Bible Translation and Study 

Frederick W. Franz and Biblical Hebrew

A number of critical websites make assertions to the effect that Frederick W. Franz, a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses until his death in 1992, was unable to translate a simple verse from Hebrew into English, when asked to do so during a court case in Scotland in 1954.

Frederick W. FranzWhen one man wrote to me about the above assertion,  I challenged him to prove it.  He replied by sending me a copy of Robert Hommel's article on the subject. Hommel, however, concedes that Franz was not asked to translate from Hebrew into English, but from English into Hebrew.  A number of other sources, however, continue to misrepresent the facts.[1]

Franz was not asked to translate from Hebrew into English, but from English into Hebrew - a different matter altogether.

Now, as the court record shows, Franz refused to translate a Bible verse from English into Hebrew. First of all, we must agree with Stafford[2] that the fact that Franz refused to do so, saying "No, I won't attempt to do that," doesn't mean that he couldn't do it. After all, his knowledge of Hebrew or Greek was not in the slightest relevant to the subject of the court case at hand, which was whether Jehovah's Witnesses have the right to ordain ministers of religion . A court is not a circus and Franz certainly wasn't obliged to go along with some lawyer's dubious tactics. Franz stood up for himself and refused to play along.

At this point it is worth asking what the attorney's point was. It should go without saying that if you have a sentence in language A and you translate it into language B and then someone else translates it back into language A again, you won't necessarily end up with the sentence you started with. Hence, asking someone to translate a text from language B back into language A and then compare the result with the original text really proves nothing. If that was the lawyer's intention, he was either extremely naive regarding how language and translation work, or he was being disingenuous. And yet, someone ignorant of how translation works could easily be fooled into thinking that the rendering was defective, simply because it was not identical with the original text. (Presumably this is what Millard means by his observation, 'but, of course, we have the Hebrew text of Genesis'.[3]) So the lawyer's question either revealed a lamentable lack of understanding of translation principles on his part - or else it was a trap. Under those circumstances, Franz had nothing to gain by attempting to translate.

Note, also, how Hommel tries to put words into Millard's mouth. All Millard said was that he 'saw no great problem' in rendering the verse into Hebrew, but according to Hommel, Millard confirms that "there is no good reason for Franz to have refused to perform an English-to-Hebrew translation". This is not what Millard said and, as we have seen, leaves out other likely reasons for Franz' refusal.

But even supposing for the sake of argument (not conceding) that Franz was unable to translate Genesis 2:4 from English into Hebrew, would that affect this qualifications as a Bible translator? Is translating from English into Hebrew the same as translating from Hebrew into English? An important principle in translation work is this: you work from the foreign language into your mother tongue. Contradicting Hommel's view that this is a "detail", something "of little significance in determining Franz's skill in Biblical Hebrew", The Translator's Handbook by Morry Sofer points out:

"A distinction must be made between the languages one translates from and into. Generally speaking, one translates from another language into one's own native language. This is because one is usually intimately familiar with one's own language, while even years of study and experience do not necessarily enable one to be completely at home with an acquired language. The exceptions to this rule are usually those people who have lived in more than one culture, and have spoken more than one language on a regular basis. Those may be able to translate in both directions. There are also rare gifted individuals who have mastered another language to such a degree that they can go both ways. They are indeed extremely rare. Given all of this, one should allow for the fact that while the ability of the accomplished translator to write and speak in the target language (i.e., one's native tongue) may be flawless, that person may not necessarily be able to write excellent prose or give great speeches in the source language (i.e., the language from which one translates). Then again, it is not necessary to be able to write and speak well in the language one translates from, while it is to be expected that a good translator is also a good writer and speaker in his or her native language."[4] 

What the Translator's Handbook says here is self-evident to most people working in translation.[5] Many people work as competent translators without being able speak or write the source language well. That is not to say that they can't speak it at all, but they can't speak it flawlessly. Translating, on the other hand, which implies understanding the text in the source language and rendering it into the target language, is a different matter altogether. F. W. Franz certainly knew the difference.  He had just told the court: "I do not speak Hebrew."  So, obviously, the fact that Franz decided not to translate the verse certainly does not prove that he was incompetent to translate Hebrew into English and is even less relevant to the question of whether he could translate Greek into English.

It is not necessary to be able to write and speak well in the language that one translates from
The Translator's Handbook

In any case, as Stafford - who does know Hebrew - points out in his book, the verse in question (Genesis 2:4) isn't all that easy to translate. He says: "It should not be overlooked that this verse is actually somewhat complicated. It has no finite verb but one Niphal infinitive construct, with suffix, and one Qal infinitive construct"[6] Even Hommel's own star witness, Millard, recognises that there is "uncertainty over the passage."!


