Translation Theory
Traddutore, traditore!
Rodney J. Decker, Th.D., copyright 1998, all rights reserved.
Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania
 Donor
language, the language from which a
translation is made (= the text being
 Receptor
language, the language into which
a translation is made
 Gloss,
a useful translation equivalent (often
of the unmarked meaning of the word) (see
 Meaning
 The
sense of a word that can be expressed in a
definition (see LSD)
 Some words can be defined apart from a referent,
though they may have a referent in a particular
 E.g., twelve” can be defined as a number
indicating a specific quantity, but there is no
referent unless it is used in a context that
mentions, e.g., “the Twelve” = the disciples)
 Referent
 to
what (or whom) the word points (some words
are only referential, e.g., “Paul,” and cannot be
Differences between languages
 Vocabulary
 Semantic
domains, words in various languages
have varying ranges of meaning, the specific
semantic domain of one word (e.g., filevw, which
includes love, like, kiss) does not exactly overlap
with the semantic domain of its closest equivalent
in another language (e.g., “love,” which does not
normally include the more general term “like” and
never means “kiss”).
 Quantity
of words, languages have different size
vocabularies, which points out quite clearly that
there can be no word-for-word translation, else
how could we translate koine Greek (vocab. of
about 5,500 words) into Hebrew (which has only
about 4,000)?
 Morphology/inflection,
languages have
different systems of inflection which impinge
on translation as to how word function is
indicated, etc.
 Syntax,
varies widely from language to
language; a strict formal equivalence,
maintaining the same word order, results in
 Verbal
system, Hebrew and Greek do not
grammaticalize temporal reference (English
 Culture-related terms: weights, measures,
dates, currency, calendars, time; how do you
translate when the “scales” of each language
are so very different?
 Style
 How
does one translate when good style in
one language is considered poor style in
 E.g.,
an abundance of passive voice and
particles = good Greek style, but poor English
Context and Semantics
 Illegitimate
totality transfer: the fallacy of
reading all a word’s semantic domain into
every individual usage of the word to find
“more meaning.” cf. Amplified Bible; sermons
that build multiple points from different
 Importance of context (“Context is king.”)
The most important factor in determining the
meaning of a word is the context.
Word-for-word “translations”
KJV, 1611 preface
“Another thing we wish to advise you about, gentle reader,
is that we have not bound ourselves to any uniformity of
phrasing or to any identity of words. Perhaps some,
noticing that some scholars have been as exact as
possible that way, would wish that we did the same. Most
assuredly we were extremely careful. We made it a matter
of conscience as was our responsibility. When the word
meant the same thing in both places, we did not vary from
the sense from what we had translated before. For there
are some words that do not have the same meaning
Word-for-word “translations”
“However, it would mince the matter to express the same
notion by the same particular word…. Such would smack
more of fastidiousness than wisdom and would evoke
more ridicule from the atheist than profit for the devout
reader. Has the Kingdom of God become words or
syllables? Then why should we be in bondage to them
when we may be free? Or use one word precisely when
another word would be no less appropriate? … Add to this
the fact that squeamishness in words has always been
counted the next step to trifling. The same is true about
fastidiousness in names.
Word-for-word “translations”
“Further, we cannot follow a better pattern for style than
God Himself. If He used different words in Holy Writ, and
indifferently, for the same thing in nature, then we, if we
are not superstitious, may take the same liberty in our
English translations from Hebrew and Greek. (“The
Translator’s to the Reader, §16.)
RV, 1885, Lightfoot’s dictum: “the same English
words to represent the same Greek words … as far
as possible in the same order” (NET preface, 7).
 Social contexts (sociolinguistics; Carson, ILD, 6567)
Translation Models
 “It
is impossible not to lose something when
you translate an extended text from one
language to another” (Carson, ILD, 58).
 Usually
something not in the donor text is
added as well! (e.g., separate forms for “we
inclusive/exclusive” in some languages;
differing temporal reference systems, etc.)
Translation Models
 “There
is always some loss in the
communication process, for sources and
receptors never have identical linguistic and
cultural backgrounds…. The translator’s task,
however, is to keep such loss at a minimum”
(de Waard & Nida, FOLA, 42)
Translation Models
 Unhelpful
 “Literal”
(because most who use this term assume
that it equals “more accurate, superior, faithful,
exact”; besides, just what does “literal” mean?)
