The Bible: What Is Lost in Translation, Too?


Being a pastor in the South means that I have come into contact with the KJV-only crowd, and thoughts about translation method frequently bounce about in the potluck-addled brain of mine.  This is a continuation of a discussion begun in the post where I compared translation to baking.

My friend Patrick Schreiner posted a table that lists various English translations and shows how many more words those translations contain than the original hebrew and greek (we will assume that there is an exact agreed upon number of words–textual criticism is not within the breadth of this post).  The interesting thing about some of these translations (for example NASB) is that they claim to adhere to a “word-for-word” translating methodology.

Bible translation is a much more complicated thing than a mere argument of dynamic equivalent vs. word-for-word.  Here are some things most Christians forget to contemplate  about this discussion:

1.  Greek is an inflected language, and Hebrew is its own animal.  What does this mean?  Well, it means that to argue for a word-for-word translation is to argue for the impossible.  For instance, Greek can communicate both subject and verb of a clause with one word, whereas English requires at least two every time (except the imperative).  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  If you have ever tried to learn Hebrew, you no doubt have been discouraged by the fact that our English translators are able to make a coherent, twelve-word English sentence from a two-word, seemingly unrelated verbless clause in Hebrew.  Now, much of that confusion dissipates as you become comfortable with the language, but the ancient Hebrew mind just did not think in complete English sentences as we conceive them.  Word-for-word equivalency as most of us think of it is literally impossible.

2. Poetry is lost in translation.  Many of our “word-for-word” translations seek to take a small piece of rich fudge and turn it into a dozen little sugary sweet gummy bears.  What I mean is that our translators feel the need to eliminate any poetic elements in the original text as they bring it into English.  Things nuanced and implied are made plain and boring.  A sentence composed of three or four deep, rich, and luscious words filled to overflowing with meaning are hammered flat and spread thin into a boringly complex and winding sentence.  It’s not completely their fault; translation is give and take.  We as consumers of English translations tend to forget just how hard it is to translate from one language to another.  In fact, we don’t even think about how difficult it is to even READ ancient manuscripts with all of their smudges, blurs, and tears, let alone bring them into the English language.

3a.  In translation we lose our bridges.  What I mean is we lose the connections between the texts.  Once you stop reading the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, you lose much of your ability to see connections, allusions, and quotations.  For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, you may read in your ESV, “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles,” and you may pass right over it.  However, reading in the Greek, you might recognize that the word translated, “forces you to go”, (aggareusei) is quite rare.  In fact, only Matthew uses it…twice: Once in the Sermon on the Mount and once when Simon of Cyrene is “forced” to carry the cross of Jesus.  Hmm…things become interesting.

3b.  I have still to determine exactly what I believe about the LXX (Septuagint), but I have come to find it as an amazing bridge between the Old and New Testaments.  For instance, when you are looking for connections between the Gospels and the OT, the LXX is the bridge by which you will travel to get there.  And oh, the places you will go!

4.  When we deal in translations, we are fighting a battle once-removed from the actual battlefield.  Translations will be better and worse; none are perfect.  Misunderstandings and disagreements about verses can often be cleared up if only Christians could view the text in its original language.  Translation and interpretation are intimately entwined; this is no one’s fault–it’s just the way it is.

Well, what ought we do?  I am not trashing “literal” translations.  In fact, I use ESV when I read in English.  We just all need to realize that translation is not like a computer with input and output (just try to translate the Bible with any translating app).  And we all need to beg our pastors to offer to teach us Greek and Hebrew.

(photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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