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Well-Written, Sophisticated, but Gravely Flawed Polemic

A Review of Rolf Furuli's The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation

Robert M. Bowman, Jr.


This review originally appeared on April 13, 2003


Furuli characterizes his book as a scholarly study of Bible translation theory that uses the New World Translation (NWT) as a case study because it is "a modern, literal translation that, more than any other translation, is accused of being dogmatic, biased and at times even dishonest" (xvi). He claims that in his book "the role played by theology and bias in Bible translation is not judged in the light of some full-blown theological system, but in the light of the lexical semantics, grammar, and the syntax of the original languages, as well as in the light of translation theory, psycholinguistics, patristics and church history" (xvii). From this description one would imagine that Furuli were writing a doctoral dissertation, but in fact it is a polemic--albeit a well-written and sophisticated polemic--in defense of the NWT...

According to Furuli, his somewhat original contribution will be to offer "a theoretical foundation for a literal Bible translation based on modern linguistic principles" (xiii). By "literal" Furuli means a translation that is word-for-word rather than thought-for-thought. According to Furuli, it is possible for readers of the Bible to make "informed choices" in the interpretation of the text "only with a concordant or literal translation" (xvi), that is, one in which each Hebrew or Greek word is assigned one English word with which it is translated everywhere regardless of context.

The problem facing Furuli in defending the NWT (which does claim to follow a concordant approach) is twofold. First, modern linguistics and translation theory is uniformly critical of the concordant approach. The ideal concordant version would be an interlinear. But an interlinear, as Furuli puts it in his first chapter, "can hardly be called a translation at all in the normal sense of the word" (7). Why, then, hold out as the ideal for a translation a description that actually applies directly to an interlinear? The ideal of a concordant "translation"--one step away from the interlinear model--is based on an inadequate understanding of how languages convey meaning, as Eugene Nida explains:

"This type of translation, which has been called 'concordant,' makes an immediate appeal to those uninformed about the problems and principles of linguistic usage. But no two languages correspond throughout in their words or grammatical usages, and such a literal type of translation actually distorts the facts of a language rather than reveals them" (_Bible Translating_, 12).

Furuli is thus attempting to use modern translation theory to defend an approach to Bible translation that is discredited by the very sources he cites. It is often unclear whether he even knows this. For example, he quotes with approval Nida and Taber's definition of translation: "Translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message; first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style." He rightly infers that in translation "communicating the message is more important than conveying the lexical meaning of words" (1). But this is precisely what a concordant theory of translation denies.

The second problem facing Furuli is that the NWT is not the faithfully concordant translation it purports to be. Furuli highlights the usual examples of its concordant renderings: the distinction in the NWT between _kosmos_ as "world" and _ai˘n_ as "system of things" (17-20); the uniform rendering of _sarx_ as "flesh" and of both _nephesh_ and _psuchŕ_ as "soul" (23-27, 33-38). But the NWT is famous more for its departure from the concordant ideal than for those places where it actually follows it.

Most notoriously, the NWT translates _kurios_ frequently as "Lord" but substitutes "Jehovah" for _kurios_ (and occasionally for _theos_, "God") in 237 occurrences in the New Testament. The real basis for this practice is the Watchtower's theological criterion that the Lord Jesus cannot be the Lord Jehovah but is his greatest creature. Furuli expresses this criterion when he complains that "the use of the one word kurios for two different individuals is really confusing...and suggests that not everything is well with the text" (182).

Many other examples of theologically driven departures from the concordant method are not even addressed in Furuli's book. The word _pneuma_, often correctly translated "spirit," is also rendered "spiritual life" (Heb. 12:9, 23), "spirituality" (Jude 19), "inspired expression" (1 John 4:1-6), and even "force" (Eph. 4:23). These renderings are driven by the Witnesses' rejection of the ideas of the Spirit as a person (as in 1 John 4) and of the human spirit as existing beyond death (as in Hebrews 12). _Pisteu˘_ is translated "believe," "has faith," and the like, but also "exercise faith" (John 1:12; 3:16, 18; Rom. 4:3), reflecting the Watchtower's rejection of salvation through faith alone. _Proskune˘_ is translated "worship" when its object is God, the Devil (Matt. 4:9), the Beast (Rev. 13:4, 8, etc.), idols (Acts 7:43), or an angel (Rev. 19:10; 22:8), but always as "obeisance" when its object is Christ (e.g., Matt. 28:9, 17; John 9:38; Heb. 1:6). _Pseudomai_ is translated "lie" or "lying" in every occurrence except when the object is the Holy Spirit, where the word is instead translated "play false" (Acts 5:3, 4). In these and other ways, the NWT takes away from its readers the power to make their own "informed choices" that Furuli claims is its chief virtue--and in a way that runs roughshod over the meaning of the texts.

Space prevents a response to Furuli's assessment of my arguments on John 1:1 and 8:58. The book is worth studying, but be aware of the problems.