In the second of my multi-part look into the modern Bible translation war, I’ll take a deeper dive into the process of translation itself. I’ll also introduce the three major forms of translation.
The focal point of the Bible translation debate, indeed, the very point that began it all, is that our modern Bibles do not faithfully translate our original text into English. It is claimed that somewhere along the line translators decided to change the wording of a passage in order to subtly slide in a doctrinal heresy. If the wording of a verse is not exactly the same as the original (aka the King James Version) then the meaning of a verse is changed also. However, all of these claims are nothing more than mere assumptions, and more often than not, they’re based on an ignorant view of how language translation works. The point of this instalment is to demonstrate how the process of translation works and how that process hasn’t changed from our first English translation until now.
At the end of the first instalment, I made note of the three major translations that are in use today: The ESV, the NIV, and the NLT. The question now is, why are those three in particular signalled out? Of course, these aren’t the only translations in use today, however, these three signify the three philosophies of translation that every other version falls under (including the KJV). Our Bibles are either (a) a translation that aims to accurately translate from Hebrew and Greek as literally as possible, (b) a translation that prioritizes clarity and fluency of speech over a literal “word-for-word” translation, or (c) a translation that aims to balance both a and b equally. Option a is called “literal equivalence,” b is called “functional equivalence,” and (c) is often called “optimal equivalence.” The ESV represents a, the NLT represents b, and the NIV represents c. In order to paint a clearer picture of how these work let’s quote the first few verses of Psalm 23 and look at how each of our main versions translates it. I’ll use the KJV as a control.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Pslam 23:1-3 KJV)
For argument’s sake, let’s say that the KJV represents the original Hebrew. How does each version differ from this?
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3 ESV)
The ESV approaches its translation the same way the KJV does. Like the KJV, the ESV attempts to be as literal in its translation as possible. Aside from the verb conjugations (the “-th” at the end of “make,” etc.), nothing about these verses has changed. The wording is the same, thus the meaning remains the same. Let’s look at the NLT next.
The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. (Psalm 23:1-3 NLT)
This time the wording is different. Does that mean the meaning has changed also? Not at all. “I have all that I need” communicates the exact same message as “I shall not want” does. In fact, the NLT makes the meaning that much clearer. It emphasizes David’s point that he has everything he needs rather than everything he wants. If you’re familiar with the story of David you’ll recall that he wanted some pretty awful things, to say the least (many of those can be seen quite clearly in the Psalms themselves)! The NLT clears up any possible confusion while still getting the same point across in a way that’s relatable to our ears. Let’s look at the NIV next.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3 NIV)
The NIV shares many similarities with both the ESV and NLT. It retains the clarity of the NLT while keeping some of the phrasings of the more literal translations. Once again, the meaning of the verses has not changed in the slightest.
Are all of these translations necessary? It all depends on the individual’s reading preferences. Maybe you prefer the straightforward interpretation of the ESV and those under its umbrella or maybe you enjoy the graceful prose of the NLT more. You might even be someone who loves to study and compare each rendering to get the clearest possible picture. They’re all equally sensible approaches.
Now we must turn to the inevitable objections. Why does the Bible need to be changed at all? If God’s Word is infallible why are we choosing to change it as if it wasn’t? The answer is that, during translation from one language to another, change, to some degree, is simply unavoidable. Translating a sentence from one language to another isn’t merely a process of finding the equivalent “receptor language” word of the “source language” word. Things need to be shuffled around in order to get the meaning across in a way that can be understood otherwise you’d have a sentence that makes no sense.
Let’s use Japanese anime as an example. When I’m watching Japanese animation I’ve noticed that when a character would speak a sentence that included a person’s name, that person’s name would often be the last word spoken. However, the subtitles on the bottom of my screen read, “Hey, Ryuji, let’s go buy some pancakes!” And that’s not the only thing translators change. Japanese people also call someone they aren’t close to by their last name instead of their first. Instead of Ryuji, they might call him Takasu. Another change is the removal of honorifics, so instead of Ryuji-kun, the translators simply call him Ryuji, and so on. This is how translation works from any language to another. Translators not only change the way sentences are said but they may also change specific patterns of speech and customs that are used only by that culture.
This all goes to show that the freedom translators have is larger than we think. The myth that the more literal a translation is the better it is at capturing the meaning more clearly is just not true. If the goal is to not change a single thing about the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts then all of our English translations, including the KJV, have failed. Although the “essentially literal” translations such as the ESV translate the form, structure, and syntax more consistently than others the fact remains that some degree of change is always needed when we go from one language to another. For example, if we translate a verse word-for-word and it reads “Drank he the wine” the ESV will not hesitate to change it to “He drank the wine.” The overall goal of the translators is not to copy word-for-word for the mere sake of it but to reproduce the meaning of the original as closely as possible in a way that can be easily understood. It’s the same process that was used on our KJV.