Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#9)

A little more wordy that the others, but just as undeniable as ever . . .

9. In regard to the point above, [truth #8, see previous post] it is especially important if you are unable to read the original languages to refer to as many translations of the Scriptures as you possibly can. To limit your study to one translation is to limit yourself to one perspective, one set of translation principles. Reading from multiple translations allows for other ideas and concepts to inform your final conclusions.

To make sense of this truth, a little explanation might be in order. Many people wonder, “Why are there so many translations of the Bible. Isn’t one good enough. And with all the choices, how do I know which one is ‘best’?” To answer the first question, the English language is a “live” language, not a “dead” language. Meanings of words constantly change. New words creep into our vocabulary. Old words disappear. Even the rules of grammar change, and certainly styles of writing change (more on that in a moment!) So, publishers and translators are always busy making sure that God’s word is available in a translation that they believe is both faithful to the original languages, and is also readable by a majority of English speaking customers. MAJOR POINT HERE – READ THE INTRODUCTION TO THE TRANSLATION! It is in the introduction, or forward to the reader, that the translators will identify their guiding translation principle. You will also find critical information about footnotes, and other translation issues. If your particular edition does not have an introduction or forward, get on-line and research the translation. Virtually every translation has such an explanation, although you may have to dig a little to find it.

[Technical aside here: why is reading the introduction important? I give you an example from the New American Standard Bible. If you open to just about any page, you will see a number of words printed in italic type. Today, the standard practice to emphasize a word is to print it in italics. However, the original printers of the NASB used italic type to reveal to the reader that the word in italics was NOT in the original manuscripts, but was provided by the translators in order to give the text its intended meaning. Therefore, what we now would view as a special emphasis on a given word, is actually a word that does not exist in the original! If a student does not understand this, all sorts of awful conclusions can be drawn from a passage of Scripture. Let the reader beware!]

Regarding what is “best” for a particular reader, two concepts must be understood. On one end of a continuum there is a concept of translation known as “formal” or “literal” or “word-for-word.” The best example of this theory (at least in my experience) is the old American Standard Version, although the New American Standard Bible comes in a close second. On the furthest end of the continuum away from the “formal” concept is the “dynamic” or “thought-for-thought” practice. The best example in my experience here is Eugene Peterson’s work, The Message. I actually consider Peterson’s work to be a paraphrase, which is actually more commentary than translation, but Peterson defenders harrumph at my alleged denigration of his work. Very close to Peterson’s paraphrase is the New Living Translation, which is a committee translation, but is still very much a dynamic translation.

Which is “best”? It all depends upon the purpose for which you are reading the Bible. Are you trying to do a word study? Then you need as close to a formal translation as you can get and still understand the words. Are you a new Christian, or are you trying to reach out to non-believers, who have no background in “churchy” language? Then you want to use a translation that is more readable, and that inevitably points you to a more dynamic translation.

Here is the point as it relates to Undeniable Truth #9 – if you cannot read the Bible in the languages in which it was originally written (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), then you are forced to use a translation. Each translation has its strengths, and each translation has its weaknesses! This cannot be denied. No translation is perfect, for the very reason that you cannot make a perfect translation from one language into another – especially when the source languages are as idiomatic (using phrases to communicate thoughts) and as non-technical as were Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Regarding that last point – you can translate a technical manual relatively perfectly (depending on the source and receptor languages). However, translating a song or a poem becomes exponentially more difficult, depending on the level of poetic artistry and the range of vocabulary used.

How does this Undeniable Truth affect theological reflection? If you must use a translation, you need to use as many different translations as possible, in order to arrive at a range of possible meanings, and to discover how different translation committees approached different texts. Note: using three “formal” translations really does not help very much, nor does using three “dynamic” translations. In order to compare translations of a text, you really need a formal translation (ASV, NASB), a more “middle of the road” type of translation, and a good “dynamic” translation (I do like the NLT here, although I will consult the Common English Bible). Where it gets tricky is is in the “middle.” Most newer translations all claim to be somewhere between a strict formal or a strict dynamic translation (i.e., the English Standard Version, the Holman Christian Standard Version). Chances are they will lean one way or another. I personally like the ESV (because it is virtually a recasting of the older Revised Standard Version, the one in which I did all my undergraduate study.) I also like the HCSB (which, if I am not mistaken, is now marketed under the Christian Standard Bible moniker).

We will all have our favorite translation. One of my very good friends swears that the ASV is the one that God gave to Moses (just kidding, but he does love the ASV!) Like I said, I prefer the RSV, and now use the ESV almost exclusively from the pulpit. I used to use the NIV, but with the latest “update,” the NIV has become so politically correct that I can no longer recommend its usage. In terms of public reading, translations such as the NLT flow much more smoothly (they use shorter sentences, more explicit nouns, fewer pronouns), but they lose a measure of technical precision that sometimes has to be corrected by sermon or class.

Bottom line: read your favorite translation in your private devotions, and for your personal enrichment. However, for careful study that is both broad and deep, invest in a number of translations and use all of them to arrive at the best interpretation of the text that you possibly can.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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