Translation Theory

By T. David Gordon, 1985.

While not everyone who drives an automobile needs to understand the theory behind the internal combustion engine, someone does need to know this theory. I may be able to drive my Pontiac without any knowledge of internal combustion engines, until the Pontiac breaks down. Then, I must find someone (presumably a mechanic) who does in fact know enough theory to get the Pontiac running again.

The same is true of translation theory. It is not necessary for everyone to know translation theory, nor is it even necessary for pastors and teachers to know everything about translation theory. It is necessary for pastors and teachers in the American church at the end of the twentieth century to know something about translation theory, for two reasons. First, it will affect the way we interpret the Bible for our people. If we are completely unaware of translation theory, we may unwittingly mislead our brothers and sisters in our interpretation. Second, there are so many English translations available, that no contemporary pastor will be able to escape the inevitable questions about which translations are superior.

It is not my intention to provide anything like an exhaustive approach to either translation theory or semantic theory (relax, I'll define this word later). Rather, I intend to discuss briefly the more important observations, which may be useful to the pastoral ministry.

1. Communication has three parties.

Translation theory shares a number of concerns with what is commonly called communication theory. Perhaps the most important observation which the communication theorists have produced for translators is the recognition that every act of communication has three dimensions: Speaker (or author), Message, and Audience. The more we can know about the original author, the actual message produced by that author, and the original audience, the better acquainted we will be with that particular act of communication. An awareness of this tri-partite character of communication can be very useful for interpreters. Assuming that an act of communication is right now taking place, as you read what I wrote, there are three dimensions to this particular act of communication: myself, and what I am intending to communicate; the actual words which are on this page; and what you understand me to be saying. When the three dimensions converge, the communication has been efficient.

If we know, perhaps from another source, what an individual author's circumstances are, this may help us understand the actual message produced. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letters from Prison" are better understood by someone who knows the circumstances under which they were written rather than by someone who is oblivious to mid-20th century American history. If we know information about the author's audience, this may also help us to understand the message itself. John Kennedy's famous, "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech is better understood if one understands the apprehensions which many West German citizens had about American foreign policy during the early 1960s (and, knowing the audience was German may help explain why he did not speak this sentence in English!).

Recognizing that in addition to the message itself, there are the two other components of author and audience, the interpreter attempts to uncover as much information as possible about the author and audience. This is why biblical scholars spend so much time attempting to locate the circumstances of a given epistle; they are trying to discover information about author and audience, which will help complete the understanding of the particular act of communication represented by the message.

At this point, an important warning needs to be expressed. For students of literature whose original audience and author are not present (i.e., dead), we only have direct access to one of the three parties in the communicative process: the message itself. Whereas we would be profited by having direct access to author and audience ("Paul, what in the world did you mean about baptizing for the dead?"; or, "How did it hit you Galatians when Paul said he wished his troublers would castrate themselves?"), it would be incorrect to suggest that we must have such access for any understanding to take place. Frequently one encounters the extravagant statement to the effect that "one cannot understand a biblical book unless one understands the author's (or audience's) circumstances." The problem with such statements is that they imply that we can have no understanding without access to information which simply does not always exist. We haven't any idea who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, or why, other than what may be indicated in the letter itself. Does this mean that we can't understand it in any sense? I think not. We just have to recognize that information, which would assist the act of interpretation, is, in this case, missing.

Related to this warning is a second. For Protestants, scripture itself is authoritative. Our reconstructions, often highly conjectural of the historical circumstances under which a given biblical work was written and read, are not authoritative, by my understanding of Protestant theology. Those reconstructions may assist our understanding of the biblical text, but they are not, in and of themselves, of any religious authority.

Finally, we might add that the essential error of many exegetical theories is their exclusion of one or more of these three parties from consideration. While many important debates are continuing to influence interpretive theory, our evaluation of these debates would do well to retain a role for each of the three above-mentioned dimensions.

2. Formal and Dynamic Equivalence

One of the ongoing debates about translations revolves around the question of whether, and in what degree, the translation should reflect the syntax, or form, of the original language. All translators agree that the translation should reflect faithfully the message of the original, but all are not agreed on whether the translation should adhere closely to the grammatical forms of the original language.

