There are two theories of Bible translation – word-for-word, and thought-for-thought. One set of translators seeks to present the English reader with an accurate translation of each Greek and Hebrew word in the Bible. The other takes a phrase or so at a time, determines its meaning, and then renders that meaning into modern English. Which is best? I prefer the word-for-word theory of translation a hundred fold.
First, is it not true that God inspired every word of the Bible? That’s what the Bible says about itself. “Every word of God is tested” (Proverbs 30.5, emphasis mine). “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4, emphasis mine). Every last word of the Bible is God’s. And every last word is vital for my spiritual nourishment! And, therefore, I want a translation that seeks to translate every word! It’s true that God communicates thoughts to us in the Scriptures. But those thoughts come to us in specific words. And the only way to be sure we have translated God’s thoughts accurately is to translate each word that makes up the thoughts!
Second, I prefer word-for-word translations because I assume that, if God included in His word certain challenging matters, He must want me to understand them. Thought-for-thought translations seek to do away with the difficulties that sometimes come upon Bible readers by re-working or smoothing out the rough parts. But I believe that if God included in His word unusual, technical terms (like propitiation), He must want me to understand them. And if He included Hebrew poetry and imagery in the Bible, He must want me to learn how that imagery works and what it means. In other words, to seek to smooth out what the Hebrew and Greek Bible actually says is akin to assuming that God didn’t give us exactly what we needed when He infallibly guided the writing of His word. I prefer to think that God knew exactly what He was doing when He included some of the more challenging vocabulary of the Bible, and that He has good reason for requiring us to sometimes work hard to understand certain words, or metaphors, or ancient customs that the thought-for-thought translations skim over.
Third, I believe that thought-for-thought patterns of translating are dangerous because the translators end up interpreting the word of God instead of simply translating it. As I mentioned, the process of thought-for-thought translation requires a translator to look at a particular Bible phrase, figure out what it means, and then render what it means in modern English. Do you see the problem? Thought-for-thought translation requires the translator not only to translate the passage, but to interpret it. Instead of simply translating the word “propitiation”, and trusting you to master its meaning, he tells you what he believes propitiation means! But that is not the province of a translator. It is the reader’s job to figure out Bible meaning, not the translator’s!
The problem is not usually that, when interpreting the Bible for us, the translators get it heretically wrong. Most of the time their understanding of what a verse means is not off-the-wall crazy. The problem is that, when you and I read our Bibles, we are led to believe that we are reading exactly what God said through Paul or Jeremiah two or six thousand years ago … not what a team of Americans in Grand Rapids believe God meant. But suddenly, under the influence of this faulty theory of translation, a whole generation of Bible readers is left believing that God actually said X, when, in fact, X was simply the translator’s way of explaining what he thought God meant. Nuances of meaning are lost this way.
For instance, as Leland Ryken points out in his excellent work The Word of God in English, there is a great difference between a word-for-word translation of Psalm 16.6 “the lines have fallen to me in pleasant places” (NASB) and a thought-for-thought version of the same verse: “You make my life pleasant” (CEV). You can immediately see how the latter translation leaves out (and adds in) whole words. But there’s more missing than just a few words. The idea of “lines” is probably the psalmist’s way of making allusion to the boundary lines by which God had divided the promised land when the children of Israel had entered it after forty years of wandering. What a blessing that had been. And now the psalmist is using the language of that time period to say to God: ‘My life is just like that. Just as, in times of old, You apportioned Your people's lots in such a good and kind way, so You have done with my lot in life.’ But that reference to the book of Joshua, and all the imagery it invokes, can be completely lost when a translator chooses not to translate every word.
So what do I want from my translator? Not that he tells me what he believes the Bible means; and not that he simplifies it for me. I want him to give me the whole enchilada, to put in simply. Let me taste and see every single word that God has for me. I don’t want to miss a single flavor or spice!