Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation

Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation


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This book, by five translators of the English Standard Version (ESV) Bible, explains the differences between essentially literal translations and the alternatives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781581347555
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 01/28/2006
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

C. John Collins (PhD, University of Liverpool) is professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He has been a research engineer, church-planter, and teacher. He was the Old Testament Chairman for the English Standard Version Bible and is author of The God of Miracles, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes?, and Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary. He and his wife have two grown children.

Wayne Grudem(PhD, University of Cambridge; DD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is Distinguished Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary, having previously taught fortwenty years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is aformer president of the Evangelical Theological Society, a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible, the general editor of theESV Study Bible, and has published overtwenty books.

Vern S. Poythress (PhD, Harvard University; ThD, University of Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for nearly four decades. In addition to earning six academic degrees, he is the author of numerous books and articles on biblical interpretation, language, and science.

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Word of God in English and A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

Bruce William Winter (PhD, Macquarie University) is the director of the Institute for Early Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World. Winter was previously the warden of Tyndale House at Cambridge and is currently a part-time lecturer at Queensland Theological College in Australia.

J. I. Packer (DPhil, Oxford University) serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He is the author of numerous books, including the classic best-seller Knowing God. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.

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Why Plenary Inspiration Favors "Essentially Literal" Bible Translation WAYNE GRUDEM


Is Bible translation a spiritually and morally "neutral" activity, something to be guided only by secular linguistic theories about translation of languages in general? And is it true that there is really no right or wrong, no "better" or "worse" in Bible translations, but only the subjective preferences of readers who happen to "like" one translation better than another? And is the Bible such a sacred and special book that no one should ever criticize anybody else's attempts at translating the Bible?

Or might the Bible itself say something that is relevant to current debates about how the Bible should be translated?

I will argue in this chapter (1) that the Bible repeatedly claims that every one of its words (in the original languages) is a word spoken to us by God, and is therefore of utmost importance; and (2) that this fact provides a strong argument in favor of "essentially literal" (or "word-for-word") translation as opposed to "dynamic equivalent" (or "thought-for-thought") translation.

But first, some definitions:

A. Essentially Literal

An essentially literal translation translates the meaning of every word in the original language, understood correctly in its context, into its nearest English equivalent, and attempts to express the result with ordinary English word order and style, as far as that is possible without distorting the meaning of the original. Sometimes such a translation is also called a "word-for-word" translation, which is fine if we understand that at times one word in the original may be translated accurately by two or more words in English, and sometimes two or more words in the original can be represented by one word in English. The main point is that essentially literal translations attempt to represent the meaning of every word in the original in some way or other in the resulting translation.

Sometimes essentially literal translations are called "formal equivalence" translations, suggesting that they try as far as possible to preserve the "form" of the original language in the translation. I do not generally use the phrase "formal equivalence" nor do I think it is a useful phrase for describing essentially literal translations. The reason is that the word "form" places too much emphasis on reproducing the exact word order of the original language, something that just makes for awkward translation and really has very little to do with the goal of translating the meaning of every word in the original. (The label "formal equivalence" is often used by defenders of dynamic equivalence theory, perhaps in part because this makes it so easy to caricature and thus dismiss essentially literal translation theory as a theory that places too much emphasis on the order of words in the original language.)

B. Dynamic Equivalence

A dynamic equivalence translation translates the thoughts or ideas of the original text into similar thoughts or ideas in English, and "attempts to have the same impact on modern readers as the original had on its own audience." Another term for a dynamic equivalence translation is a "thought-for-thought" translation, as explained in the "Introduction" to the New Living Translation (NLT): the translators say that "a dynamic-equivalence translation can also be called a thought-for-thought translation, as contrasted with a formal-equivalence or word-for-word translation."

A good illustration of the difference between essentially literal and dynamic equivalence translations is actually given in the "Introduction" to the NLT. They mention 1 Kings 2:10, which says, in the King James Version, "So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David." Then they note that the NLT translates this verse, "Then David died and was buried in the city of David." The NLT translators see this as an advantage, for they say, "Only the New Living Translation clearly translates the real meaning of the Hebrew idiom 'slept with his fathers' into contemporary English." The argument in favor of the NLT would be that today, when John Doe dies, English speakers don't say that John Doe "slept with his fathers." Today, the way we would express the idea that someone died is simply to say that John Doe "died," so that is what the NLT has done. The translation is a "thought-for-thought" translation because the main thought or idea — the idea that David died and was buried — is expressed in a way that modern speakers would use to express the same idea today.

