A Plea for Realism: The Version Debate Lives On, Part 3

In our previous post on the version issue, I addressed the matter of the Greek and Hebrew texts used in Bible translation. In this third and final post, we will briefly consider the important factor of the philosophy or methodology employed in translation – from the biblical language (Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic) to the receptor language (English, German, French, etc.).   Once the text critical decisions have been made, the translator’s role is to provide a translation that is both accurate and understandable.  In this regard, it should be noted that since living languages (such as English) change over time, new translations will eventually be needed.  Anyone attempting to read a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament (1526), the Geneva Bible (1560), or even the 1611 edition of the Authorized Version (KJV) would readily attest to the dynamic nature of language.  Moreover, modern translations benefit from advances in our understanding of the meaning of many Hebrew and Greek words as well as our grasp of key grammatical and syntactical features of ancient languages.

Turning to the issue of translation theory and methodology, there is no less controversy as to which is the correct approach, with the spectrum ranging from formal equivalence (more literal or word-for-word) to functional equivalence (thought-for-thought) to paraphrase.  While the preferred approach may vary somewhat dependent upon the target readership and the particular translation objectives, in general, we affirm the advantages of a more literal translation approach (while recognizing the role of idioms, figures of speech, etc.). Moreover, it must be recognized that all translation involves a significant level of interpretation. Consequently, some translations are clearly more accurate than others and there is value in reading and comparing several good ones.

In comparing and evaluating translations, it is important to recognize that even the most literal ones (e.g., KJV, NAS, and ESV) do not avoid some functional features.  For example, the KJV expression “God forbid” (occurring fifteen times in the KJV NT, e.g., Rom 3:4; 6:2) is clearly a functionally equivalent rendering since neither the Greek word for “God” or “forbid” appears in the Greek phrase thus translated.  Moreover, even the most literal of translations do not as a rule convey a rigid one word-for-word correspondence in meaning. Consider the fact that there are approximately 140,000 words in the Greek NT while even the most literal NT translations (including the KJV) have over 180,000 words.  There is no strict one-for-one literal correspondence.

In summary, while this series may have raised more questions than it answered, we assert that God’s Word has been preserved through an abundance of manuscripts and that its message has been accurately conveyed down through the centuries in a host of languages (many preceding the first English translations).  In the English-speaking world, we are blessed to have a number of excellent translations to choose from. In this regard, we conclude with the following excerpt from the 1611 KJV’s preface (entitled “The Translators to the Readers”).

Truly, good Christian Reader, we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one; … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principle good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath been our endeavor, that our mark.

The humility these translators expressed with regard to the subject of Bible translation as well as to the purpose for their new version provides an admirable model for those who have followed to emulate.


About Al Huss
I am a professor of New Testament at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA

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