The Lord is My Goatherder, I Don’t Want Him: Why Translations Differ (Part 5)

The Lord is my Goatherder, I don’t want him; he hauls me up the mountain; he drags me down to the beach. Surely we all recognize the 23rd Psalm there, from the infamous first translation into Tlingit. Sounds a bit off, doesn’t it?

This is the fourth of four categories explaining why translations differ (past posts). Translation is not a science, though it has begun to be studied like one. I have no expertise in translation theory, but I have studied a multitude of languages as well as the way translation theory crops up in discussing Bible translation. When I was younger, I thought other languages were basically a word-level substitution code. Those introduced to foreign language for the first time often fall in to this way of thinking, like my MTC pal who once offered “Il est à propos le temp!” Meaning to say, “Well it’s about time,” he simply took his English sentence, substituted those words in French, and came up with “It concerns the time!” (A propos has since made it’s way into English, meaning “relevant to the matter at hand.”)

Translation involves an original language and a target language, but language does not exist in isolation; it is embedded in and reflects its cultural matrix. The more distance there is between an original and the target languages, the more difficult the translational decisions to make. This also means that the evaluation of a translation can change; an excellent translation in 1611, say, may be a terrible translation in 2012 because the target language and culture have shifted.

Beginning with Eugene Nida (a linguist, Greek scholar, and editor of the Louw-Nida lexicon of Greek semantic domains), Bible translators today talk about two endpoints on the spectrum of translation theory. On one end is “word-for-word”, “formal equivalence” or “text-oriented” translation, which is more literal but potentially less understandable. The translator chooses to preserve more of the original language at the cost of being less accessible to the target language and culture. On the other end is “thought-for-thought,” “dynamic equivalence,” “functional equivalence” or “reader-oriented” translation, which is more understandable, but potentially less reliable. The translator does more interpreting in order to smooth and adapt to target language and culture.

For example, look at Isaiah 1:18, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” How do you translate “snow” for a culture in Africa that has no concept of it? “White as wool?” What if white is the color of death, not purity or sinlessness? If blue were the paradigmatic color, could you say “blue as the sky”? But the text says “white as snow”, so do you say “white as wool” and footnote saying “white symbolized purity for the Israelites”?… and so on. Essentially, is it the words that matter, or the concepts? How much can/must/should one deform the text to be true to and accurately convey the message of the text? Every translation is a traitor, goes the saying.

To the left, right, and in between these two points (word-for-word/formal and thought-for-thought translation) we have three more positions. More literal than formal equivalence is “literal,” between formal and dynamic is “mixed,” and even more translational and loose are “paraphrases.” Though every translation is likely a bit eclectic, you can assign translations to a particular category. See here for one among many charts showing translations along the spectrum. (None of the charts I’ve ever seen include the Jewish translations such as the JPS or NJPS.) So on the one extreme, Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses (recommended!) attempts to capture more of the flavor and rhythm of Hebrew, with the result that the English is sometimes odd. (Sample)

And on the other hand, paraphrases like The Message (not recommended!) sound too loose and casual, too shallow, perhaps even non-scriptural, e.g. “Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.” So goes the Lord’s Prayer. Wikipedia has some other comparisons.

The KJV is far towards the word-for-word/formal end of the spectrum; however, its target language was English of the 1500s. The instructions to 1) revise Tyndale’s NT (1526) and the Bishop’s Bible (1568) and 2) leave their text unchanged unless necessary, resulted in the KJV already sounding archaic when published in 1611. For example, -eth endings on verbs had dropped out of speech, and were pronounced as -s. Here’s a handout of mine on the KJV with references.

Translators often approach their work with a philosophical bent one way or the other before ever seeing the text to be translated. This means that even if two Bibles shared the exact same underlying text (category 1), and the translators understood the text the same way (category 2), and agreed on the meanings of particular words (category 3), the English could still come out looking fairly different. Translation is a tricky thing. Once you’ve resolved your textual issues (cat. 1), done all your parsing (cat.2) , and lexical issues (cat. 3), you know what it means in Hebrew, but still have to figure out what it should say in English. And this is something the average reader does not understand, that often times a translation gives no indication of the deliberate or unconscious choices made by the translator, or the fact that the Hebrew text in question may be terribly difficult to understand or fraught with textual issues, because a translator must say something.

In the next installment (which I promise will come faster than this one did), I’ll look at the original passages in question, apply these four categories to get under the surface, and post a few links and articles for further reading.

Part 6

29 comments for “The Lord is My Goatherder, I Don’t Want Him: Why Translations Differ (Part 5)

  1. This post is a great introduction to a topic that isn’t on most people’s radar.

    My guess is that technology will change the translation landscape in many ways. NetBible, with its copious footnotes, reveals the “deliberate or unconscious choices made by the translator, or that fact that the text in question may be terribly difficult to understand or fraught with textual issues” that, as you point out, have usually been well hidden. And in the LDS world, I suspect the future holds a lot of people reading the NRSV or NIV or whatever on a smartphone and piping in Gospel Doctrine. Should be interesting!

  2. To me, the letters of Paul are an impenetrable morass of gobbledygook. What’s the best companion/reference for deciphering them?

