Contextual Frames of Reference in Translation

Communicative Bible translation is at the same time a science, a technology, and an art. Thus it is (or should be) based on generally accepted knowledge derived from interdisciplinary sources as well as extended observation, study, and experimentation; it operates according to specific, experience-based principles and practical procedures; and equally important if not always recognized, it is at some point also carried out intuitively, in response to the artistic genius and sensitivity of the translator. It is the primary aim of Contextual frames of reference in Bible translation to provide translators and their trainers alike with a heuristic framework for exploring all three of these key dimensions of translation, with primary reference to the Christian Scriptures. I thereby wish to encourage a more broadly-based perspective on this multifaceted task and, to this end, also provide translation staff with the opportunity to progressively practice as well as to reflect upon these insights in relation to their own specific sociocultural setting and work situation.

This coursebook offers a practical, step by step way to follow up on some of the main ideas that are presented in the influential text Bible translation: Frames of reference (Wilt 2003). The collection of studies proposed a more diverse and flexible “holistic” approach to Bible translation, as summarized by the following critical points of view (ibid: xii):

• viewing the translation project in terms of its community, organizational, and sociocultural settings;
• viewing the translation product as part of a larger communicative process;
• viewing translation as an interdisciplinary subject;
• viewing textual parts in terms of textual wholes;
• viewing form and content, structure and function, as together contributing to the meaning of texts;
• viewing informative and imperative functions of texts in relation to other functions, especially the aesthetic and ritual functions of scriptural texts.

The present coursebook seeks to investigate these basic perspectives in somewhat greater detail by means of both additional information regarding the different topics involved and also through interspersed exercises, which invite readers to apply the material contextually to the particular circumstances in which they themselves are either translating or training and guiding translators to do the job. Bible translation focuses upon a single text, but the process is influenced and thus also coloured by a host of interrelated sociolinguistic and cultural variables that pertain to the many different settings in which this communicative activity is being conducted throughout the world today. Thus this coursebook intends to broaden translators’ field of vision—their “frames of reference”—with regard to the conceptual and pragmatic scope of their task in relation to the original text and, on the other hand, to lead them to apply this vision with more focused clarity and conviction to their specific work situation, ideally in close interaction with colleagues in a “team” approach to the task. This text is itself very much the product of teamwork, as the many quotations and exercises contributed by others clearly indicate.

For more information about this book, see at or at

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Martin Luther and Functional-Equivalence Bible Translation

It is difficult for someone who does not know the German language or the literary, social, and political setting of Central Europe in the early 1500s to appreciate just how revolutionary Martin Luther’s translation of the German Bible was. Not that it always involves a radical departure from the original-in fact, Luther’s wording is often quite close. But this was his genius. He seemed to be able to sense just how far he needed to push his mother tongue in order “to make these Hebrew writers talk German,” as he put it (Koelpin 1977:3), and yet at the same time preserve the essential meaning of the Holy Scriptures. That is what functional equivalence and confessional fidelity are all about.

My aim in this article is to focus upon Luther’s translation principles from the dual perspective of modern translation science and confessional, or evangelical, integrity. While these two concerns may seem at first to stand in a certain tension, or even in an antithetical relationship with one another, they need not be seen that way if these goals are being attended to by a skilled, sensitive, and Spirit-led translator. Such was Luther.

I will begin with a brief historical summary to set the stage. Then follows an overview of Luther’s theory and practice of Bible translation, presented by means of what he himself had to say about it and of what may be observed in his translation into German. It will become clear that Luther’s policies, principles, and procedures embody the modern “functional equivalence” method employed today to a greater or lesser extent by Scripture translators the world over. I will conclude with an overview of present-day translation projects in Central Africa where these same methods and goals are still being applied.

We look back now to 1521. The theological revolution against Rome seems to be defeated. Only the final “sacrifice” of its instigator, Martin Luther, is yet to be accomplished. This, at the climax of his dramatic appearance before Emperor Charles V and the Imperial Diet of Worms in April 1521, was his magnificent confession of faith:
“Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning-and my conscience is captive to the Word of God-then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.” (Kittelson 1986:161)

In spite of these wonderful words, however, Luther’s powerful enemies were unmoved. The imperial assembly formally declared him to be a public outlaw, and all the might and resources of the empire were now ranged against him. But they failed to take into account the plan and purpose of God. So it happened that while Luther was on his way home to Wittenberg, he was “kidnapped” by agents of his political patron, Elector Frederick of Saxony, and taken to Wartburg Castle for safekeeping. Here Luther, dressed as a knight and armed with a sword, became known as “Knight George.” But he never used the sword; for, as he demonstrated throughout his life, the pen is far mightier (Nohl 1962:74).

