Mark Strauss, professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary, discusses how scholars go about the Bible translation process and presents key philosophies that shape Bible translation. This talk was presented to pastors at the Christian Pastor Theologian Conference in November 2015.
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Language is, in some sense we might say, hopelessly ambiguous and a beautiful creation of God that clearly communicates his word. We’re talking today about choosing the best Bible translation for your church. Since this lunch is put on by Zondervan, and I am on the NIV committee, well duh, the NIV is the best Bible there is. You’re dismissed now no, no. Actually, I’m not going to say that. I’m not going to say the NIV is the best Bible, but I do want to challenge you to think critically about the nature of translation. There has been much misunderstanding about how language works even among pastors and theologians. Maybe we should say especially among pastors and theologians who work in the Hebrew and Greek because we tend to forget that the people in our congregations don’t speak Greek-lish. They don’t speak Bibl-lish. They speak English, and so much of the biblical language they encounter is not natural or normal language.
Now let me just say at the beginning we are going to have some giveaways at the end, so stay till the end. I’ll try to move as quickly as possible through this material. We will probably end about 20 after. We’ll do some giveaways, then we’ll have a Q&A time if you want to raise some other questions.
So here’s the question, “Which translation should you use?” The answer to that question used to be really easy. When I was growing up as a kid, there was only one translation given directly by God dropped out of heaven on the head of Jesus and Paul, and that is the King James Version. But, of course, today we have we have a much more mixed field. We not only have the King James Version, we have the New King James Version. We have the Revised Standard Version. We have the New Revised Standard Version. We have the American Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, the New English Bible, the Revised English Bible, the New English Translation, the New International Version, God’s Word, (there’s a presumptuous title), God’s Word Translation, the International Standard Version, Today’s English Version, the Living Bible, the New Living Translation. And it just goes on and on. You can take certain words – new, international, living, translation – and put them into any order, and you will come up with a Bible translation. Someone going into a Christian bookstore might want to just run out the door when they see all of these translations.
So people often ask me, “Which translation should I use?” My answer is always the same when they ask me that question. My answer is not the NIV actually. My answer is, “Use more than one translation,” and there’s a reason for that. The reason is that no translation can capture all of the meaning. We often say something was lost in the translation, and that is certainly true. Something is always lost in the translation. On the other hand, all translations capture important aspects of the meaning. It is especially important to use different kinds of translations. I know this is probably familiar to most if not all of you.
Throughout history there have been two basic philosophies of translation, one we call formal equivalence or literal or word-for-word. The other we call functional, at least contemporary linguists call it functional, equivalence also known as dynamic equivalence or idiomatic translation. Formal equivalence says you want to replicate the form of the original as much as possible. So for example, if the Greek word is sarka, you want to try to translate as consistently as possible as flesh. Or if the Greek word is soma, you want to say body. You want to translate infinitives in Greek as infinitives in English, participles in Greek as participles in English. That is formal equivalence. The second kind of translation says it is not so much to replicate the form as to reproduce the meaning, capture the meaning as much as possible.
Now, translations tend to identify themselves as one or the other, but there is really no pure example of either. In fact, even the most literal translation is highly idiomatic in places. Every Bible version uses both formal and functional equivalence. The more you get into the Greek, you realize just how dynamic every translation is. Differences then are just of matter of degree. Let me just set out some of the most popular or widely used English translations of today. Among the formal equivalent, the King James Version, of course, even though that is less formal than most of these other ones; the New King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version. On the side of functional equivalence, you have the Good News Translation, one of the earliest ones; the New Living Translation, probably the most widely used of the functional equivalence; the Contemporary English Version, the New Century Version, God’s Word Translation.
So you’ve got formal and you’ve got functional, but you’ve got a lot in the middle. It’s all on a spectrum so the NIV, New International Version; the New American Bible, a Roman Catholic version; the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the Southern Baptist Version; the New English Translation; or NET Bible, a very good mediating version; recently published, the Common English Bible. So, you can take all of these and place them on a spectrum. The spectrum looks something like this. You can move from the more formal or more literal probably of those commonly available. The New American Standard is the most formal. The Common English Bible or the Contemporary English Version over here is probably the most idiomatic. You can identify pretty much any version you could find in a Christian bookstore along that continuum.
OK, we are going to talk about what is Bible translation and what makes a translation most accurate. What’s the goal of translation? See if you agree with this statement: The goal is take a text in one language and reproduce its meaning in another. Anyone disagree with that? That is a pretty good definition of translation. If that it is the definition of translation, what is our goal, what is our ultimate goal? Any response? It’s a dead crowd. The goal is meaning, right? Is that our goal, or are we trying to communicate the meaning of the original? Yes? OK. Here’s a question. People ask me sometimes, “Why do we need translation at all?” All I want you to do is just tell me what the Bible says, not what it means. I don’t want all this interpretation. I don’t want all this commentary. Well, there is a problem with that statement, right? Just tell me what the Bible says. What’s the problem with that statement? Well, the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek. So if I tell you what the Bible says, it will just be distributing Greek text and Hebrew text to all of the people as they come into our congregation. Or the problem is (Greek phrase) that means in Greek, “It’s all Greek to me.” There’s the problem. As most of our people have to access the Bible in translation so the person questioning me would say, “OK, you got me there, but then just give me a word-for-word translation. Take each word in the Greek and Hebrew and find an equivalent English word.” What’s the problem with that argument? Words don’t have just one meaning. Words instead have what we call a semantic range, a range of possible meanings. I think we, even as biblical scholars, have a tendency to forget this because we will start talking about the literal meaning of the word. Whenever I hear someone say the literal meaning of the word, I cringe and cover my ears because what they are going to say next, 95% of the time, is actually wrong.
OK, let’s look at the literal meaning of the word key. What can the word key mean? