Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Bookmark and Share

« Scott Rae videos on Ethics at CPX | Main | Extra-Curricular Activities 9/17/10 »


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference What Constitutes an Accurate Translation? (Monday with Mounce 75):


I've heard the ASV called the best translation never made :) But, seriously, this is a question that bears a lot of thinking about.

By the way, welcome back; I missed your posts this summer. And congrats on your Olive Tree appointment.


We have done a disservice to the Church by convincing many lay people, who don't know the Biblical languages, that a word for word translation ("literal") is more faithful to the text. This easily spills over to ascribing bad motives to those who offer more dynamic or functional translations. As you know firsthand, translating is hard work that involves difficult decisions.

Thankfully many of the major English translations are excellent. We shouldn't imply otherwise by being translation snobs.

I would like to offer a personal suggestion for your consideration (even though your skill in Greek is vastly better than mine): I wish that the major translations like the NIV didn't feel so compelled to make the entire Bible read at an 8th or 9th grade level. The fact is that Micah is more difficult in Hebrew than Genesis and and 2 Peter is more difficult in Greek than 1 John. Rendering the Bible into intelligible English is not the same thing as rendering it all at a uniform reading level.

Bless your heart. I'm glad I'm not in your position~ that of negating your former translation concepts by doing your current work. I would never have put myself in that position, though!
However, growth is good, except when it constitutes overgrowth. I sense that you really grapple with these issues~ that it is not just about worldly things for you.
Praying for you, that God will be overjoyed with your work in this world.

Thank you, Mr. Bill Mounce, for asking such a question. Your question about the metric we call 'accuracy' is nearly as important as the answer, which still eludes us. Asking starts the inquiry. And, may I please say, that's more than many are willing to do.

Meditate on Acts 2.

What does this great hinge-point of God's historic program say about His intention and method for getting the message out to every linguistic group?

The audience was composed of multi-lingual people to begin with (note the question they asked each other vs 7-8). So, they understood more than one language. And yet, why marvel? It's a cosmopolitan situation through and through--it's the Pentecost feast when so very many people from so many different places gathered. What's the big deal?

Each was totally surprised that Galileans were speaking in a mother tongue not "Galilean"--ἕκαστος τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ ἡμῶν ἐν ᾗ ἐγεννήθημεν. Was this because the Galileans were so very ignorant? I don't think so. Or was it the fluency that surprised the audience? Was it the accuracy? Was it the mother-tongue-ness that surprised them?

What does that say about 'accuracy' in translation?

Also, meditate on the Tower of Babel. It's the inverse.

Why was the dispersion of languages so very highly effective? Weren't the people very highly capable? Wouldn't they have been able to form a committee and work out the word-for-word references so they could accurately understand each other? It should have been fairly simple, not?

If it were simple to accurately translate, then why haven't we yet mastered it?

It's more complex--much, much more complex--then word-for-word. There's a form-meaning composite that spans every dimension of form, be it word, phrase, sentence or greater.

Thank you for asking. I wish I had the answer.

Fascinating. I'm sure your time in Whistler must have been a priceless experience. I was particularly affected by your statement/question: "I am wondering if "accuracy" is also about accurately conveying the authorial meaning? What do you think?"

Hard to answer "No" to that. "Accuracy" by definition would involve accurately conveying the authorial meaning. Intuitively, one cannot disagree with that statement. On the other hand, once we mention or bring up authorial meaning, we are are now traversing into "interpretive" territory. In theory, the minute there is a divergence between the literal words of an author and his authorial intent and meaning (as WE determine it to be), are we not crossing over the slippery line into interpretation? This now runs the possibility of violating an earlier statement you made in this post: "An accurate translation is one that is as least interpretive as possible, one that reflects the grammar of the Greek and Hebrew." So, we are, in effect, in a catch-22. I don't think we'll ever succeed at being 100% interpretive-free. But, ultimately, I do agree with you. I think for accuracy sake, we are bound to translate functionally. Hebrew and Greek idioms that make no sense in English are useless to today's readers. I do really appreciate the difficulty of your task on the CBT. And I do appreciate your translation philosophy. Thanks so much, Dr. Mounce for sharing a little about the process with the rest of us. And may God give you all His wisdom.

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

I think the question of authorial meaning is maybe a good goal for interpretation - but I think it's an unattainable or even dangerous goal for translation. I guess I'm thinking from a Hebrew standpoint, but there's a real sense in Hebrew studies that what the writer communicates and what the Author means can be more than one thing. And then what Paul or Jesus does with the text is sometimes even a third thing. LOL - and I think it's more accurate to preserve that tension, and it's dangerous (and inaccurate) to cover up that tension in some cases.

BUT, I can imagine other examples where I think (opinion) where it's almost more inaccurate to communicate the text literally. - I think it'd be helpful for this discussion if we had an example to think about - because the suggestion of interpretation in translation in a direction of authorial intent is either great or bad depending on the example. - cop out? maybe.

