72. Which Bible Version is Superior? 3. How Culture Affects Bible Translation

Both literal or “word for word” translations as well as meaning-based or “thought for thought” translations are legitimate representations of the original biblical manuscripts. Each style of translation has strengths and weaknesses in providing readers access to the content of the biblical writings in their own language. The argument in these articles is that a common claim that literal translations are superior to meaning-based translations is incorrect and can be harmful to the body of Christ. Because literal translations often obscure the meaning for the average reader, insistence on using those versions exclusively or primarily serves to keep people from engaging God’s word with the clarity offered by meaning-based versions.

Both translation orientations are found in all Bible versions and so, strictly speaking, it is misleading to label a version “literal” or “meaning-based.” Literal versions also consider what the translation will mean in the receptor language, and meaning-based versions often provide translation through which the reader may recognize words and structures of the original languages. (see the IBS English Bible Translation Comparison chart in which versions are charted according to their “degree of literalness.”) The following articles seek to show that the “degree of literalness” is unrelated to the accuracy of translation and should not be used to judge one version as more the word of God than another. Accuracy must be gauged according to the success of any translation to communicate the message of the original manuscripts to its intended audience.

In these articles “version” (n) refers to a complete translated text like the NRSV (literal version) or CEV (meaning-based version), while “translation” (n) refers to the text within the version. For example, any version, whether labeled “literal” or “meaning-based” will have both styles of translation.

The author of the articles has been involved in Bible translation as supervisor of the Sindhi translation project for the Pakistan Bible Society during the past 18 years.


3. How Culture Affects Bible Translation

Reading in a fog

My son had two small New Testaments in his room.  I picked up one and without noting the version (it was NKJV1) began to read from Ephesians 3.  Both my son and I struggled to make sense of the passage. It was like driving through fog: possible, but lacking the comfortableness of clarity.  A couple of nights later I picked up the other small New Testament and discovered that it was the Contemporary English Version (CEV).  I re-read the same passage and the ease of clarity made it feel like we were driving down that same road on a bright summer day.  Because we did not have to struggle with the meaning, the relevance of the passage was easily accessible.  Compare for yourself:


For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles–if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power.


Christ Jesus made me his prisoner, so that I could help you Gentiles. You have surely heard about God’s kindness in choosing me to help you. In fact, this letter tells you a little about how God has shown me his mysterious ways. As you read the letter, you will also find out how well I really do understand the mystery about Christ. No one knew about this mystery until God’s Spirit told it to his holy apostles and prophets. And the mystery is this: Because of Christ Jesus, the good news has given the Gentiles a share in the promises that God gave to the Jews. God has also let the Gentiles be part of the same body.

God treated me with kindness. His power worked in me, and it became my job to spread the good news.

Either clarity Or word-for-word

If the purpose of translation is a representation of the form and structure of the original text, then the NKJV is the better translation.  However, if the point is communication and ease in understanding the message, then the CEV is clearly superior.  But can’t a translation have both word-for-word correspondence and ease of understanding; does it have to be either-or?  Unfortunately, due to the nature of language and culture, “either-or” is the norm in Bible translation.

there is an inverse relationship between … “word-for-word” correspondence and the communication of meaning

The English Standard Version (ESV), according to the preface on its website, “is an ‘essentially literal’ translation” that emphasizes “word-for-word” correspondence, in order to “be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.”2 However, unfortunately for literal translations, there is an inverse relationship between maintaining the structure of the original text with “word-for-word” correspondence and the communication of meaning. To the extent that a translation maintains original structure and words, it fails to provide the meaning.  Therefore, to claim direct access to both structure and meaning is oxymoronic. It is only by using the target language structure and words (i.e., the language of the reader) that communication is achieved.

Like rote learning, repetition of the words does not guarantee comprehension.  It is only by “putting it into your own (culture’s) words” that meaning is ensured.  In the Sindh, many young boys go to school in madrassas where they memorize the Quran in word perfect Arabic.  Such a stress on the purity of the original text, while impressive, fails to result in comprehension, for they do not speak Arabic.

Cut and Uncut diamonds

literal versions of the Bible often under translate

In a previous article, I argued that there are no pure synonyms between languages; no two words will have exactly the same range of nuance.  I further argued that individual words do not carry meaning in and of themselves, but only in their relationship to other words in the sentence, and this relationship varies from language to language.  I also pointed out that information common to the original author and audience is often kept implicit in the text and thus unavailable to the uninitiated reader.  As a result, I concluded that literal versions of the Bible often under translate and thus fail to communicate (and occasionally miscommunicate) the meaning to their intended audience.3 They seek to avoid the accusation of misrepresenting the original text, thus resulting in a rendering that is often obscure.

