A Fair View of Fred Franz' Translation Abilities

by IW 47 Replies latest watchtower bible

  • VM44

    *removed because of even more formatting problems* --VM44

  • VM44

    Fred Fanz, William LaSor, and the NWT:

    Whose Assessment of the Franz Testimony is Misleading?

    A Response to Appendix B in Greg Stafford's Jehovah's Witnesses Defended

    Robert Hommel

    Was the NWTTC Skilled in the Original Languages?

    One of the criticisms often leveled against the Watchtower's New World Translation (NWT) is that while it claims to be a translation from the original languages (1), none of the members of its Translation Committee possessed the skills to actually perform this translation. While the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has never officially released the names of those on the Committee, several sources who were in a position to know have done so. These sources agree that Frederick Franz was the principle translator and served as the Committee chair (2).

    There is no evidence that any members of the Committee had formally studied the original languages beyond the undergraduate level. It is possible for someone to study the biblical languages informally, of course, but such a claim must be substantiated. Some Jehovah's Witnesses have argued that the NWT itself is testimony that the Committee was skilled in the original languages. However, this argument begs the question. One cannot determine whether the debatable translations in the NWT are the result of competence in the original languages by appealing to the NWT itself. While some may appeal to the non-controversial renderings as proof of the Committee's acumen, the fact is that anyone with an adequate library of English Bibles, Lexicons, and Bible Dictionaries could produce a translation similar to the NWT, with only a limited knowledge of the original languages. To demonstrate that the NWT is, indeed, a scholarly translation, one must produce positive evidence that the Translators possessed the skills necessary to render the Bible from the original languages into English. To date, no such evidence has been provided by the Watchtower or its apologists (3).

    The Testimony of F.W. Franz

    While there is no evidence that the NWT Translation Committee possessed knowledge of the original languages, there is evidence that Frederick Franz lacked such knowledge. Under cross-examination in a court case in Scotland in 1954, Franz refused to translate Genesis 2:4 from English into Hebrew:

    Cross: "You, yourself, read and speak Hebrew, do you?"

    Franz: "I do not speak Hebrew."

    Cross: "You do not?"

    Franz: "No."

    Cross: "Can you, yourself, translate that into Hebrew?"

    Franz: "Which?"

    Cross: "That fourth verse of the Second Chapter of Genesis?"

    Franz: "You mean here?"

    Cross: "Yes."

    Franz: "No. I won't attempt to do that." (4)

    This trial transcript has been appealed to by a number of Christian writers to demonstrate Franz's lack of skill in Hebrew (5). For example, Ron Rhodes writes that Franz failed "a simple Hebrew test" (6). In Appendix B of his Jehovah's Witnesses Defended, Greg Stafford undertakes a defense F.W. Franz and his knowledge of Biblical Hebrew. Mr. Stafford first notes that even if Franz knew no Hebrew, this says nothing of his skills in Greek. This is true, of course, but in the same court case, Franz claimed that he did know Hebrew as well as Greek (7). If his claims about Hebrew have no merit, how can we credit his claims about Greek?

    Mr. Stafford next notes that Franz did not say he could not perform the “Hebrew test,” but that he would not “attempt” to do so. Mr. Stafford finds this point significant in light of comments he quotes from Hebrew scholar William LaSor:

    All learning is in context. The context, however, is not artificial, composed perchance by one who does not use the language naturally, but rather it is the actual language of those who used it as their mother-tongue. For this reason, I refuse to ask the students to compose sentences in Hebrew. To do so is to impress errors on the student's mind. And, frankly, most of us who teach Biblical Hebrew do not have sufficient fluency in the language to speak or write in it. (8).

