Bible translation is the work that undergirds all faithful Bible-based ministry. Without our translations of the Bible, access to God’s word would be restricted to an elite class of the individuals who possess the necessary educations to read the original languages. Yet, God has preserved his word and provided access to his eternal word through the translations that we rely on everyday.
For this reason it is important that we understand the nature, principles, and processes that produce our Bible translations. Some familiarity with these concepts will aid our use of these different translations and facilitate deeper study of God’s word as we learn how to penetrate deeper and deeper into the originally intended meaning.
This series is based off Dr. Bill Mounce’s blog series on Bible translations.
Bill Mounce is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), served on the translation committee for the ESV, and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He also served as a professor of New Testament and director of the Greek Language Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and a professor at Azusa Pacific University.
We will look at Dr. Mounce’s blog post series and then provide additional commentary to explore the various concepts of Bible translation presented herein.
Without being simplistic, I have learned that translation is not translating words; it is translating meaning. To put it another way, translation is the process by which we reproduce the meaning of the text; translation does not replicate the form of the text.
To explain this, I need to talk about what I have learned about translation theory in general, and it will take four more posts to complete the topic. Most people say there are two basic approaches to translation.
1. Formal equivalence says that the purpose of translation is to adhere as closely as possible to the grammatical structures of the original language, altering the translation only when necessary to convey meaning. “Word-for-word” describes this approach.
2. The functional (dynamic) view of translation uses the words (along with other things like grammar and context) to discover the original meaning — the “authorial intent” — and then conveys the same meaning in the target language.
Translations do not fit neatly into one of these approaches or the other; they fit along a continuum with significant overlap. For example, the same translation can be formal in one verse and functional in the next. However, most people think in terms of these two basic approaches.
I have come to see that this is not accurate; there are at least five categories of translation theory. I will talk about the first two of them in this post.
Although I have already expressed my dislike of this term, I will use it here to make a point. If someone wants a “literal” translation, using the term “literal” in its improper sense, there is only one example of a “literal translation”: the interlinear.
An interlinear will list the Greek words in Greek word order, and under each Greek word there will be a gloss for its meaning. See Romans 3:22 in the graphic above.
Is it understandable? Barely. Is it translation? No. As much as I would like the word “literal” to go away, I doubt it will. Will people start to use the word accurately? I hope so. But please, do not believe the marketing hype: there is no such thing as a “literal” translation. The very idea is linguistic nonsense.
”Paraphrase” is sometimes used, often erroneously so, in discussions of translations, sometimes equating it with loose translations that change or distort the historical meaning of the text. As is the case with the term “literal,” we need to use words that actually mean what we say they mean.
Linguists use “paraphrase” for a rewording for the purpose of simplification in the same language, not in a different language. So the Living Bible is a true paraphrase since it is a simplification of the (English) ASV, but viewing a translation from the Hebrew and Greek as a paraphrase is an incorrect use of the term.
Better terms than “paraphrase” for this category of translations might be “contemporary relevance versions” or “transculturations” (suggestions of Mark Strauss) since these versions alter the cultural perspective of the text in order to connect to the modern reader. However, I do not believe these should be called “Bibles” because at any point it is hard to tell what is the Bible and what is the author’s attempt to make the message of the Bible relevant to his (or her) own culture. In this category are J.B. Phillip’s wonderful The New Testament in Modern English (my mom became a Christian reading this book), Eugene Petersen’s The Message, and Kenneth Taylor’s original Living Bible.
These publications sacrifice historical precision for contemporary relevance. So Peterson will say that the Pharisees are “manicured grave plots” instead of “white-washed tombs” (Matthew 23:27). The Pharisees live lives as “perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next,” instead of saying the Pharisees make “their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long” (Matthew 23:5, NIV). Peterson is making the text relevant for the twenty-first century at the expense of historical accuracy.
Neither of these categories represent what I would call a biblical translation. In the next three blog posts, I will talk about “formal,” “functional,” and “natural language” translations, and then answer the initial question issue of what it means to translate meaning.
The marketing terminology used by Bible publications to appeal to the love that Bible-believing Christians have for God’s word has muddied the topic of Bible translation by suggesting that some translations have achieved some kind of one-to-one word-translation ratio while others have not; that some translations are “pure” and without “interpretation”, while others are not.
This simply isn’t the case.
Some knowledge about the nature of language is useful when thinking about Bible translation. Words do not possess static meanings; they have semantic ranges, or broad boundaries, within which they are capable of expressing diverse expressions of meaning.
Take for example something as simple and basic as “hello” in Chinese.
The standard Chinese greeting is “你好” (“nǐ hǎo”). But how should we translate this expression?
Well, individually, these words mean “you” (你-nǐ) and “good” (好-hǎo). So, would it be appropriate to translate this expression as “you good”? No, when the Chinese use “nǐ hǎo” to greet one another it would certainly not be acceptable to translate it with “you good”. The proper translation of “nǐ hǎo” when it is used as a greeting is “hello”.
Now think about the meaning and use of the word “hello”:
hello (hɛˈlǝʊ hǝ- ˈhɛlǝʊ) 1 an expression of greeting used on meeting a person or at the start of a telephone call 2 a call used to attract attention 3 an expression of surprise 4 an expression used to indicate that the speaker thinks his or her listener is naive or slow to realize something Hello? Have you been on Mars for the past two weeks or something? n, pl -los 5 the act of saying or calling “hello” [c19: see HALLO]
(2006). Collins English dictionary. (8th ed., Complete & unabridged ed.). Glasgow: HarperCollins.
hello \hə-ˈlō, he-\ noun 1877: an expression or gesture of greeting—used interjectionally in greeting, in answering the telephone, or to express surprise
Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
When translating “hello” into Chinese, is it appropriate to always translate it as “nǐ hǎo”? No, it certainly is not. Consider Collins English Dictionary’s fourth meaning: an expression used to indicate that the speaker thinks his or her listener is naive or slow to realize something; Hello?
In thise case, “hello” is not being used as a friendly greeting, but as an expression of frustration.
Language is beautiful and complex, and the simplistic and romantic notion that it is possible to achieve anything like a one-to-one correlation between words of different languages is utterly unrealistic. Nothing of the sort exists. Rather, translators must determine the intended meaning of the original author and evaluate the consequences of various options in the receptor language. Indeed, sometimes the simplest option in translation is rendered unacceptable because the meaning in the receptor language would be so radically altered by various cultural perceptions that it would render the translation inaccurate.
What must be understood about the translation process is that “meaning” is conveyed on numerous different levels; grammar, semantics, literary form, cultural nuances, authorial useage, and a whole host of other aspects influence the meaning of the words that we use to communicate. “You good”, for example, would have considerably different connotations within different parts of the United States.
To take this concept further, please watch the following video in which David Brunn conveys some of his experience translating the Bible into various native languages around the world: