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On Bible Versions and Translations, Part Two

Jun 23, 2011

In Part One of this article I discussed the three main types of translations. They were: the word for word, or formal equivalence, versions; the thought for thought, or functional equivalence, versions; and the free, or paraphrase, versions. It is now worth looking more closely at these, highlighting the pros and cons of each.

Word for word versions

Throughout most of church history, the more literal form-driven translations were in use. Only recently has there been use of the less literal meaning-driven versions and paraphrases. But there are good and bad points which can be ascribed to each of these three translation types.

The more literal word-for-word translations seek as much as possible to convey the original language. They tend to have longer sentences, and longer words, and they employ more of a dictionary type meaning of words. And that is their strength: they seek to be faithful to the original languages, and seek to let modern readers know what was said in the original.

But there are weaknesses or downsides as well. First, no two languages and cultures have exact word equivalents. Thus literal translations can produce rather misleading connotations in other cultures. For example, the Zanaki of Tanganyika have problems with a literal translation of Rev. 3:20 where Jesus stands at the door and knocks. In their culture men stand at a door and call out if they want entrance. Only thieves knock, to see if anyone is home before they rob the house! Thus something like “Behold, I stand at the door and call” would be a better translation for the Zanaki.

Second, literal translations are not very good when it comes to “the translation of idioms, expressions whose meaning is different from the sum of the meanings of the constituent words” as one expert notes. Consider for example the phrase, “The check bounced”. This is an American idiom. If we sought to translate this in a very literal fashion, a loss of understanding is likely to occur. That is, if you simply look up the individual words you would never get the idiom. In this case the parts do not equal the whole. So some sort of thought for thought translation is needed here.

Consider a biblical example of this. The KJV translation of 1 Sam. 24:3 says this: “And he came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave; and Saul went in to cover his feet: and David and his men remained in the sides of the cave.”

Here the KJV is very faithful to the Hebrew but unfortunately the idiom is lost, and most English readers would not even realise this. The NIV gets the right meaning by taking a slightly less literal approach: “He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave.”

Or take one example from the New Testament. In the Sudanic languages of northern Zaire, the liver, instead of the heart, is considered to be the centre of a person’s inward being. Therefore, to be of help to these people, Matt 15:8 should be translated, “these people honor me with their lips, but their livers are far from me”. The real meaning of Matthew is here retained, although at the expense of exact literal translation.

Thought for thought versions

So what about thought-for-thought translations? They get the meaning of the original into the modern context, even if it means not having an exact literal translation. They use contemporary equivalents for ideas, idioms, words, grammatical constructions, etc., and are therefore more middle of the road. They want to get the same response to our present audience as did the original audience. They are more concerned about the receptor language (in our case, English) than the source languages (Hebrew, Greek).

They tend to have shorter sentences, and shorter words. They seek more of a contextual approach, rather than mainly focusing on dictionary type meaning of words. Take this as an example: “The domesticated feline situated herself in a stationary and recumbent position on the diminutive floorboard covering.”

One could stick to a strict literal translation of this sentence. But a more poetic version may in fact be much more helpful than a strict word for word approach: “The cat sat on the mat.” Indeed, this can illustrate the problem of something like the Amplified Version of the Bible.

By giving us a lot of extra words to amplify the meaning, it pays the price in beauty and simplicity. For example, consider “Twinkle, twinkle little star”. That is short and sweet and easily received. An amplified rendering of this poem would give us more meaning, but rob us of its beauty and elegance: “Twinkle, sparkle, glimmer, little, small, diminutive star, heavenly body, fixture in the sky” etc. That is a good way to massacre poetry, and that is the danger of something like the Amplified Version.

As to a biblical example: the blood of Christ (in the original) of course is a metaphor for the sacrificial death of Christ. Thus some thought for thought versions often translates it that way. They are abandoning a more literal approach in order to get the sense across more clearly.

Of course there can be danger here as well, in taking such a key biblical term as “blood” and replacing it with other words, even if those terms accurately describe what that word is meant to represent. As I already stated, all translation work is difficult and fraught with dangers. We must proceed carefully and cautiously in such work.

Take another biblical case: In 1 Sam 20:30 we have this:  “Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said unto him, Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?” (KJV)

This renders well the original wording. But this does not carry the same impact today. It does not have quite the same meaning to it. That is why the Living Bible uses the phrase, “you son of a bitch” instead! That modern phrase certainly captures what was being said in the Hebrew text millennia ago.

So the obvious strength of thought for thought translations is that they seek to make the text accessible or readable. It may not be as literal, but it can be much more helpful in conveying to the modern reader what the original authors intended.

But there are of course weaknesses with this approach. In seeking to give the thought or meaning of the original authors, the translators are forced to give their interpretation of what the original authors meant instead of providing readers with the language of the original.

As I have already stated, some degree of interpretation is bound up in all translation work. We cannot avoid it. But we should seek to keep it at a minimum. Translators should not mainly be in the business of interpretation or exegesis. Although some of that must take place to some extent, the translator should nonetheless seek to faithfully give to the modern reader what the original authors said.