Translations can be located on a spectrum, which would have, at one extreme, rigid adherence to the form of the original language (formal equivalence), and at the other extreme, complete disregard for the form (not the message) of the original language (dynamic equivalence). An interlinear would come the closest to the first extreme, followed by the NASB. At the other extreme would be the NEB and TEV. In between would be the RSV and NIV, with the RSV leaning more toward a formal equivalence, and the NIV leaning more toward a dynamic equivalence.

It is probably fair to say that most contemporary linguists favor the dynamic equivalence approach in theory, though they might be disappointed in the various attempts at producing one. The reason for preferring to reproduce the thought of the original without attempting to conform to its form is that all languages have their own syntax. While the syntax of one language may be similar to the syntax of other languages, it is also dissimilar as well. Thus, if we attempt to adhere to the formal syntax of another language, we reproduce forms which are abnormal or confusing, if not downright distracting in the target language.

For example, Greek tends to have very long sentences, whose various clauses are arranged in a logically hierarchical fashion. That is, there will be a number of dependent clauses connected to an independent clause. This type of sentence structure, perfectly normal in Greek, is called hypotactic (clauses are arranged logically under one another). English, by contrast, is not so comfortable with long sentences, and does not provide any easy way of indicating which clauses are dependent upon others. Our sentence structure is called paratactic (clauses are arranged logically alongside of one another). If we attempt to reproduce, in English, sentences of the same length as the Greek original, our audience will not be able to follow our translation. Ephesians 1:3-14, for instance, is one sentence in Greek, with well-defined subordinate clauses. If we attempt to reproduce a sentence of this length in English, the result will be so awkward that few, if any, English readers would be able to follow it. Consequently, translators must break the longer Greek sentences into shorter English sentences.

For the pastor and teacher, it is important to be able to recognize the hypotactic structure of the original language, because it is frequently of theological and ethical significance. For instance, there is only one imperative (independent clause) in the Great Commission -- "make disciples." All the other verbs are dependent. The other clauses help to describe what the commandment means. Most English translations, however, obscure this matter by translating the Great Commission as though it were a string of equivalent imperatives. What's worse, they tend to treat one of the dependent clauses as though it were the major (independent) clause ("Go"). So the teacher or pastor needs to be able to understand what is going on in the structure of the original language, without necessarily trying to reproduce it in an English translation.

There are other differences between the two languages. Greek typically uses passive verbs; English prefers active verbs. Greek typically makes nouns out of verbs (making "redemption" as common as "redeem''). Speakers of English are not as comfortable with these abstractions; we are happier with verbs. A dynamic equivalence translation will commonly reproduce the meaning of the Greek in a more natural manner in English. In 2 Thess 2:13, for instance, pistei aletheias, is translated "belief in the truth" (formal equivalence) by the RSV, but "the truth that you believe" (dynamic equivalence) by the NEB. The latter, while not any more accurate than the former, is a little more natural, and thus more easily understood.

A classic example of the difference between English and Greek syntax is evidenced by the difference in their respective employment of the participle. First, the Greek participle is much more common than the English. But the Greek participle is also used differently than the English participle. Greek commonly employs the participle in an attributive fashion, as a verbal adjective. This is very rare in English. James Taylor does sing about the "The Walking Man," but this is rare outside of artistic expression. We would normally produce a relative clause, "the man who walks." Because of the differences in the way the two languages use their respective participles, we simply cannot translate a Greek participle with an English participle in many cases, without being obscure or ambiguous. Dikaiothentes in Romans 5:1 should not be translated, "having been justified" (NASB: formal equivalence), but, "since we are justified" (RSV: dynamic equivalence).