However, that is not the end of the argument. Defenders of essentially literal translations object that some details are missing in the NLT's thought-for-thought translation of 1 Kings 2:10. The dynamic equivalence translation does not include the idea of sleeping as a rich metaphor for death, a metaphor in which there is a veiled hint of someday awakening from that sleep to a new life. The expression "slept with his fathers" also includes a faint hint of a corporate relationship with David's ancestors who had previously died, something that is also missing from the dynamic equivalence translation, "then David died." Critics of the NLT would agree that the NLT translated the main idea into contemporary English, but they would add that it is better to translate all of the words of the Hebrew original, including the word shakab (which means, "to lie down, sleep"), and the words 'im (which means "with"), and 'ab' (which means "father," and in the plural, "fathers"), since these words are in the Hebrew text as well. When these words are translated, not just the main idea but also more details of the meaning of the Hebrew original are brought over into English.

But will modern readers understand the literal translation, "David slept with his fathers"? Defenders of dynamic equivalence translations will say it is too difficult for readers to understand this since it is not an expression that English speakers use today. But defenders of essentially literal translations will reply that even modern readers who have never heard this idiom before will understand it because the rest of the sentence says that David was buried: "Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David" (1 Kings 2:10, ESV). The larger context begins in verse 1, "When David's time to die drew near ..." (1 Kings 2:1). Modern readers may ponder the expression for a moment, but they will understand it, and they will then have access to the much greater richness of meaning that was there in the original text.

C. Translations Fall Along a Spectrum

Everyone involved in recent debates over Bible translations agrees that all Bible translations fall along a spectrum from those that are very literal to those that are very free or paraphrastic. This spectrum is represented on the following chart. (As the chart suggests, dynamic equivalence translations fall along a broader spectrum than essentially literal translations, because there is a wide variety in how much they are willing to paraphrase and to simplify to an easily understood idea in each verse or sentence.)



Abbreviations for Bible Versions (in order of publication; dates are given for the first publication of the entire Bible in each version; second dates indicate significant revisions):

KJV King James Version (1611)
This means that in actual practice every dynamic equivalence translation still has a lot of "word-for-word" renderings of individual words in the biblical text. And every essentially literal translation has some amount of "paraphrase" where a woodenly literal translation would be nearly incomprehensible to modern readers and would hinder communication rather than helping it. One common example is Philemon 7, which in the King James Version said:

For we have great joy and compassion in thy love, because the bow-els of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother (Philem. 7, KJV).

The Greek word translated "bowels" is splagchna, which refers to the inward parts of the body, especially the stomach and intestines, but when not used to refer literally to those parts of the body the Greek word referred metaphorically to the seat of inward emotions or to the emotions themselves, especially love, sympathy and mercy. So how should this word be translated today? The word "bowels" is not appropriate because it has come to be used in modern English almost exclusively to refer to the intestines and the discharge of bodily waste, a sense readers in 1611 would not have given it in a verse like this. Even translating it as "the intestines of the saints have been refreshed by you," or "the internal organs of the saints have been refreshed by you," would not help modern readers, because these highly literal renderings would seem more physiological or medicinal than emotional. For that reason nearly all modern translations (including some current printings of the KJV itself) have changed to "the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you" (ESV). This still talks about an internal organ (the heart) but does so in terms of an image that modern readers easily understand.

But if all translations depart from complete literalness at some points, is there any difference between dynamic equivalence and essentially literal translations? Yes, there is. First, 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 or would hinder communication of meaning much more than it would help it. But dynamic equivalence translations depart from literal translation and resort to paraphrase far more often, whenever the translators feel that the main thought or idea can be communicated more clearly with a more modern expression.

This reluctance to depart from literalness except where clearly necessary is reflected in the brief motto used by the translators of the 1952/1971 Revised Standard Version: "As literal as possible, as free as necessary." That motto has been subsequently used by others producing essentially literal translations. The goal is to be as literal as they can be while still communicating the meaning clearly, and to vary from a literal to a more free translation (such as changing from "intestines" to "hearts") only where it is necessary for accurate communication.

