Translating Plato’s Republic, 370a: Bloom versus the NIV BIble

We found a small contradiction between the first and second editions of Allen Bloom’s translation of The Republic the other day. The episode shows how it can be useful to have different people in a class using different editions or different translations. I have my old 1976-college-freshman first edition, but I ordered newer copies for Ben, Lily, and Faith. We also have Jowett’s translation athand in the Edith Hamilton complete Plato in case Mom or Annaliese or someone wants to join us, but we never yet used it.

We were reading out loud, each taking a character as usual, and we’d come to Book II’s City of Necessity, where Socrates turns economist and starts talking about division of labor as the ultimate grounds for the polis, and hence for civilization. The Second Edition says

“The city of utmost necessityFN26 would be made of four or five men.”
“It looks like it.”
“Now, what about this? Must each one of them put his work at the disposition of all in common—for example, must the farmer, one man, provide food for four and spend four times as much time and labor in the provision of food and then give it in common to the others; or must he neglect them and produce a fourth part of the food in a fourth part of the time and use the other three parts for the provision of a house, clothing,FN27 and shoes, not taking the trouble to share in common with others, but minding his own business for himself?”
And Adeimantus said, “Perhaps, Socrates, the latter is easier than the former.”
“It wouldn’t be strange, by Zeus,” I said. “I myself also had the thought when you spoke that, in the first place, each of us is naturally not quite like anyone else, but rather differs in his nature; different men are apt for the accomplishment of different jobs. Isn’t that your opinion?”
“It is.”

I have boldfaced The Troublesome Sentence. It makes sense. It is easier to have the farmer specializing in food than to have the farmer providing both food and shoes for himself. Division of labor is useful, though it destroys self sufficiency. In fact, that’s very relevant right now. Should the U.S. specialize in college education and China specialize in making surgical masks? It’s not as obvious as it was last year. In the First Edition, however, The Troublesome Sentence reads

And Adeimantus said, “Perhaps, Socrates, the former is easier than the latter.”

Thus, we have a direct contradiction between the two translations, though both are by the same translator. The Second Edition has Adeimantus say specialization makes production easier, but the First Edition has him say specialization makes production more difficult. What’s going on?

This example is very good for teaching the principles of biblical translation, or translation generally, and for teaching the ignorant (we who don’t know Greek) how to figure out what a text says. The first thing to do– but just the first— is to decide which translation makes sense of the passage. Here, it is the Second Edition, as just noted. To confirm that, we can go on to the paragraph after the Troublesome Sentence, where we see that Socrates responds by seeming to agree with Adeimantus—and saying that specialization is good, which is the Second Edition translation.

But translation is not so simple. In fact, Bloom himself is a staunch opponent of the philosophy of translation whose driving principle is to make sense of the passage, of what we might call the New International Version philosophy. The NIV is a Bible translation written to replace the King James Version. It has three overt rationales, and a covert one– or perhaps “less prominent” is fairer. The three overt rationales are:
(1) Bring the 17th century English up to date. Get rid of the thees and thous.
(2) Use all Greek manuscripts now available, which include more, older, and better ones than the 1611 translators had.
(3) Use English vocabulary at the 8th grade reading level. Make it so a child can understand the Bible without having to use a dictionary or ask a grown-up. Rather insultingly, a big justification for this is that this was to be the New *International* Version, for people all around the world, and Africans aren’t very smart. They didn’t come out and say it quite that way, but I think it’s fair to describe their attitude that way. Saying “Africans” is inflammatory, though, because this wasn’t a racial thing. They also thought people in India, the Philippines, New Guinea, etc. aren’t very smart. The idea is more “Wogs begin at Calais”, though the translators mainly being American, we might want to modify it to “Wogs begin at Heathrow”.

I am not sympathetic to the NIV or its philosophy. Rationale (2) is unobjectionable, of course. It’s picked up on by the “New King James Version” translation. Rationale (1) raises hard questions I will not address here (the original languages distinguish between “thee” and “you”; archaic English might be best to translate archaic Hebrew; KJV language is more dignified; KJV language is more beautiful). Rationale (3) is not entirely bad. I approve of the idea of “children’s Bibles”, though I think it’s crucial to avoid giving children the impression they are reading a real Bible.

The biggest problem comes with rationale (4), the covert one, which I have not yet mentioned:
(4) Make the Bible easier to understand. Rather than using a literal word-for-word translation, translate it to to convey the same meaning, but phrased in a way that the audience, with its particular culture and education, can understand. Don’t paraphrase— do try to keep all the original meaning— but don’t be literal either, if that would sound awkward and be harder to understand.

I will continue writing this post later. I’ll take a break to go out and transplant nasturtiums and look for psathyrella.

