Bible Translation and the Christ/Culture Relation

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Update: I hadn't read the article very carefully and was taking the ESV blog's tying together of the Tickle quote with the issue the post was raising, which was functional equivalence. My brother pointed this out to me, and I looked again at the article itself, and he's right. The ESV blog (they don't indicate who is responsible for the post in question) has tied Tickle's quote to something that it's not even close to being about. [Update: They have now added some clarificatory words, and some of my criticism here no longer applies. I have removed some of it.] This post has now been edited several times to correct several errors and to focus on the main issue rather than the original portrayal of Tickle's words. The comment thread may not be as understandable now, but I want the post itself to represent the argument I had originally intended to give, without distractions from things that turned out to be mistakes that aren't really relevant to begin with.

The ESV Blog points to an article by Daniel Radosh in The New Yorker that discusses Bible translations. The ESV blogger's presentation of the quotes from the article was originally confusing. They quoted an argument from Phyllis Tickle against adding all sorts of commercialized nonsense to Bibles to attract younger readers but placed it in a context about functional equivalence that seemed to indicate that Tickle was against functional equivalence translations. They have since partially fixed that problem (but not good enough for me), so I will focus mostly on the post's argument and not that other issue in what follows. The rest of this post is therefore an argument why I think functional equivalence translations can be very good (even if there are plenty of circumstances in which I would rather have a formally equivalent translation, of which the ESV is the one I use the most, for the record).

Formal equivalence translations stick more closely to the form of the original even if the receptor language (English in this case) does not use the forms in an equivalent way. Thus it prefers to retain form at the sacrifice of meaning. An example would be retaining masculine forms in English because the Greek uses them, when Greek masculine forms could refer to a group that would include women and/or girls, whereas English doesn't really work that way anymore. Another common difference is with metaphors that functional equivalence translators judge to be incomprehensible to English readers, and thus the image gets translated into its meaning at the cost of its being a metaphor with an image the original audience would have understood.

Ultimately, whether this is a good thing depends on whether the audience would understand the metaphor. We can understand the metaphor of a clay jar as fragile, but if the original meaning was its dullness of appearance then we might not pick up on it as easily as the original audience would have. But few English speakers who didn't grow up biblically literate will grasp the metaphorical meaning of a horn as strength, and virtually no one is going to get much of the imagery in the Song of Songs without help (e.g. "your waist is a mound of wheat" sounds to us like it's describing someone's being overweight, whereas it was probably intended as a compliment about softness to the touch).

The argument the ESV blogger seems to me to want to convey is somewhat interesting, even if it should ultimately be unconvincing. Walter Harrelson explains the difference between these two styles of translations as follows, in the words of the article: "formal equivalence carries the reader back to the world of the Bible, while functional equivalence transports the Bible into the world of the reader." What is interesting to me is this statement can be read in two different ways, one positive and one negative. Harrelson seems to have intended it as a negative, and the ESV blogger's use of Tickle's quote extends that. But it can just as easily be taken as a positive. (I've defended formal equivalence translations before as important for several things, but my point here is about the legitimacy of functional equivalence translations for other purposes, so that's what I'm focusing on now).

Tickle said, "instead of demanding that the believer, the reader, the seeker step out from the culture and become more Christian, more enclosed within ecclesial definition, we’re saying, ‘You stay in the culture and we’ll come to you.’ And, therefore, how are we going to separate out the culturally transient and trashy from the eternal?" The ESV blogger took these words to apply to this translation issue (even though Tickle herself probably didn't intend them to apply to this case). Thus a language and translation issue becomes subsumed under the more general question of Christ and culture. Is the church to be separate from culture, or is the church to accommodate to the culture to become like it? The best answer, as long-time readers of this blog would expect me to say, is that this is a false dilemma. Separateness and accommodation are both essential characteristics of the Christian community.

II Corinthians 6:14-18 says not to partner with those who do not believe, with some pretty strong language about the temple of God having nothing in common with idols. Paul reminds the Corinthian believers of the separateness of God's people from the world. Yet I Corinthians 5:9-13
say that believers should not refrain from associating with those who do not believe. Paul makes it clear not to associate with the sexually immoral who call themselves Christians, but he insists that Christians associate with nonbelievers. In the light of that, all the passage in II Cor 6 can mean is that some stronger alliance is out.

