Translation Aftermath

Well, it’s now more than a week after the last Hoagies & Stogies on Translation. As usual it was a great time, and many men told me how much they enjoyed it. And it was especially great for me to get to know two new first-time H&S speakers in Mark Strauss and Ed Hale, two guys who lived up to the Hoagies & Stogies standard for vigorously and charitably defending their theological convictions.

So I wanted to put down some of my thoughts, see where they go.

First off, let me say that before (and after) the debate, I am a big fan of the ESV (ever since I switched from the REB). However, as I discovered from this experience, if you look close, the ESV can be very awkward in places (you try to memorize the ESV’s rendition of Acts 3:16!)

However, I still believe the ESV is a great translation (better than the NIV anyways). And that’s because I subscribe to the essentially literal translation philosophy (and wasn’t convinced out of it at H&S). I think also that the audience, in the end, was not convinced by Strauss. All of the difficult questions submitted for Q&A were critical of Strauss’ position.

I think Strauss’ arguments need to be attacked at a lower level. His argument rests on the assumption (and a stated assumption) that the Bible should be translated according to the same philosophy as any other works. But it seems to me a pretty easy case to make that God’s Words are a in a separate class, and dictate a unique translation philosophy.

The issue of the Septuagint, and New Testament citation of the Old Testament came up in the Q&A.  Strauss admitted that the Greek (NT and/or Septuagint) handling of the OT Hebrew evidences a translation philosophy which is, more often literal than not. But then Strauss laughed it off as because “back then they didn’t know any better.” It seems to me that this avenue could be Strauss’ achilles heel, because it’s pretty ballsy to second-guess inspired writers.

Some questions I wish I had thought to submit to the Q&A:

  • Is there some intrinsic characteristic of Reformed-ness that makes us gravitate towards the ESV in particular, and the literal translation philosophy in general?
  • Does the literal philosophy, with its focus on the words of God in the original languages, boil down to the same stance as Islam’s position that the Koran is no longer the Koran when it’s translated away from Arabic?
  • Does/should every Christian have to learn some Greek and Hebrew?

But it’s probably better I didn’t squeeze those questions in, because we might have all frozen solid!

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30 Responses

  1. Re: Greek handling of the OT Hebrew, the Septuagint itself is not consistent in its translation philosophy of the OT Hebrew. In some books it is more literal, and in some books it is consistently more loose.

  2. I’ll answer your questions:
    1) no.
    2) no.
    3) no.

  3. Such a naysayer!

    But I’ll disagree on 1. We do gravitate towards literal/ESV, and away from dynamic/NIV. So the question, really, is why?

  4. I guess if ESV sales world wide look something like Reformed Church roll counts world wide, then you might have something, except that you’d still have to prove gravitation in the sense that you trying to make of it, versus something else, like say, herd instinct.

  5. I seem grumpy on this because I don’t much care for the ESV and don’t see why the Reformed world should be fawning over it, particularly.

  6. Whatever your preference, do you agree the ESV is better than the NIV?

  7. Sure. The NIV is too close to the Message for me. Even though in reality it’s a long long way from the Message. I don’t trust the NIV guys with their nose for idioms. I do think it’s a little odd that “breaking of bread” which is found in the NT a fair bit (see Acts 2:42 and Acts 20:7 for a couple of examples) is clearly a New Testament code phrase for the Lord’s Supper and for some reason, even though “nobody talks that way anymore” they left it “literal”.

  8. I just finished listening to the debate in my car…man, I love the format of the H&S debates, what a great idea; we should be doing much more of this. Kudos to Rube for providing these forums.

    I found Strauss to be very convincing. His opening statement was pretty powerful, providing example after example of why literally translating from one language to another is not the best way to translate. I especially enjoyed his Spanish examples, since I interact with that language every day.

    As to “breaking of bread”; ok, let’s fix it, but the exception does not prove the rule.

    All translations have strengths and weaknesses, but if you slavishly translate word-for-word, without regard for idiomatic expressions, you are missing the author’s intent.

    Strauss wins.

  9. I don’t remember if Strauss read every one of his examples which he had listed up on powerpoint during the debate. The marshalled evidence was embarassing for the Literal side.

    Above when I mentioned “NIV guys” I was referring to the translation committee, not people who own and read the NIV. And my “breaking of bread” example of a likely inconsistency on their part is in actuality deeper than that. And it points to the problem that I see and that has to do with being able to trust the committee’s nose for idioms. In fact, some Bible interpreters don’t agree that “breaking of bread” really is a code for the Lord’s Supper. If it does mean that, then there’s pretty strong evidence for weekly communion because it seems to show up every time a worship service is mentioned or described by Luke. So, what do I as a reader of the NIV take from the committee’s reluctance to de-idiomize the phrase “breaking of bread”? Are they trying to say it’s not the Lord’s Supper, or what? Are they theologically naive? Every trans. committee has an agenda, and a theological leaning (consider the TNIV gender neutrality position if you don’t believe me) and it bothers me.

    I do agree that Strauss won the debate. But I don’t agree with his position.