At first, the ever-active Luther was not very happy to be confined in this place that he called “my Patmos.” “Here I sit,” he complained, “all day long, lazy and full of food” (ibid.:165). But Luther and laziness were incompatible. So it was that during his ten-month stay at Wartburg he wrote and published a dozen works. He also completed the first step of a crucial literary and theological endeavor that was going to occupy his attention periodically for the rest of his life-the translation of the entire Bible into German….

For the rest of this article, you may find the PDF file at

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“Literary functional equivalence” translation (LiFE for short) is simply an extension or development of de Waard and Nida’s “functional equivalence” methodology (1986). This approach is based upon the assumption (supported by various types of discourse analysis, e.g., Wendland 2004) that the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, by and large, exemplify literary texts of high quality, and therefore any translation should manifest a corresponding level of excellence (to the degree possible under the prevailing circumstances). The term “literary” conveys a twofold emphasis, namely, upon the artistry (forms) and rhetoric (functions) of the original biblical documents as well as any derived vernacular, or “target language” (TL), translations (cf. Wendland 2011). Artistic techniques include features such as patterned recursion, imagery and figurative language, distinctive word orders, rhythm and other purposeful sound effects, and the use of emphatic devices (e.g., rhetorical questions, hyperbole, exact repetition, direct speech insertion, etc.).

Basic functional analysis techniques are given more precision through the application of “speech act” and “schema” (or cognitive “frames”) theory (Wendland 2008). Special attention is given to the TL and the search for oral and written (or mixed) genres that may serve as functional equivalents to those found in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Various degrees of LiFE application are possible, depending on considerations of “relevance” in relation to a given translation project’s “job commission” (brief), including the major communicative goals (Skopus) of the present version, the primary setting in which it will be used, and the working competence of the translators. This may range from a complete genre-for-genre (SL>TL) “oratorical” transposition to merely a limited treatment with respect to the phonological (e.g., rhythmic) structures of a relatively literal “liturgical” version.

Thus the intended situation of use is of major importance when preparing a LiFE translation, and this projected scenario is researched and assessed through the recursive application of a cognitive “frames of reference” methodology—that is, involving sociocultural, organizational, conversational (situational), and textual (including intertextual) referential contexts (cf. Wilt 2003, Wilt & Wendland 2008). It is recognized that complete communication via translation is impossible, and therefore the use of various supplementary paratextual tools (e.g., explanatory notes, sectional introductions and/or headings, illustrations, glossary, etc.) and features of text formatting (e.g., indentation, spacing, typography) are also promoted during the preparation of a LiFE translation. Two recently published examples of LiFE translations of the Psalms are Boerger (2009) and Wilt (2012).


Boerger, Brenda H. 2009. Psalms (Poetic Oracle English Translation). Dallas: Self-published.

de Waard, Jan and Eugene A. Nida. 1986. From one language to another: Functional equivalence in Bible translating. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Wendland, Ernst. 2004. Translating the literature of Scripture: A literary-rhetorical approach to Bible translation. Dallas: SIL International.

Wendland, Ernst. 2008. Contextual frames of reference in translation: A coursebook for Bible translators and teachers. Manchester, UK: St. Jerome.

Wendland, Ernst. 2011. LiFE-style translating: A workbook for Bible translators (2nd ed.). Dallas: SIL International.

Wilt, Timothy. 2003. “Translation and communication,” in T. Wilt (ed.), Bible translation: Frames of reference. Manchester: St. Jerome. 27-80.

Wilt, Timothy. 2012. Praise—The book of Psalms translated from the Hebrew. CreateSpace: Self-published (available from Amazon).

Wilt, T. and E. Wendland. 2008. Scripture frames & framing: A workbook for Bible translators. Stellenbosch: SUN Press.

