September 28, 2011

Word-for-Word ... or Thought-for-Thought?

I concluded yesterday’s article by saying that the largest reason, by far, for the discrepancies in our Bible translations is because different Bible translation teams have differing theories on exactly what it means to translate the Bible. Some teams are very concerned to precisely translate every word of the Greek and Hebrew text, even if those words require modern readers to put on their thinking caps. Other translation teams, in the name of readability, seek to take whole Bible phrases or sentences, figure out what they mean, and then put the entire phrase or sentence into modern English.

Which theory is right? The aim of the next two articles is to help you think it through. Today, let me further define (again, in my limited, layman’s terms*) the two basic theories of Bible translation.

On the one hand, there are the essentially literal translations. These are English versions of the Bible whose translators have sought to translate each word of the original Greek and Hebrew. That means, of course, that they even end up translating words that we do not use in our everyday vocabulary (propitiation, mercy seat, eunuch, and so on). The theory is that, if God really inspired these Greek and Hebrew words, then we want to make sure we translate every last one of them … trusting God (often through pastors and teachers) to help people understand the parts that are more difficult for modern English-speakers. Representatives of this school of translation include the King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, and the New King James Version.

On the other end of the spectrum are what are often called dynamic equivalent translations (like the New International Version, Today’s English Version, and the New Living Translation). Rather than translating word-for-word, these translations espouse a thought-for-thought way of rendering the Bible into English. In other words, the translator looks at a given Greek or Hebrew phrase, discerns what that phrase says and means, and then renders it into an English phrase that means roughly what the original means. Sometimes this requires explaining a word like “propitiation” instead of simply translating the word itself. Sometimes it means explaining a Hebrew metaphor instead of simply translating the metaphor and leaving the reader to figure out what it means that “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”*  The advantage of doing this, according to proponents of this theory, is readability. Their goal is to spare modern readers many of the Bible’s more difficult portions, and to make the Bible as accessible as possible.

Now let me say that men and women in both camps love the Lord. Men and women on both ends of the translation theory spectrum want to provide people with the best English Bible possible. But, given the wide variation in their theories, and in the subsequent translations they produce, both cannot be right.. So think it out. Word-for-word, or thought-for-thought? Which theory do you believe is best? Why so? Tomorrow, Lord willing, I’ll give you my considered opinion on this matter. Stay with me!

*for more detail on the differences between these two theories, see Leland Ryken's excellent book The Word of God in English.  The "lines" metaphor mentioned above comes from Ryken's observations.

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