Bryan Bibb

The Bible in Church and Academy

The Septuagint as Translation: TM Law’s Septuagint Sessions With Ben Wright

Timothy Michael Law’s episode of Septuagint Sessions with Benjamin Wright is a gem. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Bible or Translation, not only Septuagint scholars.

Wright is an editor of the New English Translation of the Septuagint. You can read about the project, including its clear and helpful preface “To the Reader of NETS” here. He says in the video that they began with the question, “How do you translate a translation?” This led them to Descriptive Translation Studies a la Gideon Toury, which emphasizes the contextual purpose of every act of translation.

Wright and his colleagues have attempted to discern how the Septuagint in its original production was intended to meet a need in its target culture. Certainly the LXX later began to serve as Scripture for the community of Greek-speaking Christians. Wright, however, argues that the translators adopted an “interlinear paradigm,” rendering Hebrew idioms and syntax woodenly in Greek, which shows that the LXX was subservient to the Hebrew original. It provided access to the scripture for a Greek-speaking target culture; it was not itself intended to be scripture. Wright argues that the Greek LXX is a) “not a composition,” and was b) “not intended in its earliest form to be an independent replacement for that Hebrew text.”

The NETS project decided to “give a sense of the Septuagint” by preserving the unusual features of the Greek that result from its close adherence to the underlying Hebrew. “Stilted” Greek became stilted but not ungrammatical English, while the idiomatic parts of the Greek became idiomatic English.

A good example is the use of “man man” in Leviticus. Notice how “‘ish ‘ish,” which is an ordinary construction that means “any man” in the Hebrew, became the odd phrase “andri andri” in the Greek. The NETS translators have rendered this “man by man,” which preserves the stilted Greek construction.

In the conversation, Wright makes two distinctions that I consider to be important and insightful, but that raise further questions. First, he argues that our descriptive analysis of a text should distinguish between production and reception. Often, analysis of biblical translations have erased the distinction between the work of the translator and the translation’s effect or role in the target culture. A good example of this is the recent attention to the KJV in its 400th anniversary. The KJV translators are considered literary geniuses because their translation came to exert a tremendous literary influence on society. It is more difficult to establish, however, what the translators themselves hoped to accomplish. Some have argued that Tyndale and his followers attempted to create an everyday/common style, and others have argued that the original goal was to achieve literary beauty.

We may disagree about what effect the translators hoped to achieve, and we may disagree about the influence that a translation comes to have on a culture. It is important to remember that these are separate debates. One could argue, though, that the “translator’s intent” is as elusive (and irrelevant?) as the “author’s intent.”

The second distinction that Wright makes is between interpretation and exegesis within a translation. He concedes that all translation is “interpretation,” but suggests that some translations go beyond interpretation to “exegesis.” Wright distinguishes between the translator’s “normal mode of operation” and “theologically-driven decisions in a particular text.” If the translators always do a certain thing, you cannot say that they have done that thing intentionally in a particular text for theological reasons.

Wright asks, “how do we deal with exegesis; how do we identify purposeful, theologically-driven translation from the normal habits of the translator, which could be interpretive of course but not necessarily exegetical?”

This is an excellent question, and a major challenge to the work I have been doing in theological constraints on translation. It seems to me that the more obvious exegetical decisions help us perceive the underlying assumptions and goals that have influenced the translation on a systemic level. I would argue that the distinction between interpretation and exegesis is not one of kind, but one of degree—or perhaps of relative subtlety.

Translation Studies for Biblical Scholars

As I discussed in my last two posts, we need more critical hermeneutical reflection on the nature of biblical translation both in the church and in the academy. I thought I would post a few summer reading recommendations.


I became interested in the field of “Translation Studies” because of my teaching of undergraduates who have no knowledge of biblical languages. In order to help students glimpse the complexity of the biblical text, I often display multiple translations of the same text for comparison/contrast. To put these versions into context, I began to incorporate readings about the history and nature of biblical translations.

When I started reading in this area, I was mostly aware of the difference between formal equivalence” (or “literal”) versions and “dynamic equivalence” versions. I assigned Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss’s How to Choose a Translation for All It’s Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions, which introduces Eugene Nida and the formal/dynamic equivalence debate. To represent the dynamic side, I assigned Joel Hoffman’s And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning.