In John 17, Jesus, the embodiment of the word of God, declared himself to be in the world and yet not of it, declaring the same of his followers. The tension in Paul's thought goes right back to the tension between being in the world in order to speak to the world and being not of it in terms of not coming from (and thus not displaying) the worldview and character of the world. If the living embodiment of the word of God is in the world to speak to the world, then it's imperative that we translate the written word of God in a way that is in the world and speaks to the world. We must not make it of the world by translating it in such a way that communicates the world's value system and worldview.

But that is not what a dynamic translation does. A dynamic translation, when done well (and not all instances will do this) takes the word of God and communicates it in a way that will speak to the world in its own language. It thus serves the purpose of being in the world by communicating to it while not being of it in that it communicates the meaning of what the word of God in its original languages says. It is thus strikes the balance nicely in the tension between being in the world and not being of the world.

What II Cor 6 is condemning is what evangelicals wanted to distance themselves from by no longer calling themselves fundamentalists, and it seems to me that this argument relies on just that sort of separatist fundamentalism that evangelicals have rightly rejected. It seems to me that this argument is that we shouldn't to the world but should rather not be in it at all. Now I do think there's a place for formally equivalent Bible translations. I wouldn't want to be without one when I do serious study of the Bible. But to communicate to a world that does not speak the biblical languages, we cannot use translations that treat English as if it has forms that only those very familiar with the Bible will understand. If you must speak of Bible translations in terms of coming to the world and distancing from the world, it seems to me that in contexts when those who do not believe will be reading the Bible, it's functionally equivalent translations and not formally equivalent translations that will most often be the most appropriate if we seek to follow the biblical model of being in but not of the world.

But one final element of this seems to me to be worth recognizing. The ESV blogger applied Tickle's words toward was functional equivalence with the implication that they do what Tickle had called separating the "culturally transient and the trashy from the eternal". The ESV blogger seems to think functional equivalence includes the culturally transient and the trashy in a way that the formally equivalent translations do not. I submit that this is dead wrong. Formal equivalence translations place so much value on the contingent form of a language the reader does not speak, even when that form does not affect meaning, that it is best not confused with the meaning. So retaining it is thus elevating something in the original language that is indeed culturally transient to a place occupying eternal value.

Most formally equivalent translations even admit this in practice all the time. They do not always put the verb last just because it's last in the original Greek, because English doesn't put verbs last most of the time. So the form in those cases, when it does not affect meaning, is not held up as spiritually important. But there are other cases when the form of the original language is taken to be of paramount value even if it obscures the meaning from a speaker of English who does not know the Bible as well as many people who grew up in the church and thus can read formally equivalent translations with much better understanding. So those who criticize and disrecommend functional equivalence are in a sense elevating some merely contingent feature of the original languages and treating them as if they are central to what God was communicating, resulting in loss of actual meaning in the language being translated into. It reminds me in some ways of the Pharisees' greater concern for the letter of the law than for the spirit of the law.

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Jeremy Pierce has written an interesting piece about a post on the ESV blog. Jeremy has discovered that the ESV blog post actually misrepresents (Jeremy uses stronger words) the article in The New Yorker which it quotes. What was apparently intended as... Read More


Great post!

In the paragraph starting with "What II Cor 6 is condemning is," did you mean to say "Now I do think there's a place for FORMALLY equivalent Bible translations. I wouldn't want to be without one when I do serious study of the Bible?"

Yes, that's right. I better fix that. Having small children who interrupt your train of thought a dozen times in any decent-length post leads to this sort of thing very often.

Excellent post, Jeremy! I, too, was disturbed by the ESV Bible blog post, but I hadn't realized that the original quote was taken out of context. Good sleuthing to your brother and you.

It is so sad that many Bible readers have been misled in recent years about literal translation of uncommunicative biblical figurative language. There is a world of difference between what they actually do not want, I think, which is transculturation, and accurate translation of the meanings of biblical figurative language.

"formal equivalence carries the reader back to the world of the Bible, while functional equivalence transports the Bible into the world of the reader." Harrelson was an early proponent of functional equivalence, so his way of putting this is not intended as a criticism of functional equivalence.

This statement is completely untrue on every level.

You have misrepresented the New Yorker article substantially in your article.

Good stuff, Parableman.

