September 11, 2013

A word about word-for-word

by Jesse Johnson

stack of biblesWhen talking about Bible translations, inevitably the expression “word-for-word” gets used. As in, “I really want a Bible translation that is word-for-word.” You will never hear me use that expression, and I want to succinctly explain why: word-for-word is a really bad approach to translating anything, particularly the scriptures.

Before getting to that though, here is a disclaimer: we live in an era of history where we have no shortage of Bible translations. Scores of English translations exist, and most of them are really good. But there are 1,967 languages in the world that don’t have any scripture, and another 1,275 languages that only have a New Testament—for a total of 3,467 languages where Bible translation either has not started or is not complete. Those statistics are important to keep in mind when talking about the differences between the ESV and the NAS.

Nevertheless, it is a good endeavor to compare Bible translations. It is not demeaning to God’s word to have a favorite translation, nor is it disrespectful to scripture to care strongly about translation principles. After all, it was Augustine who freaked out (NIV) about Jerome’s translation of the plant in Jonah as if it were a gourd instead of an ivy. Its important to remember that we should care about Bible translations, but not to the extent that we cause our comparisons to cast doubt on the power and authority of God’s word. You just have to come to terms with the fact that God breathed his word in Greek and Hebrew,and he also confused languages at Babel. The result is that we are reading a Bible that was not written in the languages we speak.

With that out of the way, “word-for-word” is a bad approach to translation.  

como te llamasLanguages consist of words, and words have meaning, but they have meaning only in their context. To use a common example from Spanish 101: ¿Cómo te llamas? Word-for-word, it means “how do you call yourself?” In Spanish it is how, not what. It is reflexive (you call yourself), and it is call—the word for name is nowhere to be found. Yet obviously you would translate this “what is your name?” The meaning of the phrase is more than the meaning of the word. It makes more sense to say that you are looking for a “phrase-for-phrase” translation than a “word-for-word.”

This is why translations themselves don’t call themselves “word-for-word.” In fact, when I hear the phrase “word-for-word” it’s often from someone who is using it to explain why they love the New American Standard Bible (updated, of course). That happens to be the translation that I preach out of, but the NAS itself in its introduction says “when the word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom.”  In other words, even the NAS says that they would rather use English idioms than be a word-for-word translation. That’s a good translation principle, not a bad one.

The other reason I don’t like the talk about one translation being more “word-for-word” than another (as if that were a good thing) is that it is just too hard of a subject to compare. The translations simply are not consistent on this topic because they have other principles at play than trying to be word-for-word. Here is one obvious biblical example: Luke 2:5 in the Greek literally says that Mary “was pregnant.” Yet the NAS and ESV opt for “was with child” while the NIV goes for “was expecting a child.” Notice that they add words (two Greek words become three or four English ones). The English meaning matches the original meaning, but apparently the translators of the NAS and ESV wanted to avoid calling Mary pregnant, so it was more important to say “with child” despite the fact that almost nobody says that phrase in English to begin with (when was the last time you said someone was “with child”?). The NIV apparently went with a similar approach, but at least used an American English idiom: “expecting a child.” The Holman, which is generally the least “word-for-wordish” of all major translations, here is alone in with its word-for-word translation: “was pregnant.”

Here is another example, similar to the Luke 2:5 one. In Matthew 1:23 the Greek literally says, “the virgin will have in a belly.” Lexicons let us know that the expression “have in a belly” is an idiom meaning to be pregnant. It makes sense that in a world with rudimentary medical knowledge and no ultra-sounds that an idiom like this would be used. But would it be good or bad translation to render that in English, “The virgin will have a big belly”? Here, the NIV and ESV go with “will conceive,” and the NAS and NKJV use “will be with child.” The Holman sticks with “will become pregnant.” Remember, it’s not an issue of word-for-word, as that would be “have a belly.” Its an issue of how to translate an idiom.

INterlinearI use those two examples because they are theologically neutral and benign ones that illustrate the point that looking for a word-for-word translation is more difficult than you might imagine. Really, the only word-for-word translation would be an in inter-linear that shows the Greek and English side by side. It just wouldn’t make any sense.

The truth is, the Holman, ESV, NKJV, and the NAS have almost identical translation philosophies. While there are differences between them, it is not in the area of “word-for-word.” They all translate phrases, they all wrestle with idioms, and they all use a wide range of words for single Greek words (for example, between them they use 50 different English words for the Greek word logos).In short, they are very similar translations, yet the way they apply their principles makes them different in style and flow.

If you are looking for a Bible translation to buy, consider simply using the translation your pastor preaches from. If you don’t want to do that, then choose by reading a few chapters from different translations, and see how they flow. See if they sound like clear English to you.

