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Explanation of my Translation Philosophy

Posted by Gary

Here I put forth my philosophy for how and how not to translate Philippians. I intend this book to be for a general audience, and I would like to make an explanation that is thorough but not over most people's heads. But because of its technical character, I think it would be better to put it as an appendix in the back since I don't want the technicalness of this section to give the readers a first impression that the whole commentary will be too technical to follow. It's a bit long, but hopefully the illustrations make it worthwhile.

Some people are very strong towards dynamic equivalence while others are very strong towards essentially literal translations. If you're a die-hard member of either camp, you'll find plenty of reason to complain about this translation since I try to maximize the benefits of both and minimize the disadvantages of both.

Put bluntly, it would be a mistake to render the book of Philippians (or any book) word-for-word (W4W) from Greek to English. Doing so often leads to stilted or awkward English. This begs the question: was Paul writing in a way that was stilted or awkward? If he was not, then that is not how he should be translated.

All translation concerns fall under the umbrella of accuracy. "Is the translation accurate?" Sadly, that statement is rather vague. What constitutes accuracy? Perhaps you'd say that accuracy is whatever translates W4W. Unfortunately, languages are too complex to really work that way. This is because of how meaning works in languages. Meaning exists not just at the level of individual words, but in how words fit together in sentences. The primary unit of meaning is the sentence and not the individual word.

For instance, take the word "tear." This actually could be any of four different words:
1A) the noun "tear," referring to the wet stuff that comes out of your eyes
1B) the verb "to tear (up)," meaning to produce tears (in the sense of 1A)
2A) the noun "tear," as a synonym for rip
2B) the verb "to tear (up)," which means to produce a tear (in the sense of 2A)

If you see the word "tear" in a sentence rather than by itself, then you will automatically be able to tell if it's a verb or a noun by looking at the other parts of speech. If nothing else in the sentence is a verb, then it's likely that this "tear" is a verb and not a noun -- but which verb? You'd have to see what's going on in the previous sentences to figure that out.

So, picture for a moment a connect-the-dots puzzle for kids. Notice how the lines just form a very simple outline and the different dots only connect to the ones right next to them. That's what it's like to take words individually. Language is more complex than that. Instead, it is more like a spider web where all the strands interconnect and reinforce each other. That is how it works: each individual contributes to the overall pattern, and the overall pattern limits and defines where each individual strand should be placed and which other strands it needs to intersect with.

So, since meaning primarily exists at the level of the overall thought, maybe you'd recommend that I instead take a thought-for-thought (T4T) approach like the NIV does. That still doesn't do perfect justice, though, since some meaning can be found not just at the level of the thought itself, but also in the specific word choice used to express the thought.

I'm going to pick on the NLT for a moment. Let's look at 1 Kings 18. Here we have an epic fire-breathing match between The Lord and Baal. In one corner is Elijah, who alone represents the Lord against 450 priests of Baal. When their fervent prayers do not elicit any response from Baal, Elijah taunts them in verse 27: “You’ll have to shout louder, for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!” Clearly Elijah is making Baal out to be much less than a god. He seeks to embarrass the priests of Baal.

I want zero in specifically on the words "relieving himself." This is a euphemism in English. But would someone really use a euphemism in this situation? Euphemisms are polite, but insulting someone is not polite. So, wouldn't it generally make sense that you wouldn't use a euphemism when you're insulting someone? If Elijah is being impolite, then we need to use an impolite expression in order for it to carry the flavor across. While the NLT is bland here, a more flavorful translation would be "taking a dump."

[The reason translations do not do this is because of the concern for acceptability. Some people would be offended to hear "take a dump" in the Bible. Their reasoning is that Bible is holy, and therefore it certainly can't have anything unholy in it. However, that doesn't make sense. There are unholy things in the Bible, such as lies (e.g. Genesis 3:4-5), murder (Genesis 4:8), greed (Genesis 13:10-11), insubordination/intimidation (Genesis 16:5-6), incest (Genesis 19:30-34), rape (Genesis 34:3), and adultery (Genesis 39:6-7) -- and all that is in just ONE book. The Bible is not just a book of flowers and butterflies, folks. It reflects real life, and crude language is a part of real life just as much as any of the other things I just mentioned. To try and deny that is to diminish accuracy and give a false impression of dishonest politeness.]

W4W translations seek to be objective in translating with what they think is only a minimal amount of their own interpretation. This fails because all translation is interpretation. They have already stacked the deck by translating in a manner that results in unnatural and awkward English. This gives the impression that the language of the Bible is inherently awkward. The translators don't intend to give that impression, but it is an inevitable side effect.

This reminds me of a friend who wanted to be objective by not swaying her children to any particular religion, so she just didn't introduce them to any religions so that they would be completely objective and untouched by her influence. The problem with this logic is that this stacks the deck by giving an overwhelming exposure to the absolute absence of all religions. In both her case and in the case of W4W translators, it is utterly impossible to be objective.

By not exposing her child to the list of options, her inaction teaches her child that taking action in making a religious choice is not a pressing issue. If it was important, why didn't she mention it? In the same way, W4W translators try to leave the interpretive options up to you, but if you don't even know what the list of options looks like, how can you make a choice?! How would you even know that there's any need to choose?