Disgruntled Reader, I have not represented the New Yorker article at all in my post, so I don't know how I could have misrepresented it. I have been discussing an argument that the ESV blog makes regarding some things quoted in the New Yorker article. I did not say the New Yorker article had endorsed these quotes. I did say that the ESV blog post had misrepresented one of these quotes. If you think I've somehow represented the New Yorker article (which I'd have to do to misrepresent it), then please explain why you think so and why you think it gets the article wrong, rather than making unsubstantiated (and as far as I can tell blatantly false) accusations.

In the one specific charge you do make, are you saying that Harrelson was not a proponent of functional equivalence (despite being the brains behind the Good News Translation) and that his statement was indeed intended as a criticism of the very work he was doing? I very much doubt that, but when you say that my statement about Harrelson's statement is wrong on every level, that's what that implies.

Now maybe you didn't intend to include my statement after Harrelson's, in which case your unsubstantiated assertion isn't about what I said but about what Harrelson himself said. If so, then explain why you think his statement is false on every level. Mere assertion does not count as giving an argument. You can't hope to convince those who disagree with you if you don't bother to explain why they're wrong (or even what they're wrong about).

What I said is that Harrelson saw this as a positive feature, and I proceeded to outline exactly how that is so. I didn't say anything one way or the other about whether it is just a positive feature. In fact, I think there are ways in which exactly the thing he sees as good can be bad. But that wasn't what my post was about. It was about how what he sees as good can be genuinely good and in fact opposite of how the ESV blog post sees it. You have now claimed without argument that his statement is false on every level, which means you must think something is wrong with my argument. So please explain where my argument goes wrong, because mere assertion doesn't help me see that.

(1) Let's just read what the New Yorker article said, since you apparently didn't bother to:

Walter Harrelson, a Bible scholar who served on the committee that produced the relatively formal New Revised Standard Version, in 1989, likes to say that formal equivalence carries the reader back to the world of the Bible, while functional equivalence transports the Bible into the world of the reader. Harrelson is a proponent of formal equivalence, and argues that preserving the linguistic qualities of the ancient text reminds readers that the Bible is “a document from another world that is luminous and transforming of our world.”

(2) Harrelson was on the NRSV committee.

(3) The Good News Translation was done by Robert Bratcher and Nida. Harrelson made no effort to do so.

(4) If you had bothered to read any of Harrelson's actual books, such as the New Interpreter's Study Bible, of which he was the editor, you'd see just how wrong you are in your "explanation."

So, let's just review the situation. You slime the ESV for quoting someone out of context. Then, you make up a false statement about Harrelson, and when you are called on it, you make up a second lie. There is a word for this. The word is "hypocrisy."

I seem to have read the ESV post's description of Harrelson as saying that he was a functional equivalence proponent who worked on the GNB. In fact I must have been thinking of Bratcher as I was writing this. I'm not sure if that's my mistake or not, because the ESV post has been edited since I first linked to it, and I don't know if that was originally a mistake there that I just carried through here or if I simply misread the post. Either way a mistake is a mistake, not a lie, and that kind of accusation is entirely unwarranted.

As for my not bothering to read the New Yorker article, I already said that I didn't really read that article. Since I wasn't talking about that article but about the ESV blog post, I'm not sure why I should have any strong obligation to read the article itself. It was the criticism of functionally equivalent translations in the ESV blog post that I was dealing with, not necessarily anything in the original article.

I didn't slime the ESV, either. I would not do that. I very much like the ESV and use it as my primary translation. I like formal translations and already said above that I wouldn't want to be without one for serious study. It's just that I think there's a place, a very important place, for functionally equivalent translations, and I was explaining what that place is, contra the ESV post. How that counts as sliming the ESV is beyond me.

As for hypocrisy, I don't see how that follows. It would be hypocrisy to complain about errors in other people's work but not fix your own when someone points them out to you. I haven't done that. What I've done is complain about errors and misleading bits of information, with the full realization that someone could then fix the error and the misleading information and then end up with a post that I wouldn't be as upset about (although in this case I would still disagree with the argument). So I just don't see how this amounts to hypocrisy. I think I'm holding myself and others to the same standard.

By the way, if you are associated with the ESV blog (or if whoever is has been reading this, as seems to me to be the case), I think the clarification as to Tickle's context ought to be before her quote and not after it. As I read the post now even with the corrections, I think it still comes across as suggesting that she thinks what she's saying applies to functional equivalence translations until I get to the bottom and see the notice that she doesn't think that. It would be clearer if the reader could see that first rather than after they've already thought about her words as being related to that issue.

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