There are problems, however, with dynamic equivalence translations. Since the translator is "freer" from the grammatical forms of the original language he is more likely to exceed the bounds of an accurate translation, in an effort to speak naturally in the native language. That is, the dynamic equivalence translations are capable of being more natural and more precise than are formal equivalence translations, but they are also more capable of being precisely wrong. For instance, in Romans 8:3, Paul uses the phrase: dia tes sarkos. A formal equivalent translation, the RSV, renders this "by the flesh," which is faithful to the original but somewhat ambiguous in English. The NIV renders this much more precisely, by the phrase, "by the sinful nature." Unfortunately, the NIV is precisely wrong here, because Paul is not talking about a lower nature, or a sinful nature at all. In fact, he is not speaking anthropologically, but redemptive-historically. In this particular case, I believe we would be better off with the ambiguous "flesh," and have to ask what, 'flesh' means for Paul, than to have the more precise but utterly un-Pauline "sinful nature."

Another problem associated with dynamic equivalence translations is related to their use as study Bibles. Since a given word may have a number of meanings, it is frequently impossible, and more frequently confusing, to attempt to translate a given Greek word with the same English word in every case. Consequently, the dynamic equivalence translation can give a more specific rendering in English, being unbound by an attempt to reproduce the same Greek word in the same English manner. This produces better understanding, frequently, of individual sentences or clauses. However, it does not permit the English reader to know when the same Greek word lay behind two different English words. Since the only way to know what a word means is by first examining its full range of uses, there is no way for the English reader to know what words are behind the English words found.

For instance, when Paul says he could not address the Corinthians as pneumatikoi, but rather as sarkinoi (1 Cor 3), he employs the adjectival forms of what we normally translate "Spirit" and "flesh." And, in Romans 8 (as well as elsewhere), it is clear that life in the Spirit is redeemed life; whereas life in the flesh is unredeemed life. If the adjectives in 1 Cor are translated "spiritual," and "fleshly," the reader can see the correspondence to other Pauline passages, and understand that Paul is saying, in effect, "I could not address you as redeemed people, but as unredeemed people." But the NIV construes sarx as "sinful nature" in Rom 8, and sarkinos as "worldly" in 1 Cor 3, with the result that the reader of this translation is not aware that in the original the same root form was employed. The conclusion of this is that the dynamic equivalence translation, when done well, renders in more precise and more vivid English particular expressions. However, it makes it more difficult to compare individual passages with parallel passages elsewhere.

In any given congregation, a variety of translations will be present. The teachers in the church must have the competence to discern which one represents the original most accurately in English in any circumstance. In my judgment, none of the contemporary translations is manifestly superior to the others. Each is a blend of strengths and weaknesses, due to the difficulty of the task.

From the pulpit, of course, some versions can be excluded rather easily. Paraphrases, while useful to illustrate a point, should never be used as the basic sermon text, because they reflect so thoroughly the opinions of the paraphraser. Also, children's Bibles, such as the Good News, and, to a lesser degree, the NIV should not be used as the basis of a sermon directed toward the entire congregation. The NASB should not be used, simply because its English is atrocious. Its rigid adherence to the formal equivalence principle, while making it highly useful in the study, renders it completely inappropriate in a setting where communication is important.

The NIV should not be used from the pulpit, in my judgment, because it is a sectarian translation. It is a self-confessedly "evangelical" translation, which excluded non-evangelicals from the translation process. It is therefore ecclesiastically unacceptable (it excludes from the outset people who don't call themselves "evangelical," just as the Kingdom Translation excludes people who don't call themselves Jehovah's Witnesses). In fact, even for study purposes, one will have to be cautious about the evangelical bias reflected in this translation, whereby the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of evangelicalism have not been offset by a more "inclusive" committee.

Specifically, the NIV shows many signs of being individualistic, experientialist, and revivalistic (I am speaking about the NIV New Testament; I haven't evaluated the NIV Old Testament thoroughly yet). At the same time, the NIV ought to be in the minister's study because it is a good illustration of the demands of a dynamic equivalence translation, and it is also very successful at many points. The RSV, reflecting the breadth of the church, a high style of English, and a reasonably accurate representation of the original text, is perhaps the preferred text for pulpit use.

