Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, September 13, 2010

What is an "Accurate" Translation?

I had a fascinating experience this summer. I spent my first three weeks on the NIV translation committee, the CBT. We were locked away in Whistler, Canada, discussing, agreeing, and sometimes disagreeing on the nuances of the meaning of words and the meaning of biblical passages. It doesn't get any better than that!

Well, perhaps a week in Switzerland would be better.

It was a really good time. Some of the committee members I had only known from a distance. Some I had known through my dad since his Bethel days. One I lived with in graduate school (Craig Blomberg). And others were brand new friends.

What was most educational was to see how dynamic translation works, first hand. From my years on the ESV I had gained an appreciation for formal equivalent translation, but to actually be part of a dynamic translation (okay, "functional equivalence") was a great teacher. I watched godly men and women struggle, sometimes agonize, over just the right wording so the NIV would faithfully convey the same meaning as intended by the biblical author. Whoever says dynamic translators have a lower view of Scripture needs to sit behind the veil and watch this group work.

So this brings me to the topic today: what constitutes an “accurate” translation? Obviously I can’t settle the debate in one blog, and I am in process of thinking about it myself; but I would like to encourage all of us to start thinking about this.

I think most of our gut reactions would be: “word for word.” An accurate translation is one that is as least interpretive as possible, one that reflects the grammar of the Greek and Hebrew. The basis of this claim is structural. We have been trained to think that if we stick as close to the form of the foreign language as possible, then we are being more accurate.

But I have been wondering if accuracy is really a matter of structure. I have long held that accuracy mandates the distinction between dependent and independent constructions, and I still hold to that. But beyond that, I wonder if a “literal” translation that makes no real sense in English can accurately be called “literal,” or even a translation that makes a biblical writer sound almost illiterate. We know this is not true in the case of idioms; we rarely translate the idiom “into the ages or ages” word for word. We translate the meaning as “forever.” But what about other Greek and Hebrew constructions that when translated make no sense?

I am not talking about natural language, translating into the modern English idiom of our own subculture the way the NLT does. I am simply wondering if a “word of word” translation that makes no real sense can in any way be called “accurate.”

I am wondering if “accuracy” is also about accurately conveying the authorial meaning? What do you think?

Important disclaimer: as I talk in this blog about issues of Greek translation, please understand that I am speaking only for myself, never for the CBT. The NIV is translated by a committee, and only the chair of the committee (Doug Moo) speaks for the committee. And please do not try to extrapolate from my blog to how you think I might have voted on the CBT. Please let the words of the blog stand on their own. Thanks.


Thank you for your sincerity. I am responding to your question, "I am wondering if 'accuracy' is also about accurately conveying the authorial meaning? What do you think?" It is important to me to be able to read a translation that conveys what the author was saying to the people he wrote to in that time period, with all the historical influences and language of that day. I read a passage in Scripture and wonder, "What was this author really saying? Was this expression an idiom? Was this in picture language? What did this mean to the people addressed? Was he quoting something? and questions of this nature. I am at a loss to find such a translation as this. Do let me know if such a translation exists, and I have Wuest, Amplified, and the Message, none of which meets the need of my soul. I will keep you in my prayers for the work on the NIV.