Formal or Dynamic; Word-for-Word or Thought-for-Thought?

Sorry for the egg-head stuff here. This post is the result of a rabbit that I was chasing while preparing my sermon for last week. In a recent post explaining my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection (#9) I discussed two major translation theories, formal (or literal) and dynamic (or thought-for-thought). This post is an interesting (at least to me) example of the significance of these two theories.

Our test passages are Acts 9:7 and 22:9. These verses are embedded in the accounts of Saul of Tarsus’s conversion. The first is told in the third person by Luke, the second is Saul’s (now Paul’s) first, first-hand recounting of that event (Paul would repeat the story again in chapter 26). Reading the two verses in the Revised Standard Version, one is struck with an immediate contradiction: in Acts 9:7 the traveling companions of Saul hear the voice that was speaking to Saul; and in Acts 22:9 they do not hear the voice.

Now, if you do not know Greek, but you have an idea about what might be happening, you might think two different words are being used for the English word, “hear.” Nice try, but no, its not true. In 9:7 the companions hear (from the word we get our English acoustics) the voice (from the word we get our English phonetics); in 22:9 they do not hear the voice. So, being the translation nerd that I am, I set off to see how other translations handled the two statements.

I checked a baker’s dozen translations. In 9:7 every single one had some form of the word “hear,” either as a verb or as a participle. Where it got interesting was in the translation of the same word in 22:9. Here is how they broke down:

Some form of the verb “hear” – King James Version, New King James Version, Revised Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, Common English Bible, The Message, and the American Standard Version. I have to admit, seeing the CEB and The Message in this column really surprised me. I really did not expect them to use the word “hear.”

The word “understand” or equivalent – English Standard Version, New International Version (1984 edition), Gods Word Bible, the NET Bible, and the New Living Translation. Those I sort of predicted. However, the one that really surprised me in this column – the New American Standard Bible! That’s right – one translation that claims to be among the most formal, or literal, actually chooses a more dynamic translation word here.

So, there you have it. Out of my 13 different translations, seven kept the same meaning in both verses for the word “hear.” Six had the more common translation for the Greek word in the first occurrence, but in the second verse they realized that if they kept the translation identical, there would be an inherent contradiction with 9:7. That is, you cannot have the companions hearing and not hearing at the same time. That makes either Luke or Paul ignorant of what was going on.

However, one legitimate (although less common) connotation of the word used in both verses is “understand, comprehend.” So, taking the context of the two verses into mind, the translators of the ESV, NASB, NIV, God’s Word, NET, and NLT all realized that the companions heard the words that were spoken to Paul, but they did not understand, or comprehend them. The two passages are not in contradiction – they make perfect sense. Only if you insist on a overly rigid translation principle is there a problem.

[By the way, here is where the preacher in me comes out. I think Paul is making a subtle point here as he speaks to his Jewish adversaries. Just because you hear some words does not mean that you understand them. It takes a willing heart – Jesus called it “ears to hear” – to take the words of Jesus and to accept them. The Jews to whom Paul was speaking in Acts 22 had no doubt heard Jesus and the apostles, but just like his companions on the road to Damascus, were unwilling to comprehend them. They heard, without hearing. End of sermon]

Here is the moral to the story: if you insist on a direct 1:1 translation theory, arguing that “a literal word-for-word” translation is always best, sometimes you can get yourself in a interpretational bog. By accepting that sometimes you need to look past a strict 1:1 equivalency, you can actually create a far better translation, one that conveys the actual sense of a passage.

By the way, as I stated in my earlier post, I really do like the RSV. But, it is not always perfect, and in this situation I do not like that they stayed with the same English word for the Greek word used. Using just the RSV, someone with no understanding of translation theories could, and most probably would, come away with a belief that Acts 9:7 and 22:9 contradict each other. That is unfortunate, and our translators owe us a more carefully nuanced product.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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