Indeed, Rolf Furuli relates his own experiment with two professors of Hebrew:

"I asked two of my colleagues who teach Hebrew at the University of Oslo, to translate the passage. Both had problems with the translation from English to Hebrew, even though they both are experienced teachers, and their results were very different."[7]

In fact, all Bible translators, not just the NWT translators, make generous use of lexicons, grammars, commentaries and other translation aids. Few, if any, of them approach their work so casually as to attempt to translate without recourse to all the printed scholarship that is available. It is simply not expected of a translator that he or she should be able to work without all these aids. As The Translator's Handbook puts it:

No translator, no matter how accomplished or well versed in both the source and target languages, can do without dictionaries and reference literature.[8]

Two of my colleagues who teach Hebrew at the University of Oslo ... had problems with the translation [of Genesis 2:4] from English to Hebrew
Rolf Furuli

So, translation involves careful study of a wide variety of resources.  Furthermore, translation is a synergistic group effort, in which a number of different translators contribute their expertise and talents.  Additionally, there is no reason why the New World Translation Committee could not have sought the input and comments of a number of authorities on Bible languages, both inside and outside the Jehovah's Witnesses organization.   

Finally, Millard observes that 'there is a difference between translating into a language and freely composing in it'. He doesn't state what the difference is, but we would submit that translating into a language is actually more difficult. When expressing your own thoughts in a foreign language, if you have difficulty with a certain sentence construction, grammatical detail or vocabulary item, you have the option of stating matters differently. You have the right to express your thoughts in your own words. But when you're translating, the thoughts aren't yours. You have the additional responsibility to faithfully represent the original. So you are working under tighter constraints. Translation is therefore more difficult than freely composing in a language.  And, of course, translating verbally before an audience, without preparation and under psychological pressure, is more difficult still.

So, leaving aside for a moment the unresolved question of whether Franz was even on the NWT translation committee, my correspondent's original assertion, namely that Franz was unable to translate a simple verse from Hebrew into English has been demonstrated to be incorrect in all its details.

(1) Franz was asked to translate into Hebrew not from Hebrew into English.

(2)  It can't be proved that Franz couldn't translate the verse, only that he didn't want to, and there are perfectly reasonable alternative explanations for that.

(3) It is not a simple verse, as two teachers of Hebrew at University level had difficulty in translating it and even Hommel's own source says that there is 'uncertainty over the passage'. 

A quick Google search shows that there are quite a few sites still perpetuating this calumny. That should raise a red flag for cautious readers, some of whom might like to try an experiment: write to one or two of them and suggesting that they correct the error? There is more than enough evidence for them to do so. If it is just an oversight rather than a deliberate attempt to smear Franz, then surely they'll be happy to make a correction and issue an apology. If, on the other hand, what they're really up to is character assassination, then the best you can hope for is that they'll ignore you.

The real truth is this: Witness critics don't like Franz because he was a Jehovah's Witness. They have deliberately misrepresented the facts about this whole matter, slinging as much dirt as they can in Franz' direction, hoping that some of it will stick. These are the worst kind of gutter tactics and pretty much what we have come to expect from many critics of the Watch Tower. Even if we do not agree with every rendering in the New World Translation, it is time for critics to admit that it is not some sort of evil propaganda but rather it's what James Parkinson calls it: "A relatively accurate translation from another theological perspective." So how about it? If Benjamin Kedar - quoted in the article Hommel and the New World Translation - can admit the accuracy of the New World Translation without becoming a Jehovah's Witness, so can they!


[1] For instance, Walter Martin, Kingdom of the Cults (1997) page 124 asserts that F. W. Franz "admitted under oath that he could not translate Genesis 2:4 from the Hebrew".  At the time of writing, the exact same - entirely false - accusation was repeated on at least 29 websites.  It seems that few people bothered to check the facts cited by Walter Martin, until Greg Stafford published Jehovah's Witnesses Defended, 2nd Ed., which exposed this distortion of the truth.

[2] Jehovah's Witnesses Defended, 2nd Ed., pp. 561-4.

[3] Millard's full reply, as quoted by Hommel, is: "I see no great problem in rendering Genesis 2:4 from English into Hebrew, but, of course, we have the Hebrew text of Genesis. There is a difference between translating into a language and freely composing in it, which, I assume, is what LaSor meant .... I suspect that the uncertainty over this passage arises from the common modern view that there is a break between the first part of the verse and the second, a break that is made in many modern translations. Some, on the other hand, do not see the necessity for supposing such a break exists and the first part of the verse introduces the rest of the chapter. The translation back into Hebrew would depend to some extent on the English version being used."   Hommel uses ellipses, showing that he has omitted something from Millard's reply.  Regrettably, we do not know why the material was omitted.  It is to be hoped that Hommel has not succumbed to the temptation to quote Millard selectively.

[4] The Translator's Handbook, Morry Sofer, page 34.

[5] The present author worked as a translator and interpreter for a period of about five years.

[6] Jehovah's Witnesses Defended, 2nd Ed.,, pp. 561-4

[7] B-Hebrew discussion list, 15/6/01

[8] The Translator's Handbook, p. 99.

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