The Pup of God

This is a small section of my larger diagram in the last post.  It illustrates a choice between two translation methods:

  • Word-for-Word Translations
  • Dynamic or Functional Equivalents

Avalos gives a fun example distinguishing these two methods using John 1:29:

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
— John 1:29 (RSV)

In the RSV the phrase “the Lamb of God”  is translated from the Greek (ο αμνος του θεου ) using a Word-for-Word translation.

But what if the reader were an Eskimo and  unfamiliar with the pastoral culture where sheep are a highly valued animal and thus an animal used in sacrifices?  The meaning or the original intent of the author may be lost.  So instead, the translator may opt for a dynamic translation to convey what he feels is the real meaning of the phrase and instead translate it as “The Pup of God” — a baby seal.  Avalos uses “seal” in his story — “The Seal of God“, but the lamb is a baby sheep and is used intentionally instead of “sheep” to imply innocence and purity.  Thus, a baby Seal would be a pup.  So I am correcting Avalos. (a small point, perhaps)

After introducing these concepts, Avalos  shows how these distinctions are rather artificial but I won’t go into that detail now because I think the principle distinction is important: word-for-word translation vs. intent translation.

Think how the history of art might have changed:

Can you think of other preferable culture-specific Dynamic Translations examples?


Note: the author of John most likely used “lamb” instead of “sheep” (its adult version) to capture the notion of purity and innocence and a more valuable sacrifice.  For he did not use use the Greek word πρόβατον which is the word in the NT most often translated “sheep” which is a general word for quadrupeds, as opposed to creeping, flying or swimming things.  And it generally implies tame animals and in Attic Greek, only sheep.


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22 responses to “The Pup of God

  1. Ian

    But this is exactly the point. No mainstream translation does use something other than ‘lamb of God’, even those translated according to dynamic equivalence. Hell, even the Message paraphrase uses Lamb!

    You know you’re onto a loser when you have to make up examples to show a distinction. Its a good sign the distinction is imagined.

  2. @ Ian
    I used to translate and interpret for a living when I lived in Japan where I used intent translation much more than when I translate from German.

    When a source language and a target language are in different language families, the choice between these methods becomes clear. When translating from German (of which English is a dialect), word-for-word translation (with a bit of shifting of word order) can often be suffice. But in Japanese, such a method is pointless.

    For example, here is how to say “I think you are wrong” in the two:

    (a) “Chotto chigau” –> little difference –> “I think you are wrong” [in Japanese]

    (b) “Ich glaube, Sie sind falsch” –> I believe, you are false. — “I think you are wrong. [in German]

    I am sure you get my point. But you are trying to say something else, no? Just because every mainstream translation uses “Lamb of God”, a word-for-word translation, I don’t see how this shows that word-for-word and intent translations are the same. Could you clarify?

    Maybe a dynamic translation would be “The perfect sacrifice to God”. No? Am I missing something?

    PS — did you appreciate my little PhotoShop effort on the “Pup of God”?

  3. Ian

    Yes, I did appreciate the pup of God. I do like your little graphical workings, they’re lots of fun.

    No, my point isn’t that there isn’t a difference in principle. It is that the difference doesn’t actually matter much for the real task of translating the bible. In other words, if I quote two passages, one from a supposedly ‘dynamic’ translation and another from a ‘word-for-word’ most folks are highly unlikely to be able to tell the difference.

    When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you [x] me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”


    So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you [x] Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You ” He said to him, “Tend my lambs.”

    Which is which (I’ve skipped the translation of agape, since as you’ve just spent a good while researching the finer points of its meaning, I think that would be unfair)?

    In fact biblical translators often can’t tell the difference, unless they go hunting for specific passages where key-words that have informed the debate are translated. And recently (in the last 20 years or so) translators themselves have rejected these labels as saying anything but what historical translation effort a particular translation group is derived from (i.e. its more cultural than textual).

    But yet a steady stream of people who talk about translation types bang on about this distinction as if it were textually significant. And then, when it comes time to actually give an example, you use an example that isn’t even from a translation. How does this give any information about the kinds of translation that one might find?

    You could, in principle, create a thoroughly dynamic and a thoroughly word-for-word translation. But real translations are textually neither. And their similarity on that axis far, far outweighs their difference.

  4. Interesting, Ian. You quoted part of a passage where mainstream translations usually fail in the English version. It never made much sense to me until I read Kenneth Wuest’s New Testament: An Expanded Translation. And then love, love, and love became much more clear. 😉

    The Eskimo example may be false, but this sort of thing happens a lot when translating the Bible into other languages, because certain things just don’t make sense in other cultures.

