“Optimal Equivalence”

A Few Thoughts on the Holman Christian Standard Bible

February 28, 2015 (updated March 16, 2015)Filed under theologyMarkdown source

Over the past few months, I have been doing a read-the-Bible-in-90-days plan, and decided to take the opportunity to read through the Holman Christian Standard Bible. I have not quite finished the plan, but I have read the whole text of the Bible in that time (just not in sequence!). The HCSB is a very solid and reliable translation, and I have no qualms recommending it, alongside the NLT, the NIV,1 the ESV, and the NASB as valuable and helpful modern translations. (Other translations may also be helpful, but those are the English translations with which I am most familiar.)

Rather than try to do a detailed analysis and review—a task that would take a great many words indeed—I thought I would simply offer some observations on the text gleaned from this read through.

The Translation

Published by Holman Bible Publishers, the HCSB is a relatively recent translation, dating to 2004. (Holman is part of Lifeway, the for-profit publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.) The HCSB was totally new translation, rather than a revision of an older tradition, based on the NA27/UBS4 Greek text and the BHS5 text. The translation committee called their translation strategy “optimal equivalence”, aiming for a balance between the more wooden “functional” and the more free (but also looser) “dynamic” equivalence philosophies. (On the name of their equivalence, more in a moment.)

General Philosophy

The translators described their overall philosophy as “optimal equivalence”—shooting for a balance between “formal” and “dynamic” equivalence, perhaps most popularly represented by the NASB and NIV respectively.

While I find the translators’ goals admirable, and I think the results are generally fairly good, a word about their name for the philosophy is in order. To call one’s translation philosophy “optimal equivalence” is nearly tautological. Every translator thinks that her approach is optimal given the goals she sets herself. Otherwise, she would pick a different strategy—one more optimal for the goals of her translation!

As for the results, in truth I think the come a great deal closer to “dynamic equivalence” than the translators might care to acknowledge. The difference between “optimal” and “dynamic” equivalence here is fairly lean; in truth, it seems more a matter of the particular tastes of the translation committee than of actually being more “functionally” equivalent than the NIV. If we conceived of the dynamic-functional equivalence scale as ranging from 1 to 10, with 1 being a full paraphrase and 10 being a 1st-year student’s word-for-word gloss of the original, the NIV would be about a 4 and the HSCB about a 5. (I would rate the NLT about a 2.5–3, the ESV a 7, and the NASB 8–8.5.)

I have no problem with that; the result is a fairly solid reading Bible. Like the NIV and the NLT, its biggest weakness is a certain flatness of style—there is little to distinguish Paul from Peter or the Chronicler from the author of Kings. The ESV manages to bring through some of those authorial quirks and idiosyncrasies a bit more, but sometimes at the cost of clear English.2 The biggest place this flattening shows up is in the poetic language: the Psalms here are not bad, but they’re never especially beautiful, either. That’s a real shame. The prosaic meaning of the Psalms does come through well enough, but at the cost of precisely that element that makes them so compelling and have given them such a lasting influence: their poetic voice.3

Leaving Behind the KJV

The HCSB, to a greater extent than many other conservative translations, demonstrates considerable willingness to diverge from the readings of the KJV. In many ways, this is good: it makes for better (modern) English, and in many cases a better translation as well, since our knowledge both of the textual basis of the Bible and of the original languages has advanced somewhat since 1611.4 Occasionally, though, and especially in the poetic sections, the result is a serious flattening of the text. Compare, for example, their translation of Job 38:11. The HCSB reads:

when I declared: “You may come this far, but no farther;
    your proud waves stop here”?

The KJV has:

and said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further:
    and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?

Of course, I am not terribly sad to see the archaic pronouns go (though I do miss their precision a bit!). But “here shall thy proud waves be stayed” sings in a way that “your proud waves stop here” just… doesn’t. It’s not bad, but it isn’t particularly poetic, either. The ESV follows the KJV more closely, with:

and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?

That manages to keep the poetry of the KJV while using modern English, perhaps the best tradeoff under the circumstances. Given the extent to which the language and rhythm of the KJV have shaped modern English, there are times abandoning the KJV actually hurts the translation. This goes back to the point above: poetics matter. This is not a failing of the HCSB alone, though; every dynamic equivalence translation I’ve read falls into the same trap. (And again: the functionally equivalent translations fall into other traps; in any case no one ever accused the NASB of containing particularly beautiful English—in poetry or prose!)

The Divine Name

The HCSB’s handling of the divine name (יהוה) is… strange. The translators chose to supply “Yahweh” in some places but “Lord” or “God” in others. They opted to use “Yahweh” anytime the author explicitly refers to the name (שׁמ) of God in the nearest sentences. However, they do not continue to transliterate the name in the follwing context, even when that would be appropriate. As a result, it is not uncommon for a passage to include both “Yahweh” and “Lord”, which muddles things considerably. They also supply “Yahweh” from time to time when “name” is not in the immediate context.

