Review of God’s Word Translation–History and Philosophy (Part 1)

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The folks at Baker Books were kind enough to send me a couple editions of God’s Word Translation (GW) to read and review.  This translation has been around for over fifteen years, but until getting picked up by Baker in 2008 hasn’t gotten much exposure or widespread publicity.  Because of that, my intent is to look at this translation across several posts to try and give it a thorough review for those who may not know much about it or even have heard of it at all.  My reviews will take a different approach than Joel Watts’, who is also in the process of writing several reviews of GW on his blog.  If you’re interested in seeing how GW compares to other translations (in parallel), be sure and check out his fine series.

History

Technically, the translation known now as GW had its beginning in 1982, when God’s Word to the Nations Bible Society formed to update a translation known as An American Translation, which was translated by a small group of conservative Lutheran scholars.  Over time, this work took on a new direction and ended up being a completely new bible translation–still translated primarily by this core group of Lutherans but utilizing reviewers from a variety of Christian backgrounds, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and others.  After several revisions and continual work, God’s Word was introduced to the marketplace in 1995.  Since then, the text has remained unchanged and publishing has passed from World Bible Publishers to Green Key Books (2003) and finally to Baker Books (2008).  [More information and history can be found here]

Translation Philosophy

(Note: The quotes from the following two sections come from the pamphlet “A Guide to God’s Word Translation”)

The translation philosophy espoused by GW is called Closest Natural Equivalence (CNE).  In an area where most of the debate goes back and forth between literal v. dynamic equivalence, form v. functional equivalence, or word-for-word v. thought-for-thought translation, CNE seeks to satisfy three related goals:

  1. Provide readers with a meaning in the target language (here, English) that is equivalent to that of the source language
  2. Express that meaning naturally, in a way that a native English speaker would read or write
  3. Express the meaning with a style that preserves many of the characteristics of the source text

hebrew-detailAs a point of comparison with other major bible translations, while not calling their translation philosophies CNE, both the New Living Translation (NLT) and Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) use similar approaches.  Why this approach?  Quite simply, there are concerns with either of the predominant two paradigms that make some sort of mediating position not only necessary but desirable.  Regarding the former, literal translation philosophy:

Form-equivalent translations adjust the grammar and syntax of the source language text only enough to produce a reasonable recognizable and understandable English translation.  Form-equivalent translation results in an English text that is a combination of English words, some English syntax, and some Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek syntax.

In other words, as my one of my Old Testament professors used to say about the NASB and the ESV, “Great Hebrew, terrible English.”

There are also pitfalls with taking a solely dynamic approach to translation:

While function equivalence theory of translation has the proper focus [of accurately conveying meaning in the target language], in practice it has produced English translations that have lost some of the source texts’ meaning.

In sum, the goal of CNE as advocated by GW, NLT, and HCSB is to maintain the delicate balance between a rigidly-literal rendering of the text that fails to communicate clearly in English and a highly-dynamic rendering that omits characteristics of the source language that are important to the meaning of a given passage.

Technical Theological Language

One important question translation committees have to wrestle with and answer is how they will approach translating words associated with theological concepts.  Typically, English translations use the traditional renderings that have been used for centuries, some going back so far as to be borrowed from Jerome’s Latin translation of the bible (the Vulgate):

While these words continue to be used by theologians and even by many Christians, the meanings that speakers assign to them in everyday use do not match the meanings of the Hebrew or Greek words they are intended to translate. The words have become jargon–words with specialized meanings often poorly understood by nonspecialists.

As Ed Stetzer pointed out on Twitter recently, “If you can learn to order at Starbucks, then you can learn theological language at church.” I completely agree, and while I would suggest that retaining words like covenant, justify, propitiation, righteous, and others in our theological teaching, preaching, and discussions is a good thing, it is difficult for me to suggest that retaining these terms in a bible translation is helpful considering how differently these terms are used in contemporary language (if they are used at all!).

The GW translators did not make this decision arbitrarily but based upon research in local congregations:

 

To determine how English speakers understand a few key theological terms, God’s Word to the Nations Bible Society undertook a survey of churchgoing lay people.  Of five theological terms tested, no term was understood correctly by a majority of the respondents.  That is, a majority of the respondents did not give a definition that matched the primary meaning of the underlying Greek word…The survey results for covenant (40 percent gave acceptable answers) were better than for the other words included in the bible society’s survey.  For instance, only 10 percent of the respondents gave a correct meaning for the Greek word dikaioo when asked to define justify.

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In theory, I am totally at ease with the decision to use words more easily and correctly understood by contemporary English speakers.  I will examine and evaluate some of the specific usages in GW in future reviews on the OT and NT, because I find some weaknesses in the words chosen in some places.

So we’re off and running on our look at God’s Word Translation!  Over the course of the next few reviews, I will begin to take a look at the details of this translation, including formatting, word choice, translation style, etc.  Hopefully this is enough to whet your appetite to come back and read more about this relatively unknown translation.

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