3. Translation is a theological task

It has become increasingly clear that translation cannot really be performed in a theological vacuum. When a variety of linguistic options present themselves, theological factors can influence the decision to choose one option over the other. In fact, such factors should influence the translation. The resolution of the translation question about how to translate telos in Romans 10:4 is resolved in large part by resolving larger questions about Paul's theology; how he understands the relation between the older testament and the Christ event, etc. Since theology is to be determined by the Bible, and since translating the Bible is determined, at least in part, by theological considerations, it is easy to see that there is something of a circle here. Fortunately, it is not a vicious cycle, because if one is willing to entertain sympathetically a variety of options, one can grow in the confidence with which one evaluates a given translation. One must never pretend, however, that translation is a step of "pre-exegesis" or "pre-interpretation." The first step of interpretation is translation. This step will influence all other steps, so it must be approached with the entire arsenal of theological tools.

Semantic Theory

It is appropriate now to move to some consideration of dealing with the meaning of individual words (commonly called lexical semantics). A lexicon in the hands of an over-imaginative preacher may be the deadliest of all human instruments. In terms of sheer percentages, more pulpit nonsense may be attributable to a misunderstanding of how words communicate meaning than any other interpretive error. Since the technical study of linguistics began in the early nineteenth century, a number of very valuable insights have been discovered by the linguists. What follows is an attempt at providing some of their most useful insights for those who want to teach and preach faithfully.

1. Semantic Field and Context

Most words can mean a number of things. Take the English word, "run." It can appear in the following (and many more) contexts:

The athlete is running.
Her nose is running.
We scored a run in the sixth inning.
I have a run in my stocking.
Does your car run?
My computer runs on Windows.
For how long is the movie running?
You want to run that by me again?
His sermons seem to run on forever.
She's running the flag up the pole.
Jackson is running for President.
Who left the water running?

Enough, already. It is obvious that most words can mean a number of different things. How do we know what a word means in a given circumstance? Well, we don't just choose the one we prefer. In fact there are two components to meaning: semantic field and semantic context.

By semantic field, we mean the full range of ways the word has and can be used (an example is the above, partial semantic field for "run"). By examining the "field" of possible meanings, we begin to narrow the options. Normally, there are still too many options, so we have to take another step. The second step is to determine the semantic context. If "run," for instance, can refer to rapid, bipedal locomotion in some contexts, we can eliminate that option in contexts where there are no legs or feet. If "run" can mean "flow," or "drip," it is a possible way of understanding it where noses and faucets appear, but not where liquids do not appear. In everyday speech, we do this kind of comparison to semantic context so rapidly and unreflectively that we are not normally aware of doing it. But we do it nevertheless, and normally with great accuracy. It is imperative that we do this with biblical literature as well. No word brings its full semantic field with it into any given context. Yet many fanciful pulpit statements are due to the attempt to do this very thing.

2. "Root" Meanings

Many people speak of "root meanings." Many people speak of ghosts. Neither exists. Apparently, when people speak of "root" meanings of words, they are attempting to find the distilled essence, or the common semantic range of the word in each of its contexts. This may, by dumb luck, work in some circumstances, but it won't work in most. What common "root" meaning is there in the word "run" which can account for the variety of uses listed above? Is it motion? Perhaps, for the athlete, the flag, even the nose (which doesn't move itself, but its contents do). But is there any "motion" involved in the statement that a person is running for an office? Is any motion taking place when a movie "runs" for six weeks? Is a "run" in a stocking a movement of some sort? I fail to see how there is, without redefining the word "motion" to include virtually everything. And if we do this, then we aren't learning anything specific about the term in question (This is the practical deficiency of the Componential Analysis approach to Semantics; if one finds an element common enough to be related to all the various uses, it isn't specific enough to be any real help in any given context). In actual fact, we don't really know why people use terms in such a broad range of ways as they do. But the answer certainly doesn't lie in the fact of some alleged "root" meaning, common to all uses. Thus, for interpretation's sake, it is better not to speak of "root" meanings at all. Just look at the entire semantic field, and then limit that field by the contextual considerations.

