The Translation Philosophy of the EMA Version



Perhaps the best way to explain the answer to the question:  “Why another translation?” and the accompanying question: “What’s different about the EMA Version?” is to explain the translation philosophy of the EMA project.  And perhaps the best way to explain the translation philosophy of the EMA project is to let you read an email I sent to a member of our church’s adult Sunday school class (H.B.R.P.C. in Simpsonville, SC).  The text of that email follows:




Your question on Sunday re: I John 3:7 & 10 was a legitimate question.  More than that, it was a question that NEEDED to be asked.  I do not think that it gave you a sufficient answer in class, so I write this email to try to provide that more sufficient answer.


The specific question you asked was something like, “Why does the Ric Routh translation of I John 3:7 & 10 appear to be so different from the NAS translation of those verses?”  The implied, and necessary question is, “What credibility does a single novice Greek translator have when he apparently disagrees with an august committee of highly respected Greek scholars who have established, by general consensus over several decades of review by Greek scholars and the Church, a highly credible translation of the Holy Scriptures?”


I commend you for asking the question, and I appreciate the gentle and considerate way in which you phrased it.  (You could have phrased it like I did above, and that may have prematurely precipitated a spirit of contention among our fellowship.)  But nevertheless, the general question of credibility is a perfectly valid and appropriate question-especially in the light of the gravity of the translation of the Word of God and all that implies for the Church.  Furthermore, the specific question concerning those two verses is worthy of a better answer than time permitted on Sunday.  So, here we go…


First, a note on translation philosophy:  Any English translation is ALWAYS an inexact (meaning not perfectly precise) communication of the original Greek.  The reasons for this are many, but fundamentally, this is due to the fact that there is often not a one-to-one correspondence between the vocabulary of Greek and the vocabulary of English.  This lack of one-to-one correspondence is due to many factors: historical etymology, cultural world view differences, different emotional connotation of words, idioms, differences in grammatical structure of the two languages, etc. 


Consequently, a translator (or team of translators) must adopt a philosophy of translation.  In other words, there must be an ordered set of priorities as to which trade-offs (compromises) must be given higher priority than others. 


For example, brevity vs. precision of communication is one of the trade-offs that must be considered.  The original Greek text may contain ten words in a given verse.  The translation philosophy may be to keep the translated text to be approximately the same length as the original.  In that case, the translation would be about ten words, although this will require, at times, an imprecise approximation of the original meaning (because there is not always a one-to-one correspondence of vocabulary).  The NAS would be the classic example of this approach.


On the other hand, the translation philosophy may be to allow considerably more wordiness in order to do a better job of “explaining” the original meaning.  An example of this would be the Amplified Translation.  The trade-off here is apparent: the NAS, although not as precise, is more readable than the Amplified.  So, for the scholars who want to study and dissect each verse to gain the more precise meaning of the original, and are willing to spend a lot more time on the passage, use the Amplified.  But for the person who wishes to read large passages in a single sitting and is willing to give up some precision to do it (or one might say: more willing to keep the context of entire passage in better focus), use the NAS. 


Some translation philosophies attempt to strike more of a compromise between the two issues mentioned above.  For example, the NIV is willing to sacrifice a one-to-one correspondence between the Greek and the English in favor of doing a better job of explaining the meaning, but it is not willing to engage in the wordiness of the amplified.  So, for the most part, the NIV and the NAS are quite similar, but in the cases of relatively poor one-to-one correspondences between the Greek and the English, the NIV will choose to use a set of words very different from the NAS in order to more closely approximate the original meaning.  (An extreme example of the differences between these two translations can be seen by comparing the book of Hosea in both translations.  Hosea is a VERY different book when read in NAS compared to NIV.)


Then there is the issue of style of communication.  Will a translation allow the use of common vernacular, or prefer a more formal traditional form of English?  The advantage of using a vernacular is that you can do a better job of communicating the emotional content of the original.  But this can be at the cost, in some readers’ minds, of “debasing” the “dignity” of the Scriptures.  Here you can contrast the RSV (or even NAS) at one extreme with THE MESSAGE or even the Living Bible at the other extreme.  The Living Bible was an enormous help to me when I first became a Christian because it was imminently comfortable to read and created a more pleasurable experience for rapidly devouring large sections of Scripture.  But when I grew in my need to have more precision, I discarded the Living Bible in favor of the NAS.  (Eventually, I grew even more in the need to have greater precision, so I learned Greek.)


