There is no better way to confound a people, to make them elitist, and to attempt to sound smarter than you are than to play with the Greek and Hebrew as if you've mastered it.

A good and profound teacher can expound the original language into the vernacular language (just like a good translation).

The Incarnation itself was an exercise in translation. Christ translated himself (the Word) into flesh, and the written Word is equally as translatable. One of the very things that seperates Xianity from a religion like Islam is translation. Islam has a fixed language, location, culture, power center, etc...but Christianity is infinitely translatable. Therefore its predominant language, leadership center, and culture is always changing.

Nothing wrong with good translation. If it was an issue Jesus would have never worn skin.

David Kyle said...

At some point you just have to trust that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation. The ability of His Word to regenerate a human heart has to, and I really mean has to, transcend one or two particular tongues.

Scott Bailey said...

Frank, once again you have fundamentally misunderstood my tone and question. Why is it that you read with such an argumentative lens? I am openly acknowledging my ignorance and asking questions. I am not criticizing the book. I am not criticizing the author. If I did so in any comment I would like you to point it out where I said "Ryken is..." There are some difficulties with translating that I have experienced that make some ideas difficult to me. I'm merely asking questions and for some reason you read it like an all out attack. Why you feel the need to read this way and offer the sort of responses you do is beyond me.

When someone asks an informed question dismissing it with the language you use is indicative of your lack of knowledge in the field however loudly and meanly you protest afterward.

Yes, my "bramble" needs to be cleared by Ryken. Sheesh. Well played.

At NO point did I criticize Ryken or his book: learn to read. I asked questions about your statements and made a couple of off hand comments in a blog post.

Take DJP's comments and apply the same rhetoric to him that you did to me the outsider. Tell Dan that he needs to clean up the bramble in
his comment by reading Ryken's book.

I too may be reading your words as overly argumentative, but it seems to me that you have much more to say what you think I'm saying, though you are hearing me wrong, than what I actually wrote.

I may read Ryken someday but he is a literary critic and when it comes to what I do I prefer people on the front end of the process; not because I am impious or irreligious but because it's my job.

zostay said...

Indirectly related to this whole issue, too, is the fact that Jesus mostly spoke in a different language than the one in which his words are recorded. We can't even know for certain that quotations we have of Jesus and his disciples are exact. In fact, I think it's almost certain that all we have are abstracts told in narrative form. This doesn't make the original text any less inspired. These are still the teachings of Jesus and what he said, if not word for word. Yet, it does confirm to us that the thoughts of scripture are the key, not the words.

That said, I definitely prefer a word-for-word translation because trying to translate thought-for-thought risks putting to much uninspired interpretation into the text. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but translators are not, regardless of what certain KJVO folks think, re-inspired. I'd just rather keep the more extensive interpretation in the pulpit and commentaries than in the text itself.

So, without taking it too much further, I'll finish my point: I agree with and want to emphasize Frank's statement that a translation is sufficient if it is able to convey the ideas behind the inspired words even if it is unable to give us every shade of meaning. There is a difference between what the inspired authors did in abstracting and translating and what translators do today, but the gospel loses nothing when it is truly spoken in another language other than the original words, which we don't really have anyway.

Tom Chantry said...

In fact, the authority to translate the gospel is one of the characteristics of the New Covenant.

Consider Nehemiah 13:23-25 In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but only the language of each people. And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. Alright, the major issue here was marriage outside the faith, but there was also a concern about the lack of a working knowledge of Hebrew. If you don't know the language of the Book, how will you know the book?

But then contrast that with Revelation 14:6 Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. An essential part of the great commission - to go to every nation - requires the translation of Scripture into their language.

Frank, your points are better thought out than mine, but my reaction to that comment in the other post was that we could do it when our churches put up signs that say "No Trespassing" in place of "Visitors Welcome." We're to make disciples to our nation by preaching out of an untranslated book? And that's assuming that every Christian will be able to follow and benefit fully from a week-by-week exegetical lecture!

And then I read this (coincidentally) in Turretin this morning, writing on the authority and use of versions: Since men speak different languages and are not all familiar with the two in which it was first written, it cannot be understood by them unless translated; it comes as the same thing to say nothing at all as to say what nobody can understand.

