Bible Translations: Which One and Why?
I promised in a previous post that I would write something about Bible translations and translating, and this is that post.
Let’s start with an obvious fact. Nowadays we have an absolutely huge number of Bible translations available in the English language. Off the top of my I can think of the NIV, ESV, NRSV, RSV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET, CEV, HCSB, and…….you get the point. What I’d like to reflect on for a moment is how the contemporary proliferation of Bible translations may be affecting our approach to the biblical text itself. In particular, does the sheer quantity of different translations encourage us to pick and choose the one that’s our favorite (not necessarily a bad thing), with little regard to its accuracy (a bad thing).
Bible Translation Theory: A Few Basics
First off, if you’re unfamiliar let me briefly explain the basics of Bible translation theory. Most often, Bible translations are spoken of as falling somewhere along a spectrum of formal to dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence is a more “word for word” equivalence with the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Greek text of the New Testament, while dynamic equivalence is usually defined as “thought for thought” equivalence. Thus formal equivalence tends to a more literal rendering, while dynamic equivalence tends toward a more interpretive rendering.
What needs to be recognized up front, however, is that no translation is, strictly speaking, entirely “literal.” This is because, as anyone who speaks or reads more than one language can attest, it is often impossible to translate from one language into another strictly literally. What takes three words to say in English may take one to say in Chinese,and what Greek may express by means of an idiom would make little to no sense if rendered literally into English. Therefore both pure adulation and pure disdain of translations is a futile exercise. All translations are relatively more or less literal, but none is or ever can be perfect.
Translations: A Few Considerations
With these qualifications in place, I do believe that we can speak of the relative merits of one or another translation in relation to each other. In doing this, the point I want to draw out is that the more dynamic the translation, the more interpretive decisions are being made for the reader (and which the reader is usually unaware are even being made). Let me take one example of a term that many are familiar with. If you read an NIV printed before 2011 (when there was a translation update), in the New Testament the term “sinful nature” shows up relatively frequently in Paul’s letters. For example, Galatians 5:13 reads “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” However, what the NIV (prior to 2011) renders “the sinful nature” is in fact a translation of the Greek word “sarx“, which literally means “flesh.” So Paul more literally says, “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh….”
I point this out as an example of where a more dynamic rendering has made rather large decisions for the reader that they are then not free to make themselves. The decision is simply this, when Paul uses the word sarx (“flesh”), what he means by it is “the sinful nature.” Now, in general I love the NIV, but I simply point this out as what is seen by many (myself included) to be one of the more infamous missteps of a contemporary translation. While sarx may mean something like “sinful nature” in some places, this is certainly open to debate, and rather than allowing the reader the deserved confusion over the word “flesh” (preserved in the ESV and NASB for example), decisions are made in advance for the reader.
Now you may be thinking, “I never would have wondered at the use of the word ‘flesh’ or been able to figure what it meant even if I did.” And that’s ok; in fact that may even be precisely the point. The Bible is not easy to read and I don’t think we do ourselves a service by relying on extremely dynamic translations for the majority of our Bible reading (here I am thinking more of translations like the CEV, some parts of the NLT, or a paraphrase like The Message). While we may have trouble understanding what the Bible is saying, that is what good Bible teaching is for, not what translation is for. In other words, it’s best to learn how to understand the Bible by pastors and elders “teaching the word” as is their specific duty (1 Tim 3:2), rather than having translations do the interpreting for us.
Let me sum up: all translation is interpretation to some degree, as one language never cleanly passes over 100% into a different language. For our Bible reading though, it is best to not rely too much on translations that do lots of interpreting for you, because they are less translations and more interpretations and in places can very arguably obscure the sense of a text (as the old NIV arguably did with “sinful nature”).
Bringing it back to where we started, my concern is that the wide availability of numerous translations makes us never even consider these things, but rather just pick a translation whose English we like or which is “easy to read.” We should, however, give some thought to what degree the translation is reading is faithful to the biblical text. To that end, here is a chart giving the relative “literalness” of most major Bible translations:
In my next post I’ll give a test case of how very good many Bible translations are, and point out in particular how helpful those pesky little footnotes in your Bible can be.