Dave Brunn is Dean of Academics for New Tribes Mission (NTM) USA and is a missionary, translator and educator. For over twenty years he and his wife Nancy served the Lamogai people of PNG through church planting, literacy training, Bible translation and consultation. He has written a book (One Bible, many versions: Are all translations created equal) that outlines some of the difficulties in calling a particular translation “literal” or “free”. His thoughts are as follows:

In Chapter one, Unity and Division, Brunn points out the problem of Christian unity, especially on how Bible versions are viewed, noting that “the Bible has become the focal point of a new kind of division” (19), and often separates believers into various camps. Throughout his book Brunn is vigorous in establish his own evangelical and conservative views on inspiration (chapter 6), faithfulness (chapter 9) and the unity of believer (chapters 1 and 10). However, he must walk a fine line because NTM has a reputation as a super conservative missionary organization, with separatist policies and practices. This would seem to imply a very literal view of the Scriptures. Because he adopts the meaning based translation model instead of the more literal “word for word” one, the book offers detailed justification of his position vis à vis what he has learned from translating the Bible (mainly NT) into Lamogai, a language of PNG.

Brunn believes that his translation standards are “built on a rock-solid foundation” (21). He is careful to acknowledge the fundamental areas of agreement that exist between various versions,  but points out that often their exegetical points have little relevance to the translation of the Scriptures into the Lamogai language (where he and his wife worked).

There are 113 tables and figures throughout the book that summarize and illustrate Brunn’s views on translation. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Those tables that, in various formats, contrast “essentially literal” translations vs. “thought for thought” renderings: Tables 1.1-1.10; 2.1-2.10; 3.1-3.2; 4.1-4.6; 5.1-6; 6.1-6.37; 7.1-7.5; 8.1-8.9; 9.1-9.22; 10.1

The first example in Table 1.3 will show how Brunn goes about his analysis: He first gives the original wording, in this case Genesis 4:1, where it is reported that (Adam) knew (eve), followed by how various versions (NKJV, NIV, ESV) translate it “essentially literal” (knew) but the NASB, somewhat surprisingly, translates it “thought for though” as “had relations with”. Of course a truly “free” translation would say that Adam and Eve had sexual relations/intercourse.  NASB advertizes itself as “most literal” (30). There are 93 such examples in Table 1.3.

Table 2.1 is somewhat different, with Hebrew forms for Genesis 1:1 and Greek forms for Matthew 1:1. The point is somewhat trivial—if original forms are kept, then translators have not translated.

Table 2.2 compares how English, Hebrew and Lamogai render the “edge of the sword” (English) and the “mouth of the sword” (Hebrew and Lamogai), allowing that equivalency can occur upon occasion.

Table 2.3 and 2.4 outline how “kidneys” (the word for the Hebrew seat of emotions) is translated in many ways in both the NASB (heart, minds, mind, within, inward parts, inmost being, feelings) and ESV (heart, hearts, inward parts, inmost being, mind, kidneys). Brunn notes that “All of these interpretive renderings are acceptable, but none are based on the principle of formal equivalence” (47).

Table 2.5, with 56 examples, examines Hebrew figures of speech, such as “foreign woman (Prov 2:16) and shows that they are translated more freely in the NASB, KJV, RSV, and NIV) (adulteress, stranger, adulteress and wayward woman, respectively). He does a similar analysis in Table 2.10 with Gree figures of speech.

Table 4.2 outlines how logos is rendered by 24 different words in the KJV and Table 4.4 gives 24 renderings from the ESV and NASB. Further, Table 4.5 shows four verses where the KJV omits logos in its translation.

Table 5.6 focuses on Matthew 1:6b in NASB, ESV, NIV, HCSB, NKJ, and KJV(an account of David to the time of the exile in Babylonia and the ancestors that followed) to show that all of them add words, omit Greek words or change verbs to nouns. Brumm reiterates his thesis: “I believe it will become increasingly apparent that English versions presumed to be literal are not as literal as presumed” (98).

Tables 6.1-6.39 continue the theme that one Hebrew (or Greek) word is translated in many different ways in all the versions that Brumm has examined. He notes that “As a general rule, meaning based versions such as the NIV add words more frequently than literal versions do” (117). This involves grammatical changes as well: rhetorical questions are changed to statements;

  • Those that exemplify the “process of translation: Figures 2.1-2.5;
  • Those that suggest the range of variation between free and literal translations: Figures 3.1-3.5;
  • Those that illustrate the diversity of meaning in language: Figures 4.1-4.7; 8.1
  • Those that illustrate or comment on necessary adjustments: Figures 5.1-5.6; 9.1-9.5
  • Those that comment on inspiration: Figures 6.1-6.2
  • Those that comment on language diversity: Figure 7.1

It can readily be seen that Brunn is high on illustrating the variations in English translations, but somewhat lower on all that is involved in translation theory and practice. In other words, the book is a practical catalogue of various renderings in a number of English versions. As such, it should prove conclusively that a literal Bible translation is impossible. Of course for anyone who has attempted to translate the Bible into another language, particularly a non-Indo European one, this will further underline the kinds of problems that occur.

It is unlikely that Brunn’s work will unite theologians who evaluate and criticize English translations. Brunn is careful to give slack to all, although Young’s Literal Translation (now over 100 years old) is more severely treated.

Brunn sums up the similarities and differences of various translations in his final chapter. He shows that all versions give priority to meaning over form so that naturalness can be enhanced. Translators do this by making “thousands of changes that amount to much more than dropping a ‘jot’ or a tittle’” (190).

We can all probably agree with his statement: “I use many different Bible versions, but that does not mean that I agree with every rendering in any version” (191).

One Bible, many versions provides an overwhelming supply of verses that illustrate how difficult it is to adhere to a literal translation, despite the claims by the translators of the particular version. He concentrates on some 20 English Bible versions.

Karl Franklin
March, 2013