Reviews

A Brief Review of BeDuhn’s “Truth in Translation”

Posted by on 20 August, 2009 in Reviews | 6 Comments

Truth in TranslationI recently read Jason David BeDuhn’s Truth in Translation and found it deeply intriguing and at times disturbing. I’ll give some positive points and then I’ll list my concerns.

1. Truth in Translation is a carefully crafted and scholarly work. BeDuhn brings a wealth of research and knowledge to the table.

2. The subtitle is “accuracy and bias in English translations of the New Testament.” BeDuhn’s work is a provocative challenge to mainstream evangelicalism’s assumption that just about any Bible translation will do. He argues that too often, even in mainstream translations, the translators make the subtle journey from translation to interpretation.

3. BeDuhn’s chapter The Work of Translation was very helpful. In it, he lays out the spectrum of translation philosophies from a) Interlinear to b) Formal Equivalence to c) Dynamic Equivalence to d) Paraphrase.

The most controversial aspect of this book is not just BeDuhn’s decision to include the JW New World Bible in his analysis, but his conclusion that in many passages the NW translation is less biased than mainstream translations such as the NIV or NASB.

Jason David BeDuhnHere are some of my concerns with the book:

1. I felt that BeDuhn’s understanding and awareness of the modern debate on translations, at least within Christian Fundamentalism, was lacking. This revealed itself in a lot of ways, but once in particular where he made a statement which seemed to indicate that he hadn’t studied the preface of the 1611 publication of the Authorised Version though trying to make a point about that edition.

2. BeDuhn seems to operate under the impression that he has avoided all bias in his analysis. At no point in the book does he reveal his own personal theological biases (not even to the point where you could confidently nail him as an evangelical). Yet I would argue that it is impossible for him not to have theological biases. He could have engendered a much higher level of trust with his readership had he admitted his position and biases early on in the book. If I had to peg him based on what little he gives away about himself, I would suspect he is a theological Liberal.

3. BeDuhn seems to work from a basis of absolute neutrality on basic fundamentals of the faith such as the deity of Jesus Christ. While he seems to view this as a virtue, particularly in the context of translation work, one has to question what kind of epistemology allows this type of writing. Isn’t failing to presuppose the deity of Christ in translation (which is inherently interpretive… see #4 and 5 below) the same as presupposing the non-deity of Christ? Can we really accurately translate the Scripture under the belief that we must not presuppose any theological conclusions?

4. BeDuhn readily recognised the necessity of understanding the a) linguistic context, b) literary context, and c) historical and cultural environment in translation. But is it not also necessary to understand the overall interpretive/theological context as well? Would we attempt a translation in any other setting which ignored interpretive context?

5. BeDuhn fails to recognise that all translation necessarily involves an element of interpretation. It is simply impossible to translate the entire NT with no interpretive bias. There are often many English words which can be used. Each time we choose one of those words, we have a whole range of linguistic, literary, cultural, historical, and interpretative (or contextual) arguments for why we feel that is the best English word to communicate the meaning and nuance of the Greek word.

6. BeDuhn’s selection of passages to consider demonstrates a certain bias. In chapter thirteen, BeDuhn says “The selection of passages has not been arbitrary. It has been driven mostly by an idea of where one is most likely to find bias, namely, those passages which are frequently cited as having great theological importance.” However, he deals almost exclusively (seven out of nine chapters) with passages surrounding the deity of Jesus Christ. Is this the only doctrine which might be subject to bias in Scripture? Further, several of the passages he cites are passages which are consistent with the deity of Christ, but would not be used to prove the deity of Christ.

7. BeDuhn fails to make a distinction between a passage which proves a particular point, and a passage which is merely consistent with a particular point. It is one thing to translate something interpretively in a way which is consistent with a particular theological bias (such as translating proskuneo as “worship” instead of “homage.” But it is another thing entirely to translate interpretively in a context which would then be used to prove a particular theological point. I feel that to treat these two on the same level obscures the complexities involved in translation.

8. BeDuhn develops a serious credibility leak in his dealing with several established Greek grammar rules. Particularly, he addresses Colwell’s Rule and the Granville Sharp rule. Instead of merely critiquing them and offering adjustments or developments to them, in both cases he simply says they are wrong and should be ignored. In one case, he actually argues that exceptions to the rule prove that it is not a rule at all. The folly of such a statement is obvious.

Conclusion

I wouldn’t claim to have done significant in-depth consideration of this book, but I did want to record my impressions after a quick perusal. Overall, I think the book has helped me to look at translation work more critically.