Thanks for this post, I love to see people wrestling with God's Word! I have been using the ESV for years now and I appreciate it's "accuracy" however you brought up some very good points that I need to think through. I am in the process of Greek study, which I am hoping with give me better exegetical insight into which of these is best, or if they should be used equilaterally.

Language is signs and structures. Signs are pointers to things in God's world. Structures are links, signs between signs. Translation is the substitution of one peoples' signs with another peoples'. But translation is not preaching; we are not looking to meet people halfway. We are providing one end of a connection, not the bridge itself. No one interested in studying Plato would buy the NLT of the Phaedrus.

I don't think it's possible to completely separate accuracy from clarity; the two goals overlap though they are not synonymous.

It's not just the word level of meaning that matters, but also the concept level and impact level [=the emotional response evoked].

To draw from Dr. Joel Hoffman's book, "And God Said," we could look at the idea of the shepherd in Psalm 23.

About the only thing a shepherd is to us today is someone who raises sheep. This is correct at the word level of meaning, but the overall concept is foreign to us. We don't automatically think of a rugged outdoorsman who is a kind nurturer even to animals, yet is also a fierce protector. We don't imagine someone going staff and fist against a lion or bear to safeguard his flock. We don't consider someone who has to fleece his sheep, but be delicate and not fleece so much that the sheep won't have a strong coat to survive winter.

Not to mention the usage of shepherd imagery for leadership, especially royal and military leadership.

When we say "the Lord is my shepherd," none of this immediately comes to mind for an English speaker. The impact of "he's a kind and nurturing protector who will fight anyone or anything to keep me safe. I can trust him, and he knows what he's doing" requires extensive explanation.

I think the literal translation at least tells me closer what to expect when I look under the hood at the original text. Maybe split between the NIV and the ESV could be more accurate in conveying a meaning. I think it might best be on a passage by passage basis.

This is a very good blog and brings up an important question. What is accuracy? Language is always culturally specific. Words out of the context of the culture of the original language can be greatly misunderstood. As an example, I go hear a jazz band play and I say these musicians were really bad. Do I mean they did not play well or do I mean they were really very good? Normally bad means bad but in this instance bad means good. The Bible has several instances of exactly this type. I have some black friends who would occasionally say something (in English) which I didn't understand and when I asked them what they meant they told me it was a "black thing" and I wouldn't understand. Now the language was English but the cultural spin put on it made it unintelligible to me. The New Testament was written in a Second Temple Jewish culture and without a thorough knowledge of the culture, history and language of the period the meaning of a text can be misunderstood. So true accuracy depends on the translator not only knowing the language and the normal definitions of words but also on knowing the culture in which those words were given.


When I was a kid in the 70's the Bible version that we were told was the best was the God News Bible. It was used in schools, church and lots of people used it. When I was a bit older and started a more formal bible study course we were told that it was not a good enough translation and we should use the NIV. It became the standard version and the one that was used in at least our church. Then a few years later we had a change of minister and he does not think of the NIV as a good enough translation and uses the NASB (not very helpful when the church bibles are NIV).

Over the past few years I have bought the NLT, TNIV and just this week the HCSB. I have to say that I am more confused than ever!!

I want an easy to read translation that is accurate. I also don't understand the need for wordy translations.

NIV Mark 6:4 "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor" yes it make sense but no one speaks like this. Not very helpful in my view.

NLT Mark 6:4 "“A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.” much easier to understand.

You can't have a word for word translation, anyone who has tried to learn French or Spanish will tell you that. Words are used in different ways between languages. You can't just take an english sentence and swap the words to french. Also language changes over the years. So translation of the Bible is never going to be easy.

I think that most translations have a place and that we should be encouraged to use more than one bible version in daily life. However this is not going to be helpful for new Christians. Put an KJV in front of someone who has never read the bible or Shakespeare and they just won't read it. There is a need for a middle of the road modern translation thats accurate enough for study, daily devotion but in clear english.


hi bill! as a person who speaks 2 languages i think you are totally right that a literal word for word translation is not always accurate--especially with idioms/phrasal verbs! i wish i knew greek just so i could see what it really says for myself :)

Thanks for all the comments. It is helpful to see what people are thinking. --Bill

All translation involves interpretation. If not, just use an interlinear and be done with it. I think it's much more important to look at the translators than the translation itself, and if the goal is to read a natural sounding English translation to receive God's Word, then the NIV is great. If you are doing original language word studies, and have a knowledge of them, then an interlinear would fit the bill. The closer you get to a literal translation, the more important it is to have a grasp of the original languages or you can easily misunderstand what is being said. For those of us who use normal English and know little or nothing about Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, I would suggest using a solidly conservative translation of the Bible such as the NIV, HCSB, or NET.

I would love to take a trip to Italy.

Wonderful!! You are asking the most relevant question facing biblical translators, and believers in general. Everyone who speaks more than one language knows that "literal" translations do not convey the fullness of meaning of original ideas and sentences. Single words do not always match up from language to language, and some have no counterparts in another language. Sometimes a word requires a phrase in another language to convey original meanings.

Blessings to you and your co-hearts in your quest for biblical accuracy.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Koinoniablog.net Analytics

  • :