January 9, 2006

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible

I am considering switching my primary Bible translation. For some time, I have been using the New King James Version, which I favor for its formal equivalence translation philosophy and its English style. However, I am increasingly reevaluating my opinion of it as I begin to look more at the original Greek of the New Testament and to question some of the principles of translation theory that I had previously believed. The points on which I am becoming dissatisfied are as follows: (1) the NKJV is incredibly hidebound to the Tyndale tradition, so that mistakes made in translations long ago persist to the present (see here) and it has failed to keep up with the changing meaning of words over time, especially those words that were introduced to the English language by transliteration of Bible words (see here). (2) More literal can sometimes mean less accurate, and this does sometimes occur in the NKJV: phrases are translated literally from the original in ways that are ultimately misleading to modern readers. (3) The NKJV often uses words that are now technical terms of theology in places where the original uses everyday language (the original uses everyday language pretty much everywhere. The leading contender for a new Bible translation for me is presently the Holman Christian Standard Bible. In this post I intend to examine the HCSB's translation of three verses in which I believe most translations make mistakes due to their reliance on tradition. I will look at (a) whether the HCSB corrects the mistake, (b) the literary style and English grammar of the HCSB, and (c) whether the HCSB lives up to its "Optimal Equivalence" translation philosophy.

Matthew 25:26-27

NKJV: But his lord answered and said to him, "You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest."

The problem: Greek okneros does not ordnarily mean "lazy." This translation is the result of a change in Latin leading to the Vulgate's translation, Latin piger meaning lazy. In fact, the original means timid or hesitant.

HCSB: But his master replied to him, "You evil, lazy slave! If you knew that I reap where I haven�t sown and gather where I haven�t scattered, then you should have deposited my money with the bankers. And when I returned I would have received my money back with interest"

Is the problem fixed? No. HCSB uses the same word as NKJV.

Does the HCSB render the passage in good English? Yes. I particularly like the use of contractions in this context, as it gives a less stilted sound to a passage that is definitely not stilted in the original. The langauge here is natural and flows well.

Does the HCSB follow its stated translation philosophy? Sort of. HCSB ignores the Greek idiom which uses two verbs for the master's response and is rendered in the NKJV by "answered and said." However, since this is just the standard idiom in Greek it may be appropriate to convert it to the standard idiom in English which uses only one verb. Still, the passage could have been rendered more literally without loss of accuracy or flow by a phrase like "in response, his master said." The HCSB makes the right decision in rendering kurios master rather than lord here. I also like the rendering of the phrase "You evil, lazy slave!" as an exclamation. The rendering of "if you knew that I reap ... with the bankers" as a single conditional is an unnecessary change in the structure of the Greek. Rather than "if you knew ... then you should have" it ought to say, "You knew that ... Therefore you should have," which is perfectly good English. I conclude that in this passage, contrary to its stated translation philosophy, the HCSB alters the structure of the original language text more than is necessary for purposes of accuracy and readability.

John 3:16

NKJV: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

The Problem: The NKJV rendering suggests the reading "God loved the world so much that ..." whereas the most natural reading of the Greek is "God loved the world in such a way that ..." This was discussed on Better Bibles Blog last month.

HCSB: For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.

Is the problem fixed? Absolutely! The HCSB rendering is much more accurate than the NKJV.

Does the HCSB render the passage in good English? Sort of. The use of explanatory "for" is rather unusual in contemporary English. Other than that, the passage sounds good to me.

Does the HCSB follow its stated translation philosophy? Yes. The only difficulty is the phrase "one and only." The Greek monogenes, traditionally translated according to its etymology as "only begotten" is difficult in contemporary English, partially since we don't have the word "begotten." The most straightforward reading of this word in context is "unique," which is what the HCSB is trying to get at with "one and only." However, we know from the ancient creeds, particularly the Nicene Creed's "begotten, not made," that the early church read this etymology as having theological significance. However, I am content to leave this kind of significance in the hands of theologians and commentators who speak Greek. Based on these concerns the HCSB translators have included a "bullet note", but these notes don't seem to be included in the online version I'm working from, so I don't know what it says.

1 Corinthians 11:10

NKJV: For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

The problem: The most natural reading of exousian echein epi tes kephales, here translated "have a symbol of authority on her head" is "have authority over her head," as Peter Kirk pointed out in the comments on this Better Bibles Blog post.

HCSB: This is why a woman should have [a symbol of] authority on her head: because of the angels.

Is the problem fixed? No. HCSB takes the same unnatural interpretation as the NKJV.

