How Bible Translation Should be Done

How Bible Translation Should be Done

J. K. Gayle has a couple of posts on translating the Psalms that are really quite helpful.  The first one I read, which is actually the second, is The Difficulty of Psalm 90, in which he discusses some thinking and feeling that may be generated by hearing the Psalm and the first one, which I read second, various poet translators turning around Tehillim 90, which provides several translations with different approaches and characteristics.

I personally find some things I like and some I don’t like so much in all of these translations, which is not a criticism of any of them.  I really appreciated the chance to read them all side by side.  And as much as some of this material deserves comment, that’s not my purpose in writing this post.

Probably the most difficult question I’m asked when I am teaching is this:  What is he best Bible version?  I find that terribly difficult, and I annoy people who ask it all the time.  They think it deserves a simple answer.  I should be able to point them to the one best version, and they can just go use that one.

But instead I ask them what they’re going to use it for, how they approach studying the Bible, and something about their own study and background.  What’s the best Bible version?  The simple answer, which I put on the cover of my book, is:  The best Bible version is  he one you read!

I usually get by for that one for a few minutes until some bright person wonders just which Bible version they will actually read, and then we’re back to the starting point.

Now I haven’t always been this way.  When I was in college I could have given you the simple answer, and I would have been satisfied with it.  I would have recommended a mostly literal version.  In those days that probably would have been the NASB.  But then I did some more studying and I became concerned with comprehension.  That made things much harder.  Now in those days there were many less options available, but I was also concerned with how I would translate in my studies.

It seems that over the years I have become so much less knowledgeable on this subject.  At least I can no longer provide a single, definitive answer to the question, and my response seems to get longer every time I try.  When I hear a preacher say, “What the Greek really says is …” I cringe, not just because he’s probably wrong, but because he’s probably missing so much even if he’s right in some sense.

The problem is that translation always loses something, and I suspect always adds something to a text.  Now I’m not going to start claiming that all translations are equal.  There are wrong translations, but there are many partially right translations.

One of my own early problems was checking translations purely on propositional content.  Is a translation of a parable or a poem correct because it contains the same set of propositions?  Is a clear translation of a parable more correct than an obscure one, irrespective of how clear the parable is in the first place?

The problem is that we often translate as a means of conveying information about the Christian religion.  But just as I’ve found over the years that simply knowing the cognitive content of my faith is far from sufficient, so I have come to learn that the cognitive content of a translation may be much less than adequate.  When I left graduate school I was quite well acquainted with Christian doctrines and very well acquainted with the Bible.  I was referred to as “the human concordance.”  I knew what was there.

At the same time I left the seminary with that knowledge I also left the church.  I returned in a church pastored by a man who knew no Greek and Hebrew at all, but who did know Jesus.

I was again reminded of this same issue in a different form when I was discussing with my former student Geoffrey Lentz.  (Geoffrey was my student when he was high school age.  He has since graduated with an MDiv from Duke.)  We were discussing sermons, and I expressed my distress with that particular genre of speech.  (I am occasionally invited to preach, though not by tense clock-watchers!)  I commented that I found it very hard to really cover a subject in 15-20 minutes.  He said to me, “I regard a sermon more as poetry than prose.”

How’s that for student teacher reversal?

I think it’s the same point.  The content of faith and spirituality is not simply cognitive.  There can be a variety of ways to express it.  It can be felt as well as known.  It can be expressed in many ways.  Often our best translations of the propositions of faith can suck the life right out of it.

Or so it seems to me in the growing ignorance of 30 years since I graduated.

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