Translating & Translations

by Tim Challies

Translating & Translations (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of articles which will examine the various Bible translations available today in the English language. With such a multitude of translations available, Christians are often puzzled as they attempt to discern which one most accurately represents the words of God. In past years many have been told that the New International Version provides the best balance between accuracy and readability, that the New American Standard Bible is the most accurate but is difficult to read and that The Living Bible is the easiest to read, but lacks accuracy. These assumptions may be accurate, but they are simplified. Today major new translations appear at the rate of one every couple of years. While most of them make little impact, some, such as the New Living Translation and The Message have gained widespread acceptance. The NIV, which once was regarded as the standard Bible of evangelical churches, is losing ground and may soon fade to history. And what of the venerable King James Version?

Deciding which translation is best must depend on one's view of the Bible. A person who regards the Bible merely as human words, or even as the thoughts of God given through human writers will regard the importance of an accurate translation far differently from one who believes that the text of the Bible is the very words of God. This series will be premised on the traditional Protestant view that the Bible is inspired by God, is without error and is the effective, supreme and final authority on matters of life and faith. How do we know this is the case? Quite simply, because the Bible says so. If the Bible is truly authoritative, it stands to reason that it can appeal to no higher authority than itself to prove what it says. Therefore we must accept by faith at face value what the Bible says of itself.

Much could be said about the philosophy of Bible translation. Many books have been written on this topic and I while could devote tens of thousands of words to it, for sake of brevity I will merely summarize some of the most important points. To do so we will examine the three common methods of Bible translation.

Paraphrase (also known as Free Translation) - Paraphrases attempt to translate ideas and concepts from the original text but without being constrained by the original language and words. They also seek to contextualize the Bible to the contemporary culture, eliminating the historical distance between the time the Bible was written and the time in which it is read. This allows them to be easy to read as they do not need to conform to the sentence structures of the original languages. However, they are also less-literal in their translation. The most widely-read paraphrase is The Living Bible, though in recent days The Message has become exceedingly popular.

Dynamic Equivalence (also known as Thought for Thought) - Dynamic equivalency attempts to create a consistent historical distance between the text and the reader so that the text has the same impact on the contemporary reader as it did on the original reader or listener. Because the translation does not need to be constrained to the original language and sentence structures, the text can flow smoothly, allowing it to be easily readable. However, dynamic equivalence requires some degree of interpretation as the translator attempts to discern not only the words of the author but also the author's intent and meaning. The most popular dynamic equivalent translation is the New International Version. Formal Equivalence (also known as Word for Word, Literal Translation or Essentially Literal) - Formal equivalence attempts to represent each word of the original language with a corresponding word in the English language. This allows the reader to know, as closely as possible, what God actually spoke through the authors of the Bible. The merit of this method is that it allows intimate access to the originally inspired words for those who do not speak the languages the Bible was written in. The downside is that it is possible for these translations to be awkwardly worded and follow difficult sentence structures. Examples are the New American Standard Bible and the English Standard Version.

Questions about translation

Should we translate meaning or words?

This is a foundational question, as the answer will determine the entire method of translation. If translating meaning is most important, the primary task of the translator is first to determine what the author meant and then translate his interpretation of that meaning. The problem with this is that we may not know what the original author meant. We can guess and make assumptions, even very rational assumptions, but we can not know for certain someone else's meaning. What we can and do know are the words he used to express meaning and those words can be accurately translated. This separates interpretation and translation. The meaning of a passage cannot be separated from the words, therefore the job of the translator should be to translate those words, not a perceived meaning.

How much interpretation should there be in translation?

Ideally there should be no thematic interpretation in a translation. There must be linguistic translation, such as the proper meaning of a word, but themes should be presented as clearly or as opaquely as they are in the original text.

What are important features in a Bible?

Traditional theological vocabulary. Many theological terms used in the Bible have no accurate English translations. Therefore, many Bibles have chosen to adopt terms such as justification, sanctification and redemption directly from the Scriptures.

Nouns and pronouns. Some Bibles choose to capitalize nouns and pronouns that refer to any member of the Trinity. This makes it easier to understand whether such words refer to God or to someone else.

Words of Christ in red. Some Bibles use red ink for the words of Christ to make it easy to identify when He speaks. Some insist on this feature and others feel it reduces the perceived importance of the rest of the words of the text. I find it a helpful but certainly not necessary feature.

Headers. Many Bibles use descriptive headers at the beginning of each chapter or even throughout chapters to allow readers to identify important sections. Headers are added by translators or editors so are fallible. The doctrinal emphases of the editors or translators will show through these headers which can cause problems.

Cross references. Many Bibles cross reference passages, so that a verse may have a note directing the reader to a similar verse in a different passage. Cross references are very helpful.

Concordance. A Concordance is a list of words and a reference to where they may be found within the Bible. While these are helpful, they are limited because of space considerations. A concordance in a Bible should not replace a full concordance for the serious student of the Word.