  5. Ian

    @Mike, you should follow the link across to my blog, because that passage is the focus of an exegetical post at the moment.

    The purpose of my example isn’t to point out what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ translation. Just that neither ‘dynamic-equivalence’ or ‘formal-equivalence’ tell you much about how something will be translated in practice.

    Expanded or amplified translations don’t really fit on that continuum, but they are very distinctive, and can be very useful, as you point out. Although I think, in this case, they tend to make more of a distinction than the original language actually does.

  6. @ Ian

    I think I am understanding your objection now — it is ‘political’. Tell me if I am right. I hear you saying:

    I agree that there is a difference between word-for-word (formal) translations and dynamic (intent) translations. But in real life, some translators pretend/imply/exaggerate to be offering a clear word-for-word translation and yet they are not because:

    (1) difference in languages demand functional translations at many points out of necessity

    (2) subtle differences in even supposed word-for-word translations sneak in the author’s interpretation.

    So, in a sense, you are upset that the way I wrote this post would empower such a cover-up even further? (BTW, I’d imagine Avalos agrees with the first part of my paraphrase.]

    Is that close to correct?

  7. Ian

    Hmmm, that’s interesting. Aside from being generally negative, what do I actually mean?

    Well, I could agree with your statements, but that isn’t quite what I was saying. I wasn’t saying, particularly, that the formal equivalence proponents were deluded (although, I also think they are).

    The distinction was made in the 1960s at the start of the explosion of new translations. At the time it distinguished between old-style translations, derived from the KJV, and newer translations that were gaining momentum.

    But pretty soon the formal equivalence translation tradition gave birth to the RSV / NASB, while the dynamic equivalence tradition was building the NIV and its contemporaries. So you have this strange situation where the NRSV is a ‘formal equivalence’ bible, but in many ways it is more dynamic than, say, the NIV. So when you talk about the distinction in biblical terms, you aren’t saying much about the *text* you are saying about the *history* of a particular translation.

    This nuancing has developed in recent years. It would be rare, perhaps impossible, to find a modern translation committee who would identify their approach as either dynamic or formal. The Holman translators called themselves ‘optimal equivalence’, which didn’t do anything other than muddy the waters.

    The politics comes in when these bibles go on sale. The american market is huge for english translations, and you have to play the right political game, otherwise you get torpedoed by evangelical ministers. The RSV had this problem, and despite being actually more formal than the NIV, say, became known as a liberal bible. Thus calling yourself a ‘formal equivalent’ or ‘word for word’ translation actually says almost nothing at all about the translation. It does say quite a bit about your market positioning.

    It is just a bit incongruous to talk about this particular distinction in the context of the biblical text. Because it doesn’t make a big difference to the translations being made.

  8. metaphor, metaphor, metaphor! images are used to evoke! i like the literal translations but they mean nothing without the socio-historic coming soon after. dynamic translations do okay, but miss points. i like the Message by Eugene Peterson, but feel he misses stuff. like the mustard seed:

    he uses the dynamic translation to put “pine seed” which indeed is a small seed which grows into something large.

    however, that’s not what the socio-historic would find. mustard was a weed. it was unwanted just as the birds would be in an agrarian society. so “multiflora rose” would be a better equivalent in my context of farm-land PA. the pup of God is a great dynamic reading too!

    Ian is also right about the politics of this translation business. good discussion, just thought i’d weigh in here.

  9. societyvs

    I am a First Nations persons in Canada (or Indian) and the term ‘Eskimo’ is not used anymore in modern society (since we are discussing translations here). They prefer to be called the ‘Inuit or Inuk’ depending on their culture.

    I personally don’t mind word for word translation equivalents – then again I am also willing to study the historical aspects of the usage of that word in the Tanakh and what the symbolism is implying (same with the mustard seed). That doesn’t bother me too much…if someone feels the need to culturize the symbology – to me it reveals a laziness on the reader’s part to not look into what they are reading.

    I could care less if someone translated the texts as literal as they could be from Hebrew or Greek and the sentences were broken and we had to add in the cojoining parts of the sentences…I’d still get the gist of what is being said in the overall context of the chapter or book.

    But if some feel the need for more relative translations of someone else’s works into their language in a way that pays homage to their reading and study level – whatev’s.

  10. I never saw a sheep until I was in my thirties. We don’t have “that” back home (Central America).

    Yet we still talk about lams and sheep in religious circles. Pastors spend much time explaining the meaning of those terms in the Jewish culture.

    In my culture, the sacrifice would have to be corn related. There is a reason why in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan Bible, the gods create the first human out of corn.

