Let the Trumpet Sound a Clear Call:
How Translations of the Word Are Made

By: Curt Mortimer

Cornerstone, vol. 26, issue 113 (1997), p. 39-40, 42
ISSN 0275-2743

Are we about to enter another “battle for the Bible” reminiscent of the Fundamentalist versus Modernist battles of the early twentieth century? Due to the story about the gender-inclusive New International Version of the Bible (NIV) that never was (see p. 9 [article, “No Girls in the NIV Camp”]), Evangelicals are suddenly being faced with the question, should certain references to the male gender in the Bible be changed to include the female gender? For instance, should the word “brothers” be changed to “brothers and sisters” when it refers to the community of faith?

The controversy has started out with the political artillery flashing. It doesn’t need to be a declared war if we all consider truth more important than winning. In that spirit, we would like to offer the following thumbnail analysis of how translations of the Bible are created.

What are the rules that translators follow? How much freedom do they have in choosing what word will translate the Greek or Hebrew word in the original text? Should they translate the words as exactly as possible or should they concentrate on making the meaning clear? As we look at the spectrum of translations of the Bible that are available, we can conclude that the rules or perhaps the goals were different for each translation.

Generally there are two philosophies of translation, which in combination led to the differing versions. The first translation philosophy is form equivalence. Simply stated, it means that the forms and the words in English are an exact translation of the original language. A word is translated by its meaning according to the lexicon (dictionary). A question sentence in the original becomes a question sentence in the translation. A subject word in the original is used as a subject in the translation and so it goes, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, as close to the original as is possible. We say “as close as possible” because often word order from one language to another can differ considerably so that a translation that keeps the original word order exactly would be largely incomprehensible. Other differences of like kind can work against the goal of form equivalence, but whenever the translator has a choice he opts for keeping the form exactly the same as the original.

The second translation philosophy is named function equivalence. Simply, it means that the form takes second place to the function of a given passage. For instance, a sentence in the form of a question might be translated as a statement if the function of the question was rhetorical. The question “Do we not all love the Lord our God?” becomes “We all love the Lord our God.” The goal is to translate the passage as clearly as possible so it will be understood by the readers that translation is directed toward. Again we add the words “as clearly as possible” since such a goal is not easy. Semantics professor Robert L. Benjamin says, “To locate the precise function of a given sentence may require deep analysis, analysis which extends beyond the sentence itself into the inner motives of its producer.” On the other hand, lowering the ideal a bit, Professor Benjamin says, “Nevertheless, the immediate function of most sentences is readily discernible and ... sometimes remarkably different than its form would suggest.”[1] Of course different understandings of different passages yield different translations, so it seems clear that in the case of function equivalence, personal interpretation enters in to a greater degree than in the form equivalence method.

Obviously, no translation is either perfectly form equivalent or function equivalent. All the translations are somewhere on a scale between, some leaning one way and some another. Below are passages from several different translations. We invite the reader to rate each translation on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being perfectly form equivalent and 10 being perfectly function equivalent. Here are two clues. The King James Version would rate probably a 2. And remember that no translation is perfect to its ideal. It’s a piece of cake; two numbers are already eliminated and you’ve been given two answers.

___2___ Prov. 18:8 “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.” (KJV)

________ Prov. 18:8 “The words of a talebearer are tasty morsels that go right down into the belly.” (The Jerusalem Bible)

________ Prov. 18:8 “What dainty morsels rumors are. They are eaten with great relish!” (Living Bible)

________ Prov. 18:8 “The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.” (RSV)

___2___ Mark 9:50 “Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves and have peace one with another.” (KJV)

________ Mark 9:50 “Salt is a good thing, but if salt has become insipid, how can you season it again? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” (The Jerusalem Bible)

________ Mark 9:50 “Good salt is worthless if it loses its saltiness; it can’t season anything. So don’t lose your flavor! Live in peace with each other.” (Living Bible)

________ Mark 9:50 “Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” (RSV)

Don’t worry! No grades will be given. The reader is at a disadvantage in the above test unless he has read the preface or introduction to the translation and knows the philosophy behind the work. But even then he is still at a disadvantage to judge how well the translators adhered to their own philosophy. How then can the consumer of Bible knowledge know whether the translation in hand fits his purpose or not?