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JIN Di and the “artistic integrity” approach to translation-6

This will be my final post on selections from the book Literary Translation: Quest for Artistic Integrity by Prof Di Jin (St Jerome, 2003). I have been reflecting on some of Jin’s insights from the perspective of Bible translation—a “literary” rendition in particular. Here is another one:

“A message that is acquired by the translator thinking totally in the source language becomes a good message in the target language by the same translator thinking totally in the target language. This is the strange but necessary union of two totalities that is requisite for successful transition. . . . [T]he message-orientated translator enjoys an unprecedented freedom of choice because he or she is not shackled by the bondage of words and structures. In fact, this complete freedom from source-language interference will enable one to find an inexhaustible pool of linguistic and artistic resources in the target language, which is normally the mother tongue, open before one’s eyes. One may not be able to spot the best choice at once, but the consciousness of the availability of the rich resources there brings with it realistic expectations of further improvements. . . . Query: what motivates this endless pursuit of an ideal that is always ready to reveal a new defect when you think you have it as fine as possible? Answer: dedication to the art and love of the work.” (pp. 150, 154, 158)

Such expertise in both SL and TL is not easy to achieve in many of the Bible translation projects being conducted in the world today, as in the past. It may be easier to achieve in major languages with a long literary history, but in these cases (English, Spanish, French, etc.) one must often deal with tradition and a constituency that has become used to—even comfortable with—certain terms and wordings that, truth be told, do not really communicate very well (e.g., the “KJV factor” in English). In other languages, it is not so easy to find (or afford!) staff suitably qualified in the biblical languages to serve full-time on a translation project that can take from 10-20 years overall. Furthermore, based on my experience in SE Africa, even in the case of MT translators, it is very rare to find those who are really “experts” in the sense that they have actually researched or studied in detail the full oral and written resources of their language, including the different genres of prose and poetry.

The task of Bible translators is made more challenging by the fact that they are working with a sacred text and one in which certain SL forms do convey important “meanings” in terms of literary function, for example, acrostic (alphabetic) constructions, chiastic (reversed parallel) structures, and the familiar “parallelism” of Hebrew poetry (see Translating the Literature of Scripture for examples). In these cases, translators must comparatively examine and carefully evaluate these forms to see how similar functions (informative, expressive, imperative, artistic, rhetorical, etc.) can be expressed idiomatically in the target language. Research has found, for example, that the parallel phrasing that we find throughout a book like the Psalms can be re-presented with similar impact and appeal in Bantu poetic forms, with certain adjustments of course, such as: word order variations to maintain the original “topic” and “focus”; filling in the implicit verbs where “gapping” occurs in the second line, the manifold use of demonstrative forms for naturalness and clarity of reference, and the enhancement of rhythm as well as euphony through judicious lexical choice and combination.

As for the motivation for excellence over many years of repeated drafts, testings, consultations, and revisions, in addition to personal “dedication” and “love for the work” that Jin mentions above, Bible translators can add (at least) two more: having a version of the Scriptures that speaks meaningfully as well as powerfully, even beautifully, in one’s mother tongue—and the ultimate, carrying out this literary labor of love for the glory of God, who gave us his saving Word in the first place (1 Corinthians 10:31).

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JIN Di and the “artistic integrity” approach to translation-5

Toward the end of his book Literary Translation, Prof. Di Jin takes up the important issue of style. Here is what he has to say (summarized):

“The creative imagination of the translator, just like his freedom to utilize the most appropriate linguistic and artistic means available in the target language, is only meaningful when it helps to re-present the message in a way closer to the source message than would be possible without the transformation, never when it produces something irrelevant. . . . [T]he original author’s styles will never reach the target language readers directly. The crucial question for us is whether our distinctive styles achieve the right effects, ‘equivalence in difference’, and our critic’s judgement is a conclusive ‘yes’. . . . [T]he translator, any translator, has to be a master of his or her own language in the first place and be capable of producing elegant writing… . . . Style has been very much neglected in translation studies because of its deceptive simplicity. Yet it is the subtlest part of literary writing and is in any translation certainly one of the most outstanding factors that contribute to the effect the translation produces on its readers. . . . [A]ll good writers employ stylistic variations to achieve varying purposes in their writing…” (pp. 146-149)

If it is true to say that style has been neglected in secular translation studies, then this assertion applies much more widely and deeply in sacred translation work. Indeed, the subject of “style” may come up for discussion in the Introduction to some new version, but this is normally dealt with only in terms of a general translation approach that has been applied throughout the text, whether more or less formally correspondent or functionally equivalent. Some of these preliminary claims are overly optimistic at best (some might say, naively impossible). For example, the “essentially literal” English Standard Version makes this bold declaration: “But throughout, our goal has been to retain the depth of meaning and enduring language that have made their indelible mark on the English-speaking world…[with] an emphasis on literary excellence” (Preface). At any rate, not much, if anything, is ever detailed as to precisely how the dynamic style of the biblical Hebrew or Greek text will be similarly reproduced with respect to its artistry (beauty of form) or rhetoric (power of form)—in short, the aesthetic appeal and persuasive impact of the original. In those cases where such a contention is put forward—e.g., “The ESV lets the stylistic variety of the biblical writers fully express itself” (ibid.)—nothing is said as to the criteria that were applied in coming to this decision, or which “experts” were chosen to make the literary evaluation.

