Josh's Take on Bible Translations

Josh's Take on Bible Translations

One of my most engaging weeks of my first semester involved Bible translations. I now realize the value in learning the original Biblical languages. Until I learn biblical Greek and Hebrew, I need to choose a translation. Or two, Or six. Continue reading... you'll see what I mean. Below are some thoughts about Bible translations. I have so many thoughts, this will be the first of several blog posts. So here we go...

Why is translation important?

For the original hearers and readers, the Bible  was relatively easy to understand. That is to say, it was not written in clunky, highly technical, fancy language. It would sound more like the Hunger Games or a newspaper. It would not sound like Shakespeare or the fine print that everyone skips when they agree to the Terms of Service after downloading an app.

Notice how I used the word “sounded like” above. Many people were unable to read, and so the Bible was read to them. People would gather and have large portions read to them at once. It was like going to a movie. It was an experience that took a some time.

Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

Just above is a sample of what the original Greek mostly looked like. A geeky side note... When the Bible was written, it was written by hand. They did not use chapter breaks, paragraphs, sentence breaks or evenspacesbetweenthewordsyikesnowondersomanypeoplewereilliterate 

Here is why translation is so important. It’s easy to think that to translate the Bible all you do is look up the English word in a Greek-English dictionary, and then plug in the meanings you find. If you did this, you would get:

“In this way, thus for to love the God the world so then, therefore, so that the Son the one and only to give, in order that, so that everyone the to believe in he not to perish but to have life eternal.” (English Lexical Values from the The Lexham Greek-English Interlinear New Testament: SBL Edition by Harris, W. Hall, III)

Obviously, the above “translation” is terrible. You can barely read one sentence, never mind a whole story. Thankfully we have amazing teams of translators that understand biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and modern English.

Did you figure out what above verse is? If you haven't, it's John 3:16, one of the best known Bible verses. It is well known in the following translation:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” -John 3:16 (NIV)

Choosing English Translations

Currently as I write this, has 59 english translations available. Wow! (Some languages around the world don't even have one translation of the Bible!) How do you choose what translation to use?

A few basic criteria have to be met. For me to choose a translation, it has to be:

  1. Recently translated or updated to keep up with the most current research that we have. Scholars are actively discovering new details about the biblical text, languages and surrounding cultures. Not that any major christian belief will change with these new discoveries, but it is important to use all the information that we have access to. The Bible is God's message preserved for us. The words matter. It's important to get them right.
  2. Translated by a team of scholars who are trustworthy. Some translations have only been produced by one person or by a secret team of people. It is vital that we know who the translators are and their training/qualifications.
  3. Widely available and accessible. It sound obvious, but you have to be able to buy a physical copy of the Bible you want to read. As a bonus, it is nice to have different cover options as well as several study bible editions to choose from. In today's culture, you also need to be able to access it online. (For seminary, I also need my translation to be available in my fancy bible software.)

With the above in mind, you can narrow it down to following six. In alphabetical order, I present to you some Biblical alphabet soup:

  1. Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
  2. English Standard Version (ESV)
  3. New American Standard Bible (NASB or NASU)
  4. New English Translation (NET)
  5. New International Version (NIV)
  6. New Living Translation (NLT)

I'm sure there are more good translations out there, but these are the ones I have been focusing on.

Approaches to Translation

All of the translations above are good translations. None of them are perfect. If we only had one of those translations, we would be OK. Like I mentioned before, some people around the globe do not have any translation in their own language. What a blessing to have so many great options!

So what makes all these translations different from each other?

Bill Mounce in this YouTube Video as well as Fee and Stuart in How to Choose a Translation for all Its Worth describe the different choices English translators make when translating the Bible.

Word for Word vs. Meaning for Meaning:

  1. Take the original word and then pick the best English word or
  2. Understand the author's meaning and then pick the best English words that communicate the same meaning to the target audience.

Just Understandable vs. Natural Sounding:

  1. Translate the original until it is just understandable in English or
  2. Translate the original until it is natural sounding to the target audience.

Nuance vs. Overall Meaning:

  1. Leave nuances intact, making the reading process more complex or
  2. Choose to communicate the overall meaning, making it simpler to understand.

The classic example is translating the Spanish phrase ¿Cómo se llama? into English.

If you were to just plug in the English words by looking them up in the dictionary you would get: How yourself call? This is not proper English, and thus a poor translation.

A word for word approach would have something like: How do you call yourself? This is understandable, but people don't talk like this. On the plus side it keeps the words and word order very close to the original.

A meaning for meaning approach would go with: What is your name? This is what an average English speaker would say.

All translations fall on a spectrum and use elements from both approaches. Here are the Bible translations listed from the most word for word style to the most meaning for meaning style:

  1. New American Standard Bible (NASB or NASU) - Most Word for Word
  2. English Standard Version (ESV)
  3. Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
  4. New English Translation (NET)
  5. New International Version (NIV)
  6. New Living Translation (NLT) - Most Meaning for Meaning

Accuracy in Translation

All of the above are accurate translations, just accurate in different ways. Translators have to sacrifice something. At the same, there is a healthy tension when translators try to balance the different approaches: They either keep the words as close as possible, but potentially lose the experience and understanding the original readers had. (The experience of reading the bible is not talked about enough.) Or translators focus on core meaning, usually sacrificing the nuance and word play found in the original languages. There is also always a potential risk that the translation team will choose the wrong meaning to communicate.  The only way to not make any sacrifices is by reading the Bible in the original languages. Second best: use more than one translation to study the section you are reading.

Josh's Takeaways

As I embark on this adventure known as Seminary, I have decided to use two translations that balance each other out. I will use the NIV for my daily reading and scripture memorization. For in-depth study, I will turn to the ESV. They provide contrast to each other, helping provide clarity to the picture painted by the author. Both are being worked on by trustworthy teams of scholars using the most up-to-date research. Lastly, both are widely available in print and in electronic form. The ESV is particularly valuable for leaning the original languages, as it is a word for word translation. Sometimes, it is valuable to consult several translations. Perhaps all 6 mentioned in this post!

If you are new to the Christian faith, I would recommend the NIV. It's a great starting point. As you learn more, and want to study more, I would look into the ESV. If you have been using the ESV for the longest time, but aren't enjoying it or understanding it well, I would try the NIV for a time. If you are really serious about the Bible, I would strongly consider learning the original languages. It will take years, but the investment of time will be worth it.

Whatever translation you choose, I'm glad your reading the Bible!

Do you have any other questions or feedback? We would love to hear from you!

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