Seven Myths about Bible Translation
Bible translation can be a tricky business. Because we believe that the text of scripture is the very Word of God, we want to be especially carefull as we work to translate it from one language to another.
Clear and Simple Media has now been involved in the translation of our “little book”, Simple Truths, into more than 35 languages. Many of the translation challenges were expected. However, with each new project, new issues arise which keep us scratching our heads. When God “diversified” the languages in Genesis, he did a masterful job.
One of my friends reminded me of this not long ago, and also recommeded an article by Dan Wallace that many people found helpful when he wrote it five years ago. Dan’s original article addressed Fifteen Myths About Bible Translation. While most of these myths deal directly with English Bible translations, the notions that he addresses apply broadly to all translation work.
Here are seven of Dr. Wallace’s observations:
- Perhaps the number one myth about Bible translation is that a word-for-word translation is the best kind. Anyone who is conversant in more than one language recognizes that a word-for-word translation is simply not possible if one is going to communicate in an understandable way in the receptor language. Yet, ironically, even some biblical scholars who should know better continue to tout word-for-word translations as though they were the best. Perhaps the most word-for-word translation of the Bible in English is Wycliffe’s, done in the 1380s. Although translated from the Latin Vulgate, it was a slavishly literal translation to that text. And precisely because of this, it was hardly English.
- Similar to the first point is that a literal translation is the best version. In fact, this is sometimes just a spin on the first notion. For example, the Greek New Testament has about 138,000–140,000 words, depending on which edition one is using. But no English translation has this few. Here are some examples:
NIV 2011 176,122
NASB 95 182,446
NLT, 2nd ed 186,596
It’s no surprise that the TEV and NLT have the most words, since these are both paraphrases. But the translations perceived to be more literal are often near the bottom of this list (that is, farther away from the Greek NT word-count). These include the KJV (#12), ASV (#11), NASB (#14), NASB 95 (#13), and RV (#10). Indeed, when the RV came out (1881), one of its stated goals was to be quite literal and the translators were consciously trying to be much more literal than the KJV.
Some translations of the New Testament into other languages:
Modern Hebrew NT 111,154
Italian La Sacra Bibbia 163,870
French Novelle Version2 184,449
La Sainte Bible (Geneve) 185,859
3. The King James Version is a literal translation. The preface to the KJV actually claims otherwise. For example, they explicitly said that they did not translate the same word in the original the same way in the English but did attempt to capture the sense of the original each time: “An other thing we thinke good to admonish thee of (gentle Reader) that wee have not tyed our selves to an uniformitie of phrasing, or to an identitie of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men some where, have beene as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not varie from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places (for there bee some wordes that bee not of the same sense every where) we were especially carefull, and made a conscience, according to our duetie.”
4. No translation can claim to be the word of God except the (insert your favourite translation here). In the preface to the KJV, the translators noted that the king’s speech is still the king’s speech even when translated into other languages. Further, even poor translations of the Bible deserved to be called the word of God according to the preface to the KJV. And yet, in all particulars, only the original Greek and Hebrew text can be regarded as the word of God. Something is always lost in translation. Always.
5. Essential doctrines are in jeopardy in modern translations. Actually, no doctrine essential for salvation is affected by translations, modern or ancient—unless done by a particular cult for its own purposes. For example, those Englishmen who signed the Westminster Confession of Faith in the seventeenth century were using the KJV, yet it is still a normative doctrinal statement that millions of Protestants sign today even though they use modern translations.
6. Gender-inclusive translations are driven by a social agenda. In some instances, this may be the case. But not in all. The NIV 2011, for example, strives to be an accurate translation that is understandable by today’s English speaker. And the translators note that the English language is changing. In reality, the older gender-exclusive translations may miscommunicate the meaning of the Bible in today’s world if readers understand the words ‘men,’ ‘brothers,’ and the like in numerous passages to be restricted to the male gender. Translations must keep up with the evolution of the receptor language. For example, the RSV (1952) reads in Psalm 50.9, “I will accept no bull from your house.” In today’s English, that means something quite different from what the translators intended! The NRSV accordingly and appropriately renders the verse, “I will not accept a bull from your house.”
One of the great challenges in English translations of the Bible today is to avoid language that can become fodder for bathroom humor. Or, as one of the translators of the ESV once mentioned, a major challenge is to remove the ‘snicker factor.’
7. Red-letter editions of the Bible highlight the exact words of Jesus. Scholars are not sure of the exact words of Jesus. Ancient historians were concerned to get the gist of what someone said, but not necessarily the exact wording. A comparison of parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels reveals that the evangelists didn’t always record Jesus’ words exactly the same way. The terms ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox are used to distinguish the kinds of dominical sayings we have in the Gospels. The former means ‘the very words,’ and the latter means ‘the very voice.’ That is, the exact words or the essential thought. There have been attempts to harmonize these accounts, but they are highly motivated by a theological agenda which clouds one’s judgment and skews the facts. In truth, though red-letter editions of the Bible may give comfort to believers that they have the very words of Jesus in every instance, this is a false comfort.