Walk into any Christian bookstore and you will find an amazing number of different versions and translations of the Bible on offer. Most believers may not know why that is or which version should be preferred. Entire libraries have been written on all this, but here I want to simply offer a very brief overview of the whys and hows of Bible translation.
The first thing which needs to be said is that every Bible available is a translation of some sort. We have no autographs, or original manuscripts, left, but we do have thousands of good copies, extending back to soon after the original documents were penned. For example, we have over 5000 manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament available to us, and the science of textual criticism helps us to get back as close to the originals as possible.
Also it should be pointed out just how difficult translation can be from the host languages to modern versions in English or other contemporary languages. Translation is simply a very difficult task. For example, in the originals, there were no spaces between words, no punctuation, no paragraphs, no capitals and just small letters – and Hebrew had no vowels (they were understood but not written).
The chapter and verse divisions we utilise today, along with vowels points to the Hebrew consonants and so on were added much later on. So translators have had to make a number of decisions as to which way they should proceed. Take this quick example of how to translate from the Hebrew: DNRTCHTGNRB.
Okay, so what is that? Because of letters running together, and no vowels, we have to deduce something like this: BRNG TH CT RND (remember that Hebrew reads from right to left). But there still is a bit of guesswork needed (based on many factors, such as context and so on). We might render this as: bring the cat – or coat, or cart – around.
Or consider this example from the Greek: godisnowhere. Again, the translator must do some interpretive work here, with a few options possible. Needless to say there is a big difference between “God is now here” and “God is nowhere”.
Thus by simply choosing a version of the Bible, we have done some measure of hermeneutical work (or more accurately, someone has done it for us). And to a large extent we have to trust in their abilities to get things right.
Any good translation of the Bible should seek to achieve several things. The aim of course is to produce a version noted for both its accuracy and accessibility. It should be offering reliability as well as readability. If there is not much readability, it may not matter how accurate the translation is. But if it is an inaccurate translation, it does not really matter how readable it is. So the ideal is to have both at the same time.
Also, no translation will ever be 100 per cent accurate. No two languages will ever express themselves in exactly the same way. There will always have to be some room to move here. And as already noted, all translation will involve some interpretation. Many prior questions have to be decided on, eg., which manuscripts do we prefer, and so on. And questions arise as to which rendering of a word should we go with, how can we best express a phrase or concept or word, etc.
Types of translations
There are three main sorts of Bible translations. At one end of the spectrum are what are known as word for word translations, which are much more literal in approach. Also called form-driven or formal equivalence versions, they put more emphasis on accuracy, and therefore are more willing to stay nearer to the original manuscripts.
At the other end of the spectrum are thought for thought translations, which are less literal. Also called meaning-driven or functional (or dynamic) equivalence versions, they put more emphasis on readability, and therefore are more willing to move from the original manuscripts.
Even further along the spectrum would be paraphrases, which are much freer in terms of translation.
Examples of the more literal (word for word) versions would be the NASB, (N)KJV, ESV, RSV, and NRSV. The less literal (thought for thought) versions would be the (T)NIV, NAB, NJB, N/REB, JB, NCV, and NLT. And the much freer paraphrase versions would be the GNB, JBP, CRV, LB, and The Message.
So which is to be preferred? It should be pointed out that no translation is totally literal or totally free. Indeed, a completely word-for-word literal translation would be basically unreadable. One simply has to look at an interlinear Greek-English New Testament to see this clearly illustrated.
Take for example John 4:15. If we followed absolutely from the Greek it would be rendered like this: “Says to him the woman, ‘Sir, give to me this the water that not I thirst nor I come here to draw’.” That is very accurate as far as the original Greek text is concerned, but it is quite difficult to read that way in English.
Or consider a text like Matt 1:18. If we strictly followed the Greek text we would have this in English: “Of the but Jesus Christ the birth thus was. Being betrothed the mother of him, Mary, to Joseph, before of to come together them she was found in belly having from Spirit Holy.”
As one group of translators has stated, “Part of the problem is this: the more literal a translation is, the less readable it generally is; the more readable it is, the less faithful it is to the original meaning (at least in many cases). Some modern translations are quite readable but are not very faithful to the biblical author’s meaning. A major goal of good translation is of course readability – but not at the expense of the intended meaning.”
One can already see that no one type of translation seems to have all the answers, or covers all the bases, or solves all the problems inherent in translation work. Thus in Part Two of this piece I will look more closely at these three sorts of translation methods, and examine the strengths and weaknesses of each.