Also as a part of the translation philosophy, the translator must decide on the level of the target audience.  If the target audience is primarily children under the age of 12, then the translation will be very different from the target audience where the average reader has a Ph.D. in ancient languages.  Also in this arena of consideration is the target audience’s familiarity with Christian theological concepts and traditional biblical vocabulary.  This lets you know if you can use such words as “propitiation,” “sanctification,” “justification,” etc.  A primarily experienced Christian target audience will have a higher toleration for such terms, whereas a non-Christian (or uneducated Christian) target audience will not have a tolerance for such terms and will more likely find the Scriptures irrelevant or “uninteresting” because the “English” translation is continually using a “foreign” vocabulary.  Hence, we see part of the reason for the contrast between the NKJV and THE MESSAGE.


Viewed in this way, we see that each translation has a different translation philosophy.  The quality of the various translations may be quite good, but because of the differences in translation philosophy, there can be substantial differences in the end products.  This precludes us from anointing a single translation as the “best” English translation, because “best” is relative to the particular translation philosophy being used.


So, what is the EMA translation philosophy?  (Early Millennium American-the “Ric Routh” translation)  The EMA has the following translation philosophy: 


1.   Precision of meaning is to be heavily preferred over brevity.  This means the EMA will have many more words than the NAS.  It also means that the “meaning of the passage” will be preferred over the “best closest English word in a one-to-one correspondence translation” so original sentence structure is easily traded away when a more readable form that conveys the original meaning can be found.

2.   Readability is important-this means that although it will be more wordy, and may have more complicated sentence structure at points, it will attempt to stay away from the un-readability of the Amplified.

3.   The target audience will be high-school educated Christians experienced with the more commonly used religious terms such as “holy,” “begotten,” “temple sacrifice,” etc., but not familiar with the more obscure theological words such as “propitiation.”

4.   The target audience will also be early 21st century native Americans, and the use of early 21st century American vernacular will be employed when it best approximates the original emotional content of the Greek.


Also, I should say that I do not wish to pass myself off as a seasoned Greek scholar.  My understanding of human cognition, language evolution, the impact of world-view and culture on etymology, and the above stated language philosophy will allow me to fill a niche that I do not see others filling.  However, my primary intent is the personal goal of better understanding the original by doing a careful translation of the Greek.  I hope that others will also benefit from my translation efforts, but if I am the only one who benefits, that is sufficient to justify the effort.  My hope is to involve several others, like yourself, in the effort.  I hope to get from you (and others) a critique of how well I am communicating what I am attempting to communicate, as well as the oversight of the body of Christ providing some necessary accountability to help ensure the veracity of the final product.  I also foresee such an effort as great way to better explain (teach) the original meaning of the Greek to our Sunday school class.


Now, having laid the base of translation philosophy, I turn my attention to your particular original question about I John 3:7 & 10. 


The verse I John 3:7 in the NAS reads: Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous;” 


In the EMA it reads: “My Dear Children, let no one deceive you about this:  Do you understand what makes Jesus righteous?  Well, if that same righteousness characterizes a person’s life, then that person is righteous.”


The Greek literally is: “dear/little children no one lead-astray/deceive you: the one doing/making/practicing/establishing/ratifying/assuming/regarding/considering/bringing-to-pass/causing-to-take-place/perfecting/accomplishing/fulfilling/acquiring/etc. righteousness is righteous, as (demonstrative pronoun) is righteous.” 


As you might guess from looking at the above string of words, the translator has a lot of options as to how to translate this verse.  Some things to notice explicitly before translating this verse:


1.   In the Greek structure, often the most important concept in the structure comes last (I guess the Greek liked the “punch” of the surprise J).  Consequently, the focus of this verse is around the concept of “as (demonstrative pronoun) is righteous.”  Since the most common structure in prose English is to put the most important concept first, we should strongly consider placing the translation of this concept prior to the phrase “the one doing/etc. righteousness is righteous.”

