Book Reviews,  Theology/Bible

A word on translation theory

I’ve been reading Dave Brunn’s stimulating book One Bible, Many Versions—a work discussing the translation philosophy of various English Bible versions. This is a fine book in many ways. It engages an old controversy with an irenic tone. But if the book does anything, it shows that there is some confusion among evangelicals about what Formal Equivalence (FE) translators are aiming to do in their work. Brunn’s book shows that all translations—including FE translations like the NASB and the ESV—resort to Dynamic Equivalence (DE). His point is that not even FE translations practice their theory consistently, and he illustrates this fact with voluminous examples.

I question, however, whether Brunn has always accurately described the aims of Formal Equivalence translation. At times he’s very nuanced in his description. At other times, he seems to be implying that FE translators believe “increased literalness” always leads to “increased faithfulness and accuracy” (e.g., 49, 50). Yet I don’t know a single formal equivalence translator who would say that’s always the case. Everyone would agree that it’s not. He also seems to say that FE translators are inconsistent because they don’t take FE to its “logical end” (43)—that is, that form always trumps meaning. But that’s not the logical end of FE. Nor do FE translators claim that it is.

Readers might be tempted to think that Brunn has uncovered a discrediting inconsistency with Formal Equivalence translation—that Formal Equivalence translations claim to be “word for word” but that they don’t really carry it out consistently in practice (191). But here’s the rub. No Formal Equivalence translator worth his salt would ever make such a claim. To wit, both the ESV and the NASB prefaces say that word for word translation is preferable when doing so makes good sense in English. When it doesn’t, a less literal rendering is preferred.

ESV preface: “Every translation is at many points a trade-off between literal precision and readability, between ‘formal equivalence’ in expression and ‘functional equivalence’ in communication, and the ESV is no exception. Within this framework we have sought to be ‘as literal as possible’ while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence. Therefore, to the extent that English permits and the meaning in each case allows, we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original…”

NASB preface: “The attempt has been made to render the grammar and terminology in contemporary English. When it was felt that the word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom. In the instances where this has been done, the more literal rendering has been indicated in the notes.”

In short, neither of the two major formal equivalence translations claims to be elevating form over meaning in every case or always looking for word for word correspondence. Both translations are taking a more common sense approach. As the prefaces to the ESV and NASB make clear, Formal Equivalence describes a preference or a tendency towards more literal renderings, not an unbending commitment to form over function.

The heart of the debate on translation theory is whether the FE preference/tendency is justified. Those of us who advocate Formal Equivalence argue that the preference is justified for a number of reasons. Just to name one: Formal Equivalence helps readers to see intra-canonical allusions and intertextuality—both of which are a part of the author’s meaning and which are connected to the underlying forms that the author selected. A Formal Equivalence translation looks for English forms that make those connections clear. A Dynamic Equivalence often does not (e.g., the NIV’s renderings of Psalm 8:4 and Hebrews 2:6). We can all agree that no FE translation is perfect in upholding this principle. But certainly the preference for this principle in translation is a good one.

And here is where I would have a disagreement with Brunn. Brunn observes that all translations sometimes include renderings that are not “word for word.” He therefore concludes,

The discussion cannot be about how often these practices are used by any particular version. These practices are either acceptable or unacceptable. If we make an issue out of the fact that some versions use them more often, that could be like saying, “I robbed only one bank, but that other guy robbed ten banks, so he’s guilty and I’m innocent” (191).

Brunn’s logic seems to go like this: If Dynamic Equivalence is sometimes unjustified, then it must always be unjustified. But this is a non sequitur. This has never been such an all or nothing debate (again, see the prefaces to ESV and NASB). The question is whether the preference for literal renderings is justified. Thus the question of when and “how often” Dynamic renderings are used is precisely the point of the debate.

Even though I disagree with Brunn on this point, I heartily agree with his desire for less acrimony in this debate and for more unity among Christians. I believe there are godly people on both sides of this issue, and I do not want to make it a litmus test for Christian fellowship. Brothers ought to be able to disagree agreeably over translation theory. My hope and prayer is that as each side tries to persuade the other, ultimately the truth will out and that we’ll all be the better for it.