Seeking balance, I also assigned Leland Ryken’s Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach. As I read that book closely for class, I realized how flawed the “literal” or “word-for-word” approach to translation is. Not “flawed,” I suppose, as much as impossible. Why, then would scholars make such a claim, and why would people be persuaded by them? So, I started reading about the theoretical underpinnings of “equivalence” theory, and seeing where the debate about translation outside biblical studies is headed.

I am still working my way through standard works in the field, and discerning the complex relationships among Translation Theory, “professional” biblical translation, and biblical scholarship. That said, here are a few things that I have found helpful. I would welcome suggestions from readers and colleagues, which I will add to this list.

Translation Theory

  • The first thing I would read is Susan Bassnett’s recent survey, Translation in the New Critical Idiom series from Routledge. This is a quick read, only 200 pages or so, and birds-eye view of the discipline. The chapters on “Translating Across Time,” “The Visibility of the Translator,” and “Boundaries of Translation” would be very helpful for biblical scholars looking for some orientation to how Translation Studies scholars think about historical difference, “foreignizing,” and the role of creativity and art in the translation process. Bassnett is also the author of Translation Studies, which is newly in its 4th edition.

  • For getting a sense of the larger discipline, I also recommend Jeremy Munday’s Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications; and Anthony Pyms’ Exploring Translation Theories.

  • Next, I would look through Lawrence Venuti’s revised Translation Studies Reader, and pay particular attention to the selections from Jerome, Schleiermacher, Walter Benjamin, Roman Jakobson, Eugene Nida, Gideon Toury, Antoine Berman, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Venuti himself.

  • In my view, the most important issue that biblical translators must address is that of ideology and power. By paying more attention to this aspect of translation, we can move past tired arguments about “equivalence” of various types. One excellent resource is Semeia Studies 69, Ideology, Culture, and Translation, edited by Scott Elliott and Roland Boer. I would also recommend The Social Sciences and Biblical Translation, edited by Dietmar Neufeld.

  • In Translation Studies, three books that I would recommend on the relationships among culture, power, and translation are Andre Lefevere and Susan Bassnett’s edited collection Translation, History, & Culture, Mona Baker’s Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account, and Sherry Simon’s Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission.

These are starting-points of conversation among several disiplines, including Translation Studies, Cultural Studies, Biblical Languages, Linguistics, Theology, Church History, Poetic and Narrative Criticism, etc. The range of issues and problems shows how difficult—and interesting—this conversation will be. Most of all, it is potentially transformative for how we think about the Bible as experienced by real people in history and culture.

NIV 2: What Is Bad Theology?

In my last post, “NIV: Mistranslation, Deception, or Bad Theology?”“ I argued that we should consider translation differences to be interpretive difference rather than error or intentional “mistranslation.”

A few readers noted that I never really addressed why the NIV would be “bad theology”, or what I mean by that term. This is true, as the point of the post was simply to point out that when we argue about translation disagreements, we are mostly arguing about theology (or politics), rather than possible “errors” or “deception.”

Describing the NIV as “bad theology” is, I admit, intentionally provocative. I happen to consider the NIV’s view of scripture to be an inadequate account of biblical inspiration, authority, and significance. Also I happen to have disagreements with the NIV translators on theo-political issues such as creationism, the authorship of the Torah and prophets, historical “inerrancy,” prophecy/fulfillment, atonement theology, apocalypticism and the end-times.

You may agree with the NIV and evangelicals on all of these issues. Many people do! The point is that defending the NIV takes place on the same rhetorical level as critiquing it: on the level of theological argument. And that is an argument that we know how to have. Translation is not something unique that operates under different rules than any other kind of interpretation.

So, in my view there are three common moves within translation debates that are problematic. First, we should not critique the NIV for making translation errors; rather they make interpretive errors that become evident in their translation. (It seems to me that this is basically the point of Paul’s original list of “intentional mistranslations.” My point is only about the terminology and framework of the debate.)

