We often distinguish between two types of translations, a formal equivalent and a dynamic equivalent. Formal tries to stick to the Greek/Hebrew grammar as closely as possible while still making sense in English. Dynamic focuses more on meaning; as the NIV says in its preface, “we have sought to recreate as far as possible, the experience of the original audience.”
I wonder if we should actually think in terms of three categories, the third being “natural language.” A natural language like the NLT appears to give virtually no attention to “how” it was said in Greek and Hebrew; it focuses its attention fully on conveying the same meaning in English and using English vocabulary and grammar that is totally natural to English speakers.
(Perhaps this is where the word “paraphrase” should settle, although the term has been misapplied and misused to imply inaccuracy despite the fact that all translations, in various places, are forced to paraphrase.)
Take for example 1 Tim 2:9.
ESV. “I desire … that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.”
NIV (1984). “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”
NLT. “And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”
The Greek is μὴ ἐν πλέγμασιν, “not with braided hair.” But what is the problem with this “literal” translation? As is sometimes true of word-for-word translations, it obscures meaning, the very thing that a word-for-word translation seeks not to do.
The historical understanding of this verse is simply that ladies are not to braid their hair. But what is wrong with braided hair? Nothing. There is nothing inherently wrong with twisting strands of hair around themselves. So what is Paul talking about?
All you have to do is look at some ancient statues of wealthy women. Their hair is braided, pulled tightly against their head, and then they put jewels (gold and pearls) into their hair, thus enforcing a social pecking order and class system that was woefully inappropriate for the church as a community of loving brothers and sisters.
So how should πλέγμασιν be translated? If you write the actual word, you miscommunicate. For some like the ESV, that is okay; the expectation is that people will study the Bible, not just read it. For natural language translations, it has to be explained.
Interestingly, the NIV, which is not a natural language translation, is often found sitting on the fence as its translation philosophy requires. Fear of people easily misunderstanding is always a major concern for translators; I can attest to that in both the ESV and the NIV committees. But look how the NIV (2011) handles the conundrum. “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”
The decision was evidently made that “braided hair” miscommunicated, as evidence by the teaching of some churches in the past, and that the term had to be interpreted, something that all translations do, including the NASB and the KJV.
This is the simple fact of translation; these decisions have to be made. As the Italian proverb says, “Translators are traitors.” At some level we all are traitors to the text, saying a little less than the Greek says (thus leaving some meaning behind) or a little more (when trying to clarify). Under- and over-translation.
A good reason to learn Greek and Hebrew, and an even better reason to read more than one translation.William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more about Bill at BillMounce.com, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at BiblicalTraining.org.