In this post, I give an example of what is lost and what is gained in “DE translation,” a short-hand expression I will use to refer to translations that prioritize naturalness and clarity of expression over continuity with a tradition of translation which, in order to be understood, requires “off-site” clarification. DE stands for dynamic equivalence.
Here’s the example, from Psalm 14:1:
אָמַר נָבָל בְּלִבֹּו
First in Biblish:
The fool says in his heart,
there is no God.
Now in DE:
The fool thinks to himself,
God does not care.
Peter Kirk complains that I refer to the above as a DE translation even though he does not find it in DE translations he is familiar with.
No surprise there. As Peter, Wayne Leman, and Rich Rhodes sometimes point out, translations on the DE end of the continuum continue to indulge in a fair bit of unnatural English and opaque translation. The facts are these. Biblical scholars know - or think they know - what the above Hebrew means. Here is Robert G. Bratcher and William D. Reyburn:
There is no God is not a philosophical denial of God’s existence; it is to reject the belief that God matters, that God’s will is of any importance in human affairs (see Psalm 10.4). [A Translator's Handbook on the Book of Psalms, Helps for Translators, New York: United Bible Societies, 1991, 128]
Here is Peter C. Craigie:
The fool is one whose life is lived without the direction or acknowledgment of God. . . . he lives as if there were no covenant, and thus as if there were no God — [in this sense] “There is no God.” [Psalms 1-50, WBC 19A, Dallas: Word, 2002, 147]
Bratcher, Reyburn, and Craigie offer “off-site” clarification of the expression “There is no God.” The clarification, I submit, is necessary for all but the best-trained readers of the Bible. Otherwise, readers will assume that “There is no God” means what it commonly is outside of the Bible: a claim that God does not exist, that there is no such being.
ESVSB has a note to the same effect: “there is no God expresses not philosophical atheism but the idea that God, if he exists, takes no interest in human affairs and will not call people to account for their deeds.” NLTSB, unfortunately, has no equivalent explanatory note. However, NLT has a rocking dynamic translation of the exact same expression, אין אלהים ‘there is no God,’ not at Psalm 14:1, but at Psalm 10:4. The italicized text is the NLT’s DE version of the expression under review:
The wicked are too proud to seek God,
They seem to think that God is dead.
You have to hand it to the NLT translators. God is dead is a perfect-pitch late 20th century paraphrase of the Hebrew.
But then we must ourselves: Is that what we want a translation to give us, a modern paraphrase?
Or does that belong off-site, in the realm of explanation of a non-paraphrasing translation?
NLT’s paraphrase of the expression in question at Psalm 10:4 - but not at 14:1 - is the upside and downside of what it offers at the same time.
A side note: why the paraphrase in Ps 10:4 and a literal translation in Ps 14:1? That’s easy: because KJV paved the way! Don’t tell anyone. The authorization to be non-literal continues to come from the Authorized Version on many an occasion in translations that claim to be made directly from the Hebrew, but in fact have been made with one eye on the Tyndale-Geneva-KJV translation tradition. KJV Ps 10:4 reads: ‘God is not in all his thoughts.’
Admittedly, the Hebrew is difficult at Ps 10:4. My preferred DE translation – a cross between NAB and NJB, compare NJPSV - “‘God does not care’ / is his only thought.”
The only translation on the DE side of the continuum that does not wimp out at Psalm 14:1 is NJPSV:
The benighted man thinks,
“God does not care.”
Thank you, NJPSV! That, I submit, is an excellent DE translation. But – and it is a big, fat, stinky but – there is a sense in which it is not possible to understand the range of reference the word “atheist” has and continues to have without access to the Biblish version:
The fool says in his heart,
there is no God.
First of all, one cannot discuss questions like atheism and theism, practical and philosophical, without reference to the heart, which is a vital anthropological and metaphysical concept in our culture, with analogues in most other cultures. That’s why Robert Bellah wrote a fantastic book entitled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, not Habits of the Mind. That’s why Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.” You cannot eliminate ‘heart’ from the translation without considerable loss.
At David Frank: it is reductive to think of “heart” as the emotional center of a person, over against “mind” or “brain” as the thinking center of a person. It is important to grasp that the practical atheist thinks “in his heart” - the vital center of a person in which reason, emotion, and will are completely interwoven. That’s exactly where he thinks. That’s exactly where we all think.
Psalm 14:1, once one dresses it up in DE language, no longer coheres with the very history of reception the text had a hand in setting in motion. Pascal and Bellah cannot be understood unless we retain the biblical “heart” in our knowledge base, one tool among others in our conceptual toolbox.
On other grounds, I value the DE translation. Heart-speech (“he said in his heart”) does reference the thought process (“he thinks”). The language of existence (“There is no God”) does reference relationality (“God does not care”). When a Sicilian mother tells her disobedient daughter, “Non esisti più per me” (‘you no longer exist for me’), that’s very strong language that says, “After what you’ve done to me, I want nothing more to do with you” - though it also says, paradoxically, the opposite at the same time: “I’m telling you this because I love you.”
Which is what a pure-hearted atheist means – I have friends that fit this description - when they say, “God does not exist.” It equals: “After all you’ve done and failed to do, so-called God who isn’t one, I want nothing more to do with you.” “I’m telling you this because I love you.”
It will now be clear, I hope, why the Biblish version of Psalm 14:1 must be retained, and why the DE version of the same is helpful in its own way, but a terrible substitute for it.
Psalm 14:1 is classic. It deserves to be memorized. Memorize it in Hebrew, pretty please. If that doesn’t work for you, I recommend memorizing it according to an excellent, rather literal translation thereof – NLT:
Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
NLT rocks! In order to start thinking about what NLT means, I recommend you turn to your copy of ESVSB, which - unlike NLTSB - explains it clearly.