Second, translators cannot simply declare their theological perspective and thereby protect their translations from criticism as interpretations. I’m no relativist, but all of this meaning-making takes place within communities and is subject to the contingencies of language.

For example, these two points mean that someone can’t translate Isaiah 7:14 with “virgin” because 1) it is “correct” or 2) it is a “Christian” text. Also, one cannot translate Isaiah 7:14 with “young woman” because 1) it is “correct” or 2) it is a “historical” text. I believe that “young woman” is lexically and historically preferable, but I have to make that case as an interpretive decision, not as a “translation” decision.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we should be suspicious of biblical translations that tout their unparalleled “fidelity” or “accuracy,” or that describe the translation process as a “literal” rendering of words and phrases without interpretive interference of the translator. The NIV and its translators are actually much more careful in this regard (it appears to me) than the ESV publishers and defenders, who promote a very problematic “essentially literal” approach.

On the other side, however, mainline translations such as the NRSV and CEB participate in the exact same process of interpretation and shaping in their translations. The “dynamic equivalence” approach doesn’t produce anything more objectively “correct” than “formal equivalence” does. The main problem is not with conservative translations; it is with the uncritical way that Christians think and write about translation itself.

NIV: Mistranslation, Deception, or Bad Theology?

(Image from “Farewell, NIV”)

A recent post by Paul Komorebi has been making the rounds, titled “Deliberate Mistranslations in the New International Version (NIV)”. It contains a thorough list of passages in which the evangelical perspective of the NIV project has affected its translation, a subject that I have written about recently in “Translation, Rhetoric, and the ‘Literal’ Word of God”. Lists such as Paul’s are a great way to spark conversation. People need to know more about how and why translations differ, and why those differences matter. The situation, however, is more complicated than it appears.

Think for a moment about why two translations might be incompatibly—as opposed to merely stylistically—different. The first possibility is that one of them has committed an error, a mistranslation. The domain of “error” in translation is more narrow than you might suppose, however. I reserve this term for technical grammatical misreadings and lexical confusion. There are some of these in every Bible, I suppose, but they are rare.

The second possibility is the specter that Paul has raised: one of them has deliberately mistranslated by choosing words that they know are not supported by the text. Rather than error, we might call this “bias” at best, or even worse, “deception.” Paul says that the NIV translators “change the Bible itself — altering the offending words and phrases to say what they think it ought to have said.”

The claim that the NIV translators have deliberately changed the Bible is the exact charge that Leland Ryken brings against all “dynamic” versions (including the NIV and the NRSV) versus the ESV’s “literal” approach. For more on this, see my recent paper linked above, and Dave Brunn’s One Bible Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal, which challenges the idea that any translation can be “literal” in this way.

I do not believe that deception is the best category for discussing the differences between the NIV and NRSV, or any other translations. When scholars respond to the NIV’s problems by saying that it has “mistranslated” the Bible, they imply that there is a self-evidently correct translation, a “literal” truth that has been deliberately obscured. And implicit in this is the claim that our own translations are free from such error. Certainly, our translations would never deceive anyone.

Rather, we need to think more critically about translation ethics within the complex layering of personal, communal, and institutional norms and goals. What are the ethical norms and responsibilities of the translator, and to whom do they owe their allegiance?

Thus, the third possibility when translations differ is that each is influenced by its own “theo-politics,” the web of commitments and expectations that govern its production and dissemination. There are different ways of getting at this in Translation Studies, but one that I like is the Andre Lefevere’s emphasis on ideology and “rewriting.” [PDF article link]

This does not imply an easy relativism. Evangelicals have (ironically?) embraced postmodern perspectivalism as a way to carve out their own special-pleading. They think they if they include some language about inerrancy, inspiration, and OT Christology in the preface, that they can do whatever they want to Genesis and Isaiah. Well, they can, technically speaking, but claiming one’s theological starting-point is not a rhetorical free pass.

Rather, instead of clinging to an essentialist view of language and critiquing the NIV for its “mistranslation,” we need to recognize the role of theo-politics in all translation, and critique the NIV for its bad theology. “Deliberate mistranslation” is rhetorically powerful language, but it does not help us speak and reason clearly about translational difference.