It is hard to identify function equivalence. Remember that the ideal is to make the translation as clear to the modern reader as it was to the original reader. The translator does not really know what was on the author’s mind except as revealed in the author’s words. So far he is on a par with the original reader. But then things get complicated. The translator is living in a different time. He is living in a different culture. He is living in a different place. All of these differences need to be translated in addition to the differences in language. What the translator thinks was on the author’s mind, with adjustments made for differing time, culture, and location is written in his translation of the original words. There is no exact standard by which to judge whether or not the translator was correct or to what degree he was correct in his interpretation of what the author meant. Translations of words and grammar are bound by fairly certain rules but factoring in time, culture, and location is necessary to biblical interpretation, hermeneutics.

Form equivalence is easier for the reader to quantify. In fact a system has been established by W. L. Wonderly, and sophisticated by others, to identify degrees of deviation from the form equivalence ideal. According to the process, a given passage of Scripture is chosen in the original language. Each word is assigned a consecutive number. Then each word is translated into its nearest English equivalent using standard lexical tools. Next the English word order is changed to make the text sensible in English. Each word, however, retains its original number. The result of these adjustments is called the “closest equivalent” translation.

After this, the version to be rated is compared with the closest equivalent translation. Each change in word order, omission from the text, word change, or any other difference is assigned a value calculated on the amount of difference. These assigned values added together are known as the “deviation value” (the measured degree of change) and are reported as the deviation value per one hundred words. The word “deviation” does not have any negative connotation as it might in other contexts. The result is a numerical measure as to how much a given translation deviates from the closest equivalent translation. Various translations are listed below in order of deviation from lowest to highest.

American Standard Version
King James Version
New King James Version
New American Standard Bible
New American Bible
Revised Standard Version
Modern Language Bible
New International Version
Good News Bible
New English Bible
Jerusalem Bible
Phillips Modern English
Living Bible

Now that we know how translations are done and how the various versions can be rated, we have some tools to work with in making judgments on gender-inclusive language.

The translations toward the form equivalent end of the scale are of special value to serious Bible students and scholars. The students and scholars want to make their own hermeneutical decisions. They want to do their own word and grammar studies. Using gender-inclusive language for versions at this end of the scale would have the effect of increasing the translation’s deviation value, thus moving it out of the zone that is useful for these biblical scholars. We can illustrate how complicated the issue becomes. The Greek word adelphoi is properly translated as “brothers,” but a Bible scholar aware of the context knows that the word often refers to women along with men as in “To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse” (Col. 1:2 NIV). Looking in the lexicon (dictionary) for adelphoi we find that in the singular the word means “brother” but “the plural can also mean brothers and sisters.[2] On the other hand, in cases found so far in the Koine Greek the plural refers only to groups of two, one man and one woman.

The lexicographer goes on to conclude that the evidence is not conclusive enough to translate the “brothers” of Jesus as the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus. Since the lexicon hints that it might be true, and since the biblical translator knows from context that women were a part of the group named by “brothers” in Colossians 1:2, he could have rendered the word adelphoi to be the gender-inclusive “brothers and sisters.” But then his translation would be a deviation from the word-for-word translation of the original Greek since the words “and sisters” are not there in the Greek word adelphoi. Another would argue, “But ‘brothers’ is not the real meaning of the word.” Yes, that is true, and the whole debate over gender-inclusive language turns on such disagreements.