I would recommend the book to those who have already read fairly widely on the subject of texts and translations and who are very discerning. Otherwise, I would recommend reading at a more basic level first so that you can read this material more critically and knowledgeably. That said, this book is written at a level which would be accessible to a fairly broad range of believers.

About Jason Harris

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Jason loves to communicate God's Word both in the local church and at conferences and retreats. Jason has been involved with Worship Music since 1996 and InFocus since 2005. Jason has degrees in theology, music, and accounting and is currently a research student and lecturer in the School of Business at James Cook University, Cairns. You can contact Jason at jason@teaminfocus.com.au.

Comments (6)

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  • avatar

    Edward Andrews

    Jason:

    Jason wrote: The most controversial aspect of this book is not just BeDuhn’s decision to include the JW New World Bible in his analysis, but his conclusion that in many passages the NW translation is less biased than mainstream translations such as the NIV or NASB.

    Response: This comment within itself expresses a measure of bias. If you had simply worded it: ‘surprising,’ instead of “most controversial.”

    Jason wrote: However, he deals almost exclusively (seven out of nine chapters) with passages surrounding the deity of Jesus Christ. Is this the only doctrine which might be subject to bias in Scripture? Further, several of the passages he cites are passages which are consistent with the deity of Christ, but would not be used to prove the deity of Christ.

    Response: While bias is not entirely focus around verses that woulf be used for the Trinity, they are the ones that draw the most ferver. If you look at the doctrinal statement of most conservative seminaries, it is the Trinity that will disallow one from studying there. The Trinity is the only doctrine that brings heat on the Witnesses, leaving them out of the big boy’s club: Christianity. The rest of their doctrinal positions are held by one form of Christianity, or another. So, to make bias stand had quite readily, BeDuhn did quite well in focusing on this area. Also, you are quite mistaken about the texts that he chose, they are used widely to establish the Deity of Christ, and proof texts for the Trinity. I am not certain what you are reading?

    Jason Wrote: BeDuhn seems to operate under the impression that he has avoided all bias in his analysis. At no point in the book does he reveal his own personal theological biases (not even to the point where you could confidently nail him as an evangelical). Yet I would argue that it is impossible for him not to have theological biases. He could have engendered a much higher level of trust with his readership had he admitted his position and biases early on in the book. If I had to peg him based on what little he gives away about himself, I would suspect he is a theological Liberal.

    Response: I appreciated his conceealing his position. And I am certain that he is well aware that all are bias. Your selection of him as a liberal is based on his being honest in translation. I noticed that you failed to overturn his arguments, to deal criticially with the book, and have tried the character attack. Interesting.

    Jason Wrote: I felt that BeDuhn’s understanding and awareness of the modern debate on translations, at least within Christian Fundamentalism, was lacking. This revealed itself in a lot of ways, but once in particular where he made a statement which seemed to indicate that he hadn’t studied the preface of the 1611 publication of the Authorised Version though trying to make a point about that edition.

    Response: You write the above, and then you say the following about yourself: “I wouldn’t claim to have done significant in-depth consideration of this book, but I did want to record my impressions after a quick perusal.” Really?

    Truly,

    Edward Andrews

  • avatar

    Jason Harris

    Edward Andrews,

    Thanks for your response.

    1) True. I am biased. I believe the JW’s are a cult of Christianity and I believe the NWT, while having many good qualities as a translation, has been deliberately manipulated to defend the doctrinal deviance of the JW’s.

    2) You seem to equate the trinity with the deity of Jesus Christ. They are separate, though connected, doctrines. I disagree about the trinity being the main point of controversy between JW’s and Christianity. There are a range of Christian doctrines that the JW’s reject altogether. Still, the point is moot because BeDuhn does not claim to be addressing the differences between JW’s and Christianity. Instead, he presents himself as if he were a Christian theologian addressing matters of translation without bias. The trinity may be controversial for JW’s, but it is not controversial within Christianity.

    3) I was not debating his points. I was attempting to give an overview of the book and my points of concern. That said, I did not attack his character at all. I made a guess as to his theological position.

    4) I do not see any hypocrisy in my statement. The primary meaning of the word peruse is “to read or examine with care.” That is the sense in which I used it.

    I was just pointing out that he did not seem to have a good understanding of one of the significant debates touching the topic on which he published a book. Additionally, that he didn’t seem to have read a key historical document. That is something that concerned me and I felt the reader should be aware of.

  • avatar

    Chris

    I’ve read quite a lot of this book myself, and in fact Jehovah’s Witnesses directly quote from it in one of their publications (‘Bearing Thorough Witness About God’s Kingdom’, published in 2009, I believe) as proof that unbiased individuals consider JWs as ‘basing their beliefs on the Bible’.