The mention of “styles” in the preceding quote, as well as in the Jin citation above, is indeed significant, for translating the Scriptures uniformly throughout would be a mis-representation and constitute a serious error of methodology. Thus, different texts must vary stylistically also in translation, according to the genre of biblical literature being rendered—whether predominantly narrative (Genesis 37), genealogical (Genesis 5), procedural (Exodus 26), legislative (Leviticus 4), panegyric (Exodus 15), or prophetic (Genesis 49) in nature. Most likely it will not be possible to match all of these distinctive styles by means of target language literary equivalents, but some of the basic distinctions in terms of form and function need to be made—prose as distinct from poetry, and direct speech from reported discourse or a narrative report.

Furthermore, there is need for the translator (at least one respected, highly competent member of the translation team) to actively demonstrate “creative imagination” in his (her) work so as to stimulate and encourage the others, most of whom will probably be reluctant (even afraid) to apply their literary (or oratorical) skills to the rendering of the Word of God. This happens, first of all, because they do not realize or fully appreciate the degree to which the biblical text actually does manifest literary artistry and rhetoric—a feature which thereby constitutes a significant aspect of its overall “meaning” and hence liable for translation. The second reason for a “literary failure” with respect to translation technique is because many translators are relatively unfamiliar with the full inventory of stylistic devices that are actually present in their mother tongue—whether in oral or written texts—and therefore available for translation purposes. Verbal “masters” (expert wordsmiths) have been few and far between in the many projects that I have worked with over the years (for various reasons). There is also the pressure of tradition in the case of languages that can boast of a long history of Bible translation and a number of published versions already. If none of the extant, including perhaps some popular modern versions, happen to display a distinct literary style, then translators may be reluctant to flow against the stream, especially in the case of a religious text that will often be used in public worship. And finally, there is a certain “fear factor,” in a sense related to the preceding point; thus translators may not wish to possibly alienate their sponsors and supporters by proposing and seeking to justify a new translation technique and style for the Scriptures. It’s simply too easy to follow the well-worn paths of past precedent and procedure.

Having said this, I must hasten to add that I am not suggesting that a literary (LiFE) translation of the Bible is suitable for each project and every setting. A great deal of pre-project audience surveying, educating, and negotiating is necessary before a final decision regarding its “skopos” (primary goal) and “brief” (job description) can be made. And the end result will probably be a much more limited vision and target audience for such a novel translation, perhaps restricted to some type of audio rendition designed to attract a more youthful constituency, maybe even via a correspondingly lively musical version.

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JIN Di and the “artistic integrity” approach to translation-4

Continuing my selection of quotable quotes from Di Jin’s book on Literary Translation, I come to his interesting comparison of the translator’s art to that of a “tightrope dancer“:

“The ease and freedom of tightrope dancers comes from long an persistent practice in maintaining an unwavering grasp of the centre of gravity through all their seemingly unrestrained movements. The creative translator enjoys a similar ease and freedom when he or she manages to maintain the delicate balance over the artistic integrity of the original work. . . . What exactly are the weights on the translator’s balancing rod? On one end is the message of the source text, including its spirit, its substance and its flavor, as perceived by the source-language reader. And on the other end it is the message or the pre-visualized message of the end text being conceived as it will be perceived by the prospective target-language reader. It involves subtle manoeuvering to negotiate the delicate balance because both the factual information and the flavor may have to be adjusted through linguistic and cultural transition, but the balance can be negotiated if the translator always keeps the message, not just the words, at the centre of his or her view.” (pp.116-117)

Thus, form and content, flavor and force, beauty and accuracy–all these considerations (and more!) must be negotiated and kept both in mind and in balance as one renders the source text into another language and cultural setting. Furthermore, not only readers must be mentally referenced during this process, but it is probably more important for listeners to be envisaged, especially in the case of a Bible translation: How was the original Hebrew or Greek text presumably “heard”–and how correspondently will the translation “sound” to an audience today? Of course, a certain amount of educated guesswork is needed in the case of the ST coupled with a considerable amount of testing with regard to the translation. Moreover, where the Scriptures are concerned, the semantic content of the text must take priority; but it may be surprising to those who make the analytical effort to discover how the essential meaning of the original was “clothed” in certain obvious as well as subtle artistic and rhetorical forms so as to enhance the biblical text by making it more memorable and memorizable.

