Bible Translation: HCSB vs. ESV on “Slave” or “Servant”

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) translates the Greek word “doulos” as “slave.”  The English Standard Version (ESV) translates it in three different ways depending on the context: “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant.” Here is an explanation on the HCSB website for why it translates “doulos” this way (go here for the source):

Words we consider synonyms have different biblical meanings.

Consider words like slave and servant. All slaves were servants, but not all servants were slaves. A slave had no rights, didn’t receive any pay for work but was completely dependent on the master for everything. A servant, on the other hand, worked for a master but had rights and privileges aside from the master.

Here’s another treatment of the translation of “slave” vs. “servant” posted on the HCSB website:

Three out of four American Bible readers say they prefer a literal translation of Scripture even if some of the words or concepts do not fit easily into modern culture, according to a new study by LifeWay Research.

The study polled 2,000 people through a demographically representative online panel. All participants read their Bibles at least monthly — either for personal study or as part of a family activity. People who read the Bible only in a corporate setting, like a worship service, were not included in the study.

Survey participants were told: “In the original Greek and Hebrew, the Bible occasionally uses words that some might think do not fit in our society today, such as ‘slave.’ Some translators think these should be translated literally as ‘slave,’ while others think they should reflect current context and be translated as ‘servant.’ Which do you prefer?”

Nearly half (46 percent) strongly prefer a literal translation, and 28 percent somewhat prefer a literal translation. Fourteen percent somewhat prefer a translation to reflect current context while 4 percent strongly prefer such a translation. Seven percent are not sure.

The HCSB translates many ancient concepts literally, including “slave,” and uses bullet notes at the end of the Bible to explain them.

“The Bible includes concepts that may be uncomfortable or may require more study to fully understand,” said Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research. “This example shows more Bible readers prefer to see the literal translation rather than glossing over such concepts in a translation.”

This is too simplistic.  It’s not more literal to assign one English translation to one Hebrew or Greek word.  In fact it’s usually bad translation policy to do so.  If you only translate “doulos” as “slave” when there are contexts in which the usage of the word makes “servant” a better option, then you’re committing what D. A. Carson calls the fallacy of “unwarranted restriction of the semantic field” (D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, pg. 57).  Carson writes,

We sometimes fail to appreciate how wide the total semantic range of a word is; therefore when we come to perform the exegesis of a particular passage, we do not adequately consider the potential options and unwittingly exclude possibilities that might include the correct one.

A word should be defined and translated according to its usage, not assigned one English equivalent without regard to the different nuances the word might carry in its original context.  I like the ESV translation policy here (see pg. 2).


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