The Translation Issue… Some Perspectives

Introduction

The modern Bible student must come to grips with the proliferation of Bible translations. Proliferation is a strong word. It suggests the idea that something is numerically multiplying (i.e. spreading) at a rapid rate. The 20th Century bore witness to the birth of several hundred translations of the Bible, dispersed throughout several languages and dialects.

For example, in 1965 John Reumann stated that the Bible had been translated into 1,215 languages and dialects in various testament formats (i.e. complete Bible, NT only, etc.). He goes on to describe the Bible as the most frequently translated book in the world.[1] Later in 1971, during the International Biblical-Pastoral Seminar at Rocca di Papa, Eugene A. Nida announced that 97 percent of the world’s languages had “some portion” of translated biblical text published, with ongoing translation endeavors occurring among 80 percent of the world’s languages.[2]

More recently, in 2001, Bruce M. Metzger observed that the American Bible Society’s registration for 2000 recorded that the new millennium opened with about 1,018 more translation in various formats and languages and dialects than in 1965.[3] Moving from these raw facts, it is obvious that there is an abundant availability of some and even most of the entire Bible for every major language in the world.

Even within the English-speaking world, there is a large selection of Bible translations to choose from. The modern English reading Bible student must evaluate several factors when selecting a Bible translation; in other words, as Jack P. Lewis observes, a person must become aware of the issues involved and determine “what set of problems one prefers to live with.”[4]

I find Lewis’ observation to be one of the most important decisions a person can make in choosing which translation a person will use or not use. For no translation is perfect, and it would be foolhardy to press for a perfect translation. Because of this imperfection, one must consequently acknowledge the benefits and deficiencies in the translation of their choice, and learn to account for them in their studies.

The following piece is a consideration of a few problems or issues a person should at least be aware of when choosing or using a Bible translation. The treatment is brief, but we pray to be helpful.

What is a Translation?

We embark upon this study with the following question, “what is a translation?” The verbal form “translate” comes from the Latin term translatus, it being the past participle of transferre, meaning, “to transfer.”[5] When speaking of literature, a translation is the result of scholarly work to transfer word-thoughts from one language to another. It answers the question, “How would we say that in our language and culture?”

The work to be translated is called the source language, and the language the translation is being brought into is regarded as the receptor language. Essentially, a translation provides access to inaccessible documents – due to a language barrier (source) – by communicated them in the language and dialect of its new reader (receptor). This is the basic idea of a translation.

This would lead us then to consider what a translation is not. A translation is not an absolute and perfect reproduction of the original document; instead, there are certain limitations that preclude this from being completely possible. D. A. Carson makes this exact point in the following quotation:

Anyone who knows two or more modern languages well recognizes how difficult it is to translate material from one to the other in such a way that the material sounds as natural in the receptor language as it does in the donor language, and with the meaning and nuances preserved intact.[6]

To translate may be a difficult task, but the goal of every translator is to “retain as far as possible the characteristic qualities of the ancient writer […] or the best part of him will be lost to the English reader,” affirms Dr. Benjamin Jowett, translator of the Dialogues of Plato.[7]

It is this fundamental limitation to express everything in its plenitude that makes the endeavor to translate anything particularly frustrating. Despite the great labor and scholarly attention given to the task of translating, we still remain with a secondary source that reflects the essential drift of the original source.

The translation of the Bible should never be confused as the original Bible itself. Although a translation provides access to a foreign work by making it understandable, it is always subject to improvement due to limitations on transferring one language into another.[8]

Traduttore Traditore – “Translator, Traitor”

John H.P. Reumann explains in his work, The Romance of Bible Scripts and Scholars, the precarious position the translator is in by use of an Italian proverb, traduttore traditore – “translator, traitor.” Meaning, “the translator seldom brings across the sense fully and precisely and thus betrays his author.”[9] In other words, there will always be a certain level of depth that the original author’s work retains as its own possession, that the translation does not.

The translator is under the tremendous burden to present an intelligible translation that is accurate, understandable, and with the needed readability for its intended new audience. This tension has been long recognized; in fact, an ancient rabbi once said, “He lies who renders a verse as it reads with literalness, he blasphemes who makes additions.”[10] May we call this “The Strait of the Translator”?

Yet, while we have only considered the “genuine” betrayal by the translator above, there are times where dishonest betrayal is the result of theological, philosophical, and other external forces at work in the translator’s life. For example, in the various English New Testaments the Greek term baptizo is frequently mistranslated – for which there is no excuse. In fact, it is not translated, for in most cases it is transliterated instead of being translated.

