ArticleComments on “accurate” Bible translations
AuthorHelmut Richter
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Comments on “accurate” Bible translations

In the newsgroups soc.religion.christian and, I have repeatedly commented on the idea that a more literal translation is automatically a more accurate one. In order not to have to repeat the postings, they are collected on this page. The names of other posters have been removed; modifications to make my postings again consistent are marked in italics. Indented text marks a quote. Horizontal bars separate the postings. – I should add that I am neither a theologian nor a linguist, rather a mathematician with an amateur’s interest in languages.

About the best translation for Bible study, someone writes:

Here is the key for your decision. Many of the newer Bibles are written more for reading than for studying. I find it a real help to find a Bible that is tries to be as literal as possible. It is easier to compare passages and words. The KJV, NewKJV, and the New American Standard, and now the New New American Standard (can you believe that!) both strive for a literal rendering. The NIV paraphrases. They don’t say that. They call it “dynamic equivalence,” but it is the same thing. Dynamic means “changing” and equivalence meaning in this context “about the same.” In a paraphrase or dynamically equivalent translation many of the decisions about meaning are decided for you by the translator, rather than by you as the student.

I agree that for “studying”, contrast to “reading”, a more literal translation is sometimes better. Sometimes – if the meaning can still be found out without retranslating back to the original to identify the idioms. I cannot comment on how good or bad the NIV performs as a translation following the paradigm of “dynamic equivalence”, but denigrating this approach as a whole is somewhat unfair. Language is more than just words, it uses style and idioms not only to convey information but also to provoke thoughts and feelings. Dynamic equivalence is the attempt to preserve these aspects even if single words have to be translated less than literally; static equivalence is the principle to preserve all words even if style and emphasis of the text get lost. It is not so that one of these approaches is more exact than the other; it is more a question of how you define exactitude.

An example from a recent discussion here. Jo.18:37: “Jesus answered: you say it”. I don’t know what tense the original Greek is, and, as a non-native English speaker, I don’t know what thoughts are provoked with the different ways to render this little sentence in English. In my own language, German, there is a big difference between present tense “Du sagst es” (it is as you say) and past tense “Das hast du gesagt” (this may well be so but I wouldn’t say that so). The difference is, notabene, not tense itself but the way tense is used to express a certain meaning. I would expect from a translator that he not use the “correct” tense but the tense that expresses the right idea.

Another example. Read Job 13:1-9 in several translations. If the language is olde English (and olde German is not different), the caustic sarcasm in these verses gets lost. To express it, a language must be used that uses the appropriate style and idioms, irrespective whether exactly the same words are used in the original.

Some more examples: should one translate Am.5:5 “Gilgal to the gallows” in order to correctly render the pun “ha-gilgal galoh yigleh”? Should one render the poem or song Is.5:1-6 by a song in the target language (the German “Gute Nachricht” does, and with an impressing result).

I admit that the last examples are probably beyond what one would expect in a translation for studying. I just wanted to give examples for “language is more than just words”.

To sum up: there are good reasons to use more literal translations for study purposes but it is hardly true that these are per se more “accurate”. On the contrary, relying on the false safety of literalness can be more dangerous than being aware of the possible pitfalls in a less literal translation. The best choice is to use several translations, among them one that claims to be literal but also at least one that uses the target language’s contemporary style.

Much better than a literal translation would be one whose translators explain their decisions (e.g. “in verse 7 we could as well have translated …; verse 9 literally says … but this is an idiom which we rendered as an English idiom”). This would be nearly a commentary, and indeed an extremely useful one. I don’t know of any such thing.

Someone writes:

When a decision is made to stray form a “word for word” translation to a “thought for thought” translation, no notation is made for the reader to know that a particular verse is not an exact translation but more of a paraphrase.

Though there may be very little doctrinal difference I feel that the reader should be aware of any significant paraphrasing of God’s word.