On the other hand, T4T does not even try to claim complete objectivity in their translations. Yet they stack the deck by consistently emphasizing clarity and readability of the basic thought of a passage. They make the basic point more readable by eliminating or rewording the details that are relevant, yet not central to the main meaning.

Yet the T4T approach does not go far enough in breaking from objectivity. Both of these styles rigidly pick one consistent priority over the other. In areas where minor details like word order are nothing but a distraction from the main point, the W4W approach falls short. In areas where the nuances actually rather crucial, the T4T falls short.

The best approach, I argue, is just to be openly subjective and not set hard and fast rules. Focus on getting across the facets of meaning that you, the translator, consider the most important in any given sentence. The hard-and-fast rules of either W4W or T4T are necessary for translations made by teams, since semi-objective rules help reduce the bias of everybody's (different) subjective opinions. If not for hard-and-fast rules, translation committees would never reach enough consensus to make any decisions and the translation would never get made.

I don't want to come down too hard on other translations. My translation approach is best applied when only one to three people collaborate on the translation. Since I am doing this independently, the only things keeping my personal bias in check are the valuable feedback I received for revising the first draft and my constant comparison to other translations. So, my translation and commentary will have less regulation to keep my personal bias in check, but at least I'm honest about it. Since I'm just one guy working with no hard and fast rules, people from both camps will likely have mixed feelings about this work.

I keep four loose rules:
1. Try to translate the same Greek word as the same English word. Really try not to have more than two renderings for each Greek word. (For φρονέω I had to have three: "think," "have mindset," and "show concern.")
2. Try to bring out style and flavor when this can be done without significantly detracting from the basic meaning. Making the basic meaning somewhat more difficult is fine. The translation will be explained by a commentary, so it doesn't
3. The Bible isn't always clear/poetic/polite, so I don't have to always be clear. The NIV translates at the 8th-grade reading level. Since I am writing a commentary right along with it, I feel free to use longer sentences and a higher vocab (if that captures Paul).
4. Italics and bold (used sparingly) indicate emphasis, as God intended.


  1. J. K. Gayle

    The best approach, I argue, is just to be openly subjective and not set hard and fast rules. Focus on getting across the facets of meaning that you, the translator, consider the most important in any given sentence.

    Gary, Thank you for inviting me to offer you some feedback. If I'm not mistaken, you are interested in "the verse on Elijah in 1 Kings 18:27 NLT" as you "used it as an illustration" here. Let me back up, first, to say how I really like your approach to translation, a refreshingly honest approach. Yours seems to be the approach that Paul uses, that the LXX translators used when translating the written words of Hebrew, that the gospel writers used when translating the spoken words of Jesus. Don't know if it's helpful at all, but Willis Barnstone uses "register" to talk of a range of three different approaches; and to that I've added a forth. Seems that Mark, translating a key parable of Jesus (in Mark 4), uses a similar four as, well, approaches.

    When the NLT translation team decided to use a taunting phrase "relieving himself" for Elijah's mocking, then I think you're absolutely right. The thought for thought is not strong enough; the English language is a euphemism. It's hardly like Paul's skubala (σκύβαλα) written to his native-speaking Greek readers in Philippi, Macedonia. Wordplay for wordplay, or subjective thought for thought with some word for word accuracy, makes it something like "dog throw-up" if not "b*tch sh*t". Another issue for the NLT translators, in addition to not being strong enough and only being euphemistic and soft, is that they ignore the other contexts where readers can find Hebrew that's strong. That's what I was trying to say over at BBB when talking with you there recently. So, notice how likely it is that Paul and his Philippian readers of Greek would have read the LXX Book of Sirach 27:4, which in my English goes something like this: "In a shaken sifter remains a pile of crap--so does that scooped puppy poop, you mortal humans, in your own statements." In neither this earlier testament context nor in Paul's writing is there much of a euphemism, as there is with the NLT, which you point out. Hope my "two cents" is interesting and helps in some way.

  1. Gary

    Thank you, Kurk. Your two cents are worth any ten. I was going to use "register" to refer to what I consider Paul's style in Philippians -- that of a very well-spoken conversationalist.

    And just for the record, I use "excrement" for σκύβαλα. It's not completely crass, but it is definitely picturesque. It's not a word that makes its way into dinner conversations, while still not stretching acceptability very much.

    I realize that I'm being rather reserved compared to your rendering of "b*tch sh*t," and I'll have to do some research there when I learn Attic and Homeric. I fear that may be gleaning too much from internal word structure, however, though the use of κύνας does help make a case.

    Thank you again for your input.

  1. Jim Swindle

    Hi, Gary.

    Your essay sounds a lot like the philosophy behind the HCSB. Of course, different people will produce quite different translations, even if they have similar stated principles.
    As for "taking a dump," I'd never heard that expression. I've heard "relieving himself." I'd suggest "pooping." Not a polite word, but probably not crude enough to scare away too many readers. Of course, maybe "pooping" is localized to the USA. I haven't researched that.

  1. Gary

    Hey, Jim! If memory serves, "poo" is the British equivalent for "poop." So it would be an Americanism. You bring up a good point about "taking a dump" though. Pretty much any vulgar expression is also slang and is not universal to all English speakers. So, any slang we might use there would not be universal enough.

    Yet another complication! Woohoo.