Here a differentiation must be made between transliteration and translation. A translation grants access to a linguistically foreign work by rendering it into the new audience’s language and dialect. Instead of rendering a foreign word with a word that more or less corresponds to it in the new language, a transliteration composes a word by finding corresponding letters that sound the same. Hence, a new word is often created in the new language and translation has not occurred – misleading or confusing the new audience.

Case in point, as soon as we introduced the term baptizo it is highly likely that the term baptism came to mind – based upon sheer phonetical resemblance (i.e. they sound the same). This is the goal of transliteration, to create this resemblance. However, the English word baptism is a rather generic term for an initiation ceremony for entrance into the Christian religion “marked by the symbolic use of water.”[11]The world of Christendom offered three forms – modes – of baptism: sprinkling, pouring, or dipping. This is hardly what the term baptizo meant when inspired authors employed this term.

Without providing an exhaustive analysis of this Greek term, we submit a few lines of thought. First, baptizo is part of a group of New Testament terms that share a common root (baptid-) – hence they share some similarity in meaning. Second, quite literally the term meant submerging, washing, dipping, cleaning with water, and could also be used metaphorically for an overwhelming experience.[12]

Third, baptizo “was not nearly so technical as the transliteration suggests”[13]; hence, baptism creates an artificially technical meaning that is not exclusively there in baptizo. Finally, when employed in connection with salvation, baptizo has a singular application – immersion. In 1896, Joseph Thayer explained that in the New Testament baptizo is used particularly of “the rite of sacred ablution”; in other words, “an immersion in water” for the forgiveness of sin (cf. Acts 2:38).[14] The Christian community would do well to affirm the singular biblical model of Christian “baptism” as revealed in the New Testament – immersion in water.

As a side note, we would like to point out that transliteration is not to be viewed suspiciously, for it is a common feature in translations done for names, places, and certain situations of direct address. For example, in the New Testament the apostle Paul is a transliterated phrase for apostolos Paulos (Gal 1:1). Likewise, in Luke 2:4, Joseph travels from Nazareth, Galilee, to Bethlehem, Judea. All of these names are transliterations from Greek expression.

An interesting situation occurs in Matthew 27:46 at the cross, where Jesus shouts loudly, “Eli, Eli, lema, sabakthani?” Jesus spoke in Aramaic, but Luke wrote in Greek. Luke transliterates the Aramaic into Greek for his readers (and then translates its meaning). Humorously, English translators must then transliterate Luke’s Greek transliteration into English, and then translate Luke’s translation into English as well. These examples are set forth to show the genuine need to transliterate phrases or words – it is all part of the process.

The Need of Bible Translation

The Bible did not drop out of heaven in its present prepackaged format. Quite to the contrary, it is an anthology (i.e. collection of writings) produced over a span of some 1500 years by authors from various socio-economic backgrounds and linguistic heritages.

The overwhelming majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (i.e. Classical Hebrew), though various portions are found composed in Aramaic (Dan 2:4b-7.28; Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26). Both languages are regarded as Northwestern Semitic languages along the Mediterranean Sea.[15] The documents of the New Testament are composed in Koine Greek, the third stage of the evolution of the Greek language “born out of the conquests of Alexander the Great.”[16]

Internal biblical evidence demonstrates that even the Israelites had need of translation. In Nehemiah 8:1-8 it chronicles that at the reading of the Law, during post-exilic times, there were some people “who could understand what they heard” (8:2-3), while there were others who needed assistance to understand the reading by selected individuals ready to give the “sense” of the Law (8:7-8). At some point during exile in Babylon, the Israelites became more comfortable with Aramaic than Hebrew, becoming heavily reliant upon Aramaic interpretations (Targums) – oral and written.[17]

According to The Letter of Aristeas, a Greek translation of the Pentateuch was commissioned by Egyptian royal decree for housing in the famed library in Alexandria, Egypt, for academic purposes. The events detailed are to have taken place somewhere between 278 and 270 B.C. of Ptolemy Philadelphus’ reign as king of Egypt. Though scholarship is divided over the authenticity of the letter in its exact chronology of the origin of the LXX, an Alexandrian origin story is most likely.[18] It is clear that the Greek Old Testament was a much-needed resource for Hellenistic Jews scattered throughout the Mediterranean world.

The early church translated the various portions of the New Testament books, if not all, into various ancient languages in order to pass on the message of the gospel into the entire world. Without recounting all of these ancient translations, it is sufficient to say that they represent a wide geographic dispersion throughout the Roman Empire at the earliest of times in the movement.[19] The missionary imperative set forth by Jesus in Matthew 28.19-20 implies the reason why we translate the Bible – God’s revelation to humankind; consequently, it makes perfect sense why there are ancient translations intended chiefly for Christian use.

