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Trashing Bible Translations is Trivial

. . . not to mention easy.

In the just completed presidential election here in the U. S., were I to list all of the reasons why I might not vote for the candidate for whom I eventually did vote, the list would be fairly long, and might convince someone I thought that candidate was quite a scoundrel.

Similarly, I could quite easily make a list of only the positive points of the candidate for whom I did not vote, and make someone think he was the man!

Candidates are rarely perfect.  They rarely fully reflect one’s own views, so there is some compromise involved when one goes out to vote.

So what does this have to do with Bible translation? Quoth the apostle Paul:  Much, in every way!

Critics of one Bible translation or another, or even one method of translation or another often simply find cases in which the particular translation or method produces results they regard as less than the best, or perhaps just plain bad.  Like negative political ads, these notes are supposed to add up in our minds to an eventual rejection of that particular translation or method.

The problem is that every translation is susceptible to this approach, as is any particular mix of translation methods.  That’s because, like political candidates, translations are imperfect.

It’s very easy to get into advocacy rather than evaluation.  I know.  I do it all the time.  But no accumulation of negatives ever turns into a positive message.  Unless, that is, in Bible translation it turns into motivation to learn the Biblical languages.  Since I suspect that isn’t going to happen as a mass movement, we’ll probably be living with translations for the forseeable future.

A particular example of this kind of criticism of translation can be found in the preaching and teaching of many pastors who are well-versed in the Biblical languages.  Because of their extensive knowledge, and based on their extensive study, they can proclaim some particular translation misleading or just plain wrong.

Now doubtless they have good reason for making this claim.  I recently heard it made and I agreed fully with the speaker.  The translation in question was, in my view, unfortunate.

Since I have studied the process of Bible translation, however, I know that the rendering that the speaker and I both thought was poor, was actually produced by a committee of well-qualified scholars in the relevant field.  Their decision was reviewed by many others.  Comments were gathered, and then a final rendering was chosen.

Does the speaker wish to take on that powerful committee?  Does he wish to suggest he knows better?  Of course he does!  So do I!  It’s fun.  It’s what this study is all about.  That’s the normal give and take of scholarship.

But the congregation doesn’t really hear it the way we do.  First, most of them are not so well aware of how translations are made.  What they actually hear is that the translators are wrong, and they may infer possibly that those translators are less intelligent, less well-trained, and or less careful than their pastor or teacher.  They learn to distrust the translation, and instead of trusting the source languages instead, they have to trust their pastor.  Of course, in their personal study, they still have to trust some translation.

I have written before about those who know very little Greek or Hebrew and yet proclaim, based on some commentary or other reference, that a particular word means some particular thing, contrary to the text of their translation.  In that case I’m talking about people with inadequate knowledge misleading because they are not fully competent to say what they say.  In this case, however, I’m talking about people who are very competent accidentally misleading people.

What do I suggest?  To pastors or teachers skilled in the Biblical languages:

  1. Moderate your vocabulary.  Even when you are very certain, claim your statements about translation as your opinion.  “I believe” goes a long ways here.
  2. Don’t just work from the source languages.  Educate people on translation and on how to make effective use of the numerous English translations.
  3. Make both positive and negative statements about translations, when they are applicable.  Don’t just talk negatively about the ones you don’t like.

To Bible students I suggest:

  1. Use multiple translations.  If you don’t know the source languages, try to get a better idea.  Choose translations that use different philosophies as well.
  2. Read prefaces, introductions, and footnotes.  Know the strengths and weaknesses of your particular Bible version(s).
  3. Learn as much as you can about the Biblical languages even if you don’t have time to actually learn them.  This will help you sort through the many, many claims.

Note that I’m not talking about blog posts here for the most part.  You can’t always cover everything in a blog post, so you might simply include something negative from one verse but cover something positive at another time.  In that case the balance is in reading more than one post.

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  1. Paul Merrill says:

    I would suggest that pastors mention the need for Bible translation in the roughly 2,200 languages around the world who have NO Bile in their language…

    Paul, from The Seed Company

  2. Paul Merrill says:

    Oops – that was “Bible”…

    (Humans involved here…)

  3. Excellent, excellent post, Henry!

    It’s so easy for those of us who teach, even in the local church, to give the wrong impression to our students about the different Bible translations. We need to teach about how translations are actually made, and not just criticize them. We need to be careful not to question the translators’ motives as well.

    Thank you for a great post!

  4. Brian B says:

    Definitely agree overall with the point you are making. I think the most hideous thing is to simply quote from a commentary or reference as you mentioned.

    As an Ancient Greek major from UCLA, it bothers me to no end when pastors do this. In my opinion, cross referencing the various uses of a particular word in the rest of the book, NT, Ancient Greek culture at large, etc and building a working definition from that would be much more insightful and edifying to a congregation.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Henry, thank you for this reminder. I need to remember what you have said since I do a lot of evaluation of Bible versions and advocating for improvements. I need to remember to point out positive aspects of each version.

    When you get a chance, please change the address of our Better Bibles Blog on your blogroll to http://betterbibles.com

  6. Wayne – I was about to say, “But I did change it” but decided to check, and I had you on the list twice. I changed one but not the other.

    Paul – while I think we should always work to communicate God’s word more effectively, I agree with your basic point. There’s an unfortunate excess of resources put into more English translations versus getting something done for people who have none at all.

    Brian – not only do they get them from commentaries, sometimes they get them from books that got them from books that got them from commentaries. Myths about “what the Greek really says” have eternal life.

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