It is so refreshing to read the following from John Walton:
“When people want to study the Bible seriously, one of the steps they take is to learn the language. As I teach language students, I am still always faced with the challenge of persuading them that they will not succeed simply by learning enough of the language to engage in translation. Truly learning the language requires leaving English behind, entering the world of the text and understanding the language in its Hebrew context without creating English words in their minds. They must understand the Hebrew as Hebrew text” (Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 9).
One of my contentions in modern study of the ancient languages is that this desire to teach and learn the languages for the purpose of only being able to translate has led to some major problems in the understanding of the biblical text amongst scholars and preachers. Being able to translate a text is not the same as being able to understand the text. And the best translators will be the ones who really understand the languages.
The book isn’t brand new (a year old), but I’m interested in the little tract (31 pages) by Kevin DeYoung called Why Our Church Switched to the ESV. In it, DeYoung doesn’t attempt to advance scholarship on the translation issues but rather seeks to address why he and his church switched from the NIV to the ESV. My interest in it lies in the fact that I have made the opposite switch for my main English reading Bible.
I used to be convinced by the arguments found in this book and others and so had an ESV-is-best mentality. Soon after I started to seriously study how language creates meaning and worked more in depth with translation, I found the claims of many ESV-is-best proponents, including my own, to be lacking.
In the same way that DeYoung offers thoughts on his own move from the NIV to the ESV (personally and in his church), I want to offer my own thoughts on why I moved from the ESV to the NIV. But in DeYoung’s case, he wants to say that the ESV is the better translation for use (30). I personally don’t want to say that the NIV is a necessarily better translation for use, but more so that the ESV-is-best mentality is false and then offer why I prefer the NIV as my main English reading Bible. The difference is important as I won’t be bound to defend every decision the NIV translators made or even to defend the NIV as the best English version.
DeYoung offers up in his introduction that he thinks God has and can use other types of translations and he complements the NIV. He states that the ESV isn’t perfect but he still wants to say that he hopes it becomes the new standard “used for prayer, preaching, memorization, study, and worship in more and more churches” (8). The fact that he thinks God can use the NIV and other translations isn’t so much a complement, however, since God can use some pretty awful things to bring glory to his name. The issue of whether or not it is a “faithful” or good translation still remains and DeYoung recognizes this otherwise there would be no reason for him to write this book.
DeYoung gives 7 reasons he and his church switched to the ESV:
1. The ESV employs an “essentially literal” translation philosophy.
2. The ESV is a more transparent translation.
3. The ESV engages in less over-translation.
4. The ESV engages in less under-translation.
5. The ESV does a better job of translating important Greek or Hebrew words with the same English word throughout a passage or book.
6. The ESV retains more of the literary qualities of the Bible.
7. The ESV requires much less “correcting” in preaching.
Since the issues underlying these points are massive, I will only offer up 7 counterpoints at the moment with a little bit of substance (so that I’m not just saying the negation of each point), and then as I have time I will fill out the series one by one, responding to them.
My seven counterpoints are as follows:
1. “Essentially literal” translation philosophy provides a modification of a category within a sphere that offers up a false dichotomy (literal vs. thoughts). The modification of the literal notion does not go far enough in addressing the false dichotomy, still insinuating that meaning occurs at the level of words while introducing a vague notion of context. This vague notion of context at least recognizes that the meaning of words are constrained, but it fails to address meaning that occurs beyond the level of the words. After all, “the meaning [of a text] is always more than the sum of individual words” (Thompson, Introducing Functional Grammar, 29).
2. The notion of transparency comes from a false notion, I believe, of glossing rather than a robust notion of languages as systems with their own meaning-making resources. There is some awareness that languages are not codes for each other in DeYoung’s work, but it is also clear that no robust understanding of systems is considered leading to a notion of transparency based on… what? Glosses from our favourite Greek lexicons? BDAG perhaps? The notion of the Greek lexicon itself may be scandalous, however. Confer, in the meantime, John A. Lee’s work A History of New Testament Lexicography and Stanley E. Porter’s chapter on lexicography in Studies in the Greek New Testament. This issue requires a lot more discussion and I have some thoughts here.
3. DeYoung argues that the NIV adds words unnecessarily and so over-translates but this is dependent upon his view of literal translation in the first place which I will argue is not accurate. I am more interested in what stands behind this notion than in whether or not the NIV “got it right” in particular passages.
4. DeYoung argues that the NIV under-translates as well by at times avoiding theological terms and important concepts though he doesn’t provide arguments that this is a bad thing, he only implies it is by calling it “under translation” and attempting to provide a couple of examples. He may be right but whether this is good or bad is another issue. His implication is that it is bad, of course.
5. Consistency in translating words may aid an English only reader in concordance type searches but it doesn’t necessarily aid in the interpretation of meaning in passages, the more important issue. If I had to choose one, I would go for meaning in context rather than consistency in wording. We may have to choose one of the two options for a single translation but both options in separate translations may help the English only reader best.
6. This one kind of cracks me up, as if the literary qualities of a book only exist and are created at the word level! Literary qualities are created at a higher level than simple words and the sum thereof. A dynamic equivalence translation (I don’t like the category but I use it here) may be even better suited for such a task since it is not bound to the level of the words and word groups.
7. I think this “correcting” idea comes from a false sense of (again) languages as systems and also how to preach exegetically and what can be carried over from the original text into English. It’s funny that one of the greatest proponents of our day of expository preaching is D.A. Carson and he has used the NIV and TNIV for a number of years in preaching! When I hear him preach I don’t hear him “correcting” the text except to make adjustments based on his scholarship as he would of any imperfect translation (i.e., all of them). Some of the issue here is related to #2.
So much more needs to be said and arguments need to be offered in full. That’s why I will break this up into a series of posts. Given my current schedule I won’t be promising a certain output on a specific schedule, however. But I hope I have said at least enough to get the reader thinking in the meantime.
Now, I said I personally switched to the NIV. I will devote an entire post to this once this blog series is done. But for now, I will say that this move was not because I think it is necessarily the best translation out there. I switched to it because it more consistently tries to translate meaning at the level of the clause where the real meaning-making in the lexicogrammar (lexis and grammar) occurs.
At the same time, I have a certain level of proficiency in Greek so I spend the bulk of my study there and am not bound to English versions (though my Hebrew is not near where it needs to be yet so I am bound to English in the OT). Not everyone has the luxury. Sometimes the fact that the majority of Christians don’t have original language proficiency is used as an argument for the ESV. In my mind, and this will be argued at length later, it shouldn’t lead a person to one translation or the other, but rather to a number of translations. This recognizes that the Bible was not written in English, but in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. No one translation can capture all the meaning of the original in one go, although I get the impression from ESV-is-best folks that it is attainable. I don’t think so.