Admittedly that just moves the hermeneutical task one step beyond, letting the reader do the exegetical and hermeneutical work. And that task is also complex and problematic, as I sought to show here:
www.billmuehlenberg.com/2010/12/02/should-we-read-the-bible-literally/

Free translations, or paraphrases

Finally, there are the free renderings of Scripture. Usually they are rewordings of existing versions, although sometimes they are based on direct work from the original languages. They are much freer than functional equivalence translations, with thoughts or ideas freely translated.

The aim again is relevance and readability. They really want to connect with modern audiences. Thus they believe that it is better to translate “lamp” as “torch” or “flashlight” (eg., Ps. 119:105, Living Bible). And in 1 Cor. 12 – 14, the Living Bible translates “spiritual gifts” as “special abilities” – but that may be a rather questionable – even misleading – rendering.

Obviously in some areas such a free approach seems to make good sense. For example, weights, measures and money may be a good case of where English equivalents should be used, albeit carefully. Consider Isaiah 5:10: “A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine, a homer of seed only an ephah of grain.” (NIV) The GNB makes it much clearer to modern readers: “The grapevines growing on five acres of land will yield only five gallons of wine. Ten bushels of seed will produce only one bushel of grain.”

So the strength of a paraphrase is that it can help to illuminate a passage, to make it come alive for the modern reader. But a number of weaknesses arise. Paraphrases tend to be overly interpretive. As noted, translations should seek to avoid interpretation as much as possible.

Also, paraphrases tend to be the work of just one person, instead of a collection of scholars or a committee of experts. To translate an entire Bible all by oneself is a rather risky endeavour, no matter how qualified the translator may be. There is just too much going on for one individual to do a really adequate job.

And paraphrases can obviously date very quickly, and will seldom be universally understood. This is because – in part – they depend so much on colloquialisms (a local or regional style, expression or dialect). For example, modern Australians may know what a “dinkum dunny” means, but would many others? There are all sorts of phrases which may be quite temporal or limited, such as, “She’s hot” or “She’s a babe”, or “He’s a hunk”. We might know just what these phrases mean, but will people in the future know, or in other cultures?

But all languages are changing and dynamic. None are static and unchanging. So this can be a problem with all translations. Thus the KJV, while a very beautiful and good translation, is just too archaic for most modern readers to follow. That is why the NKJV came along.

Given the various weaknesses mentioned, paraphrases should not be relied upon as the principle Bible a believer uses. Instead they should always be used as a secondary source, and not as our primary or sole Bible. As a supplement they can be helpful, but they should not be given undue prominence in our reading and study.

Much more of course can be said about this rather deep and complex topic. But this brief summary shows some of the issues involved in translation work, and how the various translations can be assessed and identified. But the main thing is, all believers should be regularly, consistently, seriously and devotedly reading and studying their Bibles, whichever version they prefer.

Part One of this article is found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/06/23/on-bible-versions-and-translations-part-one/ 

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14 Responses to On Bible Versions and Translations, Part Two

  • You do well to explain the matter Bill. However I think there is still too much dichotomy between “form” and “meaning” in your descriptions here. The goal of a Bible translator is to achieve BOTH accuracy and naturalness, or readability. Sometimes the two are difficult to achieve at the same time, but it is possible if one understands what a translation actually IS. Word for word is not translation, it’s nonsense as you have correctly pointed out. Words are vehicles for communicating meaning, and words ALWAYS appear in context, and therefore (as you have also correctly pointed out) since languages simply don’t map one onto another at all easily, the way a word is translated in one context may be quite (correctly) different in another context.

    Also to properly understand translation, one has to throw out the idea of any word for word correspondence. Anyone who speaks more than one language can see that easily, particularly if the languages they speak are not in the same language family. What many people don’t realise when they talk about “accuracy” is that accuracy has nothing to do with word for word correspondence. If a person wants to communicate something and has the choice of doing it in more than one language, the way he does it in one language will almost certainly in every case have a different number of words than the way he would express it in another language – yet it is exactly the same communication that he has expressed.

    John Symons

  • Thanks John

    Yes quite right. When I teach this I offer a diagram showing how these translation theories and versions line up on a continuum. It is not a case of there being polar opposites, but of the methods and various translations lining up along a spectrum, with some more to the one side, and others more to the other side. But all involve both word and thought translation. If I could figure out how to do it, I would add my diagram to the article! It illustrates the point you are making.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Excellent, I feel better having read this part. I seem to have wandered between the many translations over the years I have known God, and find great merit in all of them. I think the key is to read many translations over time to gain a deeper and more accurate understanding of the bible. The best part is that is doesn’t matter which translation you read, Holy Spirit can still speak to you through them all. The first book of the bible I ever read was Revelation in the KJV and I was 16. That tells me that God can help you understand anything when he wants you to. Bless you for the work you are doing for Him.
    Nicole Watson

