The ideal Bible translation would be accurate to the original language, faithfully represent the ideas that are expressed, maintain the literary style of the original text (wordplay, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, similes, etc.), while at the same time being easy to read without reference to a lot of footnotes. Unfortunately, no such translation exists. All translations represent a trade off between these various factors. This post explores some of the strengths and weakness of various approaches to Bible translations.
Translating close to the original language
This style of translation tries to find the closest English word for the given Hebrew or Greek word in the passage. Additional words are avoided unless necessary to make the sentence intelligible in English. Perhaps the best way to understand this approach is to compare some translations. Consider Isaiah 7:20.
The New American Bible (NAB 2011) prides itself on being very close to the Hebrew. Here is the NAB’s translation:
On that day the Lord shall shave with the razor hired from across the River (the king of Assyria) the head, and the hair of the feet; it shall also shave off the beard.
Clear? The New International Version (NIV) is willing to depart from the strict Hebrew if necessary to convey the meaning of the phrase accurately, perhaps that will help. Here is the NIV’s translation:
In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the Euphrates River– the king of Assyria– to shave your head and private parts, and to cut off your beard also.
Not much clearer, and the hair of the feet has been replaced by shaving “private parts.” The Message is primarily concerned with getting the idea across, with faithfulness to the Hebrew being much less important. The Message is considered a paraphrase. Here is the Message’s paraphrase of the same passage:
And that’s when the Master will take the razor rented from across the Euphrates—the king of Assyria no less!—and shave the hair off your heads and genitals, leaving you shamed, exposed, and denuded. He’ll shave off your beards while he’s at it.
Let’s take a look at the phrase translated “hair of the feet” in the New American Bible, which is almost word for word from the Hebrew. The NIV uses the phrase “private parts” as a replacement for the “hair of the feet.” The Message uses the phrase “genitals” to represent the Hebrew “hair of the feet.” Confused? The Biblical Hebrew text “hair of the feet” is thought to be a euphemism for pubic hair. The NAB translates the Hebrew directly, but leaves the reader with the wrong impression (that the text is referring to a hairy foot). The NIV replaces a Hebrew euphemism by an English euphemism. The message gets the idea correct, without resorting to a euphemism. A good study Bible might give you a footnote explaining the situation, or might not.
What about the Message’s insertion of “leaving you shamed, exposed and denuded?” Shaving of hair can be an act of shaming prisoners (The Oxford NRSV Study Bible points to 2 Sam 10:1-5 as another example). Now the passage makes some sense. Assyria will invade, take prisoners and shame them by removing their hair! Just translating the Hebrew, word for word, does not reveal the full meaning of the passage!
It is not always possible to find an English word that accurately corresponds to a Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word. For example the Greek words eros, phileo, and agape mean different things, but have all been translated as “love.” This can mask possible meanings in the text. A classic example is the scene at the end of John (vs. 21:15-17) where (in English) Jesus three times asks Peter if he loves Jesus and three times Peter responds that he does love Jesus. Here I am not interested in the interpretation of the passage but how accurately the translation corresponds to the Greek. In the Greek Jesus twice asks Peter if he loves (agape) Jesus and Peter answers that he loves (phileo) Jesus (vs 15 and 16). The third time Jesus asks Peter if he loves (phileo) him and Peter responds that he loves (phileo) Jesus (vs 17). Today agape is used as a “technical term” in Christian thought, since there is no real English equivalent. Phileo is the non-sexual fondness or affection. Is the distinction between phileo and agape important in interpreting this passage? This question is debated among scholars. What is interesting, if you rely on the English alone, you would not know that this is even an issue. If you have a study Bible, it might (should) alert you that two different Greek words are being translated using the same English word.
There are many such challenges in translating between any two languages. Two skilled translators, skilled in both the original and target language, can easily come up with different phrases to translate the original phrase. Often translation is about choices, each with strengths and weaknesses. Translation is as much an art form as it is a technical discipline. Word for word translations may get the words correctly and still fail to convey the meaning of the original documents.
Why not just use a Paraphrase?
It might seem that avoiding these complexities by reading a paraphrase is the way to go. But paraphrases have their own issues. Paraphrases involve a double interpretation. First, the author of a paraphrase must interpret the original language, with all the problems involved in a word for word translation. Then the author of the paraphrase must decide on the crucial thought that needs expression in the paraphrase. Thus a paraphrase is a sort of condensed commentary on the Biblical text. Let’s illustrate with an example: Matthew 7:1-2 The English Standard Version (ESV) is rather close to the Greek.
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and, with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
Is this passage who is passing judgement on the person judging? Is God judging you? Is the person being judged, judging you back? The text isn’t clear and there is meaning in both interpretations. The Messages paraphrase of this section starts with:
“Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. “
The interpretation of what it means to judge has been made specific, with a loss of generality. Who is judging you is still vague, (the same treatment by whom?). But at least in my reading of the translation, it seems to shift the thought toward a human response to your judging. It’s not that the interpretation is wrong, but that it limits the applicability of the passage. The viewpoint of the author plays a larger role in a paraphrase than in a translation.
Many translations operate on the assumption that both the meanings of the original language and the thoughts expressed in the Bible are both important. These translations are willing to depart from word-for-word translations if such a departure improves the reader’s ability to understand the ideas presented in the original language. The NIV and the New Revised Standard (NRS) are two examples of this “middle of the road” approach.
The NASB and NRSV have a reading level of 11th grade and above, making them inaccessible to some people. At the other extreme the Message and the living Bible are written at the 4+ grade level, making them better suited for those who have not yet entered High School. The reading level of the translation should be appropriate for the reader. My first Bible as a child was the King James which has a 12th grade reading level! (For a more complete list see the list on Bible Gateway. Choosing a Bible translation that is difficult for you to read may make it less likely that you will spend time reading that translation, making it a poor choice.
Reading Multiple Translations
Often the advice given to those who study the scriptures, and that should be all Christians, is to read multiple translations. This is useful if the translations chosen are not all in the same category. One option is to use one translation that is close to the original languages (word-for-word translations), another translation that compromises between word-for-word and thought-for- thought. If you are reading the Bible for the first time, or are a younger reader perhaps a good paraphrase would be a good first Bible. Here is a list that can get you started. For a more complete list you might see the article on Christian Books (https://www.christianbook.com/page/bibles/about-bibles/about-translations)
Translations close to the Original Language:
New American Standard Bible (closest)
English Standard Version
New King James Version
New Revised Standard Version (closest to the Original Language)
New International Version
New Living Translation (closest to Paraphrase)
The Living Bible
In closing, the most important aspect of choosing a Bible is to choose a Bible you are willing to read. We can encounter God in the scriptures only if we are willing to take the time to read the Bible.
–David A. Larrabee
David Larabee is a member of All Angels’ Church and leads the weekly Sunday discussions following The Bible Project Reading Plan.