    A high percentage of our delightful ethnic dishes are made of corn. I suppose we’re a culture with vegetarian tendencies.

  11. Pseudonym

    Here’s a pretty uncontroversial example of dynamic translation:

    [Luke 9:44 KJV] Let these saying sink down into your ears…
    [Luke 9:44 NRSV] Let these words sink into your ears…
    [Luke 9:44 NIV] Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you…
    [Luke 9:44 NJ] For your part, you must have these words constantly in mind…

    The KJV and NRSV have used a very formal rendering, but the NIV and NJ opted to render what is obviously an idiom into something that’s more idiomatic for a modern reader.

    There’s obviously a continuum between formal and dynamic translation, but you often find paraphrases as well. Roughly speaking, formal translation is word-for-word, dynamic translation is meaning-for-meaning and paraphrase is concept-for-concept. Examples of Bible paraphrases might include the TEV (“Good News”), The Living Bible and The Message.

    Paraphrases are usually considered gauche, but the argument goes that some people have a more limited vocabulary than others (e.g. children), and so a freer translation is needed in those cases.

  12. @ Lorena
    Least you idealize the land of your birth, ancient people share much in common. The Mayan, like the Ancient Near East culture, sacrificed humans. The Ancient Mayan were not a wonderful peace loving people, and neither were the Jews.

    But perhaps you are speaking of the modern Maya.
    I think the Jesus model would have worked great with the ancient Maya.

  13. @ Pseudo
    Thank you for the elaboration. I thought of including paraphrase — I may change it. And I like the simple explanations.

  14. @ Ian

    Wow, that was a great explanation and a real education. I can see much more what is behind your statements.

    I think one key trigger for misunderstanding has been your use of the word “Text”. As in your last paragraph.

    What I now hear you saying is:

    “The two styles are use to varying degrees throughout any Bible translation. No translation (NIV, RSV, KJV ….) is purely one style. There is always subjective choice mixed in.”

    Whereas I was thinking about any given sentence or phrase. I always assumed that the above was true (plus additional methods like paraphrasing). But you made it abundantly clear with your political story of how the distinction can be abused. Thanx.

    Do you feel I get your point now?

  15. @ Society:
    I lived in South Asia for 2 years and East Asia for 8 years, and when I came back to the USA I was told it was inappropriate to use “Oriental” to describe East Asians. It was fine when I left. Funny thing, East Asians, in their own languages, call themselves “Orientals”. Go figure. Just can’t keep up with the politically correct.

    As to translations: You may not care about what translation is used and say, “I still get the gist, I study”, but Avalos’ point is that most people don’t study, most accept what they are told and heard and one way to control this is translations and he illustrates how distortions in translations further illusions of a homogeneous Bible, and women-respecting Bible, a culture-respecting Bible and a Sugar-coated Jesus. The translation will slant your understanding even if you think you study and read carefully.

    Did you miss those points in the chapter or am I missing your point?

  16. The Ancient Mayan were not a wonderful peace loving people, and neither were the Jews.</blockquote.

    Wow! When did I say that they were pacifists or wonderful?

    All I said was that they liked CORN!

    Geeez! And I didn't even write that in Spanish.

  17. L

    Translation is always a fascinating topic to me and I wish I had more time to read all the comments thoroughly. I will say that in, say, South American countries, I have heard of a lot more difficulty figuring out how to translate concepts like “sins were as white as snow” than with concepts like lambs. Or words like righteous sometimes have no really analogous word in a language and you have to use a whole phrase and/or invent a new word.

  18. Temaskian

    I love the way you’ve started the discussion about literal translations going.

    Religion is culture-based. However, I used to prefer literal translations, as an earnest student of the bible. You can always figure out / read up on the cultural aspects later.

    As an earnest Christian, I used to think that the Holy Document should be able to transcend all cultures, thus literal translations would be closer to the mind of God.

    I hated dynamic translations. Think I still do. They are just personal and biased interpretations of the bible, which may not be right, and are regularly in need of updating.

  19. @ Temaskian
    I was like you too. That is why I studied Greek at the University. Ironic in how all that was also part of my undoing as a Christian.
    Bart Ehrman had a similar experience.

  20. societyvs

    “Did you miss those points in the chapter or am I missing your point?” (Sabio)

    No no – it’s all good – on a personal level I spoke from – where I think your speaking for the masses (in some sense). I agree 100% – the translation does make all the difference, my hope is people that study the bible will not be lazy and put the work in.

  21. @ Society,

    Your comment inspired me to put up today’s post. For if people really took the Bible seriously, you’d think they would study it more seriously. See why I think they don’t in the next post and give me your opinion.

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