The Study of Bible Translation
By Timothy Binion
The original Biblical languages of Hebrew (small portions were written in Aramaic) and Greek were chosen by God to reveal His divine will. Thousands of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts were preserved by God to ensure accuracy of the words that are divinely inspired of God. Translators bring these words from the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts into our own language (or receptor language).
One of three primary methods of translation (also called translation theories or philosophies) is to bridge the historical distance between the original and receptor languages. Every receptor language, whether French, German, Spanish, English, etc., must first discover which method the translators have used in order to choose the best translation. One must question how these translators dealt with the differences in our understanding of words, grammar, idioms, culture, and history. The degrees to which one is willing to go in order to bridge the gap between two languages have flooded the market with different translations and challenges us in choosing the best English version. For example, should the word “torch” be translated “flashlight” or “lamp”, should “holy kiss” be translated as a “handshake of Christian love”? Some translations may use modern day expressions rather than the closest words or phrases that reflect the wording found in the original text.
There are three main theories of translation used in bridging the original and receptor languages: Literal, Dynamic Equivalent, and Free or Paraphrase.
1) Literal: The attempt to translate by keeping as close as possible to the exact words and phrasing of the original language while still making sense in the receptor language. A literal translation will keep the historical distance intact at all points.
2) Dynamic Equivalent: The attempt to translate words, idioms, and grammatical constructions of the original language into precise equivalents in the receptor language. Most will keep the historical distance but update matters of language, grammar, and style.
3) Free or Paraphrase: The attempt to translate the ideas from one language to another, with less concern about using the exact words of the original text. This type of translation tries to eliminate as much of the historical distance as possible.
The problem with a free translation should be quite apparent. The translator updates the original author too much and becomes a private interpretation or commentary. Though some interpretation may be necessary in translating to the receptor language, the least amount of personal interpretation the better the translation.
A free translation is always done by a single translator. The Living Bible, for instance, is a free translation which uses modern wording such as “flashlight” (Psalm 119:105), “the handshake of Christian love” (1 Peter 5:14), “pancakes” (Genesis 18:6), and “special abilities” rather than “spiritual gifts” – from the Greek word charismata (1 Corinthians 12-14). And, the translator believes “Babylon” was a code word for Rome, conforming scripture to Roman Catholic tradition, so the word Rome is used in place of Babylon (1 Peter 5:13).
Most of us do exchange Bible day wording for more current day language when it comes to issues of weight, measurement, and currency. We change units such as bathes, ephahs, homers, shekels, talents, subit, span, denarius, or penny into pounds, inches, and dollars in order to understand how big, heavy, or expensive something is. Any group of translators that change these original weights, measurements, and currency words within the text generally feel the liberty to change more significant words and thereby interpret for you what God has said. I personally want an English Bible that is as true to the original text as possible so I can form my own opinions of cultural and historical relevance.
New translations tend to add euphemisms or words that are less expressive or direct than the original text, but are considered less distasteful or less offensive today. Matters of sex and private circumstances fall into this category. For examples, compare Genesis 31:35 in the NIV, NASB, KJV, and RSV and 2 Samuel 13:14 in the KJV versus the NIV.
Perhaps the most critical part of translation is finding the right English word that means the same as the original Hebrew or Greek word. For example, in 2 Timothy 3:16 we read “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is (from the Greek word “theopheoustos”) profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”. The NIV translates “theopheoustos” as “is God-breathed”. Some new translations may, in places, better reflect the original meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word, but the overall method used by the translators determines our translation choice.
A translator must also work with grammar and syntax. The word order and genitive constructions are at times altered to meet modern day English grammar. For example, thousands of times in the Old Testament the KJV translators woodenly followed the Hebrew word order and all verses that begin with the word “and” in the Hebrew begin with “and” in the KJV. However, if you read from a NIV translation, you will find in Genesis chapter 1 the word “and” removed. Do you want one single word that God has given us left out? No!
On the surface this may be a better form of English, but the thing we must keep in mind is that we are not dealing with poetry or a bibliography. This is the Word of God! Since we are building life and death matters on the translation we need every word given [by God] translated into English, even if it does not make sense to its translators. The Holy Spirit within the believer ultimately provides the understanding and not the translator.
It was this type of liberty in making the text make sense that led to the Revised Standard Version (RSV) publishing of the New Testament in 1946. The full RSV Bible was then published in 1952 and changed Isaiah 7:14 to read “a young woman” rather than “a virgin shall conceive” as the KJV states. This is why we don’t need scholars interpreting the text rather than translating it as it is found in the original text. However, since translation is in itself a necessary form of interpretation, we want to choose the translation that has the least amount of changes from the original text. The grammar, history, and culture should be bridged by the Holy Spirit filled reader rather than its translator.
We must use the most literal version available. This is why the King James Version 1611 Edition remains the best choice for believers today. Not because the translation was divine or poetic, but because it is overall the best literal translation of the original languages. The New American Standard runs a close second and claims “to adhere as closely as possible to the original languages”. In my opinion, if you must read another translation the New American Standard is by far better than other translations. The NIV translation is too dynamic and leaves out important words like “propitiation” (1John 2:2). Any free or paraphrase Bible translations are totally unacceptable for preaching or study.