I usually encourage people to choose a translation by reading different chapters—as in read Psalms 1-10 in the NAS, 11-20 in the ESV, 21-30 in the Holman, or some approach like that. When you compare the same verse in six translations it is easy to get lost in the weeds of “why did they say ‘shall’ instead of ‘will’? Why did they say ivy instead of vine?” By reading chunks at a time, you come away with a sense of which one reads better to you.

In other words, there are better questions to ask than “is a translation word-for-word?”

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Dan Phillips

    I think everything you say here is true. However, as someone who’s worked with the Greek and Hebrew texts and English translations for >40 years, here’s how it strikes me.

    The principle of what you’re saying is well-nigh undeniable. But the effect often is as if you knew that, every time you say “The Bible does not forbid adults taking a drink,” 99 out of 100 people will instantly go out and get drooling howling plastered drunk, and will do so every day for the next year.

    For instance, I grant that the ESV is right when it goes the way you say. However, look at Proverbs 2. In the ESV, verse 12 begins “delivering you,” and verse 16 begins “so you will be delivered.” Problem? The Hebrew text in each case begins with EXACTLY the same word. Is the semantic sense totally different? It isn’t — however, this word is one of Solomon’s signals about the very intricate and artistic structure of the whole chapter (as I tried to bring out when I preached the chapter in overview, The English reader would have no clue.

    Though thought of as fundamentally literal, the ESV does that a lot, so English readers miss connections in the original text. Sometimes it is clearly for smoothness’ sake; here, there’s no conceivable reason.

    In my ideal world, there’d be two translations: one done for maximum faithful smoothness in reading, the other for maximum possible literality.

    And both would use “Yahweh” in the OT instead of LORD or GOD.

  • Barrett Hill

    I’ve grown to learn that there is great value in having more than one translation approach for us lay people who know not Greek and Hebrew. Are we blessed or cursed as English speakers to have so many choices of translations? I’ve encountered many a Christian who seek to elevate a single translation above all others for all uses. If one understands the translation approach one can better use a given translation and be better equipped when comparing identical text from different translations. A future post providing the lay of the land of the popular translations and how best to use them could prove fruitful (if such a post doesn’t already exist). It could also provide much comfort to those who are uncomfortable or confused as to why more than one translations exists. Keep up the great writing.

  • Bruce Newton

    Jesse, I have a different take on your spanish example. I believe the spanish wording is actually very acurate. Asking someone, “How do you call yourself?” is very different than asking them, “What is your name?” and I might expect a very different answer for the two questions if I was speaking wth Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner (Sting) or McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters). In translation, especially of the Word of God, we can never dismiss something as merely “idiom” or “colloquial” without asking ourselves why the author might have chosen to use that particular idiom or colloquialism and what nuances it might project in that particular context. It might be an attempt to make the narrative sync with the mindset of the particular regional culture – be it a provincial backwater or the religious hub of the nation. So much beautiful richness to consider when devouring scripture. I am glad I have the Holy Spirit to help me to understand what He wants me to understand – often through teachers like you. – God Bless.

    • Good point Bruce. So pretend you are a translating for a UN ambassador, and you get the dreaded como te llamas. What do you say? “How do you call yourself?” Or do you at least grant that the how should become “what” to conform it to the Ameicanized “what do you call yourself?” I’d also submit that if you asked the question like that in English it has all kinds of connotations not carried in the original Spanish (you list one of them above). So in a way you are making my point. A word-for-word translation carries with it connotations in the recipient’s language that were not there in the original language.

      • Bruce Newton

        Even worse Jesse, the “how” should maybe become “what” in Northern Virginia, but remain “how” in other regions of the country. Do you think the Lockman Foundation every thought of putting out separate versions of the NASB for different regions, i.e., changing the “you” to “y’all” when plural for the southern region release, or “yuns” for the Pittsburg version? I know this is a silly tangent, but with regard to your question above, where is the UN ambassador from? Now you have a three-way linguistic consideration. Sometimes the poetry of the KJV speaks to me like no other version, and sometimes I get more gritty meaning out of JB Phillips or the Message. But when I read the KJV, I often need to translate just the same way I do when I read Shakespeare.

  • kevin2184

    A great read is “How to Choose a Bible Version” by Robert L. Thomas (make sure to get the Revised Edition since it includes the ESV). The author uses the “Cloze Technique” in comparing a versions literalness vs its readability. The ranking categorizes the versions into 3 groups: “Literal Translation”, “Free Translation”, and “Paraphrases”. Of the “Literal Translations”, the order is (starting with most literal): ASV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NASBU, ESV, NAB, RSV, MLB, HCSB, and NRSV. The NIV, is, of course, considered a “Free Translation” with a ranking of 2nd in that category to most literal (the NJB is ranked as the most literal of the “Free Translations”).

