Understanding Bible Translation Methods
When I worked in Christian retail, the number one question I would hear from customers about Bible translations was, “What is the difference between them?” An outstanding question and one that is difficult to answer succinctly while remaining accurate. Fortunately, I have a lot of practice.
In a nutshell, the most significant way the various translations of the Bible differ from one another is in translation method – the degree to which individual words in the target language are connected to specific individual words in the original language. We speak roughly of two methods: word-for-word on the one hand and thought-for-thought on the other. As descriptions of two basic approaches to translation, these terms are okay. But as descriptions of entire Bible translations, they usually aren’t so great. Why? Because virtually any translation is a balancing of the two methods, not a choice between them.
I want to break that last statement down, but in order to do so, I want to describe more precisely what we mean by these two methods (word-for-word and thought-for-thought) and why there is some need for both.
When most people think about the task of translating anything from one language to another, they tend to default to an understanding of that task that is essentially word-for-word (also called “formal equivalence”). Consider the Spanish greeting buenas tardes. A basically word-for-word translation of this phrase into English is “good afternoon”. Each word in the target language refers back to a specific word in the origin language: good < buenas; afternoon < tardes. And this actually produces a translation that communicates the meaning of the original words: a standard afternoon greeting. There is no need to use a different English phrase. Buenas tardes doesn’t mean “What a lovely afternoon! I hope you are enjoying it as much as I am”. Though this might be the attitude of the speaker, it is not what the words themselves say, so an accurate translation of buenas tardes is simply “good afternoon.”
But there are situations where a word-for-word translation is actually inaccurate, nonsensical, or at least inelegant in the target language. In cases like these, we must use an approach to translation that tries to translate groups of words into comparable groups of words (a.k.a. thought-for-thought or “dynamic equivalence”). Staying with Spanish, consider now the phrase me llamo Kerry. We typically translate this “My name is Kerry” or “I’m Kerry”. But a word-for-word translation of this phrase is actually “I call myself Kerry.” Certainly, the average English speaker is going to understand what this phrase means, especially if there is context, but “I call myself X” is not standard or idiomatic English. It sounds a little awkward.
This example highlights the fundamental problem facing the word-for-word method at any given instance: languages are not simply codes for a common universal grammar, but they are highly conventional systems of idioms, meaning that languages communicate meaningful ideas not because the elements of a language necessarily refer to certain things or ideas but because the speakers agree that in using those elements they are referring to certain things or ideas. We understand our native tongue because we grew up with it and learned it experientially. And the longer and more complex our sentences get, often the more idiomatic they become.
Sometimes a word-for-word method completely mistranslates. For example, a word-for-word translation into English of the French question Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? produces “What is it that there is?” And you might think that the question is essentially, “What is there?” But that would be a mistranslation. The question actually is more accurately translated into English as “What is wrong?” A French word for “wrong” is nowhere in the phrase. So for accuracy we are forced to translate the thought into a comparable English thought. Conversely, English “What’s up?” can mean many different things depending on the context and tone of voice, including “What is happening?” or “What is wrong?” And if you try to translate it in a word-for-word manner into Spanish (¿Qué es arriba?) or French (Que’est-ce que ç’est en haut?), no one will understand what you are trying to say. They’ll probably look at you strangely and then point up.
Understanding the Issue
The thing is that when we are translating spoken communication from one language to another, the question of word-for-word and thought-for-thought isn’t really an issue. We all know that you have to translate idiomatic language idiomatically, and no one gets upset that I translate Spanish buenos dias as “good morning” rather than “good days” or German Wie geht es ihnen? as “How are you?” and not “How goes it with thee?” It is only really in Bible translation that this becomes an issue. Why is this?
There are good and bad reasons. The good reason is that Christians believe that the Bible is a special book that one ought to study with special scrutiny – far more careful scrutiny than what we apply to the quick-and-dirty reality of everyday, spoken communication. There is a recognition that sometimes it is not just what is said, broadly speaking, but precisely how something is said in the Bible that has real impact on the way we understand God, the world, and ourselves. And while we have Bible teachers, we also believe (especially in the Protestant tradition) that we have a responsibility to seek out biblical and theological understanding for ourselves. Because of this, we desire to know for ourselves as much as possible about the specific details of the Bible’s phrasing and vocabulary, and for most of us the access we have to those details is through translations of the Bible into our own language. So we are quite right to desire fidelity and a degree of transparency in our Bible translations.