2.   The Greek word for “he” is not used here.  In other words, if the translation of the last phrase was supposed to be “as he is righteous,” a different Greek word (autos) would have been used, so we can assume that the Holy Spirit means something more than simply “as He is righteous.”  The particular demonstrative pronoun being used here often refers back to an entire concept previously laid down.  So we get the sense that the Holy Spirit means to say something like: “as ‘That which we have previously been talking about’ is righteous.’”  This begs the question, “What have we previously been talking about?”  Well, the previous two verses are talking about true righteousness that comes from Jesus’s works and getting that righteousness by knowing Him.  Hence, to put the whole thing in context, I use the wording, “Do you understand what makes Jesus righteous?  Well, if that same righteousness…” 

The other parts of this verse are now fairly straightforward.  The beginning moniker is one of great affection such as is used by a mother addressing her precious little child, so I include the words “My dear” before the word children (I could legitimately have used the words “my darling children” but the 21st century vernacular has a negative emotional connotation associated with that phrasing, partly because we are so gender confused right now). I chose not to use the “little” because, although technically correct, the emotional connotations here might be perceived by some to be demeaning and the word is not in any way intended to be demeaning in the original. 


So far, we have explained the translation wording up to this point: “My dear children, let no one deceive you about this:  Do you understand what makes Jesus righteous?  Well, if that same righteousness…” At this point I could have said something like: “is what a person does, then that person is righteous.”  I considered this, but not for long.  Because the word used here often does not mean “do” and will communicate the wrong meaning if thus translated.  It is a word that ends up somehow implementing the associated concept.  By context, the associated context tells us that we are somehow implementing the righteousness of Jesus in our lives, so to convey this in a readable form, I chose to use the words “characterizes a person’s life.”  So we now have the completed verse:  My Dear Children, let no one deceive you about this:  Do you understand what makes Jesus righteous?  Well, if that same righteousness characterizes a person’s life, then that person is righteous.”


Now, on to verse 10.  In the NAS it reads: By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.”


In the EMA it reads: This is how you can tell the difference between the children of God and the children of the devil: Everyone who is not living in righteousness is not of God, and he is not devotedly and sacrificially loving other Christians.”


The Greek literally is: “In this is-caused-to-appear/brings-to-light/shines/can-be-seen/etc. are the children of God and the children of the devil: all those not doing/making/practicing/establishing/ratifying/assuming/regarding/considering/bringing-to-pass/causing-to-take-place/perfecting/accomplishing/fulfilling/acquiring/etc. righteousness not are out-of/from God, and he not agape-loving the brother of him.”


The first clause of the translation can be rendered just as well either way: as the NAS did it, or as I did it.  I chose to do it my way because I think my English rendering tends to highlight, in a more vernacular way, the main theme of the phrase which is to reveal the process by which the “distinction” can be made. 


For the next phrase, we again run up against the word “poi-“ which we have already seen functions as a word to show the implementation of the associated concept.  The associated concept is “how we get righteous.”  The previous many verses establish the context for this to be not on the basis of our works, but on the basis of Jesus’s works and that it gets implemented in our lives by being in relationship with Christ (“knowing Him,” “being born of God,” etc.).  So, I thought that to translate this as the NAS does would be putting undue emphasis on our works.  The more accurate translation would allow an easier referral to the foregoing context of how we acquire righteousness, and since the Greek word “poi-“ can be interpreted in many different ways including this one, I deemed it a valid translation.  So, for that reason, I left it a little more vague so the foregoing context could be more easily used to interpret it.  Hence the words, “Everyone who is not living in righteousness.” 


The next piece of this verse is consistent with how I translate the Greek word “agape” throughout the entirety of First John.   To translate the Greek word “agape” as simply “love” is asking for trouble.  The 21st century American word “love” is far more often, and in some circles exclusively, associated with lustful sex.  That is hardly the meaning in the Greek and a very poor translation for our day and culture.  I chose to elaborate with a phrase to reduce ambiguity and more closely approximate the original meaning.  Hence the words: “devotedly and sacrificially loving.”


The last possible issue is the translation of the Greek word “adelphon.”  This word often is translated “brother.”  But as it is used, it means “any other Christian.”  To use the word “brother” gives the text (for some readers) an unnecessary negative sexist connotation.  It really means any other Christian, so I use the words that in our current culture most closely convey that meaning: “other Christians.”


Mike, I hope this adequately answers the question you asked this past Sunday, but if you wish to discuss this further, I welcome the assistance.


In His Care,