Does the HCSB render the passage in good English? Yes. The sentence is perfectly natural English with good grammar and style. It is difficult to interpret, but so is the Greek, in this case.

Does the HCSB follow its stated translation philosophy? Yes. The HCSB's interpretation of the touto at the beginning of the passage as looking ahead to tous aggelos is well supported by the grammar, and I can't think of a better way to render that relationship in English. I am quite satisfied with the structure of the English sentence here. I believe an interpretive mistake is made with regard to the exousia phrase, but if we grant the HCSB translators their interpretation, then they have rendered the passage correctly according to their translation philosophy.


Out of 3 points:
HCSB scores 1 for correcting mistakes of traditional translations.
HCSB scores 2.5 for English style and grammar.
HCSB scores 2.5 for following its stated translation philosophy.

I conclude that my informal and unscientific survey of these three passages is not enough to justify a switch from NKJV to HCSB at this time, but the HCSB continues to look like a fairly good overall translation. I agree with the HCSB's stated translation philosophy, and my survey does indicate that HCSB does an overall good job following it. Does anyone have suggestions for other verses that should be considered in this way, or other translations I should perhaps be looking at?

Posted by Kenny at January 9, 2006 12:04 PM
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Whatever works. I use the KJV -- but a Billy Graham version that, it says, corrects the mistakes. But I use the NKJV for, example, anything by Paul, because I'm looking for clarity. I suppose other (non-PC) modern translations of Paul would work fine for me. I use the KJV, not because that's the ONLY version worth reading, but simply because I enjoy the poetry of it (think Herbert, Donne, Eliot, etc.). The Bible contains the greatest poetry ever written, and from that point of view, the KJV is the best at bringing that "poetry" out.

Posted by: steve at January 11, 2006 1:25 AM

The best Bible for capturing the poetry of genuine poetic sections is The Message. The KJV isn't anything like that. It sounds to most contemporary English speakers as poetic even when it's not supposed to.

The "one and only" rendering is a much more literal rendering. The ancient interpreters who attached theological significance to etymology were engaging in a common exegetical fallacy.

You didn't mention the more accurate "slave" over the NKJV "servant". Most contemporary translations consistently get that wrong.

I haven't looked at it in a long time, but I remember the authority issue being much more difficult than simply going with what Peter calls the most natural reading. There have been enough interpretations of that verse that I hesitate to say any rendering is clearly right. Peter knows Greek grammar far better than I do, but the difficulty with that verse is that every interpretation suffers from some disadvantages, and scholars would be debating it even if it weren't a politically loaded passage. I'd be far more likely to trust a complementarian who renders it the way he does or an egalitarian who renders it the other way, but I don't remember who holds what views anymore, and my books are currently in the sleeping baby's room, or I'd glance through them.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at January 13, 2006 7:24 PM

Oh, I forgot my main point. I wouldn't judge a translation on three verses, though this kind of analysis on troublesome verses does tell you something. A lot more of this would be necessary, but I think more comprehensive and straightforward reading of less-debated texts will give you a better sense of the most important things about any translation.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at January 13, 2006 7:26 PM

Jeremy, thanks for your thoughts. I brought up the ancient interpretations because the Nicene Creed, for instance, is very early, when people were much closer to the time, and it suggests to me that the etymological reading was a natural reading at the time of writing. Furthermore, the theology in the Nicene Creed presumably pre-dates the actual time of writing. If the theology that Christ was "begotten" whereas the Holy Spirit "proceeded," and these two things were different, developed when Polycarp was still around, for example, and Polycarp didn't denounce it as contrary to John's intention, this would lend some credibility to the claim. All I'm trying to say is that if we are looking for the reading that would have been most natural for the originally intended audience, then interpretations made close to the time of writing are relevant. Beyond that, the Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed have, in my view, a sort of quasi-Scriptural status (I could discuss this at length at another time - no, I'm not Catholic or anything like it), and this makes the Nicene Creed's interpretation (if it is in fact an interpretation of John) all the more relevant to the issue.

Of course I wouldn't judge translation just based on these few verses, it just seemed like a good start. Thanks again for your thoughts.

Posted by: Kenny at January 13, 2006 9:19 PM

I've just deleted a long comment that pasted an article full of 'King James Only' nonsense. I deleted it because it (a) was full of misinformation, and (b) didn't belong here. However, since I am opposed to censorship and think everyone should get a chance to read this nonsense for themselves, I will tell you that the deleted comment copied and pasted this article. I advise that you completely ignore everything the article says. It has all of the facts wrong and is based on stupid theological assumptions (namely, the inerrancy of the King James Version).

Posted by: Kenny at July 25, 2006 5:59 PM

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