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:
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/