The Value of a Fresh Translation

Where the previous section addresses the basic need for a translation of the Bible to exist, this next line of reasoning focuses upon the need of producing new translations. Of the history of Bible translations in English alone, books are profusely available. We only submit a view thoughts to help the curious reader make some sense of the situation the student of the English Bible faces today.

In the late 1500’s AD, the English speaking people had access to what we call the Geneva Bible. It was considered by many to be the most accurate translation of its time, and yet today one could scarcely find a copy of it in church pews. Why?

In the late 1800’s AD, the English Revised Version appeared (ERV), along with its American counterpart – American Standard Version (ASV). The ASV was thought to be vastly superior to anything then available because its textual basis for translations was so strong, but it failed to successfully replace the King James Version as the popular version of the Bible. Why?

We would run the risk of oversimplification if we did not admit at the beginning, that popularity of translation use is the result of a confluence of several factors. But the main factor, it seems, in the popularity of any translation is that it speaks clearly and essentially to the people that will pour hours of attention to its pages (its contemporary readership). Two traits are essential then: it must be easy to read, and easy to be understood.

For these principles to be met in a Bible translation, a fresh translation based upon the original languages must appear from time to time. Bible translations are therefore temporary things – and should there be doubt, the reader is encouraged to study the history of the Bible in the English language.

Biblical scholar and translator, Fredrick C. Grant observes this exact point:

If a translation is to be any good, it must be addressed to the times in which it is written.  One reason why the Revised Version of 1881-85 failed and along with it the American Standard Edition of the Revised Version of 1901, was that it did not address the world in which men lived.[20]

They retained archaic expressions that  by reason of language evolution had either gained new meaning(s), or had been abandoned by the contemporary vernacular. For example, notice the case of 1 Corinthians 16:13:

  • Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. (ASV)
  • Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. (KJV)

What is the possible meaning of the phrase “quit you like men”? The phrase comes from one Greek expression: andrizesthe, from andrizo. Appearing only once in the New Testament, it means “to play the man” (link). According to the papyri, instances of this term stress the firmness and courageous strengths inhering in masculinity which faces the world with forces that must be overcome.[21]

When compared with a translation produced one century later, the need for improvements over the ASV (1901) and its predecessors is clearly seen and required. The English Standard translation of the Holy Bible (ESV) renders andrizo, as follows: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men [andrizesthe], be strong.”

The meaning of this passage is, therefore, obvious after careful analysis of the Greek expression. In balance with some of the leadership problems in Corinth, it appears to be a closing general exhortation (so the force of the imperative suggests) whereby Paul challenges “the men to assume their God-given responsibilities and to assume the leadership in the church and in their homes.”[22]

To be sure, this is just one case out of many which could be easily demonstrated as test cases for the need of new translations.

Translation Philosophy Employed

In speaking about a philosophy of Bible translation, I think there is much to commend what Eugene Nida[23] wrote regarding translating the New Testament:

People have finally recognize that the professor and the gardener can communicate one with the other through the so-called “overlap” language which may be equally understandable and acceptable to both the learned and those of limited education. Producing translations in such a common form of speech is completely in the tradition of the New Testament, which was written in Koine Greek.[24]

Nida’s main point is to communicate a biblical translation in a vernacular that is accessible by all walks of life. Little wonder that the Bible says about Jesus and his teaching, “the masses heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37). One of the great strengths of Martin Luther’s work in the Reformation was to produce a translation of the Bible in the language of the German people. They had been forbidden access to the Bible in their own language, so access to the Bible and Luther’s plea to a return to the Bible was readily received.

More critically, there are two main philosophies in Bible translation.[25] When selecting a translation most conservative Bible students are concerned with a “word-for-word” translation. By use of this expression, the philosophy of formal equivalence is made reference to. At the other side of the translation pool, is what may be called a “phrase by phrase” translation, formally called dynamic equivalence.[26]

What separates these two translation methods is how they achieve their goal: “how does one best communicate the text in translation?” Robert Martin contrasts formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence in the following way:

[F]ormal equivalence translators answer that the content of the original is best communicated when the translator consistently tries to parallel closely the linguistic form (i.e. structure, grammar, and exact wording) of the original. Dynamic equivalence translators, on the other hand, answer that the best way is to use the most natural form of the language of the reader (i.e., giving priority to the structure, grammar, and idiomatic expressions of contemporary English), whether or not this closely parallels the linguistic form of the original text.[27]