Second, another difference is that essentially literal translations will place a high emphasis on translating every word of the original, as opposed to dynamic equivalence translations, which emphasize translating the thoughts more than the individual words. In the process of making an essentially literal translation, if the translators find a verse where a Greek or Hebrew word has not been translated in some way into English, they will count it a mistake and seek to correct it. But in dynamic equivalence translations, if the main idea has been translated correctly, the translators do not think it important to translate the meaning of every single word. (This can be demonstrated by many hundreds of examples, as will be evident below.)

In the rest of this chapter, I will argue that the things the Bible claims about its own characteristics lead to the conclusion that essentially literal translations are more compatible with the Bible's teaching about itself.


Various passages of Scripture indicate that all of the Bible (in the original manuscripts) is to be considered the Word of God and in fact the very words of God. Paul writes,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV).

The expression "breathed out by God" is a metaphor that implies that we should think of the words of Scripture as words actually spoken by God, words that come out of his mouth and are "breathed out" by him as he speaks. This is a characteristic of "all Scripture," that is, all that Paul and the apostles would have thought to fall in the special category called "Scripture," or those writings which were of absolute divine authority for believers in the first-century church. In other words, every part of Scripture is to be thought of as the words of God.

Peter writes,

... knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:20-21, ESV).

Here Peter also emphasizes the divine origin of all the writings of Scripture, because in the immediately preceding verse, Peter referred to the whole of the Old Testament as "the prophetic word" (v. 19, ESV). Once again, Peter is emphasizing the divine nature of everything that would be considered part of the "prophetic word" or part of "Scripture." The authors of Scripture, as they wrote, were "carried along by the Holy Spirit," indicating an overall superintendence and direction of their activity such that all of Scripture is from God.

But does "all Scripture" mean the individual words themselves, or only the thoughts or ideas expressed by those words? Several texts of Scripture actually place emphasis on the individual words themselves.

For example, we read,

Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him (Prov. 30:5, ESV).

Here the Hebrew expression kol-'imrat uses the Hebrew word 'imrah to emphasize the actual spoken or written words of God. Every one of them is true, in the sense that the meaning that each word contributes to its overall context is reliable and trustworthy, and conforms to reality, and communicates exactly what an omniscient and all-wise God intends it to communicate.

Similarly we read in Psalm 12:

The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times (Ps. 12:6, ESV).

Once again, the same Hebrew word 'imrah is used to indicate the actual spoken or written words of the Lord. They are said to be pure, so pure that they can be compared to silver that has been refined seven times. The number seven in Scripture is often used to indicate perfection. The very words of God in Scripture, then, are immeasurably pure, without any impurities in them.

Jesus expressed a similar idea when he said,

"It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'" (Matt. 4:4, ESV).

Here the Greek term that is translated "word" is rhma, which is the term Jesus would use to refer to the actual words spoken by God. And the expression "every word" coupled with the fact that the words proceed from the "mouth of God" places further emphasis on the very words themselves. Because Jesus is repeatedly quoting from the words of Scripture in Deuteronomy in this encounter with Satan in the wilderness, the clear reference of "every word that comes from the mouth of God" is to the words of Scripture. Jesus' statement reminds us that we are to think of every word of Scripture as a word that comes from the mouth of God.

Finally, at the end of Revelation 22 we find a related statement:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book (Rev. 22:18-19, ESV).

Since John is just coming to the end of writing a book, and since he twice refers to the words of that book in this statement, the reference once again is to the individual words that are written in the book of Revelation. This is one further example of a set of passages in Scripture that emphasize the importance and divine authorship of every single word of Scripture as originally written.

Sometimes Jesus and the New Testament authors make arguments from the Old Testament that depend on a single word of Scripture, a process that is consistent with this emphasis on the divine origin and authority of every word of Scripture. For example, notice Jesus' use of the Old Testament in the following dialogue between himself and some Jewish leaders:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 'The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet'"? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?" (Matt. 22:41-45).

What the Jewish leaders did not understand, but what Jesus understood fully from the knowledge of his own deity and humanity, is that in the expression, "The Lord said to my Lord," the expression "the Lord" is a reference to God the Father while the expression "my Lord" is a reference to Christ himself, who is both descended from David and the eternal second person of the Trinity whom David can call his "Lord."


