Hello TTP FAM! Great to have you here with us as always. In the first part of LOST IN TRANSLATION? We looked at why translations of the various texts were necessary and also followed the journey of the efforts of some church leaders to translate the Bible for us. Our journey brought us finally to the Hebrew and Greek critical texts as the source documents for all our current Bible translations. For those who missed it, it’s not too late. You can get caught up right here.
In today’s post we try to answer the age-old question; if the document is being translated from one source, why are there so many versions of the English Bible? Now that we have your attention, let’s jump right in.
When translating any document from one language to another a lot of factors immediately come into play. The final translation is based on the intent of the translator. The approach used by translation committees usually fall into two broad categories which form the opposite ends of the translation spectrum. They are Formal equivalence and Functional equivalence. The formal equivalence approach also commonly referred to as the word for word approach tries to translate the words from the original language to the target language (English) while keeping the same word order and structure (syntax). The difficulty with this approach is that sometimes the final translation may be rigid and difficult to understand. Also what may be good Hebrew or Greek syntax may make for atrocious reading in English.
For instance in English we know what the expression “to take a walk” means. If we were to do a formal equivalence translation into another language using the word for word translation for the words “take (meaning to hold or carry) a walk” we would end up with a strange request or meaningless one at that.
The functional equivalence approach tends to focus on converting the thoughts and general ideas from the original language to the target language. Some translators take some extra liberties with this approach and end up with free translation paraphrases. Like the formal equivalence approach the functional approach is not without its difficulties. When the thought/meaning is focused on instead of the form we may end up losing the beauty of literary designs which may in turn add rich layers of meaning to the text.
Also idiomatic expressions in the original Greek and Hebrew may not have counterparts in the English and whatever we read may be far off from the original intended meaning. For instance, if a translation decides to substitute the word king for president in order to communicate to us today the idea of a national leader, they may inadvertently be importing undertones of democracy and elections into the text which was not originally intended.
A more practical example to bring this home was when the Bible Society of Ghana were translating 1 Peter 2:7 into Dagbani, a dialect of one of the northern Ghana tribes. The term cornerstone makes sense to most cultures given our style of architecture. The idea behind the text is that Jesus Christ like the cornerstone is the most crucial part in our lives and faith just as the cornerstone or foundation stone provides stability support for a building. The problem however is that for the Dagbani’s of Ghana they have a different style of architecture. They build round huts and the roof of the structure is held and supported by a wooden pole in the middle of the building. In that culture that is the most important part of the building structure. If it is weak, your roof caves in. The translation committee thought it best to translate the Greek phrase “eis kephalē gōnias” (which translates to English as “the cornerstone”) to the Dagbani word for the central pole to best capture the meaning and imagery associated with the term. Such translation considerations are known as dynamic equivalence.
Thankfully with all these difficulties the translation committees have the best and brightest minds in the study of these languages to translate our bibles for us.
That being said, the final translation is based on the philosophy of the committee. For instance the New Revised Standard Version works with “ as literal as possible, as free as necessary” as its translation philosophy. This represents a commitment to a more formal equivalence approach. The New living Translation (NLT) on the other hand is the work of a team committed to the functional approach. It is worth noting that most translations are not entirely formal nor functional but lean more towards one end.
No translation is perfect and different kinds of translations serve different roles. If you’re a student of the Bible who is committed to in-depth study then a formal equivalence translation will best serve your interest. First because it allows for the original ambiguities to stand out and be noticed, investigated and interpreted. Also it renders a key word in English with the same English word throughout the translation, which is very important for word study. Functional equivalence translation because of the oversimplification of complex texts and their substitution of ancient idioms for contemporary ones make for good everyday devotional reading and for use amongst new believers and non-christians.
Below is a list of translations and where they lie in the translation spectrum.
We are also adding a recommended list of 7 English bible translations we believe will be helpful for your studies. The criteria for selection is based on the translation philosophy, qualifications of the members of the translation committees, knowledge of biblical languages and contexts and finally the readability of the final results in contemporary English. In no particular order, they are:
The NKJV deserves special mention although it didn’t make the cut. The New king James tries to render the old archaic language of its predecessor the King James Bible also known as the Authorized version into more readable contemporary English. It also continues with the word for word approach of the King James Bible. However, it bases its translation of the New Testament on the Textus Receptus. The textus receptus was put together by Erasmus in 1512. In his work he collected and polished the Latin of the Vulgate and relied on some of the Greek texts of his day. His final work is a parallel reading of both the Latin and Greek New Testament. While his work is highly commendable, recent inroads in the field of archeology and discovery of older and accurate manuscripts have meant we have manuscripts closer to the original writings of the apostles. This is why we recommend texts based on the critical texts because they rely on older and better manuscripts. This is not to discourage one from using the KJV or the NKJV but these points are stated so that one knows the difficulties inherent when using it for in-depth bible study.
All that said, it is our recommendation that every Christian have at least 3 translations of the Bible for their personal study and at least one of the three should be a formal equivalence bible.
Finally as you can see, translation of the Bible is necessary if we are going to be faithful to the great commission. And yes there are difficulties in translating these ancient languages to our contemporary English. Advancements in the fields of archeology, historical and textual criticism have helped mitigate some of the difficulties in translation. As long as the translation reflects the words, thoughts and intentions of the original authors as they were inspired by God, then the translation is inspired. And to give a short answer to our overarching question; no, the Bible is not lost in translation. We are about 99.95% sure of the message of the Bible.
Stay tuned on our website and social media pages for more information on our upcoming Q&A session for this series.
- Duvall, J. and Hays, J., 2020. Grasping God’s word. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
- GORMAN, M., 2020. ELEMENTS OF BIBLICAL EXEGESIS. Grand Rapids: BAKER Book House.
- Shelley, B. and Shelley, M., 2021. Church History in Plain Language, Fifth Edition. Grand Rapids: HarperCollins Christian Publishing.