googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Which is the Best Translation of the Bible?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Which is the Best Translation of the Bible?

After people learn that I've studied Greek, a question that comes up fairly regularly is, “Which version of the Bible is the best translation?” The question is more involved than it seems. Over the years, I've tried to come up with a “short answer” but anymore, I simply tell them, “Well, it really depends on what you want in a translation.”

I quickly found out that learning a new language involves more than learning a new vocabulary. Different people have different languages, rules of grammar, expressions, and experiences. Translating is far more complicated than assigning each foreign word an English word. Following are some of the challenges we face in translating:

The first difficulty is the simple differences of grammar. In English, we place a heavy emphasis on word order. We typically place the subject before the verb, for example. Look at the following sentence: “John threw a ball to Jack.” This is an extremely simple sentence. However, if I were to say, “To Jack, John threw a ball,” we see that the sentence immediately starts to become awkward. To say, “A ball John threw to Jack,” is more awkward still. “A ball threw John to Jack” is nearly incomprehensible.

Greek, on the other hand, is a heavily inflected language where the form of the word (morphology) determines its use in a sentence. This gives the Greek writer more liberty in word placement. He may move words around to make the sentence sound more pleasing or to emphasize a certain word. If a Greek writer wanted to stress what was being thrown, he might put it in the front of the sentence. In English this would sound like, “John threw A BALL to Jack.” Or he might want to stress who caught the ball, “John threw a ball TO JACK.” As we translate this into English, one translator might attempt to leave the word order unchanged and render the more awkward English sentence. Another might use capital letters as I have to highlight the emphasis. Still another might simply render the sentence in correct English grammar and lose the emphasis. Which way is the best is somewhat subjective.

There's also sometimes a difficulty in rendering the semantic field of the original word. Just like in English, foreign words sometimes have a range of meanings. In most cases, context will determine the correct meaning but occasionally there is some ambiguity. The Greek word ἀρχη (archē) can mean “beginning” or “ruler.” In Revelation, Jesus is called the ἀρχη of the creation of God. Is Jesus the “ruler” of the creation or the “beginning” of the creation? Different translators will choose one or the other. Still other translators might use a compromise word like “chief” which could carry a dual meaning.

Along these same lines, some foreign words have a subtle meaning and we have to try to match the meaning with an English word. In these cases, one's knowledge of English is more important than one's knowledge of the language he is translating. For example, if I saw a pretty girl in a restaurant, I could say, “I saw her” or I might say, “I noticed her” or maybe I watched, stared at, admired, observed, gawked at, studied, or ogled her. To translate that, the translator would have to know a if there's a word that matches the subtle meaning of the word he's translating.

This problem is confounded by the fact that some words do not have an English equivalent. At the time of writing the New Testament, animal sacrifice was a common event. Greek has a word to describe things sacrificed to idols (εἰδωλόθυτον, (eidōlothuton)). Animal sacrifice is rare in the US and there is no English equivalent for this word. Instead, the translator will try to describe what the word means. Alternatively, he may choose to not translate the word at all but instead simply transliterate it. Christ, angel, baptize, and apostle are examples of untranslated words.

Our local customs also influence our understanding of certain expressions. I heard a story once about English speaking missionaries who were trying to evangelize an African tribe. The missionaries told the natives how the blood of Jesus could wash their sins white like snow (Isaiah 1:18). The natives didn't understand this at all. When these dark skinned people got dirt on them, or ash from the fire, they became white so to them, white meant “dirty”. Also, they had never seen snow but since it was white, it must be dirty too.

If we were to translate Isaiah 1:18 into their language, how would we do it? A word for word translation would not suffice. We would have to invent a way to convey the same English meaning in the natives' language. We might say something like, “your sins can be washed clean as with cold water.” The words I chose for the translation are not at all the English words but it conveys a meaning very close to the original in a way the hearers can understand.

We see an example of this in John 10:24: “ἐκύκλωσαν οὖν αὐτὸν οἱ ᾿Ιουδαῖοι καὶ ἔλεγον αὐτῷ· ἕως πότε τὴν ψυχὴν ἡμῶν αἴρεις;” Then the Jews encircled Him and began saying to Him, “Until when do you hold our soul?” If we read this sentence by itself, it makes little sense to an English reader. At first glance it seems like some spiritual question but it's not. It's an expression similar to the English expression, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” The KJV renders this as “How long dost thou make us doubt?” There are different ways this could be expressed and so different translation may not agree. If they convey a meaning similar to the original, it is sufficient.

One thing to avoid in translating would be to attempt to interpret or explain rather than translate. A good rule of thumb I've learned is that if something is ambiguous in Greek, it should be ambiguous in your translation. The need to explain or interpret is often driven by one's theology. We see this in translations like the NWT.

For example, Colossians 1:16 KJV says, “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:”

The NWT renders the same verse thusly, “because by means of him all [other] things were created in the heavens and upon the earth, the things visible and the things invisible, no matter whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All [other] things have been created through him and for him.”

Note the addition of the word, “other.” To their credit, the NWT translators included brackets to indicate the word isn't in the original but why include it in the translation at all? It's because, according to Jehovah's Witness doctrine, Jesus was Himself a created being. The impression given by most mainstream translations is that Jesus created everything. Because of their doctrine, the NWT wants to be sure it's understood that He only created all “other” things. Now, sometimes it's impossible to divorce your theology from your translation. The word for Holy Spirit (πνεύματος ἁγίου) is a neuter noun; anytime a pronoun is used where the Holy Spirit is the antecedent, it should technically be translated as “it.” However, I refuse to call the Holy Spirit, “it” so I instead use “He.” Even so, where ever possible, keep your theology out of your translation.

Still other translations have a political agenda – or perhaps I should say, “politically correct”. Instead of “Sons of Abraham,” they might have, “Children of Abraham.” Instead of “brothers in Christ” they might have “brothers and sisters in Christ.” They deviate from the original not because English grammar demands it but to satisfy polite societal norms.

So how does any of this answer which is the best translation? I'm only attempting to show you why there are so many different translations of the Bible. Which is the “best” depends on what you think is the “best.” Is it best to have an English equivalent or a strict word for word translation? It's subjective. Your best bet is to read several different translation and, between all of them, you should have a fairly good grasp of what the original language was intending to say.

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