Excerpted from "Translating Truth"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Crossway Books, an publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Publisher's Note,
Foreword by J. I. PACKER,
Abbreviations of Scripture Versions,
1 Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out by God? Why Plenary Inspiration Favors "Essentially Literal" Bible Translation WAYNE GRUDEM,
2 Five Myths About Essentially Literal Bible Translation LELAND RYKEN,
3 What the Reader Wants and the Translator Can Give: First John as a Test Case C. JOHN COLLINS,
4 Truth and Fullness of Meaning: Fullness Versus Reductionistic Semantics in Biblical Interpretation VERN SHERIDAN POYTHRESS,
5 Revelation Versus Rhetoric: Paul and the First-century Corinthian Fad BRUCE WINTER,

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Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
temsmail on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a compilation of papers presented to the 2004 Evangelical Theological Society by the various authors. Dr. Grudem's article (the fist in the book) is probably the best of the group, though the last two (on philology in translation) are also valuable. This book is worth it's purchase price.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing! So much improvement from the prologue! Keep going!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Awesome! Amazing!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
&bull; Loved it! <br> &bull; Great grammar <br> &bull; Extra points for Harry potter song &#9786 <br> &bull; CONTINUE
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You know that feeling when you're so bored you want to scream? Okay, maybe you don't. <br> Well, that's exactly what Drew was feeling. <br> "Ugh, there's nothing to do," Drew complained. She threw her sixth book that morning onto the couch and stood up again. <br> "We could go swimming," her twin sister Adrielle suggested. <br> Drew sighed. "No, it's too far to walk on a day like this."<br> Adrielle started listing things they would normally do. "Amy and Tressa are at camp, pool's too far, library's closed, roller rink's closed for renovation, practically every movie in this house has been watched..." <br> "Are Doctor Who or Sherlock being aired anytime soon?" <br> "Doctor Who's on hiatus until August, remember? And Sherlock isn't getting any more episodes for two years." Adrielle sat down at her laptop. "I'm going to scour youtube for anything Starkid we haven't seen." <br> Drew strode over to the kitched and grabbed a third popsicle. "I told you, I've already looked five times." <br> Adrielle facepalmed. "Oh, why didn't I think of this 27 seconds ago?" <br> "Think of what?" Drew asked. She jumped down on the couch again. <br> "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Adrielle questioned. <br> "Totally. On three!"<br> "One..."<br> "Two..."<br> "Three!" <br> The twins immediately burst into song. "There once was a boy named Harry, destined to be a star. His parents were killed by Voldemort, who gave him his lightning scar..." They proceeded to sing Harry Potter in 99 Seconds, then broke off laughing and gasping for breath. <br> "That was COMPLETELY random," Drew said after she stopped laughing. "But really, what were you thinking of?" <br> "Water balloons!" Adrielle grinned mischeivously. <br> Drew smiled. "I'm going to draw a pink sharpie mustache on Jason's face. Be back in a minute." Drew pulled a sharpie out of her pocket and crept upstairs into her brother's room. She uncapped the sharpie and found Jason snoring on his desk in front of an open laptop, then proceeded to lean over and ink a ridiculously curly mustache on her brother's face. Drew then slowly backed out of the room. <br> Of course, carmen chose that exact moment to emerge from her room. "What are you doing?" <br> Drew smiled and her other twin sister and said, "You'll see when he wakes up." Carmen rolled her eyes and followed Drew downstairs. <br> Drew picked up her laptop off the couch. "I guess I'll just write stories if I have nothing better to do." <br> "But what about the water balloons?" Adrielle asked with a pouty face. <br> Drew typed in her password and hit the enter key. "Maybe later, Elle. When it's hotter outside." <br> "Fine." <br> Drew opened her word processor and thought for a second. "Harry Potter, the next generation." Drew typed in the title. 'I so wish Harry Potter was real,' she thought. 'If I were a witch...' <br> Suddenly, Drew saw a bright white light. "Elle? What's that?" Adrielle apparently didn't hear her. "Carmen? What is going on?" Carmen didn't seem to notice that she was speaking. "Adrielle? CARMEN!" <br> The light suddenly grew blinding. Drew attempted to sheild her eyes but couldn't move. She found herself walking on a white bridge, then ran forward. She was quickly surrounded by a dark forest. <br> A woman stood in the din wearing a cloak. She then said, "I am Seer of the Night. Call me Seer. Welcome, Drew, to the Between." <p> Hey guys! I hope you like my story so far. I worked really hard! Thanks, and don't forget to comment! -Kelsey