 “Word-for-word”
and “phrase-for-phrase” and
“thought-for-thought” (cf. Carson, ILD, 70)
Translation Models
 Interpretive
(all translation is interpretive,
even formal equivalent ones)
 “Every
reading of a text by a finite being is an
interpretation of it…. translation is never a
mechanical task…. Translators must
understand the donor text, or think they do,
before rendering it into the receptor text”
(Carson, ILD, 72).
Theoretical models
 Formal
equivalent: a translation that seeks to
translate from one language to another using the
same grammatical and syntactical forms as the
donor language whenever possible.
 “Consistent
execution of formal equivalence is
impossible, and if one opts for the axiom ‘as
formal as possible,’ one frequently ends up with a
translation that actually distorts much of the
meaning in the donor text” (Carson, ILD, 70).
Theoretical models
 Functional
equivalent: a translation that seeks
to represent adequately and accurately in
good receptor-language grammar, style, and
idiom that which the words and constructions
in the donor language conveyed to the
original recipients.
 “The closest natural equivalent in the receptor
language, both in meaning and style” (NET
preface, 7 n.4)
Theoretical models
 Dynamic
equivalence: “The quality of a
translation in which the message of the
original text has been so transported into the
receptor language that the response of the
receptor is essentially like that of the original
receptors” (Eugene Nida, The Theory and
Practice of Translation, 202).
 It seeks to make the same impact without
regard to the form of the original language.
Theoretical models
 Paraphrase:
A simplified summary of the meaning
found in the donor language. “A paraphrase tells
the reader what the passage means, whereas a
literal translation tells what the passage says”
(Metzger, 148).
 Practical
 More
 More functional
 “No translation is exclusively formal; none entirely
avoids formal features” (Carson, ILD, 69).
Range of contemporary
More Formal
More Functional
N ETtxt
N LT Phillip s
 “The
science of translation is both one of the
easiest and one of the most difficult of tasks.
It is easy in the sense that any beginning
student of language can develop confidence
quickly in making wooden translations—
rendering the original in hard-to-understand
one-to-one correspondences. It is most
difficult in the sense that much expertise is
needed in both the source language (the
original text) and the target language (the
translation) if a person is to arrive at a good
 “The
task is made more difficult because one
(ideally) has to interpret accurately and fully
and yet not read in foreign ideas that are not
innate to the text”
 “Early in his ministry, the writer believed that
a strict, word-for-word rendering was always
best. However, as his knowledge of Hebrew
syntax improved, it became more and more
evident that this method can, if uniformly
used, actually be a hindrance to an
understanding of the true sense of the
 “For
a passage to be properly translated, it
must represent adequately in good English
grammar that which the Hebrew words and
construction conveyed to the original
recipients. To do less actually accomplishes
the opposite of the translator’s intention; that
is, by trying to render a text in a ‘literal’ wordfor-word manner, the translator (in actuality)
keeps the reader from properly understanding
the complete message of the Hebrew original.
 “Therefore
the translator with this
methodology unintentionally robs the English
reader of truth, insofar as he does not
adequately convey all of the intended ideas in
the text.”
 Robert
P. Teachout, Th.D., “Notes on
Translation,” unpublished, Detroit Baptist
Seminary, [ca. 1979].
Cultural issues in translation
“White as snow” in Irian Jyra = “make dirty”
(black people sitting around a fire and get
white ash on them = dirty!)
“Stand at the door and knock” in some
cultures implies a thief! (Only a thief knocks to
see if anyone is home before robbing the
house; a friend will shout, not knock.)
Cultural issues
“Nurse a baby” in Australia = hold a baby
(not: breastfeed)
 “Heart” in its biblical sense is equivalent to
“gall bladder” in some Philippine tribes and
“liver” in many African contexts.
 “Son of man” in Kouykon Indian dialect of
Alaska and Canada = “son of any man” =
“bastard, illegitimate son”—not an appropriate
translation as a title for Jesus Christ!
Cultural issues
Snake meat vs. eel (In Other Words, June
 “God of the Dead” (In Other Words, Ap. 89)
 Taboo language (In Other Words, Ap. 89)
Inclusive Language
 We
should not automatically assume that any
“agenda” that seems to come through in a
translation must be a translator’s bias.