  • Thanks Nicole

    Yes quite so. Although I should now probably pen a piece on the desirability – where and when possible – of learning the original biblical languages: Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic. As is often the case, we must do all we can while we let God do all he can. Thus we must study to show ourselves approved, but we also must rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. But I speak to this somewhat here:
    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/12/01/on-the-perspicuity-of-scripture/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Ah yes! This topic on bible translations and versions came up last week in a bible study with my cell group. We were reading Hebrews 6. I have always cross-checked between many translations usually between the ‘word for word’, the ‘thought for thought’ and versions that lie in between. When I stumbled upon The Message translation of “produces crop” (NIV) to “produces carrots and corn” in verse 7 and “God’s blessings” to ‘God’s “Well done!” ‘, I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically. There are pros and cons indeed. This is where technology and bible apps on mobile phones comes very handy as carrying around more than 2 bibles are not practical. I have about 15 translations on my phone!!
    Erika San Pedro

  • Actually, the best way of all would be to have a literal translation in the text and the idiomatic translation in the footnote, or vice versa. To take an example from a non-biblical languages, imagine a Russian novel which included someone saying, “? ???? ??? ?????? ???” (Ya spal byez zadnikh nog). The literal translation is “I slept without hind legs”, but it is the equivalent of our expression, “I slept like a log.”
    Jonathan Sarfati, US

  • We are so lucky for so many Bible versions in the English Language, but what does it matter when many English speaking Christians have those Bibles collecting dust on a bookshelf?

    So many other people in the world feel blessed to have just one translation, and many are still waiting as Wycliffe and other Bible translators toil for decades on one Bible translation in their native language

    The full message of the English Bible has been there for us, faithfully, since the KJV. The other translations are just “icing on the cake”. We should feel blessed, but many of us are not. Perhaps we have too much of a good thing?

    Monica Craver

  • Hi Bill,

    I think it is a sign of a healthy culture where the Hebrew and Greek Biblical expressions influence the vernacular rather than the other way around.

    We wouldn’t have half of our common English idioms without this influence from the King James Version.

    Next time I excuse myself from the table I will therefore announce that I am going to cover my feet!

    Mansel Rogerson

  • I’ve used the NKJV and then the NASB in the past, but have started to realise recently how strange some of the sentences sound, particularly for unbelievers. I’ve recently changed to the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) which uses a translation philosophy known as Optimal Equivalence, which “seeks to achieve an optimal balance of literary precision and emotive clarity through comprehensive analysis of the text at every level. This process assures maximum transfer of both words and thoughts contained in the original”. You can read more about it at http://hcsb.org/b/authorjournal/archive/2011/05/18/why-kirkplace-chose-the-hcsb.aspx
    David Roberts

  • Bill,

    I remember a preacher 30 years ago say he was asked what he thought was the “best” bible translation and he replied that it was the one that was translated into your heart and life.

    In general, I thought that preacher was a poor preacher but I’ll always remember that comment – maybe he was a great preacher after all!

    But getting back to your main point, I am also grateful for modern technology and happy to read primarily from the ESV but able to cross to the KJV & other more literal translations easily as well as the Reformation Study Bible commentary, Matthew Henry’s concise commentary and JFB commentary. To access paraphrases, I have to swap to another program, but I don’t need to do that very often.

    Funny. Not even sure where my favourite non-electronic NIV of 25 years is now.

    Graeme Cumming

  • The main problem I have with the KJV is that English has changed a lot. The only place you hear thee and thou these days is in the KJV. I know of one verse in particular where a word means the opposite in Old English to what it does now. This is not a problem for one who has grown up understanding the KJV, but can cause problems for new Christians.

    That said I know people who prefer the KJV and many verses I have memorised are in the KJV. I only object to those who say the KJV is the only true Bible.

    I hope one day to have a grasp of the Greek and Hebrew.

    Kylie Anderson

  • I enjoyed this, particularly as one of the shallow criticisms that come from those who aren’t Christians is – which translation is the correct one? I suspect a good place to start with people who have this question is to ask them if they know another language and whether or not they understand that – as John Symons put it – languages do not ‘map’ each other exactly. Knowing German myself, even with some similarities to English, makes this clear to me.

    A mild irony also with this issue is also that they Bible actually explains the origin of this confusion in Gen 11:1-9 where God actually deliberately imposed it on everyone in the world. The goal was to limit what man could achieve with a corrupt nature, and was actually an act of mercy, even though it seems odd at first glance.

    I find it interesting from an end-times perspective that this limitation is on the threshold of being overcome through the use of technology that allows you to do such things as point camera phones at signs and the software translates and graphically displays the sign with English writing instead. You can already jump onto the internet and instantly translate most any website. There are also translators becoming available that you speak into and perform a direct translation spoken in the destination language based on word recognition. It seems to me that these kind of things could more easily facilitate a one-world system of governance, precisely what God effectively scattered in Genesis 11.

    Mark Rabich

  • You make a lot of good points Mark. And well said.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Nicely done Bill.

    I have a friend who is with Wycliffe, and has oversight of the translation to tribal languages in the former French colonies of western Africa. They definitely have to lean toward thought for thought in these first translations, so the meaning is not completely lost on many of the readers.

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