What Makes A Bible Translation Good?

By Pastor Bruce K. Oyen
First Baptist Church, Spearfish, SD
The Bible is the Word of God, and we should be grateful that is has been translated from its original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) into many languages of the world, including English. There are many translations of the Bible into English. Some of them are better than others, and that is the subject of this article.
There are several features that make a Bible translation good. These include the translators'(plural) view of the Bible. If they consider it to be what it is, the Word of God, that will make it a better translation than if they consider the Bible to be merely a good book, but not God’s Good Book. Furthermore, if translators accept the teachings of the Bible as God-given, that, too, will help them make a better translation of it than if they consider its teachings as man-given. Another feature that make some translations better than others are the original-language texts upon which translations are based. There is some variation in the reliability of these texts. The more reliable they are, the better they will be from which to make translations. Yet another one of the features that makes some English translations better than others is the philosophy or principle of translation followed by its translators. The best guide to follow in the translation process is known as “the essentially literal” or “the word-for-word” philosophy or principle. Simply put, when this guide is followed, it means the translators do their best to put the original languages into another language, such as English, so that the translation accurately represents what is found in the original languages. To follow this guide means the translators keep explanation and commentary to a minimum in the translation itself. If explanation and commentary are used, they will be put in footnotes or marginal notes, not in the translation.
Bible scholar Leland Ryken addresses this important subject in his excellent book, “The Word Of God In English (Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation).” This book is a “must read” for those who want to look into this subject in-depth. In the chapter, “Fidelity to the Words of the Original,” Ryken made many important points that relate to the subject we are considering. Take, for example, his statement, “Translating the words of the original minimizes blurring the line between translation and interpretation, whereas dynamic equivalent translations continually mingle translation and interpretation, often depriving readers of the freedom to reach their own conclusions about the correct interpretation of a passage.” (Ryken’s book is published by Crossway. Copyright, 2002 by Leland Ryken.)
What are some of the Bible translations that follow the very important “essentially literal”/”word-for-word” principle or philosophy of translation? Ryken rightly puts the following examples into that category: The King James Version, New King James Version, American Standard Version, New American Standard Version, English Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, and the Modern English Version. (Ryken has two different opinions about the New Revised Standard Version. In his book mentioned above he says it is a dynamic equivalent translation, but in a chart at the end of his booklet called “Choosing A Bible,” he says it is an essentially literal translation. Perhaps he means it is more an essentially literal translation than a dynamic equivalent translation.)
In contrast to “essentially literal”/”word-for-word” translations are paraphrases of the Bible. These are known for their being more interpretive restatements of the Bible’s original languages, or of previous translations. What are some of the paraphrases of the Bible? Ryken rightly puts the following examples into that category: The Living Bible(TLB), by Ken Taylor; The Message(TM), by Eugene Peterson; The New Testament In Modern English(NTME), by J. B. Phillips. Paraphrases should always be sparingly used because they are not translations.
Different from “essentially literal”/”word for word” translations and Bible paraphrases are what are called “dynamic equivalent” translations. These translations are known for their attempt to put into English the meaning or thought of the original languages. What are some of the translations that do not as closely follow “the essentially literal”/”word-for-word” principle or philosophy of translation as the ones named above, but can be considered to be dynamic equivalent translations? Ryken rightly puts the following into that category: The New Living Translation(NLT), Contemporary English Version(CEV), Good News Bible(GNB), New International Version(NIV), Today’s New International Version(TNIV), and Today’s English Version(TEV).
Let us now consider the very popular, previously-mentioned New International Version as an example of what is known as a “dynamic equivalent translation.” This distinguishes it from the translations that more closely follow “the essentially literal”/”word-for-word” principle or philosophy of translation as do the King James Version, New King James Version, American Standard Version, New American Standard Version, English Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, and the Modern English Version.
That the NIV is, at least to some degree, a dynamic equivalent translation is proven by certain statements in the Preface to the 1984 edition, as found in “The NIV Worship Bible”, which is published by Zondervan and copyrighted 1988. On page x of the Preface we read the following statements: “The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the Biblical writers. They have weighed the significance of the lexical and grammatical details of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. At the same time they have striven for more than a word-for-word translation. Because thought patterns and syntax differ from language to language, faithful communication of the meaning of the writers of the Bible demands frequent modifications in sentence structure and constant regard for the contextual meaning of words.” And on page xi of the Preface we find further evidence of the influence of dynamic equivalence on the NIV. It says, “Because for most readers today the phrases ‘the LORD of hosts’ and ‘God of hosts’ have little meaning, this version renders them ‘the LORD Almighty’ and ‘God Almighty.’ These renderings convey the sense of the Hebrew, namely, ‘he who is sovereign over all the “hosts” (powers) in heaven and on earth, especially over the “hosts” (armies) of Israel.” The concern for “fidelity to the thought of the Biblical writers,” instead of their words is a guiding principle of dynamic equivalent translations. The same thing is true of the reference to conveying “the sense of the Hebrew.”