    Interesting also is the “Reading Grade-Level” attributed to each translation: KJV (Grade 12), NASB (Grade 10), Living Bible (Grade 8), NAB, NRSV, NKJV, and NIV( all Grade 7); NLT (Grade 6), CEV and The Message (Grade 5), International Children’s Bible (Grade 4). Note that the ESV was not so ranked but IMO I’d put in in Grade 9 or 10.

    Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to “come out of the NIV closet” and declare my preference for the 1984 version of the NIV. There. I said it. That was tough, but a long time coming. I write this text with great fear and trepidation with the realization I am posting it in such an erudite forum as The Cripplegate and that I’m also a member of Grace Community Church where those who read the NIV have long ago learned to hide their “Nearly-Inspired” version under a Bible cover or, in the very least, always carry their bibles with the spine in the downward position and their hand strategically covering over any incriminating “NIV” text that may be embossed on the front cover. (All for the purpose of never letting the “NIV” moniker be seen by anyone, EVER, and thus avoid the uncomfortable confrontations from ardent NAS, KJV, and ESV adherents as they admonish the NIV simpleton with a strong dose of Matthew 18.) I realize too I am disclosing that I prefer the word of God written in the 7th grade level and that my preference is more for readability than for literalness. But so be it. I am a simple man: one who prefers readability of the text over the word-for-word woodenness found in the so-called “better” translations. Know too that I’m not alone in the above. I stand with my fellow why-should-I-have-to-decipher-what-could-otherwise-be-plainly-written brothers and sisters in unashamedly proclaiming that I have trouble deciphering the meaning of the passage when it is written more to the liking of William Shakespeare than one who lives in the 21st century.

    Thus, here I stand; holding both my 1984 NIV Study Bible in my one hand and my ESV John MacArthur Study Bible in the other. (I was compelled to purchased the ESV because Biblica removed all online versions of the 1984 NIV earlier this year. I do await, however, with great anticipation the long-ago promised NIV version of the MacArthur Study Bible).

    Thank you Jesse. I feel somewhat emancipated for some strange reason. Banish me from this forum if you wish, but you’ll never pry my 1984 NIV bible from even my cold dead hands.


    • Ha. Welcome to the club Kevin. The 84NIV wasn’t my favorite translation, but it did have a spot in my heart. You are among friends here.

      I really liked Dr. Thomas book, but I don’t really buy his rankings. First, there are just so many places (like the examples in my post above) where the labels don’t stick. But also, the KJV? That is so free-flowing that I can’t imagine how it would rank as “more literal” than any of today’s major translations? I just can’t get there. But I get the point, and have huge respect for Dr. Thomas. To this day, hearing his name gives me an involuntary fear reflex and I hide under my table.

      • kevin2184

        Thanks Jesse, but to me the KJV is as “free flowing” as a cow pond on a windless summer’s day. (I’m the type who barely got through Macbeth in High School and, if it were not for Cliff notes, would have failed freshman High School English entirely). Thus, I’m surprised the KJV didn’t rank as the most literal. I’ve never read the ASV (the #1 literal ranking) but I’m sure it would be to me as difficult (and impossible) as if I were attempting to read Martian.

        Your right about the preciseness of such rankings. The problem is that one is trying to quantify (very) subjective material, which is always controversial. Yet I think such third-party rankings are helpful especially when I consider the following observation I’ve noticed: When critiquing bible versions, critics tend to take the publisher’s word for the type of translation that their Bible is more so than what it actually may be. For example the ESV (which its publisher describes it to be an “essentially literal” translation) tends to be venerated by the “literal” adherents. However, and IMO, after reading the ESV since February, I (gratefully) find it to be very close to the NIV, much more so than it is to the NAS. In fact, some verses in the ESV are identical to the NIV. I would hazard a guess that there are more such verses identical or nearly-identical between the ESV and NIV than there are between the ESV and NAS.

        Which is why I find it rather puzzling when the “literal” proponents, whom discount the NIV (at least the 1984 version) tend to gush over the ESV as if its the best “literal” translation ever written yet when even its publisher includes the cryptic “essential” modifier to the word “literal”. I would make the argument that “essentially literal” is just a euphemism for the much-maligned “dynamic equivalence” terminology. For in my pleasant surprise, after reading the NIV for years, and since I began reading the ESV in February, I find that the ESV is more of a sibling to the NIV with the NAS being more of a cousin.