From a student’s perspective, a formal equivalent translation may be a bit harder to read, but it allows the reader to approach an essentially unbiased text to read and study the Scripture for themselves. Meanwhile, a dynamic equivalent translation will usually have a text that is a lot easier and clearer to read and study, but the reader is provided with a text that is highly interpretive.[28]

To be clear, each philosophy has its limitations, and cannot solve by themselves every translation hurdle a translator comes across. It must be understood, as Martin points out, that “every translation of the Bible is a mixture of formal and dynamic elements.”[29] Formal equivalent translations make exceptions to incorporate dynamic elements out of the necessity to render difficult passages; whereas, dynamic equivalent translations must have a formal relationship to the original text, otherwise it would not qualify as a translation.[30]

We believe that a balanced translation philosophy is that a translation needs to be as literal as possible, but free when necessary.[31] We conclude this section with the following words:

The translator must strive, therefore, to stay as close to the original as he can, so as not to lose those subtle messages reflected in tense, voice, mood, etc. This is certainly the ideal, where no clarity of message is sacrificed.[32]

Conclusion

We are not attempting to plead on behalf of one translation over another. No version has cornered the market, because sooner or later, the translation will be replaced by a more modern one which speaks in the language of its contemporaries.

No doubt some might find this study incomplete, and yes to some extent it is. However, the main goal here is to emphasize the need to be aware some of the common issues one must be aware of.

Criticisms against this translation or that translation in order to elevate a pet Bible version has no place in the question of choosing a version. In all cases, we must decide what issues we are willing to live with when we select a translation, for none are perfect – no not one.[33]

Let us, therefore, find a translation that fits our particular study patterns and that compels us to focus on the Scriptures daily (Acts 17:8). For it is through study, learning, and obedience that we gain access to the Father (John 6:44-45).

Sources

  1.  John H. P. Reumann, The Romance of Bible Scripts and Scholars: Chapters in the History of Bible Transmission and Translation (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 1.
  2. Eugene A. Nida, “Bible Translating in Today’s World,” The Bible is For All, ed. Joseph Rhymer (London: Collins, 1973), 55.
  3. Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), 9-10.
  4. Jack P. Lewis, Questions You’ve Asked About Bible Translations (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 1991), 55. Lewis essentially argues that since there is no perfect translation and when a person settles upon using a certain translation they are, therefore, accepting to interact with the decisions the translation committee made in transferring the ancient and biblical languages into a modern rendition in the language of the reader.
  5. American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd edition.
  6. Donald A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 85.
  7. Frederick C. Grant, Translating the Bible (Greenwich, CT: Seabury Press, 1961), 136ff.
  8. Reumann, Romance of Bible Scripts and Scholars, 7.
  9. Reumann, Romance of Bible Scripts and Scholars, 6.
  10. Lewis, Questions You’ve Asked, 8.
  11. American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd edition.
  12. William E. Vine, et al., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1986), 2:50.
  13. Walter Bauer, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 164. Now referenced as BDAG.
  14. Joseph H. Thayer, et al., Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1896; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 94.
  15. Allen P. Ross, Introducing Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), 13-15.
  16. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 15.
  17. Metzger, Bible in Translation, 20-24.
  18. Reumann, Romance of Bible Scripts and Scholars, 8; Everett F. Harrison summarizes the issue as follows: “Though the Letter of Aristeas ascribes the translation of the Law to the royal interest in literature, it is clear from the Letter itself, […] that the real inspiration for the version sprang from the need of the Jews in Alexandria for the Scriptures in their adopted language” (“The Importance of the Septuagint for Biblical Studies — Part I,” BSac 112 [1955], 345). Likewise, Charles K. Barrett writes in his, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (New York, NY: Harper, 1961), that the Aristeas tradition is “almost certainly false, although here and there it shows glimpses of what appears to be the truth” (208).
  19. Metzger, Bible in Translation, 25-51.
  20. Grant, Translating the Bible, 133-34.
  21. James H. Moulton and George Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (1930; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 40. BDAG 76.
  22. Bob Deffinbaugh, “Paul’s Closing Words (1 Cor. 16),” Bible.org .
  23. This is not a wholesale endorsement of “all things” Nida, but the ideal translation Nida speaks of is quite desirous.
  24. Nida, “Bible Translating in Today’s World,” 58.
  25. To be sure, there are other assumptions or philosophies that filter into the two main translation models practiced among translators (feminist, gender-neutral, ethno-centric, etc), but formal and dynamic translation are the two most basic issues.
  26. Daniel B. Wallace, “Why So Many Versions?,” Bible.org , pars. 30-39. Wallace discusses the objectives of each philosophy and flavors his discussion of them with a critique of the “positives” and “negatives” of each translation methodology.
  27. Robert P. Martin, Accuracy of Translation (1989; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 7; emphasis added.
  28. Wallace writes, “A formal equivalence translation lets the reader interpret for himself. But too often, the average reader doesn’t have the background or the tools to interpret accurately. The net result is that he often badly misunderstands the text. On the other hand, a dynamic equivalence translation is usually clear and quite understandable. But if the translators missed the point of the original–either intentionally or unintentionally–they will be communicating an idea foreign to the biblical text” (“Why So Many Versions?,” pars. 37-38 – emphasis added).
  29. Martin, Accuracy of Translation, 9.
  30. Martin, Accuracy of Translation, 9-10.
  31. My Greek professor, Dr. Clyde M. Woods used to state to us this principle, that a translation should always be as literal as possible, but free when necessary – i.e. when the translation is so awkward that a literal rendering would be unclear or misleading a reasonable non-literal rendering must be provided.
  32. Wayne Jackson, The Bible Translation Controversy, 2d ed. (Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications, 2002), 10. I highly recommend this little book. It is “ounce for ounce” the most succinct and balanced presentation I have found.
  33. “No version has appeared (old or new) which is above someone’s objecting to some of its renderings, it is quite conceivable that one might say, ‘I choose the reliability of a certain version.’ Even if out of all the passages in the book someone can come up with a few places where the version does not pass his shibboleth, it does not disqualify the whole. One need not deny that the problem exists. In fact, there is no excuse for anyone’s covering over any mistranslation that exists in any version” (Lewis, Questions You’ve Asked, 58).
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5 thoughts on “The Translation Issue… Some Perspectives