DJP said...

Well... I do have a lot of bramble that needs clearing, and I've invited Frank to take a weed-whacker to it more than once....

greglong said...

As someone who has trained for pastoral ministry and has preached a few sermons as an assistant pastor (awaiting God's call to senior pastoral ministry), I would like to take issue with a comment made at the end of the previous thread.

dwitzke wrote (in reference to Scott's comment):

I, as a pastor of a small church, can appreciate your question here. But, that is exactly what the pastor is to to. He has a responsibility to explain to his people what the text means; that is his job, not the job of the translator.

Experts in translation are of great benefit to the Church, but they are not the end of the process of getting the Scripture from the original languages into the hearts of the people in the Church. The pastors are responsible for that last exegesis and exposition (kind of like the local expert, if you will).

He does not have to re-invent the wheel every week in doing this, and he will not be able to go as in-depth in the languages as he may like every week, but he still must work in the languages. Yes, that is time consuming, and yes, far too many are NOT adequately equipped for this. But, that is why the church in America today is in such a bad state: Preachers no longer exegete the text, they exegete the commentaries.

I would wish that every person in the church would be able to read and study from the original languages (or even be able to read and study well from the English!), but they can't, so it is my calling to strive to explain those idioms, figures, and hard sayings to help them draw out the implications in their lives.

That seems to be what Ryken is arguing.

I strongly disagree that it is the job of the pastor, not the translator, to explain what the original text means.

This sentiment is refuted by the following:

1. The NT was written in Koine (Common), not Classical, Greek.

2. Bible translators throughout the centuries have strove to make the Bible accessible to the common man by translating the original into the vernacular. Read the preface to the 1611 AV and you will discover this is exactly what they were trying to do.

The pastor's job is not to translate the text (or to be "the end of the process of getting the Scripture from the original languages into the hearts of the people in the Church"). Otherwise, how will anyone read the Bible with understanding without the pastor around to aid him? The pastor's job it to interpret (explain the theological meaning of the already-understandable English text), apply the text, and exhort the people to heed it.

DJP said...

zostayIndirectly related to this whole issue, too, is the fact that Jesus mostly spoke in a different language than the one in which his words are recorded

Uh, perhaps, "Indirectly related to this whole issue, too, is the commonly-held but never-proven assumption held by many that Jesus mostly spoke in a different language than the one in which his words are recorded."

Your following argument proves that this matters. Using facts-not-in-evidence to tosh-tosh the text we have is, at best, dangerous.

HSAT, I do like "re-inspire."

Tom said...

Frank, good post.

I would be interested in your thoughts of our typical English translations of, say, Heb 9:15-20 where it would be very helpful to understand the wordplay of the testament/covenant/will use, but English can't quite capture. The Greek had only one word for these, but English has several -- and the meaning is kind of lost if you don't know that.

I like this passage and when someone showed me what it would have meant in the Greek, I wondered what other riches I'm missing!

What do you think?


FX Turk said...


Since you haven't responded to one word I have said, I think we can either agree that you are wrong (reason: you don't want to confront objections) or that you are merely thin-skinned (reason: objections make you feel attacked) and move on.

See: now THAT is insulting.

FX Turk said...


That Turrentin was a bright guy for a Presbyterian.

Tom Chantry said...

Yeah. No kidding. I read him and think, "I see why some Reformed guys can't comprehend baptism when theologians this profound are confused on it as well." Thank goodness for sola scriptura.

zostay said...


I don't think I've ever been accused of tosh-toshing before, particularly scripture. :-p I will agree with you on the "never-proven assumption" part. I was attempting to avoid danger, but I am only a clay pot.

Let me try and correct myself this way: Should the assumption I made be correct, the text is still the inspired word of God despite this because the gospel message is what is significant, not the letter-for-letter, word-for-word statement of it. Otherwise, I'm going to have to learn Greek pretty quick (because about all I know is how to mispronounce it) if I have any hope of salvation and teach that first before I tell the gospel.

Please correct me further if I need it, since I trust you and the other Pyromaniacs much more than I trust my own imperfect understanding of these things.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"[1] We have to have confidence in God’s word when it is handled by men."

When you wrote "men" did you mean "men" in the generic sense of representing both men and women


did you mean "men" as in males only or males primarily?

