All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;
2 Timothy 3:16 (NASB)
Why do we need it, and what’s so hard about translating?
Why do we need a translation in the first place? Without an English translation, we would have to know the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic languages.
Even then, if we spoke and read the language used at the time, we wouldn’t understand everything without also knowing the cultural and historical context. A few examples:
- Psalm 76:7 – In the original Hebrew it says that, “God’s nostrils enlarged.” He was angry.
- Matthew 1:18—Literally, “Mary was having it in the belly.” In other words, she was pregnant.
- Romans 7:7 (and numerous others)— Paul’s “God forbid!” translates literally to “May it never be.”
Considering that in ancient Greek, the words “agápe, éros, philía, and storge” all mean ‘love’ in one form or another, it is pretty easy to see how it can be difficult to translate the Bible into English.
Also known as Word-for-Word, this style seeks to remain faithful primarily to the form of the original. The original word order and structure will match as closely as possible in the translated copy. While it is important to remember that any translation will contain some interpretation, this style is best at keeping the translators’ interpretations minimal.
- King James Version
- New American Standard Version
- Revised Standard Version
- English Standard Version
- Keeps personal interpretations of the translators to a minimum.
- The translated text will copy the structure and word order as close to the original as possible.
- Keeps theological terms just as ‘justification’, rather than saying something like ‘being made right with God’.
Direct translations can actually lose the original meaning, perhaps misleading the reader.
- Colloquialisms can be confusing without an understanding of the historical context and culture of the original author.
- Can be hard to read and understand.
Also known as Thought-for-Thought, this style seeks to remain true to the original meaning. Unfortunately, this offers more opportunities for the translators’ interpretations to get into the text. The order of the words may be changed from the original it if helps in understanding the author’s meaning.
- New English Bible
- Good News Bible
- New Living Translation
- Contemporary English Version
- Typically easier to understand.
- Culturally and historically dependent statements are often more clearly defined.
- Sometimes hard to understand theological words will be more simply defined. For example, ‘justification’, may be replaced with ‘being made right with God’.
- Translator personal bias and interpretation may more easily enter into the text.
- By replacing longer sentences with shorter ones, the relationship between the sentences may be lost. “I got into the car and went to the store.” vs. “I got into the car. I went to the store.”
- By replacing difficult words with simpler ones, the full meaning and implications may not be conveyed.
Middle of the Road
This styles uses Word-for-Word when possible, but will use Though-for-Thought when deemed necessary for understanding.
- New International Version
- Holman Christian Study Bible
- A bit of both of the above.
- A bit of both of the above.
This method is concerned with conveying the meaning in a simple, easy to understand style. The original author’s words are not important, but rather the intention of the words.
- The Message
- The Living Bible
- Children’s Bible Story Books may often use this method.
- Uses common language that is easily understood.
- Can be useful for younger readers of God’s Word.
- Highly interpretive. Translator bias can appear much more easily than in other methods.
- Can be translated to a point where misunderstanding could take place.
Considerations in Choosing a Translation
Source Texts Used
Which sources did the translator(s) use when coming up with the English version? Some Bibles are created by ‘modernizing’ older Bibles. Others go to the most ancient known original text.
An example of why this is important when considering a translation is the fact that the KJV has verses that the NIV doesn’t include. Rather than an evil conspiracy in direct opposition to Revelation 22:18, different source texts were used in the translation. The KJV used manuscripts available at the time, the same is true for the NIV. They are both attempting to be an honest translation, being as close to the original as possible. The question then becomes: what is the original?
Who did the translating?
Was it a single person? Cross-denomination group of scholars? Was it reviewed and approved by multiple people to ensure proper word translation and keep out personal translator bias?
As is common in English, the original Greek and Hebrew used words like man, him, he, etc. to refer to general people. Some translations use more gender-inclusive language, even when the original refers to a male. Some take into consideration the context of the original, and use the masculine when the original specifically called for it, and general otherwise.
There doesn’t seem to be any justification for changing the gender from the original in ancient documents found recently (Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.); it is more of a readability/political correctness/inclusivity issue.
There are some gray areas here it would seem. Sometimes it seems obvious that all people are intended rather than just men (Fishers of men; Behold I stand at the door and knock… in Rev 3:20). Further, the Greek word ‘anthropos’ can mean either man or person depending on the context.
One important note is that even the King James Version uses gender inclusive language in places such as Mathew 5:9 (original Greek was sons, not children of God), and in the Hebrew ‘sons of Israel’, which is translated as ‘children of Israel’.
Generally speaking, there are three methods of dealing with gender:
- Literal. If the Hebrew used man, so does the English.
- Common Sense. God is masculine, at times inclusive language is used in a careful and moderate way.
- Neutral. Most or all text using gender is changed to be inclusive.
Cultural and Historical Context
As an example, consider ‘rent’, and what it means, and why someone would do that to their clothing…
King James Version: And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes.
New International Version: When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes.
New Living Translation: Some time later, Reuben returned to get Joseph out of the cistern. When he discovered that Joseph was missing, he tore his clothes in grief.
The Message (Paraphrase): Later Reuben came back and went to the cistern—no Joseph! He ripped his clothes in despair.Comparison of Most Popular Bible Translations
Chart of Bible Translations