Translation Philosophy: Three Views

As a Bible professor, I hear a lot of questions regarding translations:

When a translation says it’s more literal, it’s the most accurate, right?

Doesn’t “gender-neutral” mean it’s bad?

Do certain Bible translations promote women pastors?

Which Bible translation should I use?

In trying to help them answer these questions, Liberty University allowed me to invite three representatives from three of the bestselling Bible translations today. Doug Moo agreed to speak on behalf of the 2011 New International Version (NIV), Wayne Grudem defended the English Standard Version (ESV), and Ray Clendenen contended for the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). The symposium offered just a glimpse of what we’ll be exploring in a book I’m editing with Andreas Köstenberger that will be published by Broadman & Holman Publishers and available in fall 2012. This book will compare about sixteen passages between four major translations.

Does ‘Literal’ = Accurate?

Major Bible translations typically reflect one of three general philosophies: formal equivalence, functional equivalence, and optimal equivalence. Formal equivalence is called a word-for-word translation and attempts to translate the Bible as literally as possible, keeping the sentence structure and idioms intact if possible. The NASB and KJV are representatives of this camp. Functional equivalence is typically referred to as a thought-for-thought translation. This is an attempt to translate the text so it has the same effect on the current reader as it had on the ancient reader. The NLT exemplifies this theory. Optimal equivalence falls between the former approaches by balancing the tension between accuracy and ease of reading. While striving for precision in translation, it also seeks clarity to the modern day reader. The ESV leans toward the formal equivalent translation philosophy. The NIV tries to balance these approaches and may lean toward a functional equivalence theory. The HCSB is an optimal equivalence translation. Clendenen, Moo, and Grudem do a fine job at explaining each of these theories while contending for their translations.

You can get a sense of the sometimes contentious discussion over gender-neutral translations issue by listening to their comments on Psalm 1:1 and whether the Hebrew word ish should be translated as “man” or “the one.” Grudem and Clendenen side with “man,” while Moo sides with “the one.” Watch the debate and decide how you think it should be translated.

Do Some Bible Translations Promote Women Pastors?

The presentation on 1 Timothy 2:12 brought out the most intense discussion of the evening. Moo defends the NIV’s translation of “assume authority” for the Greek word authentein by saying that this is an ambiguous phrase in English. Clendenen acknowledges that “assume authority” can mean different things in English, but he rejects that Paul was trying to be ambiguous. The ESV translates “exercise authority,” and the HCSB translates “have authority.” Grudem vehemently rejected the NIV’s final translation of 1 Timothy 2:12.

Several other issues remained unresolved at the conclusion of the evening. Here are two

1.) The HCSB prides itself on a few translation distinctives, including the use of “Yahweh” several hundred times in the Old Testament. Moo’s response was that if “truly, truly” is too difficult for modern readers to understand (which Clendenen stated earlier in the debate), then surely “Yahweh” is ten times more difficult to understand.

2.) Regarding the translation of slave/servant/bondservant, the HCSB consistently translates doulos as “slave” in the New Testament (this is not the case with ebed in the Old Testament). The ESV uses “bondservant” (i.e. 1 Cor. 7), “slave,” and “servant,” depending on the context. The NIV mostly uses “servant,” with some uses of “slave” as well (about thirty).

I’d also like to highlight a few other interesting remarks from the debate:

1.) Grudem doesn’t like term “formal” and contends that the issue of “form”—that is, retaining the word order from the original—is a minor issue. The main issue is meaning. He favors the term “essentially literal.”

2.) Moo said that a good translation is “one that makes good decisions” and that “there is no such thing as an ‘undecisioned’ translation.”

3.) Clendenen highlighted the use of notes by the HCSB, showing 11,000 notes available, compared to 6,000 for the ESV and 3,000 for the TNIV.

4.) Grudem argued for the superiority of the ESV in Colossians 2:11 because it leaves the interpretive options open rather than deciding for the reader. However, in the Q&A regarding 1 Timothy 2:12, he said: “We want to allow both views, all right, but not if one of them is a wrong view.”