The bad reason, however, is based on fear and an unreasonable suspicion of conspiracy. It is sometimes felt that any change whatsoever from one translation to another, especially one that makes the translation easier to understand, is damaging to the truthfulness of the translation. It is either concealing hard truth by “dumbing it down” or else actively perverting truth through subtle changes that only seem innocuous.
Here’s the bottom line: no one commissions a translation of the Bible because they desire to deceive people and lead them away from faith in God. We might have some different ideas about what faith in God looks like, but the purpose of the translators is to aid faith, not to destroy it. No translation is perfect, and no translation is above being critiqued (that includes, especially, the King James Version), but just because a translation can be critiqued doesn’t mean that it is without value (again, that includes, especially, the King James Version, which remains a remarkable and valuable translation despite its age and inferior text-critical foundation). The vast diversity of Bible translations available to the average English speaker today is not to be taken as a sign that the enemy is gaining ground. It is a boon to the average English-speaking Christian, who is in a position to study and look behind his or her Bible translation to an unprecedented level by comparing multiple translations.
The Synergy of Word-For-Word and Thought-For-Thought
As I said before, most of the major translations are not strictly word-for-word or thought-for-thought but are actually a combination of the two methods. This is especially true for those translations that fall more on the word-for-word end of the spectrum, because while it is possible to paraphrase the entire Bible, it is not really possible to produce a 100% word-for-word translation of the Bible that is consistently meaningful in a target language. So translations such as the KJV, the ESV, the NRSV, and even the NASB (statistically the most word-for-word translation commonly published and used) are actually best understood as predominately word-for-word and minimally thought-for-thought. If you want to see what a completely word-for-word translation might look like, find an interlinear Bible and read the English renderings of each Hebrew or Greek word in order. And good luck with that.
Other translations, such as the NIV and the HCSB, as well as (to a lesser extent) the CEB and the NLT, are more or less equal measures word-for-word and thought-for-thought. The HCSB editors call this “optimal equivalence” to distinguish it from strict “formal equivalence” on the one hand and thoroughgoing “dynamic equivalence” on the other. The NIV and HCSB are essentially 50/50 blends (I regard the NET Bible in this category, as well), while the CEB and the NLT perhaps favor thought-for-thought a little more strongly (say 60/40-ish).
Even translations that are more or less completely thought-for-thought (GNT, God’s Word, NCV, CEV) are built on a word-for-word understructure and will leave a word-for-word translation in place where it cannot be improved upon. The main exceptions to this are free translations that show up from time to time that aim to reproduce the Bible in thoroughly idiomatic language, including going so far as to change imagery and introduce idioms native to the target language with no relation whatsoever to words in the original languages. The most famous such free translation is the Message. In my opinion, free translations do have a good use, but it is not as one’s primary study Bible. I highly recommend them as a supplement to your primary Bible translations as a way of intentionally distancing yourself from the text.
As a general rule of thumb, translations that favor the word-for-word method are more transparent (meaning there is a little less theological or devotional interpretation embedded in the translation) but they are also more difficult to read. On the other hand, those that favor the thought-for-thought method are easier to read but less transparent and more likely to shade a translation toward a traditional theological interpretation (especially a conservative Evangelical one). Translations that aim to be an equal blend of the methods share some of the strengths and weaknesses of both methods.
A Controversy-less Controversy
Because virtually all Bible translations strategically use the word-for-word and thought-for-thought methods where necessary based upon a threshold of difficulty unique to that translation, we shouldn’t fall into the error of thinking that there are “word-for-word” translations over here and “thought-for-thought” translations over there, and one category is automatically better than the other. It just doesn’t work that way.
Nor should we give ourselves over to the fear-mongering and conspiracy theorizing that generally accompanies the exaltation of one translation over all others (e.g., the KJV) or the demonizing of one translation above all others (e.g., the NIV). I am happy to answer specific questions about specific passages in the comments below, but take it from someone who has spent his life learning how to study the Bible in its original languages and becoming a retail expert in Bible translations – the conspiracy theories are all nonsense. If you like the KJV, stay with the KJV. But don’t stay with the KJV simply because someone has made you fear trying anything else.
There is no reason to fear Bible translations. There is every reason to take advantage of them and familiarize yourself with as many of them as you can. Go ahead and critique them and rank them. In so doing you will be reading the Bible more often and more carefully than you probably have ever done in your life, which can only be a good thing, right?