DJP said...

Thanks for the invite. What I'll do is issue a caution or two. Don't feel obliged to walk off in any ill-fitting shoe-ware.

I've seen people argue that we needn't be too precise in our translation or interpretation, because after all Jesus spoke Aramaic, and we only have Greek translations. Wrong (or at least non liquet), and wrong, respectively.

Far worse, I've repeatedly seen scholars or wannabes in effect brush aside the Greek text we have, and then do their interpretation based on the (non-existent!) Aramaic original.

Bad, bad.

DJP said...

My previous response was to Zostay.

puritanicoal said...

"Is the point of our Bibles to titillate us with word-play, or is it to reveal to us the plan of God in Christ?"

That rings as somewhat of a strawman to me. Overall, I agree with your post, but I don't feel you've qualified it enough as to the importance of the original languages, above and beyond "titillating" us.

Jer. 1:11-12 in the English is cryptic at best. But, when we are "titillated" by the Hebrew word for "almond," we get a beautiful picture of the faithfulness of God.

Yes, people will go to heaven without understanding these two verses. Yes, they can still live a full and joyful Christian life. No, they aren't sub-Christians for not having a handle on Hebrew word-play. And, I would venture to bet that most elders who would not be able to tell you the meaning of these two verses, are yet excellent as elders.

However, one way God communicates in scripture is through the use of such word play. What a blessing it is to have a pastor or teacher delve into the original languages, in such instances, and teach what the Hebrew word for "almond" is, and what these verses really teach, the English literal translation notwithstanding. When such a strong word picture is taught, it sticks in the mind, and is easily retained for mediation and encouragement.

I hope to never forget God's "almond-ness."

trogdor said...

Why can't they just note the puns and wordplay in footnotes? For example, in Jeremiah 1 they could do like so:

11And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, "Jeremiah, what do you see?" And I said, "I see an almond[a] branch." 12Then the LORD said to me, "You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it."

Then at the bottom of the page...
[a] Almond sounds like the Hebrew for watching (compare verse 12)

You could get most of the benefit of the puns to your English-speaking audience, without requiring Joe Pewsitter to learn ancient Hebrew or Greek. It's crazy enough that it just might work. I think English Bible translations should get on that, stat.

Victoria said...

Zeesh you guys! Wars have been started on less!

FX Turk said...

Quoth puritanicoal:
That rings as somewhat of a strawman to me. Overall, I agree with your post, but I don't feel you've qualified it enough as to the importance of the original languages, above and beyond "titillating" us.

I did actually say this:

And I point that out to say this: this is why it is critical to continue to have a vital, ecumenical (meaning: having a consensus among English-speaking churches, as we are talking about translations in English) effort to maintain the translations of the Bible from the original languages into the contemporary tongue. Foundational to the reformational way of thinking about the Bible is that it ought to be accessible to all men, and that translations are not inadequate vehicles.

Which does, in fact, say that the original languages are necessary.

I also said this in the previous thread:
Who said that? I find it somewhat baffling that in a discussion which we are talking about translating from Greek and Hebrew, this objection would come up. The Greek and Hebrew are “unimportant”? So what is the source of our translation?

The question is simply not “are Greek and Hebrew important?” Of course they are important. The question in this case is “how do we represent the Greek and Hebrew best in English?”, or better, “for what purpose do we use English translations?”, or best: “How important is the translation which we receive?”

It’s a pretty deep misunderstanding of the question and the problem here to say that the Greek and Hebrew are “unimportant”.

So when I take issue with another commenter fairly demanding that we "JUST TEACH THE ORIGINAL", I think I have offered the necessary qualifications to ask the question, "Is the point of our Bibles to titillate us with word-play, or is it to reveal to us the plan of God in Christ?"

And to go on the record: if that pun was never explained to anyone ever again, not one whit of the Gospel would be lost, even if that play on words was.

Scott Bailey said...

How would you even judge my translation? By what criteria. Why not Psalm 2 or 137? You don't know what you speak of. You read about it somewhere. This guy said it's hard I'll use that one as an example. Derivative.

I haven't answered a single thing? The only thing worse than your reasoning process and rhetoric is apparently your reading ability.

Keep tilting at windmills dilettante.