  3. One common example in the KJV where a word doesn’t work because of issues the post mentioned is the use of “reins” — even if you know that’s an old-fashioned word for kidneys, verses using that word don’t make much sense unless you know that the kidneys were once viewed as the seat of emotions (kind of like “heart” is for us today).

    To use one verse, which also has other issues, Psalm 139:16 in the KJV says: “For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.” That makes very little sense. But most newer translations do, even if they’re less literal.

    I like what the LDS Spanish Bible does with this verse: “Porque tú creaste mis entrañas; me formaste en el vientre de mi madre.” Literally, that’s “For you created my intestines; you formed me in my mother’s womb.” But the word for “intestines” here is often used to refer to the important inner core of something, so “entrañas” here has a double meaning, just like the Hebrew word for kidneys. Some modern English translations have tried to do something similar with using the phrase “inward parts” or something similar.

  4. Start with a good translation, like the NRSV and (from an LDS perspective, but old and perhaps too LDS), Understanding Paul by Richard Anderson. I think he makes Paul into too much of a Mormon, and since he wrote, the New Perspective on Paul has revolutionized our understanding of him. I’d have to think about a second introductory step. Perhaps an overview of Paul’s thought focused on salvation, like NT Wright’s Paul: Fresh Perspectives, or this post on the NPP. I can email you a few articles out of my library…

  5. Cassandra: poetry.

    Ben, this is good stuff, and useful to readers as they try to redact interpretively (and inwardly), especially the apparently turgid stuff in Isaiah and, as Cassandra suggests, in Paul as well. It will be helpful to me as I prepare a dynamic equivalence translation of a little monograph from French to English this summer.

    And I’m only sort of teasing about the poetry. Some of my work involves “finishing” fragments left by other poets (here’s an example:, and this requires getting into the rhythm and structures of a poem’s speech. Criticism often does this as well: we are taken by certain moves and patterns, and end up imitating them in our commentary. I wonder how much of a role this played in Tyndale’s translation, and thus how helpful it can be to readers: stop fighting the text as it is written, and step into a different stream or system. That’s how I try to read the difficult stuff with my kids: just read it, son, and never mind yet about what it means. That’ll come once it’s in your muscle.

  6. My understanding of the act of translation was forever changed when I tried to translate a Mennonite Catechism written by my ancestor, using my middle-school level German, a good dictionary, and Babelfish. (Don’t laugh.)

    I was progressing pretty well, I thought. And his ideas were beautiful. And, to me, remarkably Mormon. After a couple of pages of this, it occurred to me that it wasn’t that his ideas were Mormon, but that my entire worldview was. I suddenly saw that I could not get far enough outside my own experiences with God and with Scripture to see and understand what my ancestor meant from his experiences with God and with Scripture. It kinda took away the point of the exercise, which was to introduce myself and my family to this ancestor and to understand his profound faith.

    So I put the dictionary on the shelf, and tucked the Catechism away.

  7. Great post! As someone who works in the translation industry, it’s always refreshing to read an explanation into the intricacies of translation that gets it right :-) Thank you so much!

    I would also add another inner-philosophical battle that might ensue within the translator, beyond the regular literal vs. semantic translation. Consider this dichotomy on a plain perpendicular to the literal vs. semantic plain: domestication vs. foreignization.

    In addition to deciding if the text should be translated literally or semantically, it is equally important for them to decide how much of the source language’s culture will be incorporated into the target text. Many source texts (the Bible especially) contain cultural references that one may not understand if one did not live in that era or locale.

    For example, how many of us grew up around, or live around, olive trees? I’m guessing not many. So with regard to olive trees, a translator is faced with a choice:

    1) if the olive tree references remained, nearly every parable employing the use of an olive treee would lose meaning for the target audience, but would retain a contextual meaning which reminds the target audience that this is a foreign concept from a foreign land (i.e., foreignization).

    2) Or if the translator sought out a different symbol which functioned similarly in the target culture to how it functions in the source culture, they may chose to employ it and entirely re-write the parables using the olive tree to better suit the target culture (i.e., domestication).

    Translation is truly a more difficult task than many seem to understand. Kudos for your efforts to explain it thoroughly!

  8. I am a theoretically trained professional translator and interpreter and as soon as I read the words “literal” and “free” I groaned since anyone trained in modern theory since the 90s would probably be able to tell you why those two words are effectively meaningless. Neither “kind” of translation actually exists in any measurable form. It is much better to take translations on their own merits and start with the purpose the translators themselves set out with, using this as the yardstick on which to judge them on.

    As I point out here: and in another paper here: , this actually gives far more sensible results. It also (as a naughty sidepoint) demonstrates that The Message has more of a claim to the title of “translation” than the NKJV since, by their own admission, the NKJV reviewers rarely, if ever, looked back to the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek manuscripts.

    Still, apart from that old chestnut, this is a really clearly written article and sets out the main issues. Well done.

    By the way, I recommend Christiane Nord’s book Translation as a Purposeful Activity, especially since is a Bible translator and respected theorist.