That the NIV is, at least to some degree, a dynamic equivalent translation is also proved by the fact that one of its advocates, Lawrence O. Richards, says so. The following quote is taken from the Preface to his book, “The Zondervan Expository Dictionary Of Bible Words,” which was published by Zondervan in 1985, and which has a copyright of 1985, 1991 by The Zondervan Corporation. The book is very valuable, even for those who are not used to more technical aspects of Bible study. In the quote, Richards refers to the NIV(New International Version), NASB(New American Standard Bible), ASV(American Standard Version), and the RSV(Revised Standard Version). Here is part of what Lawrence O. Richards wrote: “Because there are so many different versions of the Bible in English, it is necessary to narrow our focus; we will consider the two versions that are used most frequently in Bible study. These are the NIV and the NASB.
“The NIV is especially acceptable to evangelicals. This translation was undertaken by over a hundred scholars from many countries and various denominations. All of them were conservative in their commitment to the full authority and trustworthiness of Scripture as God’s Word. The result of their years of work is an attractive, readable, and clear expression in contemporary English of the thought of the original Hebrew and Greek writings.
“Translators face a number of problems. Many of these occur because single words in any language have more than single meanings. It is the task of Bible translators, therefore, to study the way a Hebrew or Greek term is used in particular sentences and to determine the shade of meaning intended in each context. Thus different English words or phrases are used to translate a single original term. Conversely, the same English word may be use to translate several different Hebrew or Greek terms.
“None of the English versions provide a word-for-word translation, with the same English word always being used to translate the same Hebrew or Greek word. Instead, in varying degrees translators adopted a principle called dynamic equivalence. That is, they have attempted to ascertain the meaning (or connotation) of the word or phrase in the source language and to express that meaning in the receptor language. The more the translators of a given version relied on the use of dynamic equivalence, the more difficulty we can expect in tracing concepts from English back to specific Hebrew or Greek words.
“How have the translators of different versions approached their task? The translators of the ASV attempted to translate word for word as much as possible. Ken Taylor’s Living Bible, on the other hand, is a very loose paraphrase, shaped often by the translator’s own interpretations. The NASB tends toward the approach of the ASV. The RSV and NIV fall between these extremes, though the translators of the NIV were more ready to seek dynamic equivalents than were the RSV translators.”
Consider some key statements that Richards made about the NIV that should make us have some reservations about it:
1.) “The result of their years of work is an attractive, readable, and clear expression in contemporary English of the thought of the original Hebrew and Greek writings.”
2.) “The more the translators of a given version relied on the use of dynamic equivalence, the more difficulty we can expect in tracing concepts from English back to specific Hebrew or Greek words.”
3.)”How have the translators of different versions approached their task? The translators of the ASV attempted to translate word for word as much as possible. Ken Taylor’s Living Bible, on the other hand, is a very loose paraphrase, shaped often by the translator’s own interpretations. The NASB tends toward the approach of the ASV. The RSV and NIV fall between these extremes, though the translators of the NIV were more ready to seek dynamic equivalents than were the RSV translators.”
Here are my replies to these statements:
1.) We don’t want a translation to give us “the thought of the original Hebrew and Greek writings”, but the translated words of those writings. A translator’s thoughts can easily become commentary and explanation, when what we need is translation. Let the Bible’s readers figure out for themselves what the Bible means. This often requires the use of reference works, such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries. But we should not expect translations to also function as commentaries and dictionaries.
2.) Dynamic equivalent translations are a problem because, as Richards said, “the more difficulty we can expect in tracing concepts from English back to specific Hebrew or Greek words.” To make Bible study more difficult is not a good thing.
3.) Lawrence O. Richards pointed out, “the translators of the NIV were more ready to seek dynamic equivalents than were the RSV translators.” This proves the fact that the NIV was influenced by the principle of dynamic equivalence. This is not a good thing, for a dynamic equivalent translation is always less reliable than an “essentially literal/word-for-word” translation.
Here is something interesting that is related to our subject: for many years I have profitably used the 12-volume commentary set called “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.” It is based on the NIV. But its frequent corrections of the NIV have weakened my confidence in that translation.
So, what should be done with this information? First, the logical thing to do is to use “essentially literal/word-for-word” translations as our primary translations for daily reading and Bible study. Of course, preachers, pastors, and Bible teachers should use this kind of translations in their ministries. Dynamic equivalent translations should only be read and studied as secondary translations, that is, as helps in Bible reading and study. I recommend these “essentially literal/word-for-word” translations: the New King James Version, the Modern English Version, the King James Version, the New American Standard Version(updated edition), and the English Standard Version. (The King James Version, the New King James Version, and the Modern English Version are all related to one another, the last two being revisions of the King James Version.) The Holman Christian Standard Bible, according to the Introduction, uses a translation principle it calls “optimal equivalence,” which seems to be a moderate blend of the “essentially literal/word-for-word” and “dynamic equivalence” translation principles. Thus, it is more reliable than those translations that depend more heavily on dynamic equivalence, as does the NIV.
Second, do not make the use of “essentially literal/word-for-word” translations a test of Christian orthodoxy and fellowship. True and dedicated Christians often use translations influenced by dynamic equivalence, such as the NIV. That should not cause a division between them and those of us who do not approve of a translation that is heavily influenced by the principle of dynamic equivalence, unless, of course, the presence of dynamic equivalence is found to be so strong that the translation is generally unworthy of use. If that is the case, it is most likely not a dynamic equivalent translation but a paraphrase of the Bible. And, as said above, paraphrases should always be sparingly used because they are not translations of the Bible.
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