Bible Translations

Translation philosophy

Bible translations commonly adopt primarily one of two philosophies for determining the correct English translation of the Hebrew or Greek text. The first is “formal equivalence” or “word-for-word.” Here the translator takes each Hebrew or Greek word and attempts to translate it into the equivalent English word. An alternative approach is “dynamic equivalence” or “thought-for-thought.” In this case, the translator first attempts to determine the meaning of a complete phrase in the original language, then picks the English words that best convey the same meaning. The translators of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (and perhaps other translations) have opted to use “optimal equivalence” which might be explained as “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.”

I like the idea of “optimal equivalency.” The way I would phrase it is, “word-for-word as much as possible, unless it produces confusion.” I tried to think of an example where a word-for-word translation would create confusion, and although it’s not a great example, consider the following scenario: let’s say I’m translating the phrase “la bota negra” from Spanish to English. I look up each word in the Spanish-English dictionary, and I see that la=the, bota=boot, and negra=black. So the literal English translation would be “the boot black.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a boot-black is “a person who cleans and polishes shoes for a living.” However, anyone familiar with Spanish knows that the modifier (adjective) comes after the noun, whereas in English we put the modifier in front of the noun, so the correct English translation would be “the black boot.” This would be a case where a truly literal word-for-word translation would be a bad idea. Then, of course, sometimes a truly literal word-for-word translation isn’t even possible, because there is no one-to-one correspondance of the Greek or Hebrew word with an English word.

There’s also the issue that what is clear to one person might be confusing to someone else. Something that might be easily understood by an English major might be quite confusing to someone who struggled to graduate highschool. In that case, there is certainly a place for a variety of translations at different reading levels. Unfortunately, simplifying a translation can also require sacrificing some accuracy sometimes.

What if the original language is confusing? Should the translator take his best stab at the intended meaning, or leave it ambiguous so the reader can take it either way? This is a judgement call that the translator has to make, in part depending on how much confidence he has in his ability to interpret the true intent of the passage.

On specific translations, I have read mostly the NIV for the past 15 years or so, with exposure to the KJV and NKJV prior to that. I now have the NLT, and I like reading from it, but am not as confident in it’s accuracy. I also have begun to use e-Sword quite a bit, and I find that I like the LITV fairly well, but do a lot of comparing. The CEV, GNB, NLT, and Message are much more likely than other translations to pick an interpretation that is questionable. The Message in interesting, but I think Eugene Peterson tried too hard to be “hip,” and it comes off sounding corny sometimes. Although the NIV may not be as literal as others, I’ve remained fairly pleased with it; I haven’t seen many cases where it picks an interpretation I find questionable.

Originally posted 8/4/2005 on

Translation differences

Every translation of the Bible is a little different. Sometimes you read a verse in two different translations, and they have the exact same meaning. Sometimes there is a minor difference, which may only be significant if you’re using it as a proof text for some particular doctrine that relies heavily on that specific verse. Sometimes, though, you read a verse in two different translations, and they seem to say totally different things. I’ve listed three examples of verses where I’ve seen one or more translations pick an interpretation that precludes other interpretations.

Hosea 3:1

(LITV) And Jehovah said to me, Go again, love a woman loved by a friend, yet an adulteress…
Albert Barnes: “This woman is the same Gomer, whom the prophet had before been bidden to take.”
John Gill: “not the prophet’s wife, not Gomer, but some other feigned person.”

Another woman:
(CEV) Once again the LORD spoke to me. And this time he said, “Hosea, fall in love with an unfaithful woman who has a lover.
(I guess this could be taken to mean fall in love with his wife, but at first glance it seems to side more with Gill.)

His wife:
(NIV) The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress.

Since I’ve read primarily the NIV for the last 15 years, I had assumed that Hosea kept redeeming the same woman. Then I looked at the verse in e-Sword the other day and noticed that there were other interpretations, so now there is some doubt in my mind.

I just now noticed that the intro to Hosea 3 in the NASB says, “Hosea’s Second Symbolic Marriage,” so the editors evidently consider it to be another woman, even though the NASB text is ambiguous. The Amplified Version however, says “Go again, love [the same] woman [Gomer].” Strange, since the NASB and AMP are both published by the Lockman Foundation.

The whole book of Hosea seems to be about the cycle of rebuke and redemption that Israel goes through. Just in Chapter 2 alone, we see Israel condemned and cast aside in verses 1-13, then restored in verses 14-23. The pattern is repeated in subsequent chapters, as God continues to chastise Israel, until chapter 14 when He says that if they will return to Him, “I will heal their apostasy, I will love them freely, For My anger has turned away from them.”

