The Very Basics of Bible Translations

Christian history, The Bible

A few days ago I came across an image that someone shared on social media that caught my attention (see the image below this paragraph). I see posts like this one fairly often. I also regularly read and hear comments from Christians who express concerns and questions about Bible translations. Over the years, I have encountered much confusion and misinformation regarding this topic. So I thought a quick primer on Bible translations would make for an interesting blog post.

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The implied assumption of this image seems to be that the NIV has omitted Bible verses for the sake of some sinister agenda. For the actual explanation, keep reading…

“WHY IS THIS VERSE OMITTED IN MY BIBLE?”

First, we do not have any of the original documents of any of the biblical books. But over time, people made copies of the original documents of Scripture. Many copies. And copies were made of those copies. And copies were also made of those copies (and on and on it goes). There are currently over 5,000 ancient manuscripts in existence of all or parts of the New Testament in our possession.

Before the invention of the printing press, all copies were handwritten. Therefore, occasionally scribes made inadvertent mistakes (spelling errors, forgotten words, missed punctuation, etc.). Sometimes scribes would intentionally adjust a certain verse or section in order to make it more intelligible. And every so often, a scribe might even change the wording to make it more theologically “correct.” Therefore, not every manuscript looks exactly the same.

However, because of the wealth of manuscripts in our possession, “textual critics” have been able to study and compare these manuscripts to locate when these changes were inserted. Therefore, through the comparison of these manuscripts these scholars have been able to gain pretty solid consensus on the text of the original documents.

Which brings me to the image I posted above. Why does the NIV omit some of the wording of Luke 9:56 and totally exclude Matthew 18:11 (by the way, these are just two of many similar examples)?

(Sidenote: The NIV is actually one of many modern translations that omit these sections).

The KJV was originally translated in 1611 from the best manuscripts that were available at the time. However, in recent decades (and centuries), many earlier and more reliable ancient manuscripts have been discovered. Through the process of textual comparison, it has been demonstrated that in cases like these, the text that the KJV includes (that the NIV omits) was certainly not in the original manuscripts.

There is no sinister agenda here. This especially becomes clear when we realize that there is another version of this saying of Jesus elsewhere that the NIV does include:

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10, NIV)

Why omit this saying in one reference and not the other? Because the issue is not about censoring the Bible. It’s about being as faithful as possible to the actual, original text (something that every Christian should be interested in, right? …Right?).

“IS THERE SUCH A THING AS A WORD-FOR-WORD TRANSLATION?”

There are hundreds of translations of the Bible into the English language. Bible translation is unavoidable. Unless every Christian wants to learn the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic), we need skilled translators. And translation is not an exact science.

Occasionally I hear people say, “I just want a word-for-word translation of the Bible.”

No, you don’t. For one thing, sentence construction in ancient Greek and Hebrew is completely different from that of modern English. For example, in Matthew 17:18 we find the story of Jesus healing a boy of demonic possession. If we were to translate it directly word-for-word, it would read something like this:

“And rebuked it the Jesus and came out from him the demon and was healed the boy from the hour that.”

This approach would obviously make the Bible unreadable.

But it gets much more complicated than just sentence structure. The ancient languages of the Bible contain tons of words that do not have exact matches in modern English. The opposite is also true. There are plenty examples in which the English language contains words for specific concepts that do not have an ancient equivalent.

So anyone who claims to use a “literal, word-for-word” translation of the Bible is mistaken and uninformed. It doesn’t exist. Every translation involves some measure of risk, approximation, and concession.

BASIC APPROACHES TO BIBLE TRANSLATION

Translation involves “reproducing the meaning of a text that is in one language as fully as possible in another language” (from Distorting Scripture? by Mark Strauss). There are two basic approaches to accomplishing this.

The formal approach tries to stay as close as possible to the structure and wording of the original language. As I’ve shown above, this would not be helpful (or even possible) if it were taken to the extreme. Therefore, there is some degree of compromise for the sake of readability (just like with any translation).

The upside with more formal translations is that they stay reasonably faithful to the form and wording of the original language, preserving shades of meaning that might otherwise be lost. The downside is that these translations can sometimes be difficult for the average person to understand.

Some of the best-known examples of more formal translations would be the KJV, NKJV, ASV, RSV, and NRSV.

The functional approach is focused more on expressing the meaning of the original text into today’s language. Some of the more contemporary translations (like the NLT and CEV) are well-known for this approach. The upside of the functional approach is that these translations are much more readable and understandable for the average person. The downside is that if it veers too far from the form of the original language, it can lose some degree of the meaning.

There are also other translations that try to find some measure of balance between the two approaches (the NIV, NEB, and ESV are prominent examples).

“WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR IN A BIBLE TRANSLATION?”

I have always enjoyed using a variety, myself. When it comes to praying through the Psalms, I love the poetic, Shakespearean English of the KJV/NKJV. When it comes to doing some hardcore study, I tend to mostly lean on the NRSV.

But when it comes to sermon delivery, I bounce around a bit. I’ve learned that every translation has its strengths and weaknesses.

But here would be my general advice to the average churchgoer.

First, find a translation you can understand. If you can’t understand anything, what’s the point? For people who are somewhat new to Christianity, I tend to recommend the New Living Translation (NLT) as a great starting point.

And second, rely more heavily on translations that were formulated by a committee rather than by just one person. The Message Bible, The Living Bible, and The Passion Translation were all produced by a single person. While these works may have varying degrees of value (I do enjoy reading The Message Bible from time to time), there is an inherent weakness when the translation work is being done by one person.

When the work of translation is undertaken by a committee of respected scholars, there is a natural system of checks-and-balances that helps prevent one’s own bias or personal convictions from being snuck into the text. These committees spend a great deal of time debating and discussing how to best capture and preserve the meaning of the original text. When one is doing the work all by himself/herself, the text is much more vulnerable to distortion.

For more great information on Bible translations, Gordon Fee’s How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth is a short, easy read.

One thought on “The Very Basics of Bible Translations

  1. I loved reading this. Hoping you expand upon this for a while.
    I first read the St Josoehs edition of the Catholic Bible in my 20s. Didn’t try again for 5 years. It was a Rainbow Study Bible, one I still read occasionally. My favorite is an NLT. When I am studying scripture I read, N LT, KJV, NKJV, NCV, NSV, MESSAGE, AMPLIFIED.
    I SPREAD THEM ALL OUT and read the same scripture from as h one so I can understand as much as possible.
    It’s not the easiest way but it works for me!

    Like

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