 It may well be a reflection of the Bible’s
agenda—which is often different from various
politically-correct agendas in contemporary
Western culture.
 Our task is to accurately represent the original
whether we like what it says or not.
Inclusive Language
 Must
distinguish between:
 “Gender
neutral” translation and
 “Inclusive language”
 Gender
neutral attempts to eliminate any
reference to gender, whether of God or
people (e.g., “God our heavenly parent”).
 Inclusive language seeks to use terms that
are as inclusive in the receptor language as in
the donor language.
Inclusive Language
 Legitimacy
of individual choices depends on
the extent to which the languages overlap.
 To what extent has English changed in the
last 50 years?
 Has what began as a political agenda
become more generally “mainstream”?
 It doesn’t matter if you like the changes, but it
does matter what contemporary language
Inclusive Language
 We
do not have a commission to reform
language or to impose grammatical
preferences on our audience.
 We
do have a commission to communicate
accurately and clearly the truth of the gospel.
Inclusive Language
 Would
you approve of missionaries going to
the Philippines and insisting on changing the
Tagalog language to suit their preferences
when preaching the gospel?
 Or would you expect that person to
communicate in fluent Tagalog?
 Is it helpful to offend people in your
proclamation of the gospel? (Other than by
the offense of the gospel itself?)
Inclusive Language
used to resist such changes vigorously, but
that was when these changes were found
only in the radical feminist literature.
 In many parts of the country these changes
have now gone “mainstream.”
 As a result, I have had to rethink my prior
opposition and gradually begin to use more
inclusive language.
Inclusive Language
would suggest that the approach taken by
Carson’s Inclusive Language Debate and by
the NET Bible are the best solution at the
present time.
 I resist “gender neutral” translation, since that
violates the original text, but where the
original is not gender specific, then I think that
we should use equivalent language in our
translation—and in our preaching.
Inclusive Language
 The
contemporary “flap” re. the NIV’s
revisions was blown out of proportion by a
“watchdog” group who allowed their agenda
to blind them to genuine cultural issues.
 Their
reaction is understandable since they
have taken as their social mission the
opposition of any and all forms of the feminist
Inclusive Language
 But
the feminists won this cultural battle long
 Contemporary English language usage has
changed—for better or worse.
 Our job is now (as always) is to communicate
in the language of the people.
Misc. issues
 Purpose
of a given translation:
Judge on the basis of their stated purpose. There
is no one translation that is best for all purposes.
Note the contrasting purposes of: GNB, NIV,
Use of italics
Traditionally italics have been used to indicate supplied
words, but contemporary use is to indicate emphasis.
 How do you decide what words are essential and what words
are optional? (A very difficult decision at times!)
 Note that the NIV has chosen to use half brackets to mark
questionable additions: e.g., “the glory of the one and only
Son” (Jn. 1:14).
 The KJV, by contrast, has “the glory of the only begotten of the
Father,” leaving the reader to figure out who the only begotten
is. Since the context is very clear that the reference is to the
Son, other translations have supplied it for clarity.
 Note the the NET Bible always appends a f.n. when it explicitly
supplies the referent.
Use of italics
 Some
portray the KJV as the model in its use of
italics to indicate words supplied, but its more
generous use of italics (by contrast with the NIV’s
more restrained use of half brackets) is
sometimes overdone; e.g., 1 Cor. 14:2 supplies
unknown—an illegitimate addition that is not
implied in the context.
Basic Resources
John Beekman and John Callow. Translating the Word of God. Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1974.
D. A. Carson. The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1998.
Jan de Waard and Eugene Nida. From One Language to Another:
Functional Equivalence in Bible Translation. Nashville: Nelson, 1986.
Jack Lewis. The English Bible: From KJV to NIV. Grand Rapids: Baker,
Louw, Johannes P., ed. Meaningful Translation: Its Implications for the
Reader. New York: United Bible Societies, 1991.
Bruce Metzger, “Theories of the Translation Process.” BibSac 150
Mark Strauss. Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation
and Gender Accuracy. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1998.
Robert J. Williams, “The Science of Translating the Greek New Testament
into English.” Th.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1968.

Translation Theory: Traddutore, traditore!