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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Lost in Translations ...Bible series, part 2 of 6

The Bible Car: Driver Sidephoto © 2005 Alfonso Surroca | more info (via: Wylio)In my last post I blogged a little bit about why I (and some friends of mine, and I'm sure many Christians above a certain age) have an awful lot of paper Bibles lying around. But why are there so many Bibles in existence at all? Aren't they all the same? Today I thought I would talk about different translations, why they exist, and why you might be interested to see a few different ones.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James version of the Bible, which was first released in 1611. It was far from the first translation of the Bible into English. You can pick up some details in this Wikipedia article, but the short version is that even in 1611, there were several English translations of the Bible in existence. The King James Bible is special in a couple of ways, though, and it's worthwhile to look at those.

The KJV is what is known these days as a "literal" translation - the translators tried to stay as close to the actual wording of the original texts. They actually did a very good job; I suspect that's part of the reason that it has been so popular for so long. In fact, the KJV is generally seen as more literal than almost any other mainstream translation today. The KJV is artistically well-done, also; the text has been so admired over the centuries that its language and phrasing have entered deeply into the English language. In the early years of the United States, it was even used for classroom instruction. I consider the KJV a trustworthy translation (certainly, it is better in some ways than many modern translations!), but it does have its shortcomings.

The most obvious of these shortcomings is that it's just plain old hard to understand. We don't speak now the way people spoke English 400 years ago. There are words in the KJV that nobody even uses anymore, and even some words that you and I recognize easily have changed in meaning over time (see this page for some examples). If you are used to it, the KJV is a fluent, beautiful, trustworthy translation. Until you get used to it, it is confusing, wordy, and convoluted.

A second shortcoming is that scholars now understand what the original texts say far better than they did when the KJV was translated. There are words, phrases, and idioms that were not as well understood in 1610 as they are now, due to scholarship, archaeological discoveries of manuscripts that were lost until recently, that sort of thing. There are certain isolated places where the KJV's translation choice is now known to be just plain old wrong. These mistranslations are all minor matters; they are never things that affect the primary message of the Gospel. But the glitches remain, so even if you like the KJV very much (and I know many ministers still preach from it exclusively) it might be good to have a second, more modern translation around for cross-checking.

So, which one should you choose? Well, that boils down mostly to personal preference, but in order to even be clear enough on the differences to develop a preference, you need to understand what I meant by a "literal" translation.

There are two factors that come into play when a new Bible translation is being prepared: readability, and fidelity to the original manuscripts. Both things are taken into consideration during the preparation of every translation, but they are treated with different degrees of priority depending on the mandate of the translators, and every translation of any manuscript (it needn't even be the Bible) can be plotted along a kind of continuum, starting from the "most literal" (greatest fidelity to originals) to the most "dynamic" (easiest to read). I've seen this referred to as "word-for-word" versus "thought-for-thought." The main problem in translating one language into another is that there will be differences in grammar, idioms (things like "caught like a rat in a trap" which to most English-speakers is clear but when translated into another language might be total gibberish), even precisely which words are available (Bible Greek has many words that are usually all translated into English as "love," for example, although they have very different meanings in the Greek... we don't have the range of meaning in the English language to accommodate). A translator attempting a purely "literal" or "word-for-word" translation will try to directly map a Greek or Hebrew word to an English word, and as much as possible, even keep word order and sentence structure intact. A translator attempting a purely "dynamic" or "thought-for-thought" translation will read the text in the original language, figure out what he thinks the original author was trying to communicate, and communicate that same thing in English, not trying to reproduce vocabulary or grammar but trying to generate the same ideas and thoughts in the modern reader's mind that the original might have generated in the mind of a reader contemporary with the author. There is merit in both approaches; a literal translation might be very difficult to read because of awkward grammar, and a dynamic translation may unintentionally misrepresent a passage by adding to or removing from the original shades of meaning, or introducing theological biases of the translator. Both techniques certainly have strengths as well, though, and modern translations seek balance between the two (although occasionally you'll see a version come out that leans very far one way or the other, so make sure you know what you're reading!)

I've done some reading about the process of creating translations of the Bible for groups who do not have a Bible in their native tongue. Some people groups are multilingual, and there may be one in a language they understand (for example, a group may have an aboriginal language in which there is no Bible translation, but they may also understand French or Swahili, languages which have Bible translations already). But it means a great deal to those people groups when someone translates the Bible into their "heart language"... the language of their people, their birth, their home. And I think in some ways, choosing a Bible translation for your personal use is a matter of finding the one that's in your "heart language," even though all of them are already in English. If you can find a Bible that you know you can trust (because you're aware of the methods used by the translators) and which speaks to you when you read it, that's a good translation to claim as your own. Through the centuries, millions have chosen the King James as their own; through the past few decades, many thousands more have chosen the NIV as the translation that speaks to them. I'll discuss even more good modern translations in my next post. You may find a translation that speaks to you even better than any that I'll mention. The point is that you find a Bible that you want to open up and explore. As I said in my previous post, the only good Bible is a "read" Bible, so find one that you can say you have "read." Put yourself in a place where God can speak to your heart, and God will speak, and trust me, your life will never be the same!

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