Writing vs. Working

I’m on vacation this week with my extended family, and having a great time playing in the surf with the boys and hanging out with in-laws of every type. I also have a couple of writing projects that are—ahem—overdue by a little bit—and so I feel like I should be working while I’m here.

Well, I’m not working. However, I am writing. Let me explain.

In the last few weeks, I read a handful of books about writing as a practice and a discipline, hoping to translate new ideas for projects into a plan and a schedule. One book that was really helpful is by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published. They have many great ideas, but I was particularly interested in their advice about writing structured abstracts as a way to formulate a paper from the start.

Another book that was helpful is Rowena Murray’s Writing for Academic Journals, which emphasizes the importance of outlining and “free-writing” exercises to break through inertia and find one’s way through a paper. Between these two, I have a better grasp on the process of creating something good through cumulative effort and iteration.

Finally, I read Paul Silva’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Silva’s emphasis is on writing regularly, every day, as a practice. He suggests that if you break your writing down into smaller tasks (cf. Murray), and set realistic and regular goals for completing those tasks, you can write much more productively than a “binge” writer.

Many academics tend toward the “binge writing” end of the spectrum, with me the worst of them all. These books have helped me clarify what it is that I’m doing when I sit down at the keyboard. Rather than completing a task of drudgery, I am thinking in written form. Rather than saying “I’m going to write an article by working all damn day,” I say, “I am going to spend 20 minutes before breakfast outlining this next part” or “I am going to take an hour in the evening to write these 500 words.” This may not seem like much of a shift, but it is.

I am actually enjoying my writing these days. I’m not working, I’m just doing what I do. I am learning new things and seeing progress. And so I do not mind spending a few vacation hours in Scrivener. Don’t mind me; I’m just writing.

Pornographic Translation and ‘Reading Against’ Ezekiel

I am finishing up an essay for Review and Expositor on Ezekiel 16 and 23 that is drawn to some degree from my SECSOR presentation last year on the subject.

I have also been reading Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published, by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, which has an excellent unit on writing good abstracts as a way to organize your thinking. I’m sort of excited about abstracts now. :–) They have 4-prong and 5-prong versions that work well for social scientific papers and anything else framed around the presentation of data. I used the 3-prong version that is well-suited for theoretical work: “Locate,” “Problematize” and “Argue” (which includes the “So What” and the “Now What”).

Here’s the abstract that I wrote for this paper, which helped tremendously in framing the essay.

Ezekiel 16 and 23: Sex and Violence in Translation

Ezekiel 16 and 23 are two of the most striking passages in the prophetic corpus, though their shocking nature creates difficulties for religious readers of the Bible who ascribe a high degree of authority and perfection to the biblical text. Christian readers tend to interpret the story of these sinful women as a metaphor for God’s unilateral election of Israel and for God’s punishment and redemption of the wayward people. This is certainly a plausible reading of these prophecies, and the metaphor of God as a wronged husband/father is at least as old as the 8th Century BCE prophecy of Hosea about his “harlot” wife, Gomer. As scholars such as Renita Weems have shown, however, we need to ask not only what this text meant but also how it worked within the rhetorical moment of Israel’s exile. When these shocking texts become vessels for a normative theology of God’s grace and redemption, they turn into a sort of Trojan Horse. They appear to proclaim the gospel but carry within them a painful history of patriarchy, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.

If we consider Ezekiel 16 and 23 to be pornographic and violent—and unacceptable as an image of God’s dealings with humanity—we must interpret these oracles carefully, perhaps reading against the text in order to resist this damaging subtext and to protect our own children and women from abusive language and culture. The problem is that English translations of Ezekiel have made our critical reading of the text more difficult by softening the offensive tone of the prophet’s language as well as the rhetorical effect of the oracles, which were meant to be titillating and scandalous. By transforming these oracles into Scripture, suitable for Christian devotional reading and liturgical use, English translations of Ezekiel 16 and 23 are very different in subtext and rhetorical effect from their source texts. This softening and reframing of the biblical text makes our theological/metaphorical reading more natural, and our critical resistance to the text more difficult.

