Finding an Authoritative Translation

Finding an Authoritative Translation

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm things eventually boil down to “all the animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

I think I can apply this to Bible translations as well as to animals, especially when one is looking for an authoritative translation. The fact is that no translation perfectly reflects the source languages. Thus, there is no translation that is the final word on the interpretation of any particular passage. The final appeal must be to the texts in the source languages, and to the best research available there.

This situation is very disappointing to many Bible students who don’t know their Biblical languages, which is the vast majority of Bible students. How can they successfully get finality about a point of Biblical interpretation from a translation? Surely there is a translation that is right all the time, that can simply be trusted. But the answer is no. No translation is ever perfect.

But are some translations “more equal” on this point than others? I would say that there are, and that there are some techniques that English speaking and reading Bible students can use in order to avoid getting caught by a translation issue. These techniques are really fairly simple, and the necessary tools are widely available.

  1. Use multiple translations
    If you compare the translation of a text in more than one version, you will be alerted to translation differences. Start with the assumption that if there is a substantial difference in the way a verse is translated, i.e. that the two translations don’t simply express the same thought in different words, then there may be a significant translation issue underlying those different versions.
  2. Make your choice of versions wisely and purposefully
    Choosing multiple versions to compare when looking for translation issues is differnt than choosing a version for your own reading or study use according to your preferences. You want to find versions that are done by credible scholars, but that differ in their approach sufficiently so that they are likely to disagree on controversial issues. I’ll list some good selections for this purpose below. In particular, be aware of the translation philosophy involved. For example, comparing the rendering of the ESV with that of the CEV may give you the idea that there is a significant translation issue, when the problem is really that one is very literal while the other is dynamically expressive. With some extra attention, you will then often find that they are both trying to convey the same message, just in a different way.
  3. Check concordances with original language references
    Many people put a great deal of weight into these kinds of studies in terms of finding or even creating new definitions, but without facility in the language in question it is doubtful that your work will be all that accurate. Such study can alert you to just where the problems are in a translation. This may not give you the final answer, but at least it may keep you from being embarrassed by finding out that you based your interpretation on a faulty translation, or that you were dogmatic about something that is really very controversial.
  4. Use commentaries
    For this purpose you need an exegetical or critical commentary. You might want to look at some suggestions for materials in my reader’s guide to Bible study tools.

Now let’s expand just a bit on which translations are “more equal than others.” If you want to catch translation problems you need to be more careful than usual in your selection. Let me suggest that your select one or more from each of the following groups. Note that the groups do overlap.

You want to avoid hitching your star to older translations, such as the KJV, ERV, ASV, Young’s Literal and so forth. These translations can be good an helpful in reading and study, but they were made without much modern research and many recent discoveries in manuscripts and language, and thus are not nearly as helpful in identifying true translation issues.

Literal Translations

You can generally avoid the older RSV as most translation issues will be reflected in the newer versions. I don’t list the New King James Version simply because its focus was to reflect the text and language of the KJV, and thus it does not present as much new information as other versions.

Dynamic Translations

Catholic Translations

Protestant Translations

Mainstream/Liberal Translations

Evangelical Translations

Jewish Translations

In this category, the one item to consult is the JPS Tanakh: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. I do not have this rated yet on my list of Bible translations, but it should be consulted especially in cases of interfaith dialogue.

As I noted earlier, there is ultimately no way short of learning the source languages to really be able to handle all translation issues. You will find, however, that the majority of the Bible is not that controversial in its translation. Translation issues deal with a small number of texts, though often these are the most contentious. Using multiple translations wisely will help you avoid errors and embarassment.

See also my book, What’s in a Version? and my Bible Translation Selection Tool.

2 thoughts on “Finding an Authoritative Translation

  1. I don’t know what else to say about this post. Very informative and true. I find that comparing multiple translations helps me nail down the true meaning of any given passage. Very well done.

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