And yes: THAT is an insult.

FX Turk said...


I think your example proves my point. Someone used the Greek to cause you to doubt the adequacy of the English.

FWIW, the question you are asking is covered by the KJV well; you just need to understand 16th English to get it.

The problem, of course, is that we want the text to be self-expositing. If that were true, we wouldn't need preaching, would we?

Craig and Heather said...

Interesting topic.

Confusing discussion.

Not sure how relevant it is, but you all brought to mind:

John 5:39-40 You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life. And they are the ones witnessing of Me,
and you will not come to Me that you might have life.

While I respect and am thankful to those who diligently study and share their knowledge of the original languages, I can't help but recall that the Jewish leaders of Jesus' time were intimately acquainted with the word play and nuances of Scripture....

And they still missed the point.

At the risk of sounding as though I just staggered out of the Post-modern, mystically disposed wasteland of emergent thinking, I also can positively attest to the fact that God is certainly big enough to illuminate those of us who are ignorant of the Greek and Hebrew languages. Personally, I know myself well enough to be able to say that if I DID have a relatively usable knowledge of Hebrew/Greek, I would tend to rely more on my intellectual understanding of the text rather than on God alone.

As it is, I often find myself on my face before the King, begging Him to show me what is true. I don't think I'm willing to trade that level of dependence for cerebral assurance.

On the other hand, if God has led/gifted a person in the understanding of language, it would probably be unwise to toss that knowledge and responsibility away as "unnecessary".

puritanicoal said...

Man shall not live by bread alone, but by most words that come from the mouth of God.(?)

FX Turk said...

Scott --

What kind of poem is Ps 119? I ask because you seem to think that it is a lousy example to talk about Hebrew poetry, and I think it happens to be an example of -simple- Hebrew poetry.

It seems to me that one ought to make a case from the simple to the complex.

What do you think? I mean: talk in small words because I'm just a simple country blogger.

NewManNoggs said...

I'm sorry. I don't know how my limited presence on Pyro blogs started all this, but I just feel obligated to fulfill my role as the sign post down the rabbit hole.

What about all those doctrines that are only in the truly inspired Authorized King James Version? Why did the modern translations purposely leave them out? Is that a conspiracy?

(voice of Vin Scully) "and here come the pretzels..."

Scott Bailey said...

Ps 119 is actually kind of complicated as it is an acrostic, and as far as I know, no one has been able to represent this aspect in English very well, or at all.

RichardS said...

Apart from Luther and his study and love of the languages (by the providence of God) we might all be under the power of Roman Catholicism and their translation.

FX Turk said...


If this were my personal blog, I'd clown you.

DJP said...

Yeah; and now we'll never get to go to Haloscan so you can, either.


FX Turk said...

Scott --

Well, so that we don't rely on my small-caliber ordinance, Calvin was of the mind that this Psalm was actually constructed as a memory aid -- building each 8-line section on one letter of the Hebrew Alephbet. It was meant to be memorized.

If we concede that you simply cannot translate Ps 119 as an alphabetical acrostic in English, what other obstacles are there to translating this Psalm?

FX Turk said...


They are getting ready to force me to upgrade.

I think I'm going to throw up.

FX Turk said...


Thanks for pointing out, as I already have repeatedly, that we have to translate the Bible from something.

DJP said...

Oh, I know. Look, do what I do over at my blog (I'll give you the URL later, so you can check it out sometime): milk your readers. Ask them if they've found any comment-system they like.

If worst comes to worst, we can toss up a post here, poll the masses. We have some pretty smart and savvy readers.

Susan said...

1. Frank said: Third and finally today: You are, for better and worse, stuck with English as your mother tongue.

Hmm. I for one am exempt from this! (My mother tongue is not English.)

