The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

The Potential Arrogance of Critiquing Bible Translations

When I wrote yesterday about the HCSB introduction and its use of the label “optimal equivalence” I fully intended to write another post complaining about that introduction. And I will mention the other issue briefly in this post. But something else was drawn to my attention in the meantime.

Let me lay a foundation. Some years ago I was chatting about a particular Bible passage with a young person who was also a new Christian. We were discussing the best rendering of a particular verse in the Old Testament and when I defended the version we were looking at he said, “Wouldn’t ____ (naming a well-known figure) know best, since he reads Hebrew?” Now I didn’t point out that I read Hebrew as well, which was, perhaps, relevant! But I did point out that the translation we were examining had been made by a committee of several people, each of whom read Hebrew, and then it was reviewed by editorial committees, many of whom read Hebrew. They should get some credit!

This is one thing that concerns me when I hear pastors or teachers say, “This is how this text should be translated …” or “What the Greek text really means is ….” I’ve commented before that you’re generally about to be misinformed when someone says that. But even when an expert makes a comment about just what a translation should be, I have concerns. (Note that I’ve never heard someone say “what the Greek text really means” who was well-qualified in the language. They just don’t talk that way.)

My concern even when the linguistic information to follow is accurate is that this suggests to people that our Bible translations are carelessly put together by people with less language skills than the average pastor. Anyone with a few minutes and a reasonable pastor’s library can correct the work of the Bible translation committee! That’s simply not accurate. It also feeds a concern amongst many Christians that they cannot truly get to the meaning of scripture because so much is lost in translation, and they don’t have the time or talent to acquire facility with the source languages.

People like these come up to me in church hallways all the time. They’ve heard me introduced as knowing Greek and Hebrew, usually in exaggerated terms. “Reads Greek as well as you read English,” is one line that’s been used. I don’t know where they get that. No, most English readers exceed my speed at reading Greek. My main claim to fame is that I have kept my Greek and Hebrew up. I read my devotions in the original languages, so my comprehension is better than average, but I have not kept abreast of all the best linguistic scholarship. Nonetheless, people ask me what’s the best Bible translation. Can they trust the translation they’re using? What wonderful insights can I give them quickly that are missing from their Bible version?

These kinds of questions result, I think, from a profound ignorance about how Bible translations are made, who makes them, and the general quality of the work. I don’t want to diminish the value of knowing biblical languages. I wouldn’t trade that training for anything. But the best use to make of such knowledge is to deepen your own understanding of the scriptures, and then express that deeper understanding in words that people in the pews can understand. You don’t have to tell them with every insight how wonderfully smart you are because you know the languages.

The fact is that we have a very good set of translation options. Most—nearly all, I think—significant errors in interpretation can be avoided simply by carefully studying your text in context from your translation, and then comparing a few other translations to check your work. Properly using the linguistic comments of a few commentaries will help you even more. (May I recommend a book that I publish, “In the Original Text It Says …”?)

My point here is that Bible translators, in general, are a skilled and dedicated group of people who have provided a number of excellent translations for the English-speaking world.

Barring a couple of really troubling efforts, such as Jack Blanco’s Clear Word, any critique I offer relates to details and general approach. I don’t intend to call a translation bad unless I say it outright, for example, The Clear Word is a bad translation, if it can even properly be called a translation. So when I publish a couple of posts criticizing something in the HCSB introduction, I’m not trying to tell you it’s a bad translation. It’s not. It’s quite good. As with most translations, I disagree with some renderings.

Here’s some key points I try to remember in order to avoid the potential pitfalls. How successful am I?

  • Most “errors” reported in a Bible translation are not errors. Yes, I mean that. I have found very few translations for which I cannot find the justification. I may not agree with that justification, but it exists. For example, the following are not errors: Choosing a different textual variant than I prefer, translating a Greek genitive as a different type than I think appropriate, finding the English translation in a different part of the semantic range of a word, choosing a different option for what a clause modifies, using English words that I think are less than well-known by people in the pews. Each of those things can be annoying. I’ll criticize it in the translation. But that simply means that I would make another choice than the translation committee did. In general, there were more of them with higher level degrees. Read my arguments and make your choice. Reserve the word “error” for an error of fact, such as citing that reading incorrectly, proposing a meaning for a word that has no foundation at all, or using an English word that doesn’t fall in the semantic range of the word in the source language. You’ll find that translation committees make very few errors under this latter definition.
  • Say “I disagree” or I would prefer” rather than “this is wrong” or “the right way to translate this is.” It’s not a matter of uncertainty, or not caring about the truth. It’s a matter of giving credit to qualified people who disagree.
  • Don’t preach about translation differences. Preach about the text and the message of the text. You can almost always do this well in English without trotting out your Greek and Hebrew knowledge.
  • Say some good things about Bible translators. I have some concerns about the priority placed on providing more and more English translations as opposed to providing for those who have no translation, or even don’t have the quality we have in English. But these people are doing good work for the Lord and your congregation should know about them and be thankful for them.
  • When the foundation of your difference is theological, make sure people know it. Sometimes our theology influences our translation. It could hardly be otherwise. That overlaps closely with thoroughly studying the context. If I understand Paul’s theology in one way, I am going to be influenced away from a linguistically sustainable translation that has him teaching something else. The theology matters.

But this last point leads me to my other complaint from the HCSB introduction. It’s under the heading “The gender language policy in Bible translation.”

Some people today ignore the Bible’s teachings on distinctive roles of men and women in family and church and have an agenda to eliminate those distinctions in everhy arena of life. These people have begun a program to engineer the removal of a perceived male bias in the English language. The targets of this program have been such traditional linguistic practices as the generic use of “man” or “men,” as well as “he,” “him,” and “his.”

I resemble that remark. Well, not very much. You see, I prefer “people” to “men,” “humankind” to “mankind,” and “brothers and sisters” rather than “brothers” or “brethren.” I’ve found, in surveying folks I teach, that there is a bit of a generation gap on these terms. Younger people tend to hear “men” as referring just to male persons. Older folks understand it generically. So my approach in translation is to translate as I think my audience understands the term.

I was quite amused by a former pastor of mine who complained bitterly about the use of “brothers and sisters” to translate the Greek adelphoi. In the NRSV this is done when the translators thought the referrent was a group including both genders. He preferred the older RSV because of this issue. Yet when he read from the RSV in church and came to “brothers” he’d look up and say, “That means you sisters as well!” He complained about the translation, but he knew about the problem with understanding, and his pastor’s gift kicked in to make sure nobody felt left out.

But having said that, I don’t think I’m ignoring the Bible’s teaching on “distinctive roles of men and women.” I disagree on where lines should be drawn. You may think I’m wrong, but I assure you my motivation is not to avoid the teaching of scripture. I simply read it differently.

Could we not simply say something like, “We believe that gender distinctions should be maintained in the language and have translated according to the Colorado Springs guidelines? (The introduction references these in the next paragraph.)

The issue of gender roles and gender languages is a legitimate topic of debate. What I’m suggesting here is that we don’t make this kind of issue, on either side, a matter of questioning one’s commitment to scripture or the quality of one’s work on Bible translation.

In my little charting program ( I rate translations on such issues. The point is that you can use this information to pick a translation that you are comfortable with. Find the NRSV annoying because of gender language? The ESV handles the issue differently while otherwise following a similar translation philosophy. And so on …


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