In the end, the debate was an edifying time. Many who attended said they have more clarity and appreciation for all three translations. I believe that all three would agree that “more literal” does not mean “more accurate.” The “gender-neutral” translation debate will continue. And whether or not the NIV’s translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 advocates women pastors . . . you’ll have to watch and decide for yourself.


This spectrum image may help you visualize the differences between Bible translations:

  • Carlos

    A little bit of insight for those who are wondering what translation to use. Although, I’m sure most of the people that read TGC already have a preference.

  • Steven McCarthy

    So, I think I’ve got this down: Every translation is a mix of formal and functional equivalence, with some tending toward one and some to the other. “Optimal equivalence”, on the other hand, is a term the publishers of the HCSB made up to say, “we strike the right balance, unlike everybody else”. Nicely played HCSB. Nicely played.

  • Dave Sarafolean

    Nice article but it really doesn’t break any new ground.

    I think that your diagram is backwards. In other words, I would put ‘word for word’ on the right and ‘thought for thought’ on the left. ‘Word for word’ is a more conservative approach to translation than ‘thought for thought’. That left/right distinction, borrowed from politics, may be something you wish to avoid but when it makes perfect sense as you view things from each end of the spectrum.

    • Melody

      No that would be more confusing and imply something that isn’t true.

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  • Steven McCarthy

    I have written up a brief thought on the (to me) amusing term “optimal equivalence” used in this post and in material from Broadman & Holman Publishers at my blogger site (click on my name above). I realize I may be making myself a bit of a gadfly in this, and if I’m mistaken about this term, I’ll be happily corrected, but it does appear that Broadman & Holman made this term up, and you have to admit, don’t you, that it’s rather amusingly self-congratulatory to make up a term with the word “optimal” to describe your translation philosophy.

    Here’s the exact post:

    • Steven McCarthy

      Just to clarify, I am not being paid by either Zondervan or Crossway Bibles.

  • Ray Pennoyer

    One thing I hope we will agree on: The Message is over-used in the evangelical community. It is not good for personal study and should be quoted from the pulpit only rarely. There is just way too much Eugene Peterson in it. If I want Peterson I’ll grab one of his books from my library. I don’t need to see his fingerprints all over the Psalms or Matthew or Timothy. The NLT is a much more responsible translation if you are looking for something thought-for-thought.

    One time (no kidding) I was reading a poorly formatted theology book and was two or three paragraphs through the page until I realized – hey, this is a QUOTE of Romans 8 from the Message! It was almost unrecognizable.

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  • Sue

    Was there any discussion of the history of translation for 1 Tim. 2:12? For example, it used to be translated as “to be the lord of” (Jerome, Wycliff) “to usurp authority” (Erasmus, KJV) and “to assume authority” (Calvin.)

    I feel sometimes this is misrepresented, and there is no explanation that the NIV 2011 is using the historic translation of Calvin.

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  • Ashraf Aly

    I agree totally with all mentioned here in this blog. In fact not all translation is the same and also not all translators have the same way to translate.
    I personally while translating , I prefer to use the functional equivalence , because I believe in that translator is not a machine, and the reader is not too.
    Translator must understand very well not only the meaning , but also the feeling and the mode of the writer and translate all this.

  • Ashraf Aly

    It is very effective and useful blog.

  • Bob

    The “Message” is a translation? I thought it was in another whole category – paraphrase. If not what is the difference between a translation and a paraphrase?

    • K. Khan

      From what I understand, a translation is where the original Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic is used to translate into (in this case) English. The Message is translated directly from the original texts, which is why it is a translation. It is not a word-for-word translation, and is probably the least word-for-word translation available in English. NASB is a more word-for-word translation compared to most English translations. The Message, I believe, is more thought-for-thought. Since Greek grammar structure, etc., is different that that of English, a more thought-for-thought translation will aim to get the idea of the sentence across using as many literal words as possible without losing the meaning for the average modern English reader. A great pairing is the NASB and The Message.

      A paraphrase is a rewording of another translation, e.g., starting with an English translation like the KJV and then rewording it in English to make it sound more modern. In other words, no translation from one language to another is being done here. This is usually something like old-fashioned English to modern English, whereas a translation will be Greek to English.


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