Rules of Translation

To summarize, these are what I consider four important rules in translation:
1. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is God's Word that is being translated. These are not the words of fallible men but of a Holy God who is giving these words to direct our lives.
2. The text must be translated as accurately and faithfully as possible from the original language to the receptor language.
3. The translation must be readable so that it adheres to rules of English vocabulary, syntax and grammar.
4. The translation must not seek to bring clarity to what is difficult in the original text. The interpretation must stay separate from the translation.

At this point I hope it is clear what I consider the ideal for a translation of the Scripture. In our next article we will begin to look at specific translations.

If you are interested in reading more about translations and translating, I recommend The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken

Translating & Translations (Part 2)

In the first article of this series we examined some of the basic issues in Bible translation. We saw the difference between paraphrase, dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence and identified some rules of translations. Of utmost importance was the necessity of translating words, not meaning.

Today we continue with the introduction to translating and translations. Perhaps it is too obvious to mention but I will do so regardless. The Bible was not written in English. Rather, it was written in Hebrew and Greek with a small section in Aramaic. The job of the translator, of course, is to know and understand the original languages and translate the words into the receptor language - in our case, English. The challenge is greater than merely translating words, for the translator must first discern what the original words are. This introduces us to the concept of text-types. The original "autographs" of the Bible no longer exist. Rather, what we have are copies and more than likely, copies of copies of copies. Often times these are merely fragments of books of the Bible, perhaps written on a tablet or parchment or even in a letter from one person to another.

Text Types

There are four primary text types.

The Byzantine text: The Byzantine texts were preserved by the Byzantine Empire and constitute the vast majority of available Biblical texts. Unfortunately many of the documents are from a relatively late date.

The Western text: Western texts originated from a poor and sloppy scribal tradition, so are considered the least important of the text types.

The Alexandrian text: The Alexandrian texts were prepared by highly skilled scribes in Alexandria or the immediate area. They are generally considered to have the highest credentials.

The Caesarean text: The Caesarean text originated in Egypt and combined the Western and Alexandrian texts.

The translator or scholar must examine all of the available texts and decide which are most accurate. This has become more science than art or guess-work. Some of the criteria they use to make a decision are:

The age of the text. Generally an older text is considered authoritative over a younger one, though this is not always the case. Even in the early church we read about people deliberately changing the text of Scripture. Irenaeus, one of the church fathers, wrote "Marcion and his followers have betaken themselves to mutilating the Scriptures, not acknowledging some books at all, and curtailing the gospel according to Luke and the Epistles of Paul, they assert that these alone are authentic which they themselves have shortened." Age is important, but not in isolation.

The length of the text. Often the shorter a text is the more authoritative it is considered because scribes were more likely to add to a text than take away from it.

The difficulty of the text. A difficult text is considered more authoritative than a simple one since scribes were more likely to change a difficult reading than an easy one. If a text is still very difficult, it is likely that it has not been edited, for a scribe would not purposely make a text more difficult.

Text comparison. Texts are compared to each other and when many similar texts match it is given more weight than the one that is different from the rest.

There is plenty of disagreement on methodology and which documents are better. The task of the scholar and translator is difficult, but in the end we have confidence that the text of the Bible is at least 99% pure (probably higher) and that no basic doctrines are affected by the small sections that are still in doubt.

Biblical Texts

There are two main schools of Biblical texts. The first is known as the Textus Receptus or Received Text. This text was compiled in the early 16th century by Erasmus, a Greek scholar who was Roman Catholic but also humanist. He gathered several Byzantine texts, most of which were quite new (none were written before the 12th century) and published a Greek New Testament based on these. His work was revised many times over the following years until in 1633 a version contained the words ""The text that you have is now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or perverted." From this time this text was known as the Textus Receptus (received text) and it became the basis for every English translation until 1881, including the King James Version. Those who believe the King James Version is the superior translation into English defend the superiority of the received text but modern scholarship has largely agreed that the text is not as accurate as the alternative.

The second text is known as the Westcott and Hort text which was first published in 1881. These scholars decided that the Byzantine texts underlying the Textus Receptus were too modern so set out to find older texts, eventually relying on manuscripts that were written as early as the second century AD. Many of these manuscripts had not been discovered in Erasmus' time so he did not have access to them. The Westcott and Hort text has formed the basis for almost every English translation after 1881, including the standard English translations you might find in your local bookstore.

I will not enter into the great debate about the merits of each of the two texts. Suffice it to say that I read and love Bibles based on the Westcott and Hort text and certainly do not agree with many of the arguments of those who defend the Textus Receptus. In either case I appreciate the desire to have the Bible in all its purity.

History of the Bible in English

This would be an appropriate location to discuss the long history of the English Bible. However, that is not completely relevant to our discussion, so I will direct you to resources which discuss the topic in detail. A good place to start is English Bible History.

The above is from Tim Challies' blog. I highly recommend it as he has other good reading and subjects to discuss.
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