I do not understand the asymmetry in this argument: if a verse translated “thought for thought”, dropping the exact rendering of the words, is to be marked as such, then a verse translated “word for word”, dropping the exact rendering of the thoughts, should be marked as such, too. As I pointed out in a recent article which I will not repeat here, there is no reason to consider one of the two approaches more “exact” than the other.

Also, the word “paraphrase” is misleading. A paraphrase differs from the original in that it has a new wording of the same ideas. Insofar, each translation could be called a paraphrase because each renders the ideas in other words, namely those of the target language. There are, of course, translations that definitely take considerably more freedom to represent thoughts than implied by the two languages. The NIV is not one of them.

I hope I could make discernible that a translation has hand and foot only if it does not stick to the single word but, before all, also has the context in its eye without which the single word is sound and smoke.

Got the last paragraph? It is an “exact” translation from German:

Ich hoffe, ich konnte deutlich machen, dass eine Übersetzung nur dann Hand und Fuß hat, wenn sie nicht am einzelnen Wort klebt, sondern vor allem auch den Zusammenhang im Auge hat, ohne den das einzelne Wort Schall und Rauch ist.

Someone cites me:

Also, the word “paraphrase” is misleading. A paraphrase differs from the original in that it has a new wording of the same ideas. Insofar, each translation could be called a paraphrase because each renders the ideas in other words, namely those of the target language. There are, of course, translations that definitely take considerably more freedom to represent thoughts than implied by the two languages.

and comments:

If the NIV is not a word-for-word translation, then other words must be used. If a different wording is not used, then the NIV would be word-for-word rendering.

To use the term “word-for-word translation”, it is needed that

These conditions may be fulfilled if the two languages evolved from one another, like Danish ↔ Norwegian or King James English ↔ Modern English. For a pair like Dutch ↔ German or Spanish ↔ French, it may also work to some extent.

For the translation from a Semitic to an Indo-European language, however, there can be no such thing as a word-for-word translation. I tried to say that with my ludicrous word-for-word translation from German which is perhaps not drastic enough because German and English are nearly the same language and share quite a number of idioms (in this example, the figurative meaning of “stick”). For a language like Hebrew, the outcome would be at least as incomprehensible as the text in an interlinear Bible (even there I am sure they choose the translation of each word according to the context).

To my statement:

The NIV is not one of them.

this poster comments:

Easy to say, but does not follow from your discussion above.

Indeed. By checking quite a lot of the verses from the comparison chart in Strong’s concordance I got the impression that the differences between the various English versions are usually not really big, given that there are inevitable differences to the original simply because the text cannot be rendered in a different language with zero difference. The TEV seems to be at the border sometimes.

Someone asks:

How does one go about finding the best translation of the bible to conduct bible study from? Are there any translations that are written with a specific agenda, therefore slanted, perhaps unwitingly, from the truth? How does a translation “stack up” against the oldest known writings i.e. closest to the source? Looking forward to your answers!

I cannot come up with a concrete suggestion because English is not my native language and I therefore possess only one English translation (plus one in Elizabethan English but this is a different language). But I would like to comment on the criteria for choosing the “best” translation:

Language translation is a multi-dimensional approximation (even one with a moving target): translating each word as precisely as possible may thus miss the intention of the text; translating idioms by idioms (puns by puns, sarcasm by sarcasm, poetry by poetry, …) will miss the words; translating each word by its meaning in the specific context will destroy concordances, but translating each word consistently by the same word will often be less than accurate because the spectra of meanings overlap but do not coincide. – Conclusion: There may be bad translations (those that make unnecessary changes to the meaning of the text) but there cannot be such a thing as a best translation. Rather, the perceived quality of the translation depends on the criteria. My opinion is that translations are usually best for study if they make a reasonable trade-off between the objectives. Both literal and free-paraphrase translations can be very misleading.

A specific agenda carried into the text is, of course, disastrous. However, in some cases, this is absolutely inevitable: if a text allows for more than one rendering with different meanings, it is not only the right but the duty of the translator to select the one that he thinks is most consistent, and this must depend on his theology. Sometimes, he can try to translate even the ambiguity.