In this paper I will argue that academic and Christian readers of Ezekiel would be better served by translations that are faithful to the intertextual, literary, and rhetorical dimensions of the source text. We will examine several key verses for their diction, tone, register, and rhetorical impact, and show how English translations do not render these passages “faithfully.” Second, we will see that “polite” language found in the English Bible communicates a gendered subtext that is more damaging because of its subtlety. If translations were more faithful to the effect of the source text, our English versions of Ezekiel would be more “offensive” but also better suited for the kind of clear-eyed and critical discussion that is necessary in today’s church. In the absence of such an English Bible, Christian interpretation of these texts must be extremely attentive to the subtle effects of language and metaphor on our theology and on our life together.

Evangelicals and Grammatico-historical Interpretation of the OT

Via Michael Bird on FB, I read this interesting (insiders) discussion from William B. Evans of the recent case of Douglas Green’s ouster at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Consider the ways in which Evangelicals use the term “grammatico-historical” as a counter-point to “historical critical” reading of the Old Testament. The basic idea is that one’s interpretation of the Old Testament should recover the “authorial intention” of the writers, and that furthermore the writers’ “intention” was consciously and intentionally Christian. However, this view of the Old Testament strains the meaning of “historical” beyond recognition.

Evans says:

[T]he grammatical-historical method is redefined so as to remove the Enlightenment emphasis on human autonomy and the resulting exclusion of God from consideration. Thus it is expanded to include divine influence on the human authors’ psychology as legitimate considerations for interpretation. Along this line, grammatical-historical method is also recast to include biblical typology, which is seen as arising intrinsically out of the grammatical-historical meaning of the text.

If you “modify” and “expand” your “grammatico-historical” interpretation to including things like the Holy Spirit and typology, then you should not continue to use the term “historical.”

This approach claims to be interested in the linguistic and historical context of the text, but—in my view—it aggressively ignores both of these in service to Evangelical claims about the Bible’s “inspiration” and “authority.” It’s not (only) about reading Christian theology into the Old Testament; it’s about making the Bible fit into a predefined category.

As Evans says,

this notion of what the biblical writers must have had in mind is an inference; in most cases it cannot be demonstrated, and to assert otherwise is to commit what the New Critics called the intentional fallacy… Rather than being doctrinaire on this point, why not leave the question open and deal with these matters on a case-by-case basis? Why does everything have to be nailed down so tightly?

I have to say, Evangelical interpretation of the Old Testament is mystifying to me. I grew up Southern Baptist and have always considered myself to be broadly “evangelical.” But the more I read about big-E Evangelical interpretation of the Bible, the more I am dismayed. This kind of rigid, counter-factual reading of the Bible was never part of my upbringing in the church.

Nida: Day 10

Today was the final day of the conference. There were two Associate presentations this morning, and then Venuti’s third presentation followed by a closing ceremony. What an amazing experience this has been. I have posted photos on Facebook, so contact me there for those, or if you’d like to learn more about the Nida School of Translation Studies.

Lawrence Venuti, “The Trouble with Subtitling is a Matter of Interpretation”

Venuti’s final lecture was an application of the model that he developed throughout the week, the implications of a “hermeneutic” versus “instrumental” approach to translation for both translators and readers—well, in this case readers and viewers. He argued that subtitles have been understood by producers, viewers, and critics as an essentially instrumental phenomenon, “whereby the subtitle is assumed to reproduce or transfer an invariant contained in or caused by the speech on a film soundtrack, whether its form, its meaning, or its effect.” In looking at the ways in which subtitles condense, reduce, recontextualize, and constrain the meaning of the film, it becomes clear that we need a more nuanced understanding of subtitles-as-interpretation.

In surveying the work of Jan Pedersen, Henrik Gottlieb, Henri Béhar, Larry critiqued the common assumption that subtitles can be reductive with only “minimal loss of information” because what is lost is mostly redundant. Henri Béhar, for instance, describes subtitling as “ventriloquism,” in which the translator seeks to keep the focus on the puppet and not the puppeteer.

Anyone familiar with literary criticism will be instantly suspicious of such claims, and Larry seeks to bring a more careful interpretive focus to the ways in which subtitles “work.” He showed a clip of Psycho and examined the ways in which the subtitles support a particular interpretation of the characters and plot in the scene.

