Friday, August 11, 2006

Bible Translations, Part 1 of a draft article

This is the first installment of a series of draft portions of an article I am writing on Biblical translations. Comments are welcome via e-mail.

Which Translation Of The Bible Should I Use?

If one wishes to study the Scriptures, one of the most important things that they must do is to acquire a good translation of the text… unless they just happen to know Biblical Hebrew, and Koine Greek. Especially nowadays, when it seems there is a new translation or study Bible that is published each year, it is not a simple choice to make.

There are several factors that have to be taken into consideration:

1) How literal is the translation?

2) What text is the translation is based upon?

3) What is the theological perspective that underlies the translation?

4) How well done is the translation, and how liturgically useful is it?

5) More recently, you must also add to the above considerations, how politically correct the translation is.


1. Formal Equivalence, Dynamic Equivalence, Paraphrase


Translations range from the woodenly literal, to the fantastically paraphrased. Somewhere between those extremes is the optimal level of literal accuracy. An example of a woodenly literal translation that has come onto the Orthodox scene in recent years is the edition of the “Orthodox New Testament” published by the Holy Apostles Convent in Buena Vista, Colorado. Instead of the familiar, “Do this in remembrance of me” we find the “improved” “Be doing this in remembrance of Me." Instead of the book of James, you find the far more “accurate” book of “Iakovos.” Thus, you could call this the “King Iakovos Version”.

On the opposite extreme, you have paraphrases, such as the Living Bible. Which has readings such as “"God even protects him from accidents,” rather than the more familiar (and more accurate) "He keepeth all His bones: not one of them is broken" (34:20 KJV). Another popular translation that is a more of a paraphrase (though not as bad as the Living Bible) is the Good News Version.

The New International Version (NIV), is an example of a “dynamic equivalence” translation. The theory is that instead of translating the text word for word, you translate it “thought for thought”, the problem is that when a translator does this, he has moved beyond translating the text, and into the realm of commentary on the text, because when you translate the thought, you are assuming the interpretation. Many points seem very clear in the NIV that simply are not based on what the text actually says, but rather on what the translator’s think it means. An example of how this distorts the text is to be found in how the NIV translates 2nd Thessalonians 2:15:

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”

Compare that with the more accurate reading found in the King James Version:

“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.”

As Clark Carlton notes:

"The NIV translators, however, have effected what amounts to a literary sleight of hand. One would be tempted to call it a rather nifty move were it not for the fact that they have tampered with the written Word of God. Hold the traditions which ye have been taught. Traditions (paradoseis) is a noun in the objective case. It is derived from the verb to hand over (paradidomi). The phrase, which ye have been taught (edidachthate), is a form of to teach (didasko). The NIV turns the verb into the noun – hold to the teachings – and turns the noun into the verb – we passed on to you. If we were to translate the NIV translation back into Greek, instead of paradoseis, we would have didaskalias, and instead of edidachthate we would have paredothate.” 1

Another example is the way the NIV translates the Greek word sarx as “sinful nature” sometimes, and simply as “body” other times. The problem is that the word means “flesh” and it only implies a sinful nature at times, but the problem is that it is not always clear whether or not this is in fact implied, but if you are reading the NIV, you wouldn’t know that there was any ambiguity, because the translators have misled you into thinking that text clearly says things that are not so clear.

The most accurate translations available in English are the King James (or Authorized) Version (KJV or AV), the New King James Version (NKJV), The English Standard Version (ESV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) – though all but the first two have problems that will be discussed under the other factors that we must consider. The King James is in fact generally so accurate that one could reconstruct the original text with a high degree of accuracy by translating the text back into Hebrew and Greek, but unlike woodenly literal translations (that are so literal that they actually distort the meaning of the text) it is also a beautiful translation.

1 Clark Carlton, The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church, (Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 1997) p. 137f