Because of this pattern of redeeming Israel repeatedly, when it says in Hosea 3:1 to love this woman “even as the LORD loves the children of Israel,” the symbolism works best if the woman is the same woman. Since Hosea 2, with the focus on Israel, is right smack dab in the middle of the illustration of Hosea taking an unfaithful wife, I see no good indication that the illustration has shifted gears to having another woman in the story.

Genesis 6:3

(LITV) And Jehovah said, My Spirit shall not always strive with man; in their erring he is flesh. And his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.

Years until flood:
Adam Clarke: “God promised them one hundred and twenty years’ respite.”
Albert Barnes: “‘His days’ are the days of man, not the individual, but the race.”

Most translations are ambiguous, but Robert Young’s literal translation uses past tense for the word “ha?ya?h” translated “shall be” by other translations. In doing so he appears to side with the view that God has set a deadline for the flood.
(YLT) And Jehovah saith, `My Spirit doth not strive in man–to the age; in their erring they are flesh:’ and his days have been an hundred and twenty years.

Man’s new lifespan:
(NLT) Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not put up with humans for such a long time, for they are only mortal flesh. In the future, they will live no more than 120 years.”

In comparing translations, there are only a few that translate the passage to mean man’s lifespan is being reduced to 120 years, and these translations are the ones that tend to be the most liberal with “rewording” the text to make it more understandable. I am inclined to put more faith in the majority of translations that refrain from picking one meaning over another.

From reading the most literal translations, the 120 year deadline makes more sense to me than a shortened life span. When God says “My Spirit shall not always strive with man” I don’t think He is saying, “I don’t want to put up with anyone for more than 120 years from now on.” He appears to be saying, “I’m not willing to put up with the current state of mankind any longer.” This is consistent with what He says in verse 13: “the end of all flesh has come before Me.” We also see the past tense used here, which gives credence to the YLT usage of “have been” in verse 3. Since past, present, and future have no meaning to God, He looks at mankind and He sees their end 120 years from when He tells Noah about His plan.

If God just wanted people to stop living so long, why wipe out the entire population at once? It just doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of the story. Another problem with the reduced lifespan interpretation is that we continue to see people live beyond 120 years. Those who prefer the reduced lifespan interpretation will say that the reduction in lifespan was gradual not immediate, but I’m not sure this is a very strong defense.

There is one potential problem with the interpretation that the 120 years is the deadline until the flood. We are told in Gen 5:32 that Noah was 500 years old. Then in 6:3 God says there are 120 years until the flood. But according to Gen 7:6, Noah is only 600 years old when the flood starts. At first glance, the math doesn’t seem right.

This is only a problem though, if Noah is 500 years old when God makes His proclamation in 6:3. We might think that has to be the case since 6:3 comes after 5:32, but it’s not at all uncommon for a narrative to loop back to an earlier point in time when starting a new storyline. We see this earlier in Genesis also. God creates man in Gen 1:27, on the 6th day. Then in Gen 2:7, God “creates man” again. I’ve noticed this before, but I didn’t know until today that there is a special term for it: hysteron proteron.

As far as I can tell, the point of Gen 5:32 is not to establish that Noah was 500 years old when chapter 6 begins, but to establish that he was 500 years old when Japeth was born. In chapter 6, the context reveals that he was 480 years old when God made His proclamation in 6:3.

So far, the commentaries I’ve read all seem to agree with the view that the 120 years is God’s deadline, not man’s reduced lifespan. It remains a mystery to me why some Bible scholars decided that man’s new lifespan made more sense.

Exodus 21:22

(KJV) If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

Mathew Henry: “no hurt should be done them which might occasion their mis-carrying.”
Keil & Delitzsch: “no injury was done either to the woman or the child that was born.”

(GNB) If some men are fighting and hurt a pregnant woman so that she loses her child, but she is not injured in any other way, the one who hurt her is to be fined whatever amount the woman’s husband demands.

Premature birth:
(NASB) “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide.

The fact that the woman underwent physical trauma significant enough to cause a premature birth counts as an injury in my book. So when verse 22 says “yet there is no injury,” that would seem to me to make even more sense applied to the child alone since the woman clearly suffered some injury. Then in verse 23, “but if there is any further injury” would apply to both the woman and the child.

Originally posted August 2005 on

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