    Mr. Stafford concludes:

    Now, considering Franz' earlier testimony, that he had made himself familiar with Hebrew, and that he could read and follow the Bible in Hebrew, and his admission that he could not speak Hebrew, we can certainly understand Franz' refusal to translate Genesis 2:4 from English into Hebrew (not Hebrew into English). For, as LaSor points out, even most teachers of Biblical Hebrew "do not have sufficient fluency in the language to speak or write in it." Thus, Rhodes ’ assessment of Franz' testimony is superficial, inaccurate, and misleading. (9)

    I take little issue with LaSor’s statement. However, Mr. Stafford draws out of it far more than is warranted. Franz was not asked to carry on a conversation or to write a paper in Hebrew. He was asked to translate a single sentence from a known Hebraic original from English into Hebrew. LaSor was not claiming that most Hebrew scholars are incapable of translating a single sentence from English into Hebrew. He was claiming that most Hebrew scholars are not fluent enough to speak or write in the language. There is a huge difference between these two exercises.

    I asked Alan Millard, Rankin Professor Emeritus of Hebrew & Ancient Semitic Languages at the University of Liverpool and member of the NIV Translation Committee to comment on Franz’s refusal to render from English into Hebrew in light of LaSor’s comments. Here is his reply:

    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 (10).

    Thus a noted Hebrew scholar and translator confirms that there is no good reason for Franz to have refused to perform an English-to-Hebrew translation. There is nothing inherently difficult in translating a Bible verse from English to Hebrew and LaSor cannot legitimately be used as testimony to the contrary.

    Mr. Stafford asserts that Genesis 2:4 is “actually somewhat complicated,” but Millard notes:

    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 (11).

    Thus, while there may be some disagreement among scholars about grammatical fine points in this verse, this nuance would not preclude translation from English into Hebrew. The English version would merely determine “to some extent” the translation back into Hebrew.


    There is no evidence that the NWT Translation Committee possessed the training or skills necessary to produce an English Bible from the original languages. Frederick Franz’s refusal under oath to render Genesis 2:4 from English into Hebrew is suspicious, given that there is no reason a Hebrew scholar qualified to sit on a modern English Bible translation committee would be unable to do so. Ron Rhodes and other writers who have used the Franz cross-examination as evidence that Franz lacked proficiency in Hebrew have done so legitimately. It is Mr. Stafford’s appeal to William LaSor that proves to be – in Mr. Stafford’s own words – “superficial, inaccurate, and misleading.”


    1. "Rendered from the Original Languages by the New World Translation Committee," Titlepage, 1984 edition.

    2. The translators apparently were: N.H. Knorr, F.W. Franz, A.D. Schroeder, G.D. Gangas and M. Henschel (William and Joan Centnar, Questions for Jehovah's Witnesses, p. 68). Raymond Franz reports that Frederick W. Franz was the principle translator (Raymond V. Franz, Crisis of Conscience, p. 50). According to M. James Penton, "to all intents and purposes the New World Translation is the work of one man, Frederick Franz" (M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses, p. 174).

    3. Some Watchtower apologists have appealed to the following email posted to the B-Hebrew mailing list:

    I find myself in a unique position to comment, because I proofread the MS of that volume of the NW Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures together with its page, galley and plate proofs until its release in 1958. I worked with the anonymous translator on a daily basis. My memories are fond - and keen....

    I tell you from personal knowledge that the translator was acutely aware of his presuppositions and freely admitted them, as do most good translators.

    My own contributions were modest, including some footnotes, hardly qualifying as translation. Others deemed part of the translation committee contributed to cross-references and the like but did not translate. The "seven translators" without training is a canard and should be put in the urban myth trashpile.

    While clunky and stiff because of its literalness, the translation is nevertheless a remarkable achievement precisely because of its translator's lack of "training”…

    Thanks for letting me share this bit of serendipity.

    Norman E. Swift

    My bona fides to Gregg [sic, Stafford ]:

    My name is to be found in the 1958 Yearbook, between Suiter, Swingle and Sydlik. The MS was typed by Arthur Gaux, linotypeset by Chester Goins, my overseers Colin Quackenbush and Karl Adams. F[rederick] W F[ranz]'s personal encouragement to begin study of "Essentials of Biblical Hebrew" by Sampy and Yates (? Getting long in the tooth), then used at Columbia University , started my life-long love for Biblical languages.