Later: the nasturtiums transplanted nicely. I planted the seeds in haste, since I had a number of packets intended for last year’s planting, and when they took a long time to germinate I feared none would come up, but they are all coming up at once now. A metaphor, of course, as well as reality— that’s how good metaphors work. Only two psathyrella, but I can’t complain after the huge and continuing yield this year. Another metaphor. Journal publications, perhaps? At any rate, I have had to work on covid-19 economics today, so I’ll continue another time.

Further notes:

From Bloom’s preface, my boldface:

This is intended to be a literal translation. My goal—unattained—was the accuracy of William of Moerbeke’s Latin translations of Aristotle. These versions are so faithful to Aristotle’s text that they are authorities for the correction of the Greek manuscripts, and they enabled Thomas Aquinas to become a supreme interpreter of Aristotle without knowing Greek. Such a translation is intended to be useful to the serious student, the one who wishes and is able to arrive at his own understanding of the work. He must be emancipated from the tyranny of the translator, given the means of transcending the limitations of the translator’s interpretation, enabled to discover the subtleties of the elusive original. The only way to provide the reader with this independence is by a slavish, even if sometimes cumbersome, literalness—insofar as possible always using the same English equivalent for the same Greek word. Thus the little difficulties which add up to major discoveries become evident to, or at least are not hidden from, the careful student.

From a Gospel Coalition article:

even after its 1995 update, the NASB has managed only a niche market position (at one time #3 when choices were limited, it is now #10 in sales in the US), used primarily by those who perceive it to be “more accurate” since it is “more literal” (superficial judgments reflecting little understanding of what is involved in translation) and by first year language students who are comforted by the fact that it is the closest to their own attempts at putting the biblical text into something approximating English! (That in itself should say something about the quality of the translation.) Such perspectives are encouraged by the copyright owner, whose official web page declares, “At NO point did the translators attempt to interpret Scripture through translation. Instead, the NASB translation team adhered to the principles of literal translation. This is the most exacting and demanding method of translation, requiring a word-for-word translation that is both accurate and readable. This method follows the word and sentence patterns of the original authors” (

Dick France recounts his experience
in attending an English-speaking church service in a remote area of Nigeria. A new translation had
recently been published, one designed specifically for settings such as this in which most of the audience
spoke English only as a second language “at best.” During the service the Scripture was read from the
new translation. After doing so “the Nigerian leader of the service put the book down, saying, ‘Now we
will hear it from the real Bible,’ and he proceeded to read the same passage from the KJV.” On another
occasion France tells of a new translation in a tribal language of Zaire, the first attempt to put Scripture
directly into their own language as it was spoken (i.e., rather than an archaic version based on the KJV).
When the new translation was first read to the people “the hearers commented favorably on the ease
of understanding but then pointed out that, of course, it wasn’t the Bible!” France observes, “It almost
seems that, by definition, the Bible must be remote and unintelligible.”2
We may be amused by such reactions, judging them to be simplistic and poorly informed, but
sometimes our reactions to new translations and revisions of existing ones are no better.

There’s so much condescension dripping here, those poor ignorant Africans are going to drown unless they quickly move to higher ground.

From our location on the timeline of English-speaking history, the ability of an older translation
to communicate God’s inspired, inerrant revelation is no longer limited to the KJV.

Professor X does not like he stnadard terms, “literal” and “dynamic equivalence”, so he uses “formal eqiuvalence” and “Functional equivalence”.

Functional equivalence, by contrast, focuses on the meaning and attempts to accurately
communicate the same meaning in the receptor language, even if doing so requires
using different grammatical and syntactical forms. Although the form may differ in
functional equivalence, the translation functions the same as the original by accurately
communicating the same meaning.17

This is delightful. Of course, what Prof. X really lieks best is “false equivalence”. He wants two phrases differing only in X and Y, “X equivalence” and Y equivalence”, so as to try to fool his readers into thinking that both kinds of translations are pretty much the same, except one is uglier and harder to understand. Indeed, “dynamic equivalence” intself is a propaganda term, like “gay”, “diversity” , and “pro-choice” (and “pro-life” for that matter), a form of the Big Lie. The NIV translators’ “dynamic equivalence” is like “approximate exactitude”. The term is supposd to conceal the truth, like any propaganda term, rather than reveal it. Instead of honestly saying they’re trying to paraphrase accurately, the NIV translators pretend they are translating exactly. Paraphrases can be useful and good, and can even improve on the original (this was the idea of Reader’s Digest magazine), but they are not translations. We should all prefer “real equivalence” to “dynamic equivalence”. When people try “dynamic accounting”, the Securities and Exchange Commission snds them to prison. In translation, alas, false claims are perfectly legal.

I must tie this in to my Disagreeing Disagreeably essay.

4 Both in this section and the remainder of the paper I focus almost entirely on the NT since that is my
area of major study. I have not read the NIV11 OT other than a few scattered passages.