DO ABBREVIATIONS TO ENGLISH BIBLE TRANSLATIONS MAKE YOU REACH FOR YOUR SECRET DECODER RING?
We conclude this four-part series today. This series of posts was born as a response to the accusations against evil modern translations. At least, that’s what I keep reading. Hopefully you’ll look through weeks one, two, and three to catch up to where we are landing today.
Last week, it was stated we’ll finish this four-part study with looking more in-depth at the art of translation itself, including the English “controversy” of gender-inclusive language.
Let’s start here with Romans 2:25 in four different Bibles:
- Περιτομὴ μὲν γὰρ ὠφελεῖ ἐὰν νόμον πράσσῃς· ἐὰν δὲ παραβάτης νόμου ᾖς, ἡ περιτομή σου ἀκροβυστία γέγονεν
- Circumcision indeed for benefits if law you might practice if but transgressor of law you might be the circumcision of you uncircumcision has become.
- Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.
- The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile.
The versions used were The Greek New Testament, Interlinear, New American Standard Bible, and the New Living Translation. The differences between these translations are obvious, right?
But why? Why are they different? And which one is right?
The Greek one is obvious (it’s Greek). The Interlinear is a literal word-for-word translation of the Greek text. As you can see, no one reads a true word-for-word translation of the Bible; it’s impossible for English speakers to understand. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) attempts to use the most words from the original and only changes the order or adds words where English demands it to make a complete sentence. The New Living Translation (NLT) attempts to capture the meaning and impact of the text so English readers feel the “punch” the original hearers would have felt.
The differences? Translation Philosophy. What one is right? Now that’s a bit more complicated.
Let me explain quickly. There are two broad philosophies of translation:
- Dynamic Equivalency – emphasizes the content of the message rather than the form.
- Formal Equivalency – emphasizes maintaining a close grammatical relationship between the original language and the receptor language.
Depending on the goal of the translation committee, they will translate a Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek passage differently.
In our example above (Romans 2:25), why does the NASB read one way and the NLT read another? The NASB (New American Standard Bible) is based on formal equivalency while the NLT (New Living Translation) is based on dynamic equivalency. Both of these translations are correct in that they are consistent with their philosophy of translation. The NASB is trying to give you the words from Greek to English; the NLT is trying to convey the meaning of the Greek words into the meaning of English words.
When I was a teenager, I asked my older brother about the differences between English translations (he was in seminary at the time). He asked me, “What would you rather have: a Bible giving you the literal word-for-word translation or a Bible telling you what those words meant and mean?”
That’s still a great question to ask when determining an English translation. As a word of warning, however, not all English translations are equal in terms of quality. This has nothing to do with dynamic versus formal; some translations are skewed because of the theological bend of the translators. How do you think we got the word “baptize” into the King James Version (and subsequently all English translations)? (I’m just gonna leave that one right there for you to look up the answer).
Briefly, I’d like to conclude by mentioning something about the “controversy” of gender-inclusive language. This came back into theological headlines when the NIV’s 2011 update was released. Here are a few thoughts for your consideration:
- God revealed Himself in masculine terms and relates to Himself and us in masculine terms.
- Our relationship to God is described in the New Testament as sonship.
- When you hear “man”, do you think a male human, female human, or both?
- If you’re addressing a room and are referring to everyone in the room, do you say “Ladies and Gentlemen” or just “Gentlemen”?
- Can modern women relate to being called “brothers”?
- Do the promises of Scripture belong to men only or are they meant to apply to women also?
I hope these four weeks have proven beneficial. Also, I hope it’s helped show you these issues are far more complex than the “tattle-telling” and two-dimensional accusations often levied towards modern English translations by those who have failed to do their research or have simply been misinformed by those who have failed to do their research. This is the Word of God we’re talking about and it deserves our best attention and highest obedience.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Hebrews 4:12 (NIV)