Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Moving through the Maze: Understanding Bible Translation

 Bible readers often ask me, “What is the best translation to use for study?” or “What is your favorite English translation?”

I want to respond to these questions by discussing the process of bible translation and then offering some concluding remarks.

First, let me make a distinction between translation and paraphrase.  A translation is a text produced by transferring the words/meaning of a manuscript written in a foreign or ancient language into the reader’s own language.  All modern English translations involved the careful transfer of the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into the English language.  A paraphrase, on the other hand, is a text produced by reworking existing translations into a new hybrid.  Paraphrases are produced for clarity.  A paraphrase does not work from the original languages.  A longstanding popular paraphrase is The Living Bible (to be distinguished from the New Living Translation which was produced from study of the original language texts).

Second, the work of Bible translation is generally done by committee.  This is not always the case as the 19th century scholar Young produced Young’s Literal Translation and more recently Eugene Peterson has produced The Message, but all major translations (NIV, NRSV, NLT, ESV, etc) have been the work of a group of scholars.  Translation by committee serves to guard against an individual’s idiosyncrasies and represents a collegial and consensual enterprise.

Last, there are two translation camps: formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence.  These represent ideals rather than realities.  A formal equivalence translation (better known as a literal translation) seeks as much as possible to translate word for word from the original language into the modern language.  In other words, the ideal goal would be to use one English word for one Hebrew or Greek word.  For example, Greek sarks “flesh” would be translated “flesh” consistently in a formal equivalence translation.  It would be up to the reader to deduce the precise connotation of “flesh” within a given context.  The strengths of the formal equivalence side include consistency in translation and preservation of the sentence structure of the original.  Its principal weakness is its readability.  A formal equivalence translation expects more of its reader in the process of interpretation. Readers have to make more interpretive decisions and decode the context more because the translators have preserved more of the ambiguity of the original language. It is critical that a reader recognizes that a formal equivalent translation is still an interpretation of the original.

A dynamic equivalence translation focuses on the transfer of meaning rather than a commitment to word for word translation or to preserving the structure of the original.  To use the same example as in the preceding paragraph, sarks (literal: flesh) is often translated as “sinful nature” when Paul uses it (see Romans 7).  This is clearly more interpretive than simply translating sarks as “flesh.”  Is it better?  This is a matter of scholarly debate.   Note the difference.  “Flesh” begs the question – what does “flesh” imply?  A formal equivalence translation leaves the ambiguity and expects the reader to supply the full meaning; a dynamic equivalence translation offers a more specific interpretation for the reader.

Having painted these two poles, it is important to recognize that no translation embodies either ideal perfectly or consistently.  No literal translation can avoid making interpretive decisions in the process of translation; most dynamic equivalent translations will give a nod to tradition in their rendering of familiar passages.  Examples of translations leaning toward formal equivalence include the King James version (KJV), the New King James (NKJV), the New American Standard (NASB), and the English Standard version (ESV) to name a few.  Examples of translations nearer to the pole of dynamic equivalence are the New Living Translation (NLT) and the Message.  Other translations fall in the middle – New Revised Standard (NRSV), New International (NIV), and Common English (CEB).

Concluding Reflections 
1) No translation is perfect. It is easier to criticize other translations than it is to produce the perfect translation. Committees have to make a variety of decisions regarding readability, assumed reading level of contemporary audience, use of archaic words, approach to text critical issues among others.

2) Every translation, no matter how literal, is an interpretation of the original text and represents a commentary on it. Furthermore, no translation will ever alleviate the necessity of serious study and interpretive work. One can gain good insight into an individual translation’s strengths and weaknesses by taking the time to read the introduction to a given Bible. The committee responsible for the translation will usually be forthright in discussing their overarching aim and decision-making process in the introductions to a given translation. Serious students would do well to read the introductions carefully as a means of understanding the approach of each translation.

3) Bible translation is an on-going process. This follows naturally from the first two and is true for at least three reasons. First, human language changes over time. If the rationale for Bible translation is the necessity of providing access to God’s Word in the language of the people, then newer translations will be necessary. Second, new discoveries of ancient biblical manuscripts can shed new light on the text. For example, the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in the mid-20th century revolutionized our understanding of the text of the Old Testament and brought clarity to nagging textual issues. Last, advances in linguistic studies have shed new light on obscure passages. This is principally an Old Testament problem, but there remain words and phrases whose translations are mainly guesswork. The work of comparative linguistics continues to chip away at this problem.

4) Bible translations find themselves in various branches of a family tree. It is helpful to understand the forerunners of a given translation. Often the earlier translation will serve as a jumping off point for given translation. The King James followed earlier efforts to put the Bible into the English language. More recently the TNIV serves as a revision of the NIV.

5) It is best to use a variety of translations for serious study. I recommend that persons read and compare at least three different translations when studying short passages. Such an approach serves as a hedge against misreading. When doing this, choose translations from different families. For examples, comparing the King James Version with the New King James version will not be as helpful as comparing the New International Version with the New King James version. One of the most inexpensive ways of facilitating this approach is to purchase a parallel bible or to use online Bible resources such as Bible Gateway. A parallel Bible typically consists of four English translations that stand side-by-side in parallel columns.

6) Bottom-line: the best translation is the one that you will actually read regularly with the humble desire to open oneself up to its message so that God can shape and form you.

7) Readers often ask for my personal preference. For careful study, I am never too far from a Hebrew Bible or the Greek New Testament. It is vital for those with the time and aptitude to cultivate a knowledge of the original languages. (See my essay "Learning the Biblical Languages: Worth the Effort?") However, I use a number of English translations enthusiastically: NIV, TNIV, NLT, ESV, CEB, and NRSV. For Old Testament reading, I also use the TNK (Tanak).

© 2017 Brian D. Russell

This essay is the fifth revision of a blog post originally published 11-30-05 and updated again in 2008, 2015 and twice in 2017.

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