As I said before, it is a dubious linguistic approach to expect exactitude of translation from literal rendering. In my opinion, it is a far more dubious theological approach to expect exactitude of understanding from literal interpretation. The meaning of the text, as intended by God, is not conveyed by nit-picking on the text. Rather, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. He who prays for the guidance of the Holy Spirit has a much better chance to understand the text than he who uses the best translation based on the best manuscripts, whatever the criteria. I do not mean to discourage anyone to strive for a good text, but, please, let us get the priorities right.

If, however, your stance is that every single word matters, then you are definitely obliged to learn the original languages.

In most cases, textual differences, no matter whether caused by different manuscripts or by different translations of the same original, will be minor, compared with the message of the text. Should that be not the case for one passage, it is always safer to investigate that specific question in the literature than to rely on one or another translation.

Someone writes:

In Britain until this century, you had to prove competency in Latin and Greek just to get into college.

[…] is that far too few Americans understand what it means to be competent in another language, let along a classical language.

In my country, you have to learn at least two foreign languages, classic or modern, in high school to get into college. This does not necessarily help understanding the Bible in the originals (Greek in high school is not too popular, and Hebrew hardly offered anywhere) but it certainly helps understanding the problems of every translation. Most of what has been written in the various threads on KJV and other translations shows so crude misconceptions about how languages work that I can hardly imagine that the writers have attained knowledge in any foreign language. Being able to recognise words in an interlinear or in Strong’s concordance is not what I mean with knowledge of a language.

With “misconceptions” I mean statements like the following:

Someone asks:

I have just begun reading the KJV Bible (having been raised on the RSV, NRSV, and NIV). I notice the frequent use of italic type in the text. Example: Exodus 14:29 “But the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.”
The italic words don’t seem to correspond to my first impression – that they were supposed to put special emphasis on spoken reading of the text. So, my question is: does anyone know what the significance is of the italicized words in the KJV text? Is it some way of rendering a Hebrew language feature into English?

The italic words are those that are not present in the original Hebrew but were inserted to make the English sentences complete. It would be less confusing if they used square brackets instead of italics. […]

I am not sure I like this feature. On one hand, if properly understood, it avoids focussing on details that aren’t there in the original. On the other hand, it pretends an accuracy of translation that is not there. The translator has to make many decisions during the translation: which of several nearly synonym words to take, how to render an idiom that does not exist in the target language, whether to try to translate puns, how to translate poetry, and many more. By deciding on each of these questions, the translator may carry in (hopefully unwanted, but unavoidable) bias. The decision where to fit in which word in order to make the sentences of the target language complete, is a comparably easy task with little bearing for the meaning.

Taking up this argument later:

In a recent posting in this thread I said that the “translator has to make many decisions during the translation”. Just for fun, let us consider the decisions to make for Gen.1:2b “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”:

Now my (really bad) alternate translation: But a wind of godheads is a hovering one over the water.

It is as “literal” as KJV. The difference is not whether one or two words are inserted to make the text comprehensible. If one wants to convey the literal meaning, one has to explain the choices made to the reader, just italicising a “is” here or a “he” there does not help.

BTW, I find the rendering of the NIV “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” a very good choice.

I should add that I consider myself not an expert of Hebrew and would appreciate being corrected in these matters.

Someone asks:

There are so many different interpretations/translations of the bible. Can anyone explain these differences for me?

I am afraid your question is rather unspecific. In which way do you find it astonishing that a text in a foreign language allows for multiple translations? Are you thinking of examples where translations differ more than what you would expect? If so, could you give such examples? Are you bothered by the diversity of translations, or do you feel that the credibility of the Biblical message suffers with that many translations? If so, why do you think so? Are you seeking advice which translation to use? If so, do you intend to read books of the Bible in their entirety or are your more inclined to study details of the text?

Differences in the English (or other modern language) rendering of Bible texts stem mainly from four sources:

For the ordinary reader of the Bible, the best remedy against such problems is to use more than one version.