        And thank you for being version magnanimous (at least in regards to the 1984 NIV). For this is a topic comprised of such desolate and foreboding landscape where even angels fear to tread. Because of your post, I feel I can now carry my NIV bible on the campus of Grace no longer with trepidation. Now, if ever accosted by anyone questioning my salvation because of what is in my hand, I no longer have to answer, “It’s only because I left my ESV bible at home and my NIV bible just happened to be in the trunk of my car”. Rather, I can direct them to this post and proceed onward, carrying my 1984 NIV bible no longer with shame, but uncovered; allowing the NIV gold-embossed logo on the cover to freely glisten in the southern California sun.


        • Richard

          kevin2814, I love your evaluation of the NIV and your boldness in proclaiming your commitment to it. I’m putting your comments in a permanent file for comfort when I encounter the snide anti-NIV bigotry that you’ve characterized so well. (Maybe I’m even more in the dinosaur camp when I note that my Bible carries copyright dates of 1973/1978. I don’t know how that compares with the NIV84 discussed here. Could you help me on that?)

          Whenever I hear the usual criticisms of the NIV I recall that so many times I’ve heard or read sermons/messages where the speaker/author uses one of the “more acceptable” versions and runs across words or phrases that he feels need clarification. That clarification is usually that “a better translation of the passage would be thus-and-such.” And when I look in my NIV, the thus-and-such is exactly what I read! Very interestingly, I’ve even encountered this with Dr. MacArthur’s messages! (And I have nothing but the highest regard for him and the ministries of Grace Church.)

          • kevin2184

            Hi Richard, thanks, and to clarify, I’m actually on the side of those who critique post 1984 versions of the NIV (btw: I believe the 1984 only had minor changes to the original 1978 version.). I don’t like how Biblica made the gender-neutral changes starting with the TNIV (a silly and confusing name to begin with). Also, the latest version of the NIV (2010) is essentially just the TNIV renamed (although with minor changes, according to Biblica, from the TNIV). Thus, I remained loyal to the 1984 version as long as I could.

            Ironically, it was Biblica who provided the final impetus for me to switch when in Feb of this year, Biblica removed the copyright from all online editions of the 1984 versions (I believe only the 2010 NIV version is now available online). Also, I wanted to have the MacArthur Study Bible notes easily available in my daily bible. So, even though it was announced a year or so ago that the MacArthur Study Bible was to come out in an NIV version, I’m fairly certain it will be in the 2010 NIV version which I personally wouldn’t want to use. Therefore, I thought it best to simply make the switch to the ESV in Feb when Biblica removed the 1984 NIV version (online and I believe so in print as well). I decided to go with the ESV because I felt it to be the most similar to he NIV and since it was available in a MacArthur Study Bible.

            Also, I too have experienced the same as you when hearing preachers, whom I know don’t hold too kindly to the NIV, preach from a passage from the NAS or ESV that they explain would be better translated (whether they realized it or not) in the exact way the the NIV had translated it. A perfect example is 2 Timothy 3:16 where the NIV translates the critical wording using “God-breathed” referring the inspired origin of Scripture. Many times I found myself sitting in a pew and smiling as I would hear from the pulpit, “it would be better rendered as…” which was exactly the way it was so translated in the NIV Bible that was in my lap.

            Which is why I find it curious that many critics of the NIV hold such a favorable position of the ESV when 1), the ESV seems to be so similar to the NIV; 2) the ESV publishers essentially relegate it as a dynamic equivalent translation (although they use the term “essentially literal”), and 3) so many times of hearing from an NIV critic that a “better rendering” is as actually how the NIV translates it. Again, I think the critics are correct for all post 1984 versions of the NIV (so much so that I switched to the ESV). In short, I find Biblica (NIV’s publisher) to be the bigger culprit regarding the demise of the NIV rather than the critics of the NIV.

          • Richard

            Thank you kevin2184 for your kind reply. (And I apologize for the error in my previous post referring to you as kevin2814 instead of kevin2184.) Yes, I would also be on the side of those who critique post 1984 versions of the NIV, and I appreciate knowing the NIV84 is very much like the NIV78.

            As for the present bandwagon for the ESV and its accompanying disdain for the NIV84 and other “less accurate” versions, I find an interesting paradox. If I understand things correctly, it seems to me that the present anti-NIV84 camp claiming its lack of “literal accuracy” would be essentially the same in thought as that which accused the RSV of the same shortcoming when it debuted. But now this same camp lauds the ESV, which is adapted from the RSV (according to and other sources I’ve run across).

            Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that translation is far more subjective than most of us would think, and “literal accuracy” is, likewise, a very subjective label.