2. Good illustration on the KJV's use of "peculiar", Frank. It reminds me of something I read a long time ago that was written by William Barclay (translated into my mother tongue, no less). My memory is a bit hazy right now, but I think Barclay's point was that even though a new believer may misunderstand a verse because of his own ignorance of a word's original meaning, he can still be blessed by God's Word. The example Barclay gave (I think) was Psalm 139:13a, "For thou hast possessed my reins". He mentioned that a certain believer had taken the word "reins" to mean the reins one would find on a horse. However, "reins" used to mean "kidneys" in the KJV era, and the verse of course means something quite different than what the believer had perceived it to mean, yet the verse still made sense to him. (Now, I didn't mention this example to advocate misinterpretation or eisogesis, nor do I agree with Barclay's universalist outlook. I only mentioned it because Frank's illustration reminded me of it, and I think it's simply amazing that God's Word can still bless despite human error! This example perhaps all the more supports the point of Frank's post...?)

dwitzke said...

I think you misunderstood what I was trying to say (my fault, I am sure). I was trying to communicate what Ryken is arguing in his first book, and I may not have done so clearly. I apologize.

What I was trying to communicate was that those translating the Bible from the original languages into the "common language" (whether English, Japanese, Spanish, etc) are to simply TRANSLATE, not exegete, the text. The responsibility for exegesis (= explain the meaning, theologically and expositionally)is tasked to those who are teaching and preaching in the church, as well as to the individual believer as he or she studies the Scripture. The pastor/preacher/teacher is the one who should explain the idioms, wordplays, and nuances to the people as he preaches the word, not the translator.

The whole purpose is indeed (as you said) to make the Scripture accessible to every hearer so they may be taught, exhorted, and make application in their own lives.

I am in agree with you: The pastor's job is to interpret the text. But in order to do this, he needs to dig into the text (both English and original languages). So, he does some translation, as well. Not re-inventing the wheel, but making sure the wheel is in proper alignment, balanced, and true in its roundness.

Just a thought: If we all spoke Koine Greek, then we would not have to work so hard to explain the NT. One layer of difficulty would be removed. But, since we do not speak Koine, we must first explain what this text was saying to the Greek hearers of the first century (context and interpretation), and THEN we can move on to draw out the implications/applications for our people here in the English-speaking world of the 21st century.

dwitzke said...

As Frank said, read Ryken's book(s), especially the first one. He spends an entire book making some excellent points concerning translation theory and practice.

Jake said...

dwitzke: The whole purpose is indeed (as you said) to make the Scripture accessible to every hearer so they may be taught, exhorted, and make application in their own lives.

Exactly right.

And to make that point further: when that can't happen is when a translator preemptively decides what a passage means and gives us his interpretation rather than what the text actually says.

The passage in the book in the hands of the everyman winds up not being the passage of the Bible, but only what the translation committee thinks should be in front of him.

Mike Riccardi said...

Sorry, that last comment was mine. A friend forgot to sign out of his account. Be sure to send all complaints to me and not to him.

greglong said...

So, dwitzki and Mike, what you're arguing is that translators should always give us the meaning of the words in an idiom in the original language, rather than the meaning of the idiom itself?

Rick Frueh said...

If only God was powerful and wise enough to make Himself clear in all languages and through all roughly accurate translations we would not have this problem. BTW - everyone has to rely on another man's definition of Koine Greek because Dr. Koine is not around to explain it. :)

In summation, at some point we are forced to have confidence in the Spirit of God. A novel concept indeed.

Mike Riccardi said...


Without thinking about it too much, I'd say so. If the translator's want to put what they think an English equivalent to the meaning of the idiom in the footnotes, that's fine with me. But I'd say, yeah, give me the meanings of the words.

greglong said...

I would suggest to you, Mike, that no other translation process takes that approach. If a person works for a hospital translating from English into Spanish for Hispanic patients, he will translate for understanding, not for literalness. In other words, he will translate the meaning of the idioms, not the meaning of the words in the idioms. Same with document translation, etc., etc.

Mike Riccardi said...


You're just wrong, there. First, your hospital illustration disregards different purposes for writing.

Secondly, I did my undergraduate work in Italian literature, and have spent many an hour translating and reading translations. And I can tell you that many translations have left idioms literal because of their respect for what Ryken calls the "otherness" of the text. And if they explain them, they put the explanation in the footnotes. I have an entire file cabinet of photocopied selections from anthologies with a ton of highlighting the footnotes to prove it. ;o)

Here's what I think is a good, on-topic-at-this-point-in-the-thread point from Ryken's Word of God in English, which if you haven't read, you should just read. He deals with your arguments.