The following is the remainder of the Lord’s Prayer (Mt.6:11-16) in a semi-poetic style of Chewa discourse that is intended to match the impact and appeal of the biblical text (see the preceding post; note that the so-called “Doxology” was included in the translation due to popular demand!):

Τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον
δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον·
καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν,
ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν·
καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν,
ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.

Choonde, ’Tate, tigawireni lero, (Please, Dad, apportion us today,)
chakudya chokwanira moyo uno. (food sufficient for this life.)
Machimo onse mutikhululukire, (All our sins would you forgive us,)
nafe tichitedi chimodzimodzinso. (and we, let us surely do also the same.)
Mu zotiyesayesa ife tisamiremo. (Into the things that test us, let us not get mired.)
Kwa Woipa uja, M’dani wathu, (From that Evil One, our Enemy,)
mutipulumutse nthawi zonse’tu. (may you deliver us indeed at all times.)
Ndithudi, ufumu ndi mphamvu, (In truth, kingship and great power,)
ulemunso n’zanu kwamuyayaya! (honor too remain yours forever and ever!)

I trust that Chewa readers and hearers will agree that the translation tightrope has been traversed without falling–and without a great deal of awkward movements on the line! (For a more detailed analysis of this biblical text and the process of translating it, see my article “Poeticizing the Lord’s Prayer for Pronunciatio: An Exercise in Oral-Oriented Bible Translation” in the journal Neotestamentica 46/2, 395-416, 2012.)

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JIN Di and the “artistic integrity” approach to translation-3

See two earlier posts for my brief introduction to Ji Din’s approach to literary translation. Here is another quote from his book:
“The distinction between the creative freedom of the artistic integrity approach and that of the traditional free translation lies in its fidelity to the original. Whereas the traditional free translator throws away whatever he or she does not like in the source text and replaces it with alien matters which affect or even distort the message, the creative efforts of the message-oriented translator are made to produce a message closer to the source than what any literal rendering could ever produce. . . . The creative imagination of the translator, just like his or her freedom to utilize the most appropriate linguistic and artistic means available in the target language, is only meaningful when it helps to re-present the message in a way closer to the source message than would be possible without the transformation, never when it produces something irrelevant” (p.101).

These ideas remind us of Nida and Taber’s classic formulation of “dynamic equivalence” translating: “Translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style” (The Theory and Practice of Translation, 1969, p.12, added bold). To illustrate the principle of the closest equivalent, N&T suggest that in present-day English a natural equivalent of “demon-possessed” (Jn. 10:21) would be “mentally distressed” (or “disturbed”). However, this rendering “is a cultural reinterpretation which does not take seriously the cultural outlook of the people of Biblical times” (ibid., 13).

What applies to the content of the original text, applies also to its literary forms and the communicative functions that these convey. In a “literary functional equivalence” (LiFE) approach then, translators seek to re-present these aspects of the SL text as well–its artistic appeal and rhetorical impact–as part of the overall interlingual “meaning” transfer process. The following is an example of a LiFE rendition of the first strophe of the well-known “Lord’s Prayer” (Mt. 6:9b-10) in Chewa, a SE Bantu language. The following is first a reproduction of the Greek text:

Πάτερ ἡμῶν, ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς,
ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου·
ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου·
γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου,
ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς·

Now the Chewa version, along with an English back-translation:
Atate inu akumwamba, (You Father, the one up above,)
dzina lanu lilemekezeke. (may your name be honored.)
Wanu ufumu ukhazikike. (Your kingdom, may it be firmly established.)
Zonse zofuna zanu zichitike, (May all your wishes be done,)
pano pansi ndi kumwambako. (down here and up there in heaven.)

I trust that Prof. Jin would be satisfied that the “artistic integrity” as well as the semantic accuracy of the biblical text has been preserved in the Chewa LiFE version.

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