          • kevin2184

            Hi Richard, according to Robert Thomas in ‘How to Choose a Bible Version’, in referring to the ESV, he states, ‘Specifically, the work is a revision of the RSV of 1971 by a team of fourteen men.” A more direct source, the Preface to my ESV bible states, “The words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale-King James legacy, and most recently out of the RSV, with the 1971 RSV text text providing the starting point for our work.” So I too would find it odd if one were a critic of the RSV but then was a proponent of the ESV.

          • Richard

            Thanks again, kevin 2184, for your timely reply and your information.

        • Don

          The stylistic differences of NAS, ESV, NIV are addressed by their respective translation committees. Simply put, the New American Standard favors American style English, The New International Version chose a style most comfortable with English Speakers globally (thus “International”), and The English Standard Version follows a more European/British style English.

          The NIV is a very “tight” translation under the dynamic equivalence principle – opting for readability of style. So it is not difficult to follow along when someone is reading from ESV or NAS.

          My question still is “CAN you read it with understanding?” and then “WILL you read it?”.

          P.S. The study notes of the NIV Study Bible are to be recommended, good choice.

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  • Martin

    I was suprised to see a reference to the Modern Language Bible in one of the comments. This has become a fairly obscure translation. I discovered the MLB in a used bookstore a couple of years ago. I use it at home quite often. I carried it to church a couple of times, but when people spied my 1971 lime green hardcover, they’d invariably ask, “What is THAT?” So, MLB stays home, and ESV gets the honors on Sunday. It seems comparable to HCSB in literalness. Its use of vocabulary is more imaginitive than current leading translations, I think.

  • cnc

    you have to rem also that the Greek Manascripts that the english is based on is a translation of something else…but good article to keep you thinking..

    • Huh? My graphic may have been confusing as it is an OT passage translated into greek, then English. Only inter-linear graphic I could find.

  • Don

    I study and preach with the NASB. But when our folks ask “which Bible?” I usually reply “Which one will you READ?” Word-for-word, phrase-for-phrase, thought-for-thought makes little difference if you don’t understand it and don’t read it.

  • busdriver4jesus

    I’m sorry… I can’t help it! In the second paragraph, 1967 + 1275 = 3242 languages with no Bible; that’s a much more manageable number of lost people with no firsthand access to God’s Word.

  • Sue

    I think using a lexicon and commentaries is standard practice for Bible translation, and I would exercise caution if the translators are a bit fuzzy on these things. Lexicons give both words and expressions for translating tricky bits of Greek.

    Wayne Grudem was quite unaware for at least a few months in 1997, that the most basic meaning of adelphoi, in the plural, is indeed, “brothers and sisters.” It always has been in classical and Hellenistic Greek. So, in fact, the NIV (2011) is closer to the lexicons and more trustworthy. The NIV is a better representation of the Greek.

    Anthropos as well is used routinely in classical Greek to describe a woman as a human being. It can’t mean ‘man” male, no matter how badly people want that to be true. So, it is always better to translate anthropos as “human” or “person” or “people” instead of “man” or “men.” It would not be comprehensible to people who actually know Greek.

    Plato also talked about the aner, as male and female, so, for him aner also was gender inclusive and meant adult citizen. These are basic facts of classical and Hellenistic Greek. These are the kinds of things that you can find out in a lexicon.

    I then asked Dr. Packer about “propitiation” and why he thought that was important. He said that it was Tyndale’s word. Of course, it isn’t, because Tyndale is famous for inventing “atonement.” Propitiation was used in Calvin’s Latin commentary. It is a Latin word.

    Calvin also used “assume authority” in Latin of course, “auctoritatem assumare”in 1 Tim. 2:12. “Assume authority” also turns up in the 19th century translation of Calvin’s Latin translation into English. Its a good tradition. Grudem claims that this wording makes the NIV 2011 a “novel and suspect” translation. So we know that he is squarely against Calvin regarding 1 Tim. 2:12, but on Calvin’s side, when it comes to propitiation. I don’t know if there is a “Grudem’s rule” for when Calvin is trustworthy and when he is not. I would love to have that, if it exists.

    On 2 Cor. 5:17 here it is in Greek.

    ὥστε εἴ τις ἐν Χριστῷ, καινὴ κτίσις· τὰ ἀρχαῖα παρῆλθεν, ἰδοὺ γέγονεν [a]καινά·

    Clearly readers are not aware of the propensity of the ESV translators for adding or retaining “he” or “he is” in the English translation when there is no underlying Greek to defend this habit. Not uncommon actually.

    People may choose to read the ESV, but better to use a translation that is somewhat backed up by the lexicons in my view.

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