What Goes Into Translation?

 In my previous post I went through a brief history of the various English translations of the Bible.  My idea was to start at the King James Version and touch on how we received some of the various translations that we have at our disposal. It was far from an exhaustive list, but rather the goal was to touch on some of the more common translations we might encounter.

The purpose of this post is to expand a little bit more on the differences between these translations. The question that I asked in the previous post is: where did these translations come from? The question addressed in this post will be: how did these translations come to be?

This is definitely not an easy question to be answered, in order to answer it; one has to look at different translation methods. When I say translation methods, I mean the way that the translator(s) have chosen to translate the text from Hebrew or Greek to English. Your first question may be, why on earth does this matter?

Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek are the original languages of the Old and New Testaments. Any translation worth its salt will have been translated from these languages. One of the problems that translators encounter is that both of these languages are significantly different from English. What is a translator supposed to do when there are three words in an ancient language for which we only have one in English?

It may not come as a surprise to most people that the Bible was in fact written by people. What we don’t often think about is that these people lived in a specific time in history. The time, society and culture that they lived in are a long way away from the time, society and culture that we live in now. It begs to reason that a person is influenced by the world around them. Translators often have to consider what impact the world around them had on their writing.

This is where we get in to the sticky mess of biblical translation and discuss how translators approach translation. Two terms that are worth knowing are dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence. Most modern translations of the Bible fall under one of these two translation methods. Formal equivalence is essentially a word-for-word translation, taking a word in Hebrew or Greek, finding its equivalent in English and translating it. Dynamic equivalence takes into consideration the thought-for-thought translation, taking into consideration the message that the author was trying to convey.

Formal Equivalence

There are obviously pros and cons to both methods and each method will be offensive to someone, in that it is seen as a perversion of the text. The argument for formal equivalence is that it takes the words that are written in the ancient texts and translates them into a modern language and format and leaves the onus on the reader to interpret and apply the text.

Some examples of formal equivalence:

  • King James Version
  • Revised Version
  • American Standard Version
  • Revised Standard Version
  • New American Standard Bible
  • New King James Version
  • New Revised Standard Version
  • English Standard Version

The arguments against formal equivalence are that the text often becomes wooden and difficult to read the more formal it is. Some modifications have to be made for the sake of readability and ease of use. Another problem is that the difference between the ancient languages and modern languages makes word-for-word translation difficult. What do you do with a Hebrew word that looks identical to another word with a totally different meaning? If you’re Saint Jerome you end up with something like this happening based on Exodus 34:29-25:

Moses: Horned or face shining with God’s glory?[1]

Dynamic Equivalence

This example serves as a good transition into dynamic equivalence. It is worth noting that dynamic equivalence is a lot messier and can be carried out to different degrees. Proponents of dynamic equivalence would argue that its main objective is to translate based on what the author’s intended message was. The benefit of this is that it takes into consideration the difference in setting and cultural influences. Some examples of dynamic equivalence translations are:

  • New International Version
  • Today’s New International Version
  • New English Translation
  • New Living Translation
  • Contemporary English Version
  • The Message[2]

The biggest problem with dynamic equivalence is that because it considers the thought or intent of the original author it is doing some interpretation as well. When you start doing interpretation and presenting it as biblical text you are going to ruffle some feathers.[3] You are also opening yourself up to the argument that you are translating with an agenda or ulterior motives. There is also the always-fun possibility of wild conspiracy theories.

Conclusion

What exactly does this mean for all of us today as modern readers of the Bible? Well, first of all it probably means that we can’t pick out one English translation and hold it up as superior to all the rest as the only inspired Word of God. They are all translations from other languages, times and settings. If someone tries to tell you that one version stands above the rest and the others are part of a conspiracy advocating homosexuality or to deceive Christians you should probably raise a wary eyebrow.

If you are reading a widely used, common, accepted translation of the Bible you are probably safe. I would suggest that you not limit yourself to only one translation either. What is the harm in consulting the ESV, NIV and NRSV together? It’s not like one version is going to deny the resurrection of Christ.

Personally speaking, I grew up on the NIV (1984), but am a big fan of the ESV, NRSV, JPS and NIV (2011). It is my opinion that there is no one magical translation out there that stands above the rest as most accurate or most in line with God’s will. Translations are all the product of human beings and as such are subject to deficiencies. If someone tells you otherwise be suspicious, and it is probably best to simply smile and nod.


[1] There is ambiguity in the Hebrew word used to describe Moses after he comes down from talking with God on Mt. Sinai. Jerome went with horned where most others went with shone. If you’re going from a strict formal equivalence viewpoint there may be a stronger argument for horned.

[2] Many people think that The Message is a paraphrase but it’s not. It is a translation of the Bible done by Eugene Peterson from the original languages. It is on the extreme end of dynamic equivalence but it is not a paraphrase.

[3] Sometimes these feathers are justifiably ruffled and sometimes they’re not.

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