Response from Dave Brunn

[I am so grateful that Dr. Brunn took the time to email a response to my brief remarks about his book. He has given me permission to share that email here. Read below.]

Thank you, Denny, for your fair review of my book, One Bible, Many Versions (IVP 2013). I’m glad you found the tone of the book to be “irenic,” because that was certainly my aim.

Reviews like yours help me identify points that I did not clarify very well in the book. For example, I think it is worth mentioning here that I completely agree with you that no formal equivalence (FE) translator “worth his salt” would ever say that literalness is always the best option. I am certain you did not intentionally misrepresent me on this point. However, as I read your review, it is evident that the main issue you highlighted as an apparent disagreement between us is actually something we agree on.

I heartily concur that “neither of the two major formal equivalence translations [NASB or ESV] claims to be elevating form over meaning in every case or always looking for word for word correspondence.” I explicitly mentioned that point in my book and even included part of the same quotation you cited from the ESV preface (italicized within the larger quote below):

“The translators of literal versions such as the ESV and NASB are aware of the tension that exists between ideal and real translation, and they acknowledge that tension in their Bible introductions. For example, the introduction to the ESV includes the following statement: ‘Every translation is at many points a trade-off between literal precision and readability, between “formal equivalence” in expression and ‘functional equivalence’ in communication.'” (p. 68)

I did not intend to suggest that FE translators claim total (or near total) consistency. My point is simply that “literal Bible versions in English are not nearly as literal as many Christians perceive them to be” (p. 16). I find that a lot of English-speaking Christians mistakenly believe that “literal” Bible versions depart from literalness only on extremely rare occasions, when there is no reasonable alternative. This perception is fueled by statements like the one below by Wayne Grudem: 

“essentially literal translations will depart from complete literalness only where it is necessary, in cases where a truly literal translation would make it nearly impossible for readers
to understand the meaning” (Wayne Grudem, “Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out by God?”, in C. John Collins, Wayne Grudem, Vern Sheridan Poythress, Leland Ryken and Bruce Winter, Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005, p. 24, italics added).

The word “only” in Grudem’s statement clearly makes it unconditional and absolute. That is where his statement totally unravels. When you make an absolute statement, it only takes one inconsistent example to disprove it; but Grudem’s statement is disproven hundreds (if not thousands) of times in the ESV.

For example, in Proverbs 24:32, the NIV provided an essentially literal rendering of the phrase “I applied my heart,” but the ESV chose to use the interpretive rendering “I considered.” I do not see how, by any stretch of the imagination, it could be said that the NIV rendering “I applied my heart” is “nearly impossible for readers to understand,” forcing the ESV to change it to “I considered.” By the way, in this particular example, the ESV didn’t even provide a footnote letting the reader know that this is an interpretation rather than a “word-for-word” rendering. (Interestingly, in the same article, Grudem criticizes nonliteral versions for leaving out the word “heart” in some contexts, but he fails to mention Proverbs 24:32 where the NIV includes “heart,” and the ESV leaves it out. See Grudem, “Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out by God?,” pp. 44-45, under the heading “The Missing Heart.”)

Careful examination shows that there are hundreds of similar instances where the ESV and NASB translators elected to use a dynamic interpretation even though a clearly understandable word-for-word rendering was available (see: Brunn, One Bible Many Versions, 23-33; 52-59; 90-95; 107-127; 141; 171-79; 189-90). This is a verifiable fact that many Christians find quite surprising when confronted with the real evidence. If any of the commenters on your blog have not read my book, I would encourage them to do so before passing judgment.

I have no desire to disparage “literal” English versions or any other kind of version. My aim is to humbly and respectfully present objective evidence that has often been left out of the translation discussion. My hope is that this evidence will dispel some of the unnecessary arguing and disunity related to the issue of Bible translation.