He ended with an interesting discussion of the translation of Alvy’s paranoid pun between “Jew” and “didjoo” (‘did you’) in Annie Hall. The French version attempts to create the ambiguity but in a way that is not plausible, and so Alvy’s paranoia is completely unbased. The Spanish version, however, creates a pun between judías, a food in peninsular Spanish (green beans) and also a term that signifies Jewish women). The Jewish interpretation is activated by the subject matter of their conversation. However, the pun works differently in Spanish because the word “Jew” is actually uttered whereas in English it is only a sound that Alvy hears in his paranoia. In this way, the translation interrogates the way in which anti-semitism is treated as only a matter of (paranoid) perception in American culture.

“I’m a teacher, and want to teach everyone about translation.” ~ Lawrence Venuti

Venuti said that his main concern is to teach people how to read translations more carefully and critically. He admitted that he has been accused of being elitist in his desire for educated and “model” readers. He insisted on the difference, however, between “elite” and “elitist.” He does not seek to be exclusionary but rather to elevate people to higher levels of appreciation and analysis.

In the Q/A period, he made an interesting observation about “elitism” and popular culture. It is the case that there can be “elite” appreciation of “popular” culture (as in underground hip hop), and “popular” appreciation for complex and “elite” culture (as with fan participation in showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show). The idea of “culture” is oversimplified, and Venuti wants to shape Bordieau’s “elite” readers who engage culture in a critical way, rather than simply in “enjoyment,” which erases the boundary between art and life (e.g., in devotion to ‘soap operas’).

He ended with this statement, that is one that I think we can all embrace: “I’m a teacher, and want to teach everyone about translation.”

Nida: Day 9

Simon Crisp, “Is There an (Original) Text in this Class? Translation Studies, Biblical Text Criticism and the Quest for the Source Text”

Simon is the “Coordinator for Translation Standards and Scholarly Editions” for the United Bible Societies, and also works with the Nida Institute. He presented an excellent overview of the shift in textual criticism from the quest for the original text to a more nuanced understanding of multiple traditions, textual changes, and—perhaps—an “initial” text. Rather than supposing that the text is a fixed constant to be rendered with “fidelity” to the “original words,” translators work within a shifting tradition to translate the “sense” or meaning of the text that they have chosen. Even Jerome in his famous letter (57) to Pammachius says that he renders the text “sense for sense and not word for word.” Jerome says, “non verba in scripturis consideranda, sed sensus.” Someone should engrave that on a plaque for the lobby of Crossway Books.

Whereas the Westcott Hort “eclectic” edition is titled “The New Testament in the Original Greek,” textual scholars have now begun to speak of the “initial” text that stands behind the mountain of extant data. However, some texts existed from very early in multiple copies, and sometimes it is impossible to recover any plausible original.

To illustrate this point, Simon discussed David Parker’s work on the 6 main forms of the Lord’s Prayer (in the gospels, with and without the doxology, etc.). These forms are all likely to have had wide early circulation (Parker, Living Text of the Gospels). In his article, “Multivalence of the term ‘Original Text’ in New Testament Textual Criticism,” Eldon Jap Epp argues that we may speak of “predecessor,” “autographic,” “canonical,” and “interpretive” textual forms, each of which becomes a “new original” in its replacement of what came before.

One aspect of Simon’s work (and Parker’s) that I find to be incredibly helpful is his focus on actual manuscripts used by particular communities, rather than on abstract notions of “the Bible” or “the text.” Really, what is the use of having an “authoritative” text that does not exist? Rather, our focus should be on the authoritative tradition, as negotiated within the church community. This of course raises questions of power, but not any more than does the creation of a hypothetical text by supposedly “neutral” textual critics.

One interesting resonance between textual criticism and contemporary tranlsation theory is through Rosemary Arrojo’s model of a translated text as a “palimpset,” a manuscript on which two or more texts have been written, each being more or less erased to see the others. This is related perhaps to the notion of translation as “rewriting,” though it must be noted that the model of a palimpset manuscript raises the question of the essential relationship between the versions. The texts on a palimpset might have no relationship whatsoever, other than their sharing of the same physical object.