    Posted Thu Jun 14 22:35:49 EDT 2001 (http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-hebrew/2001-June/010918.html)

    It is difficult to give this evidence much credence. Even if the author is who he claims to be (almost impossible to assess from a single internet posting), Mr. Swift says that the translators “without training” is an “urban myth,” yet asserts that the NWT is a “remarkable achievement precisely because of its translator’s lack of training.” Which is it? Did the translators have training or not? He certainly provides no positive evidence that they did. On the other hand, Mr. Swift’s evidence corroborates the claims of Raymond Franz and M. James Penton that the NWT was primarily the work of a single man (see Note #2). Mr. Swift does not directly state that the “unnamed translator” (singular!) was Franz, but he does not deny it, and his reference to Franz’s recommendation of a Hebrew text suggests that they could be one in the same. Thus, Mr. Swift’s comments do not substantiate the skills of the NWTTC in the original tongues. His claim that the NWT is remarkable because of the translator’s lack of training is nothing more than that: his claim. While a self-taught pilot may be able to land a 747, and such an achievement might be called “remarkable,” it is doubtful he will consistently outperform a formally trained pilot. And surely no clear-thinking passenger would choose to fly with the untrained pilot over a trained one, given that the wrong choice could mean one’s life. The same, of course, may be said of one’s eternal life when choosing a Bible translation.

    4. Douglas Walsh v The Right Honourable James Latham Clyde, M.P., P.C., as representing the Minister of Labour and National Service, cross-examination of Frederick Franz, p. 102 (Scotland, 1954).

    5. C.f., Centnar (Ibid), p. 69 and Erich and Jean Grieshaber, Epose - Of Jehovah's Witnesses, p. 100. Walter Martin writes that Franz: "admitted under oath that he could not translate Genesis 2:4 from the Hebrew" (Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults [1997 edition], p. 124, emphasis added). Of course, Franz was not asked to translate from Hebrew, but rather from English, but as we shall see, this detail if of little significance in determining Franz's skill in Biblical Hebrew.

    6. Ron Rhodes, Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah's Witnesses, p. 98.

    7. From Walsh v Clyde :

    Cross: Have you also made yourself familiar with Hebrew?

    Franz: Yes

    Cross: I think you are able to read and follow the Bible in Hebrew, Greek…

    Franz: Yes (Ibid).

    8. William Sanford LaSor, Handbook of Biblical Hebrew, vol. 1, page 3.

    9. Greg Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended, 2nd Edition, p. 563. This is almost a word for word transcription of a post Mr. Stafford made to the B-Hebrew mailing list on Fri Jun 15 12:30:36 EDT 2001 (http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-hebrew/2001-Ju ne/010916.html).

    10. Private correspondence from Alan Millard to Robert Hommel, July 29, 2004 .

    11. Ibid.

  • Narkissos


    Following on my earlier posts on this thread, it's interesting the "Scotland test" was about the retroversion of a specific Bible passage (Genesis 2:4) from English to Hebrew. The results of such a test depended, not only on Franz's knowledge of Biblical Hebrew in general but also on his actual memory of the text. If he happened to remember the exact wording he could have reproduced it even with a poor knowledge of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary. If he didn't, he would have to imagine one possible Hebrew way of saying roughly the same thing which would not necessarily correspond to the actual Hebrew text. In that case his weaknesses in Hebrew would have shown.

    For instance, if I start from the NRSV rendering: "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens..." I might remember that the Hebrew text actually is 'elleh toledoth ha-shamayim wehâ-'âreç behibbâr'âm / beyom `asoth Yhwh 'elohim 'ereç weshamayim. If I don't I might as well attempt to translate (for instance) we'hinneh doroth ha-shamayim wehâ-'âreç biberiyahem / kayom Yhwh 'elohim `asah ha'ereç weha-shamayim....

    This is a perilous exercise which requires much more than the passive knowledge of Hebrew which is used every day in translation work. A lot of good translators would hardly take the risk. A Hebrew teacher, otoh, would probably be better at it. But that would not make him/her a good translator.