  • toddborger

    I think you have read Brunn fairly and found a legitimate problem with the book. But as you say, it is an excellent book in many ways. I appreciate your irenic tone and your appreciation for such a tone in this discussion. It tends to be well-heated rather than well-lit.

  • BruceSymons

    I wonder if the main difference between the two approaches is that one rests on a theory of language which holds water whereas the other one doesn’t?

      • Bruce Symons

        Hi Tim
        I was probably trying to be provocative. I think the arguments used to support FE translation often rest on misconceptions about language e.g. word-for-word translation is more accurate. My hope is the same as Dave Brunn’s above: that evidence (and understanding of language) “will dispel some of the unnecessary arguing…”.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    I believe the acrimony was started by the statements, magazine articles, radio programmes, conferences and books which all stated that the TNIV and NIV 2011 were not sufficiently reliable. I suggest that those who started the acrimony should seek some way to end it.

    Let me note that the three features most criticized in the TNIV are rooted in the Reformation.

    1. “Children of God” had been the normal translation for huios theou since the Anglo Saxon gospels, throughout the reformation, and in the KJV – until recently the RSV and a handful of translations adopted “sons of God.” It was good to get back to “the children of God” after a brief hiatus.

    2. In 1 Tim. 2:12, “assume authority” was Calvin’s translation, and “usurp authority” was in the KJV.

    3. Luther always used Mensch, a human being, as a translation of Adam and anthropos, and not Mann, a male human being. There is nothing wrong with calling the human race humankind.

    In addition, the CSG guidelines dmonstrate that those who drafted it were not, at first, aware of the gender inclusive meaning of adelphos, huios and pater. Also they seemed unaware that anthropos is not a masculine word but one of common gender. In addition, aner is used by Plato to refer to both male and female. Any Greek student should be aware of these facts.

    And most difficult is that the insertion of the pronoun “he” into many verses. In 1 Tim. 5:8 the inserted “he” has convinced many CBMW members that there was male semantic content in the original Greek when there wasn’t.

    There would be less acrimony if we could all be appreciative of the fact that the NIV 2011 has not been overly affected by guidelines produced without due regard for the Greek language. We need a Bible like this that maintains so many of the Reformation understandings of scripture, if sometimes in different language.

    An apology for some of the original statements made against the TNIV would not be out of place.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    Also adelphos, huios and pater should be understood as gender inclusive in the plural, and this is cited for all of these words in the lexicons from the 19th century on.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    Perhaps links or the length has made my first comment fail.

    Here is the gist. Adelphos, huios and pater were all gender inclusive in the plural from the earliest lexicons on. Anthropos is a word of common gender, for both men and women. Aner can be used for women. Plato does this as well as many other Greek authors.

    We should all be grateful that there are Bibles that reflect the original inclusive sense of the original language.

    All Bibles from the Anglo Saxon Gospels up until the RSV have used “children of God.” We need a Bible that maintains this continuity and also maintains concordance with the OT. We should appreciate the NIV and not write articles against it.

  • Chris Taylor

    From what I’ve read hear, it sounds like someone needs to ask him to repent or his elders should reprocess him for falsely representing fellow believers. I’m all for strong disagreements, but be honest while doing it.

  • Tim Keene

    My own take on this, is that the version most should use most of the time is the version in which we first heard God speaking to us.
    But surely aside from that, different versions have different advantages. The intertextuality advantage is significant for detailed Bible study but less so for other uses. Then readability might be far more important. So can we not embrace both types of translation?

      • Tim Keene

        The one version (other than the NWT!) that I have a problem with is the Amplified Bible. Although it can be helpful, it is all too easy to make it a ‘choose your wonky reading’ Bible.
        Since I mention the NWT, even that version, for all its defects, is sufficiently good to permit real Bible reading JWs to convert to the real gospel if they can just lift their heads from the led reading of the organisation. The Bible is just that good it resists even lousy translation.

  • Don Johnson

    If one wants to see what an entirely literal (word for word) version is like, see the Concordant Literal Version of the NT and OT.

    Things are always lost in translation, in any case.

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