This doesn't mean that there are no similarities in the variety of a term's uses. If we return to "run," we can determine several "sub"-fields. We can see "run" used of liquids, to indicate they are flowing. We can see "run" used with machines to indicate that they are operating as they should. We can see it used in reference to putting one foot ahead of another repeatedly, in rapid succession, which would embrace the athlete, and, by extension, the "runs" in a baseball game (which are a short-hand reference to someone "running" around the bases). But these fields do not appear to be related to each other, and worse, these fields do not account for the stocking or the flag. Perhaps we ought to just bring "root" meanings out once a year, on October 31st, and then put them back for the rest of the year.

3. Etymologies and Semantic Change

Etymology is a perfectly valid field of study. Etymology is the study of the history of a word's usage. It has the historical benefit of demonstrating to us what a word might have meant in a given period. One thing etymologists have discovered, of course, is that words change over time. That is, people apparently use terms in an increasing variety of ways, extending known usages, and coining new usages. Thus, the history of a word's usage is not necessarily any help in determining its meaning in a particular context. And certainly it is not the case that the "earliest" known meaning is the "true," "real," or, need I say it, "root" meaning. "Gay," for instance, might well have meant "happy" or "carefree" in certain places in certain times. It most emphatically does not mean that today in San Francisco. Do not be misled; a "happy" hour at a "gay" bar may be a very miserable experience for a heterosexual teetotaler.

The biblical interpreter is not particularly interested in what a term may have meant several centuries prior to the time in question. Rather, the biblical interpreter wants to know what range of meaning a term had in the period in question. Etymology is not particularly helpful as a guide to the meaning of a term in any given context. Semantic context is the more reliable guide.

4. Polyvalency

You may run across (oops, another use of "run") this term from time to time, so you may as well know what it means. "Polyvalency" refers to the ability of a given term to have a number of meanings in any given historical period. "Run" is polyvalent. It is important for the interpreter to be aware of the full range of possible meanings of a given word, before determining what it means in its given context.

5. Words and Concepts

For the sake of clarity, it is helpful to distinguish between a word and a concept. Most words can be employed to denote a number of concepts, and most concepts can be addressed by using a range of terms. Thus, charis is a word; grace is a concept which can be labeled in a variety of ways. So, if you want to study, "The Grace of God in the New Testament," you would certainly include not only a word study of charis, but also passages which refer to God's gracious activity without employing that particular term. For instance, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard reflects God's gracious character, as those who come along late in the day receive equal recompense with those who have labored all day. God graciously gives the kingdom not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles, who come on the scene a bit late, redemptive-historically speaking.

6. Semantic "Minimalism"

One of the best axioms to apply when attempting to discover the meaning of any given word was first coined by Ferdinand de Saussure and his followers. The best meaning of a given term is the meaning which contributes the least to the overall meaning of the sentence. In most communication acts, we do not "load up" a given word with a lot of meaning. Rather, we speak in paragraphs and sentences -- the individual words have little meaning in and of themselves, but much meaning when tied to one another. Many seminarians and preachers seem to be unaware of this, for they frequently interpret the Bible as though its individual words were almost magical, possessing great truths and mysteries in six or seven letters. There are very few technical terms in any language, which are more heavily "loaded" than most words.

Concluding Observations

If one were to state briefly the results of linguistic study in the last few generations, one would certainly have to refer to the importance of context. Linguistics has made us repeatedly aware of the fact that the fundamental communicative unit is the sentence, not the word. Individual words, removed from the context of a sentence, rarely communicate effectively. Words strung together, mutually supporting and interpreting one another, can communicate very effectively. For biblical students, this means that we must look at the larger unites of communication (the sentence and paragraph) at least as seriously as we look at individual words. We must be aware of the fact that a given word can signify a number of different things in a number of different contexts.

Personally, I would like to see more sermons on whole chapters of scripture, and even on entire books, and fewer sermons on a verse here or there. If a person can produce a single 20-minute distillation of Romans 1-11, he can certainly handle Romans 6:3 when it shows up. If the contextual emphasis of contemporary linguistics can help us see the "forest" of a biblical book, as opposed to merely the "trees" of individual words, it will have done us and God's kingdom a great service.

Dr. T. David Gordon, a native of Richmond, VA, is currently Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, PA, where he has served since 1999. Previously, he had taught for thirteen years at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.