  • VM44

    Even if Fred Franz attempted to translate the English into Hebrew, I would pity the court reporter trying to record the answer.

    One wonders if the lawyer asking Fred the question had an expert Hebrew language scholar in the wings, to be called on the stand if Fred had attempted the translation. I think there is a very good possibility that there indeed was such a person in the courtroom.

    I wonder if there are any "Biblical Hebrew for Dummies" books that one can learn Hebrew from.

    I know some that some Christian bookstores offer for sale language CDs that people can use to teach themselfs Biblical Hebrew and Greek. I do not know how good these self study courses are. If they are good fine, but if they are bad, then one could spend a lot of time and effort learning the subject wrongly.


  • Narkissos
    One wonders if the lawyer asking Fred the question had an expert Hebrew language scholar in the wings, to be called on the stand if Fred had attempted the translation. I think there is a very good possibility that there indeed was such a person in the courtroom.

    I wondered about that too. And how would the result have been assessed. Not being able to reconstruct the original Hebrew text, or even failing to produce a 100 % grammatically correct Hebrew text, would not per se disqualify one as a Bible translator imo.

    I wonder if there are any "Biblical Hebrew for Dummies" books that one can learn Hebrew from.

    I know some that some Christian bookstores offer for sale language CDs that people can use to teach themselfs Biblical Hebrew and Greek. I do not know how good these self study courses are. If they are good fine, but if they are bad, then one could spend a lot of time and effort learning the subject wrongly.

    I'm sure there are. I started learning BH by myself in Bethel with such a manual (in French). A couple of years later I passed the exams in a theological college without any problem.

    Also, the French NWT translator was self-taught in Hebrew and very qualified (http://www.jehovahs-witness.com/9/86744/1.ashx).

    As I said earlier, the issue of pronunciation is quite secondary as far as a dead language is concerned (even modern Jews would pronounce the same texts very differently according to their backgrounds, e.g. sephardi vs. ashkenazi). Spelling (both consonantic and the Masoretic vowel-pointing), on the other hand, is essential. According to the speaker you may not hear the difference between an 'aleph and a `ayin, or between a samekh and a sin (s), or between a cheth and a soft kaph (kh), or between a teth and a taw (t), which practically multiplies the number of phonetic homonyms with entirely different spellings and meanings.

  • Reefton Jack
    Reefton Jack

    At the time of the Walsh case in 1954, work on the New World Translation would have been in progress. Therefore, the linguistic skills that F.W. Franz displayed at that court case serve as a fair indicator of those that he had while the NWT was being compiled.

    (It is possible that his knowledge of Hebrew and Common Greek may have improved over the decades following those events).

    I myself have studied a number of foreign languages, and use one in particular during my everyday work. In saying this, I am not claiming scholarship (certainly not!) - just a reasonable working knowledge of the language.

    From that, though, I do have a problem with the claim that - for an amateur at least - it is much harder to translate English into a foreign language than it is to do the opposite. Speaking from my own experience, I have never at any time had any more difficulty translating English into a foreign language, than I have in working the other way around. The two just seemed to naturally go hand in hand.

    However, I don't intend to be dragged into a #$tfight over that issue!

    Rather, if F.W. Franz's inability to translate a verse from English into Hebrew marked him as an amateur, then that still poses a problem:

    - Should the translation of something as important as the bible be entrusted to an amateur?

    It doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the NWT - and if Franz did indeed end up with a reasonably accurate translation, then it would seem that he managed to do so in spite of himself!

  • AK - Jeff
    AK - Jeff

    I find it distressing in hindsight that the Translator [s] chose to deviate the meaning in places where most seem to agree that the writer was urging a relationship with God the Father, and the NWT indicates not relationship but 'knowledge'. Just another area where works and not love are doctrinally enhanced with the way it was translated.

    This is enough to disuade me from taking this work seriously. John 17:3 for example.


  • VM44

    I have just ordered "Teach Yourself Biblical Hebrew", by R. Harrison.

    I will give it a try to learn a little of the language.


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