    One thing of interest is how many times the NASB, which is to the left of the ESV (i.e. more literal), has in it’s margin notes the literal rendering of a word. It happens all the time.

  10. I would also bring attention to Strauss’ urging to own and study more than one translation. The ESV crowd (and I’m generalizing here), tend to trumpet their version to the exclusion of others – a little humility would go a long way (especially after the first round whupping Strauss put on their blind spot to idiomatic expressions).

    Which brings up another question: How in the dickens did Rube score such a high-profile debator? Wow. Strauss is a BIG fish.

    As to the whole “breaking of bread” – “Lord’s Supper” thing. Yeah, maybe we should give the Reformed folks one more reason to throw another legalistic log on the “regulative principle” bonfire. Ugh.

    • Not getting any answers on this probe, you need to be reminded again that the RPW is a move against legalism – in the sense that you use the term legalism. What is done in a stated worship service is dictated by the ruling elders – those who are in authority over the congregation. So, since those in authority carry this weight and rightly expect the congregants to do what they’re told – see Hebrews 13:7 – elders wisely refrain from imposing any worship practice that is not explicitly commanded by God in scripture. To impose demands on worshipers beyond what God has explicitly commanded would be legalistic – in the sense that you use this term. And we don’t dare do that.

      I know you’re offended by the whole RPW but at least try to understand what you’re so mad at.

  11. Strauss was one of my pastor’s seminary professors. After Glenn Scorgie came back from H&S: Ordination of Women with such a glowing report of what a great time he had, Strauss actually approached my pastor asking to do one on the topic of the ESV. First time a H&S event has ever been initiated from the outside. (And on the flipside, the hardest it has ever been to find a second speaker!) Look for Strauss to come back some time in the future for a H&S about KJV-onlyism!

  12. The ESV crowd (and I’m generalizing here), tend to trumpet their version to the exclusion of others

    I dunno, I think after you’ve reached the limits of your ESV, you should go out and get yourself a Nestle-Aland…

  13. Sure. The NIV is too close to the Message for me.

    So then to sidestep your grumpiness, what if I reword the question without reference to the ESV? Is there some intrinsic characteristic of Reformed-ness that makes us gravitate towards literal translations?

  14. As for Strauss being a big fish, it definitely showed. He was smooth as silk and a great presenter. If he had more hair, he could seriously think about being a TV evangelist and make millions.

    As for the gravitation question, I would say no. The WCF on this seems, by using the term vulgar, to indicate that the NIV approach is OK. And it could be, if it were only possible and if it were undertaken by non-fallen infallible men.

    As the the RPW probe above, I’m not sure who is referred to by the “we” or what is meant by the term “legalistic”.

    As for finding a debater in favor of the KJV-Only, good luck on that.

  15. The final question read in the Q&A was mine, and I was sad to see how little time they gave to it. I was making a similar point to Rube’s above, pointing out that Strauss had made the assumption that Bible translation should end up with English usage that is popular and modern. “I wouldn’t say it that way” was his rallying cry.

    But I feel that the vocabulary and syntax rendered in the ESV tends toward the “timeless.” While there often is some unpacking to be done to get at the intended meaning (which process is assisted greatly by the ESV Study Bible from Crossway), the language is always straightforward and often eloquent.

    Who cares if some readers will need to keep an English dictionary beside them? The words have been deliberately chosen to most closely embody the concepts in the original languages, and if the end result is unfamiliar to the average churchgoer it’s not the fault of the translator. Most (granted, not all) of the passages Strauss pointed out I actually preferred in the ESV due to their richer description and more finely-tuned vocabulary.

    Again, I could care less whether Mark Strauss would use a particular word or sentence construction. I prefer to read English in clear, uncomplicated phrases, unhindered by consideration for some hypothetical Everyman’s supposed reading level. If we follow Strauss to his conclusion, we should translate the works of the Brontë sisters or Jane Austen into modern English, but plenty of twelfth-graders are making their way through those novels every year. Some of those teenagers need more direction than others in their study, but it would be ridiculous to dumb down classic works of literature so that “everyone can understand them better.”

    And if not Austen, why should we do that to God?

    • More rumination:

      Making the Bible more understandable means educating the reader, not presenting the Bible in a way that a reader doesn’t have to change in order to understand it. I wouldn’t go so far as to completely agree with Rube’s second point above (re: parallelism to Islam/Koran), but there are certainly similarities in translation philosophy there.

      In addition, to respond to the third question, I would say that it’s not necessary for all Christians to know Greek or Hebrew, but it’s certainly a valuable tool if one wants to know and understand the Bible more closely. I don’t claim to know much Greek (other than what I’ve studied of English etymology), and even less Hebrew, but when the original languages are referenced in sermons they often lend more clarity to the passage at hand.

      Also, a correction: of course I meant to say that I couldn’t care less about Mark’s preferred usage. If I’m going to present myself as a stickler for syntactic clarity, I ought to have been more precise myself. :)

  16. Making the Bible more understandable means educating the reader, not presenting the Bible in a way that a reader doesn’t have to change in order to understand it.