This particular approach is, in my view, unhelpful at best. Those who are offended by seeing the divine name in print or hearing it read aloud will be offended. Those who are not offended and find it helpful to see and hear the divine name directly will only find it some of the time. Moreover, the inconsistency within a given passage can make it even less clear than in a translation that simply sticks to the small-capitals convention (“Lord”/“God”). I am generally approve transliterating the name, but consistency is often the most important element for clarity and comprehension.

Miscellaneous Translation Notes

There were a number of other quirks in the translation I thought worth noting.

  • Instead of the more usual “…declares the Lord” or “…says the Lord,” the tranlators opted to go with “This is the Lord’s declaration…” and “This is what the Lord says….” This is a perfectly defensible translation, but is another case where diverging from the traditional reading, even for more normal English, actually sounds a bit jarring. I never actually adjusted to it, even after weeks of seeing it.

    Edit: I’ve been spending an awful lot of time looking at the prophetic books in Hebrew lately, and I get to eat some crow on this one. Where the HCSB has “this is the Lord’s declaration”, the original text usually has some that, brought over in an extremely wooden sense, would be “declaration of the Lord”, so this really is better than the original—even if it is a bit jarring!

  • The treatment of units is splendid overall. It is, however, inconsistent. Units of distance, weight, and so on are all translated directly into their modern English equivalents. (This being a very American translation, the units are all Imperial, of course.) Reading miles instead of stadia and inches or feet instead of cubits was quite helpful and illuminating. On the other hand, the translators treated money very differently, simply leaving them in the original units. Perhaps they were concerned about currency fluctuations or the vagaries of inflation on the value of money over time. Perhaps there is no better way to handle monetary units, but the inconsistency remained a trifle jarring.

  • There were a number of passages where the hermeneutical biases of the translators came through clearly. Their rendering of John 3:36, for example, supplies a great deal more than can be justified on the basis of the Greek text alone. The HCSB has:

    The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who refuses to believe in the Son will not see life; instead, the wrath of God remains on him.

    The translation the HCSB is certainly one possible interpretation of the text, but that interpretation must be justified on the basis of many other texts; the plain sense of the original is as the ESV has it:

    Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

    All translation involves some degree of interpretation, but on the whole the HCSB translators did an admirable job of leaving ambiguities in the original unresolved. That made instances like this one all the more jarring—though, given that the HCSB is more dynamic than not, perhaps unsurprising. (The NIV makes almost exactly the same move as the HCSB here.) Hopefully they will pull it back a bit in future revisions of the text.

Conclusion

The various issues highlighted above notwithstanding, I have enjoyed reading through the HCSB over the last few months. It is a solid, respectable translation and the men and women who worked on it are to be commended for their work. Because of the quirks listed above, however, I do not expect it will become a go-to translation for me. At the end of the day, the HCSB’s “optimal equivalence” boils down to a slightly tighter dynamic equivalence. As thigns stand, though, I would rather use either the NIV or the NLT among the dynamic equivalence translations—both are more consistent translations than the HCSB, and therefore require less explanation when teaching and less mental hoop-jumping when reading. By the same token, the ESV is a very good translation more on the functional end of the spectrum, and certainly checks off those boxes much more effectively than does the HCSB. Again: it is not so much that the HCSB is a poor translation as that it does not do anything sufficiently better than other existing translations as to displace them in my current reading and study habits.


  1. Yes, even the NIV2011. On the gendered/inclusive language controversy, I basically follow D. A. Carson in The Inclusive-Language Debate: A Plea for Realism. The nature of language simply does not allow the kinds of lines that many conservatives (including myself in the past) have been inclined to draw. This becomes immediately apparent when considering translation into either languages without grammatical gender (even as in the case of English’s neuter article: “the” indicates neither masculinity nor femininity, just like the Hebrew הַ, but unlike Greek’s ὁ/ἡ/το trio) or languages with more grammatical genders. (Similarly, in his discussion of the “gender” of the Holy Spirit, Dan Wallace in his Grammar argues strongly against taking the gendered pronoun in Jesus’ discussion of the Spirit as indicative of personal gender.) This is simply bad linguistics, and therefore also poor theology. There is much more that could be said here, but in any case I do not have the problems many of my fellow theological conservatives do with the NIV2011.

  2. This is exactly what I mean about “optimal” equivalence: which of these results is optimal? Neither, and both! It depends on what you’re going for!

  3. The fact of the matter is: the meaning of a poem is never so cleanly separable from its form. I’ve written about this—though too briefly—before.

  4. No Byzantine priority for me! Also, I mean no offense to the KJV translators, who did a truly phenomenal job. I happen to think, though, that they would be pleased to see the work of translation continue forward, rather than remaining fixed on their particular work.