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TRANSLATION PRINCIPLES

By Gary F. Zeolla

The following article is excerpted from Chapter Five of the book Differences Between Bible Versions.


Translation Principles

"The King James translators were committed to producing an English Bible that would be a precise translation and by no means a paraphrase or a broadly approximate rendering." The NKJV translators had the same commitment.

"This principle of complete (or formal) equivalence seeks to preserve ALL of the information in the text, while presenting it in good literary form.... Complete equivalence translates fully, in order to provide an English text that is both accurate and readable" (Parallel, p.xxi).

However, the NIV follows a quite different principle known as dynamic equivalence:
The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the THOUGHT of the biblical writers. They have weighed the significance of the lexical and grammatical details of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. At the same time, they have striven for MORE THAN A WORD FOR WORD TRANSLATION. Because thought patterns and syntax differ from language to language, faithful communication of the MEANING of the writers demands FREQUENT MODIFICATIONS IN SENTENCE STRUCTURE and constant regard for the contextual meanings of words (NIV preface, p.x).

Adhering to these divergent principles leads to several differences between how the KJV and NKJV handle the original text versus how the NIV does.

Words vs. Thoughts

The KJV and NKJV attempt to translate the original text as word for word as possible. But the NIV seeks to be a thought for thought translation.

A simple example of the difference between these two philosophies can be seen in Matthew 11:4. The first part of this verse reads in the KJV, "Jesus answered and said unto them." The NKJV says, "Jesus answered and said to them." So these two are virtually identical. And this type of phrase occurs throughout the Gospels.

Now compare the NIV, "Jesus replied." This rendering is simpler to read and captures the MEANING of text, but it obviously is not a word for word translation of what Matthew, as he "was moved by the Holy Spirit," actually wrote (see 2Pet 1:21).

Moreover, what happens if the meaning of the text is not clear? Burton L. Goddard, a member of the NIV Committee on Bible Translation writes, "Despite their expertise they [the NIV translators] frequently found themselves FAR FROM CERTAIN about the MEANING intended by the Holy Spirit, the primary Author of Scripture."

A good example of where the meaning may be "far from certain" can be seen in the first half of Leviticus 20:17. In the NKJV it reads, "If a man TAKES his sister, his father's daughter or his mother's daughter, and SEES HER NAKEDNESS AND SHE SEES HIS NAKEDNESS, it is a wicked thing." The KJV is virtually identical.

However, take a look at the NIV, "If a man MARRIES his sister, the daughter of either his father or his mother, and THEY HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS, it is a disgrace."

When Moses WROTE "takes" did he MEAN "marries?" And is it possible to SEE a person's "nakedness" without having "sexual relations" with that person?

The NIV translators were so "certain" they knew the answers to these questions that they inserted their interpretation into the text without any indication they have done so. But the KJV and NKJV allow Bible readers to decide for themselves.

And less anyone thinks this is an unimportant point, there could be some important instruction here for single Christians like myself. This verse may help answer the very pressing question, "How far can I go (sexually) before I get married?"

In the New Testament, Paul commands Christians to treat members of the opposite sex like brothers and sisters (1Tim 5:1,2). Could these passages taken together forbid an unmarried couple from simply SEEING each other's nakedness even if they do not "go all the way?" In the KJV or NKJV this could be. But the NIV hides this possibility.

Untranslated Words

There is a divergence in how interjections and conjunctions are handled between the two principles. A study of Luke 2:10 will show this. Here, an angel says to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid, FOR BEHOLD, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people" (NKJV). Again, the KJV is similar.

However, the NIV does not translate "for behold." But does this matter? In the Bible, the interjection "behold" is used for "dramatically calling attention to a spectacular scene, or an event of profound importance" (Parallel, p.xxi).

But the NIV does not consider this point to be of sufficient importance as to always translate "behold." Another example in a familiar verse is Isaiah 7:14.

And, as indicated, the conjunction "for" was also left untranslated. This conjunction and others (and, but, etc.) are often not translated in the NIV. But conjunctions have an important purpose. They show there is a relationship between the statement to come and the preceding one and what this relationship entails.

This importance can be seen in Romans 1:16-18. In the KJV and NKJV, each of these three verses begins with "for." However, the NIV only translates one "for" (v.17). As a result, the NIV looses Paul's progression of thought in this passage.

Sometimes the leaving out of words can extend beyond just interjections and conjunctions. At times, the NIV leaves out other words and even entire phrases. This can be clearly seen by studying Joshua 1:8. The KJV has 48 words in this verse; the NKJV has 49 words. But the NIV only has 37 words. Obviously, there is a big difference here!

Added Words

Words added for clarity are handled in dissimilar manners. The KJV and NKJV put such words in italics. However, the NIV translators make no such effort to distinguish between their own words and the God-inspired words of the original.

A simple example of this can be seen in the second half of 1Corinthians 7:9, "for it is better to marry than to burn" (KJV).

Herbert Wolf, one of the NIV translators, comments on this passage, "Most INTERPRETERS feel that 'burn' refers to the flames of passion that can only rightly be satisfied in marriage. To make this clear both the NIV and the NKJV translate the verb, "to burn with passion" (Barker, p.131).

A couple of comments are in order on Wolf's comment. First, note that he freely admits the NIV translators depended on what "interpreters" had to say about a passage to determine how to "translate" it.

Second, it is true the NKJV adds the words "with passion" to its text. Wolf, however, fails to mention an important point: in the NKJV these words are in italics, but in the NIV they are printed in the same type as the rest of the verse.

This difference is important as there are actually two possible ways to take what Paul meant by "to burn" in this passage. Greek scholar Fritz Rienecker comments, "It may mean 'to burn with passion' but may possibly mean 'to burn in Gehenna (hell)' because of falling into fornication" (p.405; see 1Cor 6:9,10; Rev 21:8).

The KJV translators left the question open. The NKJV translators present their opinion, but (by putting the added words in italics) leave it to the reader to disagree. But the translators of the NIV fixed the meaning to only the former since the reader has no way of knowing "with passion" was added.

Final Thoughts

What do the Scriptures teach on this subject? Should translators alter, subtract from, and add to the very words of God so that people can more easily understand the "meaning" of the Scriptures? Please carefully consider the following verses: Deut 4:2; Prov 8:8,9; 30:5,6; Jer 23:30,31; Matt 4:4; Rev 22:18,19.

Furthermore, Herbert Wolf writes, "While it may be true that AT TIMES THE NIV TRANSLATORS HAVE BEEN GUILTY OF READING SOMETHING INTO THE TEXT, I would contend that overall this version has achieved a high degree of accuracy by its philosophy of translation" (Barker, p.127). So the NIV translators have only "at times" inserted their own ideas into the God-inspired Scriptures with all their alterations.

To conclude, due to their adherence to a "formal equivalence" translation principle, both the KJV and NKJV are reliable and accurate translations of the Word of God. Meanwhile, given the problems discussed above with the "dynamic equivalence" principle, the NIV is a less dependable rendering of the Holy Scriptures.

Differences Between Bible Versions
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Bibliography: Note: All emphases in quotes are added.
Barker, Kenneth. ed. The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation. Colorado Springs: IBS, 1991.
KJV/ NKJV Parallel Reference Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991.
New International Version of the Holy Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: 1978.
Rienecker, Fritz. Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980.

Translation Principles. Copyright 1999-2001 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).

The above article was posted on this Web site December 9, 1996
and last updated December 19, 2003.

Bible Versions Controversy: Translation Principles
Bible Versions Controversy

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