It is often said by advocates of dynamic equivalence that “all translation is interpretation” or “all good translation involves interpretation.” 1 This statement is true; yet it is dishonest, if it is designed to distract attention from the fact that some translations are more interpretive than others. Like most things in life, it is a matter of degree, and the difference in degree can be important. If a doctor who wanted to do elective surgery on a patient knew that the patient’s health would probably be ruined by it, he could not escape responsibility by shrugging his shoulders and saying “well, all surgery involves risks.” Some surgery carries little risk, some is very risky. Some is absolutely necessary to save the patient’s life; some is purely optional, and does not improve the health of the patient at all. And the same is true of translations. Some interpretation is necessary, and some is not. Take for instance Philippians 2:13, which in the Greek reads, θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας. A translation that involves very little interpretation is, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (ESV). The interpretation here is so obvious and so minimal that probably the translator was not even aware of having interpreted the verse, but it does involve some assumptions and some obligatory interpretation: for instance, it assumes that by θεὸς Paul means “God” and not “a god,” and that by ἐν he means “in” rather than “among.” But now compare this with the much more interpretive and riskier translation of the Common English Bible: “God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.” Here ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν has been interpreted, “who enables you.” This is certainly more interpretive, and it is also highly qestionable, because the verb ἐνεργέω does not mean “enable.” It means “be operative, be at work, put forth power” (Thayer), “be at work, operate, be effective” (BAGD). H.C.G. Moule observes that “the Greek word has a certain intensity about it, ‘worketh effectually.’” 2 The translation neglects to convey what the text actually says (“who works effectually”) and offers instead a notion of how God might be said to work in the heart and life of the believer if his working were not really effectual. Evidently the translator reasoned that God must be at work in the believer indirectly and non-effectually by “enabling” him to want and to do this or that, rather than simply causing him to want or do these things, although that is by no means what the text says. The interpretation injected here goes beyond what is necessary for a grammatical and understandable English sentence.
In connection with this interpretation we note what Calvin writes on the verse:
It is God that worketh. This is the true engine for bringing down all haughtiness — this the sword for putting an end to all pride, when we are taught that we are utterly nothing, and can do nothing, except through the grace of God alone. I mean supernatural grace, which comes forth from the spirit of regeneration. For, considered as men, we already are, and live and move in God. (Acts 17:28.) But Paul reasons here as to a kind of movement different from that universal one. Let us now observe how much he ascribes to God, and how much he leaves to us. There are, in any action, two principal departments — the inclination, and the power to carry it into effect. Both of these he ascribes wholly to God; what more remains to us as a ground of glorying? Nor is there any reason to doubt that this division has the same force as if Paul had expressed the whole in a single word; for the inclination is the groundwork; the accomplishment of it is the summit of the building brought to a completion. He has also expressed much more than if he had said that God is the Author of the beginning and of the end. For in that case sophists would have alleged, by way of cavil, that something between the two was left to men. But as it is, what will they find that is in any degree peculiar to us? They toil hard in their schools to reconcile with the grace of God free-will — of such a nature, I mean, as they conceive of — which might be capable of turning itself by its own movement, and might have a peculiar and separate power, by which it might co-operate with the grace of God. I do not dispute as to the name, but as to the thing itself. In order, therefore, that free-will may harmonize with grace, they divide in such a manner, that God restores in us a free choice, that we may have it in our power to will aright. Thus they acknowledge to have received from God the power of willing aright, but assign to man a good inclination. Paul, however, declares this to be a work of God, without any reservation. For he does not say that our hearts are simply turned or stirred up, or that the infirmity of a good will is helped, but that a good inclination is wholly the work of God.
Perhaps not everyone will agree with all that Calvin says here. But it must be admitted that it requires no torturing of the text. The same cannot be said for the Arminian gloss of the Common English Bible, which pointedly excludes Calvin’s thoughts, by playing fast and loose with the words of the Apostle. This manipulation of the text in translation is not excusable on the grounds that “all translation is interpretation.”
1. Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 2007), pp. 31, 52, 69, etc.
2. H.C.G. Moule, The Epistle to the Philippians, with Introduction and Notes (Cambridge, 1893), ad loc.