Meaning based translations, on the other hand, deliberately choose to be precise for the sake of clarity, thus running a greater danger of misinterpretation. Literal translations can claim greater accuracy in reflecting form and structure of the original text as well as maintaining a broad possibility of nuance in the text. Meaning based translations, by limiting the possible meanings through clarification, have the greater potential to communicate the message of the text.

Literal translations are like uncut diamonds, no part is left out, but the beauty is hidden. Meaning based translations are like cut diamonds, they are shaped in order to reveal the inner light.  The value and potential of the uncut diamond requires an expert eye to be appreciated, the beauty of the cut diamond is available for all who can see.  On the other hand, shaping a diamond means that certain aspects are sacrificed in order to create an attractive diamond, while an uncut diamond maintains all the possible configurations that the artisan can discover.

Textual meaning is determined by culture

I would like to develop a point hinted at in that previous article:  Language cannot be understood apart from its relationship to the surrounding context.  Naomi’s rationale in sending her daughters-in-law back to their own people by asking, “Am I going to give birth to more sons?” (Ruth 1:11), can only be understood in the context of a patriarchal society in which a woman’s identity is dependent upon her relationship to a man.  Paul’s vow to cut his hair (Acts 18:18) cannot be comprehended without a perspective on how vows functioned in that society, how hair could be part of a vow and what the significance of such an act would mean for the participants.  All these background realities are tied up in the culture which gives the text its meaning.

culture … gives the text its meaning

Belief that literal translations are more accurate renderings of God’s word than meaning based translations is based on a misunderstanding of culture and language.  As a representation of the form and structure of the original language, the claim is true, but not in the arena of communicating the message. The idea that a reproduction of linguistic forms coupled with word-for-word correspondence will also provide accuracy and clarity in meaning is based on the mistaken assumption that cultures (including languages) are basically synonymous with each other.  If that were true then people of all times and places would think similar thoughts in similar ways with similar priorities for similar purposes, the only difference being the linguistic symbols used to express those thoughts. Where this naïve and mechanistic approach to translation breaks down is in the reality that cultures (including languages) are very different from each other; people do not think in synonymous patterns using equivalent concepts.  Even when the language is the same, indicating significant overlap of meaning between groups of people, cultures have their distinct values and ways of thinking that affect the nuances of their speech.

Therefore, getting closer to the original biblical language structure does not guarantee that the reader is better able to access the original meaning.  In fact, because of the great discrepancy between cultures, concepts, language structures and idiomatic usage, faithfulness to the original form is more likely to obscure the meaning for the reader – in the same way that an uncut diamond does not impress the uninitiated.

Ignore or Bridge the Gap

As an example, the Old Testament cannot be translated without a clear understanding of the ancient patriarchal assumptions of Hebrew society. If the translation is into a language with different cultural assumptions, such as the egalitarian orientation in Canadian society, miscommunication can easily occur. In Naomi’s case above, the average Canadian will sympathize with Naomi’s loss of husband and sons, but will not comprehend the implications of that loss and therefore miss a crucial point of the story.  The English translation of the book of Ruth necessarily uses words and concepts that, for the Canadian reader, derive their meaning from our egalitarian context and will be read that way.  But Naomi is not a woman with an individual identity who has suffered a great loss.  She is a woman who has lost her identity and purpose, because in a patriarchal system these aspects of a woman’s being are dependent upon her relationship with a man – father, husband or son.  Without this basic understanding a key redemptive phrase of the book cannot be properly understood: “Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today” (ESV), clarified in the TEV as “Praise the Lord! He has given you a grandson today to take care of you.”  Through the blessing of a male heir, Naomi has received a “redemption” that has meaning within the patriarchal context: her identity has been restored.

The translator cannot assume that communication of this essential point will occur through a literal translation because the cultural assumptions are vastly different.  There is a cultural gap that needs to be bridged in order for comprehension to occur.  Literal translations by design ignore the cultural gap and leave it to the reader to reach the correct interpretation.  Such translations are not incorrect, but they are incomplete and rely upon the ability of the reader to come to the right conclusion through knowledge obtained outside the text.  Meaning based translations, on the other hand, seek to bridge the cultural gap.  The danger for this translation style, on the other hand, is misinterpretation, which may lead the reader astray, if the translators have not taken the appropriate care to ensure correct communication.

Is the cultural gap that serious?

In the modern world of globalization, translation is a daily reality for most people and seems relatively uncomplicated.  A world leader speaks on the newscast and a voiceover provides the translation.  We often read translated material in our newspapers and books.  Why should this not be the same for the Bible? Is the cultural gap really that difficult to bridge?

Three important aspects need to be kept in mind concerning the translation of news stories and voiceovers in the modern context:

  1. The translator is usually completely bilingual and familiar with both cultural contexts, and thus able to provide the phrasing required for mutual understanding in both societies.
  2. Cultural contexts in this modern era of globalization have many points of commonality and understanding, or at lease exposure, in crucial areas such as technology, politics, ethical norms, and assumptions, due to ongoing exposure and interaction.
  3. When errors in translation do occur, they can be quickly corrected, or at least have alternatives pointed out by others who are equally expert in understanding both languages and cultures.