If the use of gender-inclusive language is not appropriate at the form equivalence end of the scale, might it not be more acceptable at the function end where the meaning of the original author is of highest importance? Translations at this end of the scale are more accessible to the casual reader. In fact, they even operate as a kind of commentary for biblical scholars. A pastor who has done a word study on his text might say to his congregation, “The New English Bible puts it very well when it says ...” Since translations at this end of the scale already include much by way of interpretation, gender-inclusive language would seem appropriate.

The argument for gender-inclusive language comes from two directions. First, it is argued from a cultural viewpoint. The culture of the Bible days tended to be patriarchal, resulting in an overabundance of male-centered words. On the other hand, the argument is sometimes a linguistic one, that either new discoveries in the original language have suggested changes in the lexicon or that English words have changed enough that a different word would now be more appropriate to translate a given Greek word. Linguistic changes would seem more acceptable for the form equivalent translations. The changes based on cultural arguments would seem more appropriate for the function equivalent versions.

A word of caution is in order. Where goes interpretation there goes also bias. The postmodern literati think they have newly discovered that fact, but biblical scholars have long taken into account the worldview, the theology, and the political stance of other scholars who translate or interpret the Bible. When Evangelicals consider the bias behind gender-inclusive language, the subject is explosive. As we have noted, references to the “brothers” in a community referred to a group that included both men and women. The feminist movement has interpreted such male references to indicate a patriarchal bias on the part of the biblical authors: “We must remember that the book was primarily written by men in patriarchal cultures; that the canon was defined by men, who left out many books now known to us to be more favorable to women; that Scripture has been interpreted for two thousand years by male exegetes and theologians in support of male supremacy.”[3]

If the Bible writers were such slaves to bias it follows that they must have made a lot of other mistakes also. This ultra-feminist bombshell explodes the veracity of the Word of God and is therefore rightly viewed with suspicion by most evangelicals. The majority of conservative Christians do not really care much about gender-inclusive language as such. The worst it does is make their newspapers, novels, and textbooks a bit of an awkward read. But when it comes to the Bible, such linguistic problems enter a whole new arena. The battleground for Christians is not really gender-inclusive language. It is all about the question of changing the biblical text. Now that is something to fight about.

Did we say “fight”? Actually, for us Evangelicals the question of gender-inclusive language has started in the wrong arena. We have been set up for a political power-struggle kind of battle by the recent war over gender-inclusive language in the NIV (see p. 9). “It’s what them femi-nazis want, and if we let them at the Bible they’ll have us worshiping the Sophia goddess.” The arena has become our political action committee versus their political action committee rather than truth versus non-truth. Christians need to draw a clear line between politics and faith. Politics is all about compromise and finding a workable solution. It is about making sure a majority of the constituency is happy. It is fraught with sound bite slogans and the manipulation of the beliefs of others. All too often it can become about the profit line. Above all, it is about winning through coalitions based on compromise.

None of the above applies to the search for truth. Truth knows no compromise. Truth is not concerned about whom it makes happy. Truth does not use manipulation through mind games. Truth is not something established by a vote of the masses. So it does not really matter if gender-inclusive language is touted by the Sophia worshipers. Our stance is not affected by our revulsion to their opinion. Our love for the Word of God is our most precious distinction, but let us follow the Word of God in choosing the way we stand up for the Word of God. “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 KJV).


1. Robert L. Benjamin, Semantics and Language Analysis (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), 26. [return]

2. William F. Arndt and F. Wilber Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 15. [return]

3. Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), 9. [return]

original filename: CSM1132A.TXT
“Let the Trumpet Sound a Clear Call:
How Translations of the Word Are Made”
Release A, 5 November 1997

Minor punctuation errors in printed version corrected.

Copyright 1997 by Curt Mortimer. This file may be reproduced on electronic media and communications services without charge or permission from the author(s), so long as the wording of the text remains unaltered. For additional information about our publications, please contact <http://www.cornerstonemag.com/> or write to: Cornerstone, 939 W. Wilson Ave., Chicago, IL 60640-5706, U.S.A.