"Shakespeare's text appears on the left page and a 'modern English' version on the right page. The introduction tot he edition of Hamlet reads like a primer on modern Bible translations. The purpose 'is to make Shakespeare fully intelligible to the modern reader.' The Shakespearean text 'has become remote and difficult to understand,' with the result that the text needs to be rewritten in such a way as 'to make it immediately understandable for the reader.' The modernizing produces approximately what modern translations do with the Bible. 'The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' become 'the trials and tribulations that unjust fate sends.' 'The law's delay' becomes 'the law's frustrating slowness.'

One thing is clear: The person who reads the updated version is not reading Shakespeare. And someone who thinks it is Shakespeare is badly misled" (p. 184).

That's my point. And so "our best course of action is to translate literally, wrestle with the meaning, teach the meaning to the uninitiated, and become so familiar with the Bible that the references will become second nature to us" (p. 181).

Rick Frueh said...


The donkey is talking about ears.



The pot is calling the kettle black.

(changing the verbiage actually makes it clearer since a word for word translation may lose the meaning)

Mike Riccardi said...


Your response presupposes that the interpretation (not translation) of that idiom is the task of a translator. I'm saying it's the task of the Bible student and Bible teacher.

Seriously, if you haven't read Ryken's first book on the subject, acting like you've refuted the arguments for essentially literal translation theory is not the way to go. And further conversation isn't helpful, because you wind up making arguments that he's already refuted.

Rick Frueh said...

I am sure there are words or phrases that cannot be translated word for word. So in that case the translater becomes an interpreter. And that is just the English. The Wycliffe translaters were constantly making interpretive judgments.

dwitzke said...

Thank you for clarifying what I was trying to say. You are dead on.

Greg and Rick,
Have you read Ryken's book? That would indeed answer your objections. He lays out the issues very clearly, and in more space than we have here to work with.

Rick, you said,

"I am sure there are words or phrases that cannot be translated word for word. So in that case the translater becomes an interpreter. And that is just the English. The Wycliffe translaters were constantly making interpretive judgments."

No one argues that no translative judgments must be made at times. The point being made here is that the translators must do their best to simply bring the text over to the receptor language without changing the original words.

The translator should not presume that those reading the Bible translation are unable to do the work to figure out what these figures, idioms and wordplays mean, with the end result that the translator (though perhaps well-meaning) does not give the reader the text, but rather the translator's exegesis of the text.

In the case of translators out in mission settings (is that what you mean by "Wycliffe translators"?), it would seem it is a slightly different setting, in that they are working on translating the text, and THEN they are also explaining/expounding the text, its meaning and application, to the people they are living among.

That is exactly the point being made: If the translator lives, works, and teaches among those he is translating for, he will also be exegeting and explaining that text to the people. But in the case of the Bible versions that come out, those two functions (translation and exegesis/ exposition) are the responsibility of two different people: the translator and the preacher/teacher.

FX Turk said...


What we do in day-to-day speech is not the same as what God does in delivering the Bible, and that fact has to influence this discussion in some way.

There is a distinction between translation and exegesis which we need to maintain.

FX Turk said...

I want to think about something here since this discussion hasn't quite died off. The methodology GregLong (and others) is recommending seems pretty mundane on the surface. But what would they do if this passage:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

was translated:

Therefore a person shall leave father and mother and hold fast to his other one, and they shall become one flesh.

And the justification was that in Ex 26, the word historically translated as "wife" is used there to mean "the other of a matching pair" (Ex 26:3,5)?

You know: because the statement there is a generalization, and in that generalization it is talking about monogomany in general, and not just hetero monogamy.

The answer to that objection will underscore why a methodology of "essentially literal" translation is not only necessary, but the appropriate default setting for handling the original texts.

greglong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
greglong said...

Mike and Frank,

I actually lean toward literal as opposed to dynamic equivalence. But as you have pointed out, Frank, I just don't think it is as cut and dried as some make it out to be.

And here's the proof...NO translation, no matter how literal, translates every idiom literally.

But I will definitely add Ryken's book to my wish list.

And I again recommend this article for your reading pleasure.

Anonymous said...

'preciate the post, Frank. Thanks

Jono Mac said...

Frank- brilliant. Thank you, I needed to read that.
-Jono from NZ