Bible translation does not have these advantages.  The original languages of the Bible are dead languages.  They are dead because their cultures are dead.  The biblical cultures, which provided the meaning to those languages, do not exist any longer. There are no longer people living in the cultures of the Old Testament or the New Testament to whom we can refer for understanding. Even the resurrection of the Hebrew language in modern Israel does not imply that they are better able to understand the ancient Hebrew writings. The modern context of Israel is a vastly different cultural context and does not provide a framework within which the meaning of the ancient text can be discerned. As a result we must rely on scholarship outside the text in order to reveal its meaning.

Remain mute when you talk!

This reality is particularly evident in the use of metaphors and idioms. A recent dialogue on Gen 31:24 in the Bible Translation chat room illustrates this point.  God commands Laban when confronting Jacob to be “careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad” (ESV).  This literal translation of an ancient Hebrew idiom is not understandable in our modern English context.  The natural understanding according to modern English usage would be that Laban is instructed to remain mute, not uttering any words at all.  What the ESV has refused to do is to bridge the cultural gap, leaving the reader with only their own context to interpret this saying.  Because the modern context is vastly different from Jacob’s era, there will likely be misinterpretation.

Meaning based translations, on the other hand, will translate using the idiom of the target language.  That is, they will choose a wording that relates to the linguistic norms of the readers’ culture.  By doing the work of bridging the cultural gap, translators allow the reader to read according to the way their language is normally used, and through this process communication is achieved.  For example, the TEV reads, “Be careful not to threaten Jacob in any way.”4

Communication requires bridging the gap

The scholarly checks and balances of a translation team are far more likely to produce the right meaning

The meaning of the text is found within the relationship of the language to the culture.  Therefore when the culture gap is large between reader and the culture within which the text has meaning – as it is for the biblical text – it cannot be bridged by the average reader without interpretive help.  While it is correct that “ ‘thought-for-thought’ [meaning based] translation is of necessity more inclined to reflect the interpretive opinions of the translator and the influences of contemporary culture,”5 it must be realized that without an interpretative approach that expresses the text within the forms of contemporary culture, there cannot be communication of meaning.  The scholarly checks and balances of a translation team are far more likely to produce the right meaning than the intuitive assumptions of the uninformed readers who can only read Scripture through the interpretive grid of their own culture.  The choice in Bible versions is not between “accuracy” and “interpretive,” but between a lack of clarity requiring exegetical skill beyond that of the average reader, and the communication of meaning in a way that has impact and clarity.


If you would like to contact Mark please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 The advertisement from the publishers states that “Only the New King James Version offers precision and clarity without sacrificing readability” at http://www.thomasnelson.com/consumer/dept.asp?dept_id=19700&TopLevel_id=190000 accessed Feb 12, 2009.
  • 2 http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/preface/ accessed Feb 12, 2009.
  • 3 In their preface (see previous footnote), the ESV phrases this weakness positively: “the ESV seeks to carry over every possible nuance of meaning in the original words of Scripture into our own language,” without recognizing that a lack of preciseness is another way to define the failure to communicate.
  • 4 The SIL ‘Translator’s Notes’ say: Be careful not to say anything: The Hebrew verb literally means “to say.”  However, when used with the word hiHamer “keep, guard, be careful” it has the sense of “threaten.” Taken from Translator’s Workplace, version 4.0 2002 SIL International.
  • 5 http://www.esv.org/translation/philosophy accessed Feb 12, 2009.
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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development

One thought on “72. Which Bible Version is Superior? 3. How Culture Affects Bible Translation”

  1. Hi Mark,

    Again, and excellent article. I found it very helpful even though I have quite a good grasp of the English language and others. The example passage you used from the NKJV translation has always left me out of breath when reading it. In school, these would get marked in red with notes. “NO run-along sentences.”:)

    In working with cult members I see almost all cults and fringe groups using the KJV for that very reason. The cult leader is the only one qualified to interpret the text. As you rightly point out, that is just intuition, which is used under the guise of revelation from the Holy Spirit.

    Some pastors too will only use an ancient, or a “word for word” translation. Yet, they interpret an obscure text or word, without even considering using a different translation. Why should anyone be confident that one single person is qualified to find the correct nuanced word, while dismissing existing translations that used multiple translators? I, for one, am not.

    Yes, I too want to sometimes check the original when I come to a particular text I’m preaching on. However, I am not like some that spend countless hours translating the whole passage. I have enough faith in the experts that have already done that. I also don’t have that time luxury.:)

    Thanks, Mark. You’re my hero!


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