    Indeed. The WHI made much hay last year with the concept of Christians needing to learn the vocabulary and language of the Church (and the Bible), rather than adapting language to the people. This was based on their “favorite Arminian’s” book Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized

    of course I meant to say that I couldn’t care less

    One of my pet peeves, and I didn’t even notice!

  17. Bruce – Nobody’s mad here, just disappointed. The regulative principle effectively hamstrings many of the rules for public worship outlined by the Apostle Paul. One of my favorite guys (surprise!) is Pastor Mark Driscoll, who calls himself (in one of the greatest lines ever) a “charismatic with a seat belt”. He is completely unintimidated by the hyper-reformed crowd, and resisted pressure to baptize babies and force-feed cessationism to his flock. He dealt with the regulative principle and its many shortcomings in a sermon

    Anyway, I’m afraid we are guilty of thread-jacking here but I suppose I started it with my snarky comments above.

    Wish we lived closer.

    • Meta-comment re: thread-jacking: that’s what the ‘reply’ link is for… WordPress will add your comment directly below the one you’re replying to, so the tangents can stay connected to each other and the thread can go in multiple directions that need not distract from one another.

    • many of the rules for public worship outlined by the Apostle Paul

      First off, the RPW is not a list, it’s a principle. So, there’s no list in the RPW, per se. In other words, the RPW enforces the “many rules for public worship outlined etc.” If one were pressed to make such a list, then no RPW holder would ignore what Paul’s said. And I’d be extremely shocked if after 500 years since the RPW got stood back on its feet, that something was missed.

      So, I’ll bite. What would those many rules be?

      And please don’t refer me to Driscoll. Although curious, I just don’t have the time to listen to him.

      Also, since you’re not one of my congregants, you don’t have to listen to a word I say and have no reason to be disappointed.

      I take the “I wish we lived closer” to actually be a cry of help. As in “Get me outta’ Texas”.

  18. You can read his notes here.

    • Thanks. I really prefer reading to listening on the computer.

    • I read the notes, and they don’t say anything. I mean, there’s a list that all Reformed people would agree is mandated by RPW (Word, Sacrament, Prayer, Scripture, Giving, Singing), and there are definitions for Normative and Regulative principles of worship. But no biblical argumentation (or even indication) of which way Driscoll sees as correct.

      • Driscoll begs the question and thereby tips his hand with this

        Regarding worship forms, the Bible is clear that God is to be worshiped in ways that He deems acceptable.

        This is, in fact, the Lutheran “normative” principle. i.e. acceptable means as long as it doesn’t violate anything he accepts it.

        Well, in fact, no one I know would dispute this. It’s just that the RPW goes further in saying we may/must do only that which is commanded, not that we can do anything we can get away with if its not prohibited in scripture. Obviously no where in scripture is there a clause that forbids holding a Super Bowl party complete with big-screen during the Sunday Evening worship service. Or any other form of PG-13 entertainment. The Lutheran position just does not cut it.

        The Reformed tradition didn’t invent the RPW out of thin air. In concert with the Reformed plank sola scriptura it comes from scripture. If you want to dispute it, tackle the scriptural arguments advanced by those that hold the position. I don’t see Driscoll doing this.

        I have never seen a refutation of my argument that the RPW precisely avoids legalism and safeguards the elders from having their feet put to the fire as is alluded to in Heb. 13:17 (BTW, 13:17 is the verse I had in mind above when I mistakenly entered 13:7, my bad) . What gets me is that Albino hasn’t embraced it, given how much he purports to hate legalism.

        Blessings to all in Texas. Unlike those basking in the glories of San Diego weather, Texans need ’em.

      • Hm… out of curiousity, what about spending the afternoon in the Fellowship Hall watching the Super Bowl? Is every activity that takes place at the church automatically supposed to be worship (and therefore bound by the RPW)?

        I’m in favor of the regulative principle, by the way, just thinking through its implications.

      • I see no problem with having a super-bowl party in the fellowship hall between services. I think it would be problematic to, say, advertise it in the paper, because then it would appear to be an Act of the Corporate Body of Christ, which it would not be.

        Clearly, not every activity that takes place in the church building is worship. For example, Sunday School is not worship (which is why I have no problem with women teaching men in Sunday School classes). Another example, a choral or instrumental prelude is not worship — which is why our liturgy always places it before the Call to — what now? that’s right, Worship.

  19. many of the rules for public worship outlined by the Apostle Paul

    By taking this tack, Albino, you are not denying the RPW, you are applying it. The question then boils down to our disageements on what the bible commands in worship.

    So, I’ll bite. What would those many rules be?

    I’m sure at the top of Albino’s list would be “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy … earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”

  20. On the topic of the Bible, this is a really cool visual, artistic representation of the Bible’s interconectivity.

    As to Driscoll, I guess you may have to suck it up and listen to him talk about why he doesn’t march in lock-step with hyper-reformed group on the regulative principle.

  21. […] One such topic is the question of the inspiration of scripture. A gentleman who recently commented on this post on the properties of the AV flagged up a moderated debate on the relative merits of two other translations of the bible, the ESV and the NIV, both of which are hugely popular in the Reformed Christian world. (It was further discussed here.) […]

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