The Challenge of Translating

Translation is not an easy task. Take a moment to consider the difficulty of translating a text which is central to the faith of millions. Striking a balance between literalness (however you define this) and readability must be hard. Further, every reader familiar with prior works is critical because their favourite rendering has been ruined.
Jerome produced the basis of the Latin Vulgate, an immense work given the proliferation of versions and Latin copies which existed when he commenced. When urged by the then current Pope to do the task he responded:

“You urge me to revise the Old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures that are now scattered throughout the world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the original. The labor is one of love, but at the same time it is both perilous and presumptuous—for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all …. Is there anyone learned or unlearned, who, when he takes the volume in his hands and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, will not break out immediately into violent language and call me a forger and profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections in them?”

Apparently his concerns were well founded. After his work began to be published he met serious opposition but apparently he referred “to his detractors as “two-legged asses” or “yelping dogs”—persons who “think that ignorance is identical with holiness.”
The KJV translators noted they expected to be helped by King James against “calumniations and hard interpretations of other men” and furthermore remarked that “if, on the one side, we shall be traduced by Popish persons at home or abroad, who therefore will malign us…or if, on the other side, we shall be maligned by self-conceited Brethren, who run their own ways, and give liking unto nothing, but what is framed by themselves, and hammered on their anvil…”
The reality is that few of us have the knowledge and skills to assess textual variations and translate from the original languages. Pause a second to contemplate the relatively thankless task performed by others.


Bible Versions for the Family

Different versions can be valuable in different contexts. What version do you think is best for children? What would you use for Bible readings at home with the family? Share your thoughts in the poll below and/or leave a comment. Thanks!

Lost in Translations

In our modern day, we are blessed to have the Bible in our own language. In fact, we have a multitude of Bibles in our own language! This raises some questions. Are they all faithful witnesses to God’s message? Are they all useful? Which ones should you use? We discuss some of these questions in the following blog post.

The King James Version has been commonly used for a long time (several hundred years) but nowadays it is too outdated to be seriously helpful with Bible study. It has two major issues: firstly, the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts it was based on are not as reliable as the ones we have today, and secondly, it’s language is archaic. It is important to read a Bible that makes sense to you and the language of the KJV is simply not as easily understood as good modern versions.

So what modern version is the best one? Are there versions you should avoid? Every version has its own strengths and weaknesses. They will all betray some bias now and then. The key is to be able to identify this and work with it. You can work around this problem by using several different versions. That way you can work out when one version isn’t translating a particular section well. When studying, you should try to use distinctly different versions. For example, don’t use the English Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version (they’re both Bibles that stem back to the KJV). Instead you might want to compare translations like the NET Bible, the English Standard Version, the New International Version, and the New Jerusalem Bible.

Obviously it isn’t practical to constantly be reading the Bible in multiple versions. This is important for studying, but for general reading one main Bible helps you develop familiarity with wording and helps you to remember passages. So what makes a good reading Bible? A Bible that makes sense to you and that doesn’t have too much translator bias. This leads us to the question of whether you use a literal translation or paraphrase. A literal translation tries to translate one Greek or Hebrew word into one English word, so that the English text you read is very close to what the original Hebrew and Greek was. A paraphrase tries to work out what the original Greek or Hebrew is saying, and then tries to express that really clearly in English, without necessarily translating word for word. Both ways of translating can be helpful. A paraphrase is more likely to contain some bias though as the translator first decides what they think the text is saying before they then express it in English. A literal translation leaves more of the decision making to you. However, it isn’t always possible to find one English word to translate one Greek or Hebrew word, so literal translation doesn’t always work well either. The best solution for an everyday reading Bible is to find one that treads a middle path between these two translation types. Bibles like the New International Version, the New Jerusalem Bible, the New Living Translation, and the New English Translation (NET Bible), fall into this category. The NET Bible is especially helpful because it also contains translators’ notes that explain why the translators translated passages a particular way, or to help make sense of parts that seem a little obscure.

Another important question to ask when you are assessing a Bible translation is “Was it done by a committee or just one person?” Bibles translated by just one person are likely to reflect that persons biases more than a Bible that has input from a lot of different people. Most modern versions are made by committees, but older Bibles like Moffatt’s or Eugene Peterson’s The Message, can be quite biased and a little odd in places.

When you are studying, literal versions get you a little closer to the original text. This means you have to do more work to understand what the text is saying, but that’s the point of study! A literal translation will make it easier to identify keywords, and means that more of the interpretation is done by you, not the translator.

So in summary, our main tips are:

  1. Don’t use the KJV, as it’s out of date and just isn’t as easy to understand as modern versions.
  2. Be aware that every version has strengths and weaknesses, so use several different versions.
  3. For general reading, use a Bible that makes sense and treads a middle path between literal translation and paraphrase.
  4. Use Bibles that have been translated by a committee, not just one person.
  5. Compare translations that are more likely to differ rather than ones that are likely to say similar things.


Recommended Resources

Books and Book Excerpts

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, ch 2

The Bible In Translation by Bruce Metzger

Web Resources

What Translation should we use by Mark Olsen (click here)

What Bible Should I Own by Dan Wallace (click here)

Fifteen Myths About Bible Translation by Dan Wallace (click here)