    BeDuhn comments as much, yet paradoxically he spends an entire appendix demolishing the JWs’ justification for using the divine name JHVH in the New Testament. He says that they engaged in ‘conjectural emendation’ and did not obey the most basic rule of translation in remaining faithful to the original text. This is obvious in that they do not substitute ‘Jehovah’ for ‘Lord’ in all the cases where ‘Lord’ appears, even when Old Testament scriptures are being quoted by New Testament writers, because it would create problems for their personal beliefs. Not to mention that they substitute ‘Jehovah’ for ‘Lord’ in many cases where no Old Testament verse is being quoted at all, despite the original Greek text making no mention of ‘Jehovah’.

    Also, BeDuhn seems to express a complete ignorance of the origins of JWs–their connection to the Second Adventists and how much of the theological structure is (or was) at least influenced by them. But BeDuhn states that they approach the Bible ‘with a kind of innocence’ rather than putting their own preconceived ideas into it. How one arrives at Jesus’ invisible presence starting in the year 1914, or teaching that Jesus is only Mediator for 144,000 people, or how Matthew 24:45-47 refers to a group of men appointed by Jesus in 1919 to provide spiritual food to everyone else, without having a preconceived idea or two, is beyond me.

    The New World Translation cannot realistically be judged as superior simply on the basis of a handful of verses, even if they rendered them without bias (which would be a good thing, if it were true). JW literature is filled with numerous statements from scholars that are taken out of context and used to support their theology. That’s called dishonest scholarship. There are more subtle changes in the New World Translation that were definitely made to support their doctrine and that actually have no basis at all in the original languages. Revelation 20:4 (“Yes, I saw the souls of those” instead of “And I saw the souls of those”) and Jeremiah 29:10 (“at Babylon” instead of “for Babylon”) are good examples of where one word was changed and thus altered the whole meaning of the verse, but without legitimate basis in the original languages for doing so. Given their long record of dishonest statements and dubious reasoning, and the considerable lack of credentials amongst their ‘anonymous’ translation committee, it would be hard to conclude that the New World Translation is the best overall translation.

    Revealing my own bias, I am a former JW myself, but I have done considerable research and study on these matters and wouldn’t just say that to take a jab at Jehovah’s Witnesses, as I do agree with them on certain things, even the Trinity issue, for example. Still, there is considerable factual data to support my assertions. I just don’t think this work is sufficient to address the real problems in the New World Translation, so it has led a lot of people to accept BeDuhn’s conclusions without sufficient scrutiny.

  • avatar

    Bruce Barnard

    Jason, you wrote:
    “BeDuhn develops a serious credibility leak in his dealing with several established Greek grammar rules. Particularly, he addresses Colwell’s Rule …… Instead of merely critiquing [it]and offering adjustments or developments to [it],…. he simply says [it is] wrong and should be ignored.”

    Dear Jason. Recent kione Greek scholarship is now of the opinion, and on sound grounds, that Colwell’s Rule 2b is indeed irelevant to deciding the definitness of the anarthrous QEOS of John 1.1 and indeed any anarthrous noun in the type of construct. I would refer you to Paul Dixon who stated “No longer
    should Colwell’s rule mislead us into thinking that an anarthrous
    predicate nominative preceding the verb is just as definite as the
    articular predicate nominative following the verb and that “there need be
    no doctrinal significance in the dropping of the article, for it is
    simply a matter of word-order…….Finally, we may conclude three things about John 1:1. First,
    Colwell’s rule cannot be applied to the verse as an argument for
    definiteness. Colwell’s rule says that definite predicate nominatives
    preceding the verb usually are anarthrous. The rule asserts nothing
    about definiteness. It does not say that anarthrous predicate
    nominatives preceding the verb usually are definite. This is the
    converse of the rule, and as such is not
    cessarily valid.” Some scholars in the past, such as Metzger and Barclay both misunderstood this rule and then miused used it to malign the NWT’s “a god” translation. In this they erred seriously. This then shows that this particular criticism of Beduhn’s work by you can now be retracted. Beduhn is right re Colwell!

    • avatar

      Jason Harris

      Bruce Barnard,

      Thanks for the comment. I would point out that you did not dismiss the rule. Nor did Dixon. To argue that the rule does not apply in John 1:1c is something different all together. Since I don’t have a copy of the book on hand, I can’t go back and verify what he said exactly, but your comment doesn’t seem to contradict anything I’ve said in the review.

      Best regards.

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