  1. Versions that represent the two major philosophies of translation (formal and
    functional equivalence) have their place. It is my judgment that the more “formal”
    translations are generally better exegetical tools, because they represent the
    form of the text. The legendary ASV-1901 excels in this regard and is likely
    unsurpassed among English versions. The main difficulty encountered by the
    person who uses the ASV is the severely archaic phrasing and vocabulary.
    The NASB is a distant 2nd to the ASV. The ESV-2007 is probably more accurate
    than the NASB as it is based on a better text, and has some good exegetical
    choices in its text. The NIV 2011 is a very useful translation that represents the
    functional equivalent philosophy.

  2. Jovan Payes

    Ronnie,

    Appreciate the points. My approach to translation is that of formal – word for word – translation. “Be as literal as possible” is part of the philosophy I believe in when it comes to translation, but the flip side is that at times the language does not allow us to be literal – word for word – so we be “as free as necessary” in those instances to communicate the words of the original. I believe that in those instances a footnote should be placed in the translation so that students can be apprised of the situation.

    My first Bible that I used for study is the ASV, and now I use the ESV. I enjoy the ESV very much. But, what the ASV has in terms of its textual strength at its publication, it loses in its awkward artificial archaisms that were not needed in 1901. I don’t mean to suggest that one cannot learn about Jesus or salvation – or even the scope of biblical history – from the ASV, but this latter point has held it back from a wider reception.

    While the NIV is quite popular, and I will reference it from time to time. It is not my primary translation of the text. Excellent scholars have worked on it, and I believe one can know how to be saved; however, in general it to takes on the dynamic equivalence philosophy as its leading approach and I believe it can be quite dangerous.

    Thanks Ronnie.

    Jovan

  3. Jovan, I agree. The NIV is a great “late night-early morning reading Bible.” I, too, am
    philosophically of the ‘formal equivalent” ideaology of translation theory. It is my
    judgment that if one believes in “verbal inspiration,” a verbal translation/modified-
    literal text is more in line with the actual words themselves. They also make better
    study texts as I noted above. In my judgment, the ASV is unexcelled as an
    exegetical tool, and the footnotes are a veritable mine of information. As I and you
    noted, the archaic language is its greatest drawback. The ESV is a better “replacement”
    of the ASV than the NASB. The NASB is often hailed as “the most literal,” but it
    is a wordy version. It often unnecessarily supplies words. Sometimes the supplied
    words are tending toward interpretation in one direction when there are other
    options. The ESV is a good translation. I want to see Crossway or some publisher
    publish a large print (11-12 point font) in a personal size, hand friendly text edition.
    The current editions have print that is either too small or they are too cumbersome.

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