Robert Gundry on N. T. Wright’s Translation of the New Testament

Calling it “Tom’s Targum,” Bob Gundry makes some important points about translation theory and much else in an entertaining and spirited review of N. T. Wright’s translation of the New Testament.

Some highlights:

Time was when everybody understood a translation to be a more or less word-for-word transfer of meaning from one language to another—”or less” because grammatical constructions differ in languages foreign to each other and therefore sometimes require renderings looser than word-for-word. On the other hand, everybody understood a paraphrase to be recognizably freer: more thought-for-thought than word-for-word. But translation of the Bible increasingly into languages featuring grammatical structures far different from those of biblical Hebrew and Greek, and carrying cultural freight far different from that of the Bible, made word-for-word transfer a lot less feasible.

Along came the dynamic (or functional) equivalence theory of translation. For the sake of languages and cultures exotic to those of the Bible, this theory incorporated paraphrase into translation, so that even in English versions of the Bible the boundary between translation and paraphrase became as porous as the border between the USA and Mexico. You can even hear Eugene Peterson’s The message, a paraphrase if there ever was one and self-identified as such, quoted as a “translation.” The incorporation of paraphrase into translation may best be illustrated by the shift from the marketing of Kenneth Taylor’s The Living Bible originally as “a paraphrase” to its being marketed now as The New Living Translation, though those who revised it (I was one of them) were told at the start to keep it recognizable as a paraphrase by Taylor.

In the wake of this development arrives The Kingdom New Testament (from here on KNT) by N. T. Wright, identified effusively in its back ad as “the world’s leading New Testament scholar (Newsweek)” and accurately in its gatefold as “one of the world’s leading Bible scholars.” Duly distinguishing between translation and paraphrase, Wright asks, “Is this new version really a translation or a paraphrase?” and answers, “It’s a translation, not a paraphrase.” Why a new translation? Because language is constantly changing, so that “translating the New Testament is something that, in fact, each generation ought to be doing.” (I leave aside the question whether for the present generation enough new translations have already been produced.)

KNT originally appeared in Wright’s series of popular commentaries on the New Testament—Matthew for Everyone et al.—and therefore sports a colloquial style. I’ll call Everyone “Joe the plumber” and “Jane the hairdresser.” Or to suit today’s American culture, should I say “Jane the plumber” and “Joe the hairdresser”? Either way, “J&J.” And since Wright calls me “Bob,” I’ll call him “Tom.” Colloquialism all around, then, so that KNT is to be evaluated at the level of J&J’s everyday speech.

“She will, however, be kept safe through the process of childbirth” adopts one of several possible interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:15 by translating “She will be saved” as “She will … be kept safe” and by injecting “the process of” into “through childbirth.” Perhaps the most obvious example of a translation slanted by interpretation appears earlier in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which Tom renders as follows: “They [godly women] must study undisturbed, in full submission to God. I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; rather, that they should be left undisturbed.” Tom first replaces learning (from men) in quietness with studying undisturbed (by men). Then he imports “to God,” with no support in the Greek text, to make God rather than men the object of women’s submission—against the making of men, especially husbands, the objects of women’s submission according to Tom’s own translations of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5. Finally, he changes Paul’s “I don’t permit [a woman to teach men or dictate to them]” into a wishy-washy “I’m not saying that ….”

Does KNT work, then, as a translation in the sense taken for granted by J&J when reading both KNT’s subtitle, “A Contemporary Translation,” the back ad’s description of KNT as “modern prose that stays true to the character of the ancient Greek text … conveying the most accurate rendering possible,” and Tom’s own statement of having “tried to stick closely to the original”? No, not even by the standards of dynamic/functional equivalence, of which J&J are ignorant anyway. Too much unnecessary paraphrase. Too many insertions uncalled for. Too many inconsistencies of translation. Too many changes of meaning. Too many (and overly) slanted interpretations. Too many errant renderings of the base language.

But there is a body of religious literature characterized by all those traits, viz., the ancient Jewish targums, which rendered the Hebrew Old Testament into the Aramaic language. So KNT’s similar combination of translation, paraphrase, insertions, semantic changes, slanted interpretations, and errant renderings—all well-intentioned—works beautifully as a targum. Which apart from the question of truth in advertising isn’t to disparage KNT. For the New Testament itself exhibits targumizing, as when, for example, Mark 4:12 has “lest … it be forgiven them” in agreement with the targum of Isaiah 6:10 rather than “lest … one heals them” (so the Hebrew), and as when 2 Timothy 3:8 has “Jannes and Jambres” in agreement with a targum of Exodus 7:11-8:19, which in the Hebrew original leaves Pharaoh’s magicians unnamed. Hence, Tom’s Targum. Trouble is, J&J won’t know they’re reading a targum.

Read the whole thing.

HT: Bobby Jamieson