  9. Thanks for your comment Jonathon. I’ve criticized usage of “literal” elsewhere, and I’d note that “free” doesn’t appear in my post (though it’s probably the same fuzzy concept I’m referring to). Other than some intro Linguistics courses, I have no such formal training. I appreciate the book recommendation, and will add it to my list.

  10. @ 14 and 15, I am also a translator who has been trained extensively in translation theory, so here’s my two cents. Yes, most translator training nowadays relies on some form of skopos theory (the idea that translation is to be driven by the purpose for which the translator is engaged). And yes, the equivalence paradigms (free vs. literal, etc.) are seen as suspect at best by most translation scholars. HOWEVER, Bible translators operate very much on the equivalence paradigm. The works of Nida (e.g., The Theory and Practice of Translation) very much shapes and reflects their approach. That is why, when you do research into Bible translation, you will come across these concepts time and time again. They are very much current–and helpful, I might add–ideas in Bible translation.

  11. Thanks for the link to the Five Books of Moses, I’ve put it high on my reading list after browsing through it a bit.

  12. Ben,

    I am a bit surprised by your recommendation of “Understanding Paul” by Richard Anderson. I read it as an undergraduate and did not like it because, as you mention, he turns Paul into too much of a contemporary Mormon and does not address Pauline authorship very well.

    Admittedly, it has been 12 or so years since I have looked at it, so my memory of it may be off, but I am curious as to what you see in the book. What is Anderson saying that I may have missed? Maybe I need to dust it off and give it another try?

  13. Most LDS approaching Paul have absorbed Protestant viewpoints and don’t know how to read him otherwise. Anderson does an decent job undermining that (which importantly opens up space for new conceptions), but then goes too far the other direction. For LDS with no background, it’s a decent starting point, but shouldn’t be the endpoint. Further, to the extent that LDS have a dog in any particular Pauline fight (and I’m not sure we do), I think he probably makes the best arguments possible, e.g. was Paul married. But I would hope someone would move on to read NT Wright and others.

  14. Complaints that Anderson “turned Paul into a Mormon” raise a question: What was Paul, and what should we expect his message to mean? I assume the Orthodox and Catholic churches interpret Paul as one of the founders of their own understanding of the Gospel. Certainly Luther saw Paul as the promulgator of a faith that emphasized faith and reliance on God’s grace above anything an individual can do, with the variations Protestantism took on.

    So if a Mormon interpreter does not give us a Mormon version of Paul, what is the point of getting a Mormon version at all?

    If the question is, What is the authentic original intent of Paul? I think ascribing to Paul a religioys view that includes baptism for the dead, and three degrees of heaven, things which otherbChristian traditions tend to ignore, makes a case that Paul WAS a non-latter-day “Latter-day Saint”. IF the Mormon paradigm of God’s program for mankind is the one that God had during the First Century, then Paul, as a real apostle, should be expected to be a “Mormon” with whom we share an essential understanding of God and the Plan of Salvation.

    Does Anderson’s Mormon Paul make sense of Paul’s writings and his actions? Is it self-consistent? I think it makes better sense of Paul than interpretations that assume he is a post-Nicene creedal Catholuc or 16th Century Protestant. If I take seriously Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s testimony of a restoration by Peter, James and John, the felliw apostles of Paul, why shouldn’t I be entitked to start from an assumption that Paul, Peter and Joseph share a doctrinal paradigm?

  15. RTS, it’s not the doctrinal Mormonizing I object to (indeed, I think in many cases it’s the correct interpretation*) so much as the Correlating. Anderson’s Paul does not challenge or broaden or add anything new, he’s just stripped of his Protestant-ness. He’s made banal and familiar.

    *(Paraphrasing) NT Wright’s book on heaven was accused of Mormonizing. He replied that Mormons had simply read Paul closer. But Wright also throws open a door of understanding that one must reach for.

  16. Dear Sarah, thank you for the article. It was for John but, forgive me, I read it too. Excellent. Saludos. Con cariño, rz

  17. Well, my best translation efforts came as attempts in American Sign Language translation and visually reading the signs and song at the BYU devotionals, etc. It always amazed me that the songs came out differently in different hands. Concepts were spot on, but individual signs used were different. I loved seeing the different translations!

  18. another problem with translating, especially from an ancient dead language is that cultural references are long lost, things are copied by hand and could contain copying errors, and, there are homonyms or near homonyms, words that look the same (and would have sounded the same when spoken back then) but are of a different meaning. Especially since with original bible texts we are looking at a Hebrew an/or Greek alphabet that is significantly different from our Latin alphabet.

  19. I too am a professional translator (Japanese to English) and love thinking about these things. My favorite Bible translation story regards the translation of the OT into Korean by Protestant missionaries in the late 19th century. (Caveat: I do not know Korean other than a bit of dabbling over the years.) When the translation was published, it raised a firestorm among the Protestant missionary community, because (said the critics) it had eliminated God from the Bible. Korean (like Japanese, as a matter of fact) prefers to omit the subject and let the verb handle everything. So the Genesis Creation story in Korean rarely uses the word for “God” even though He is the actor. This annoyed the American Protestants who thought the book had become atheist.

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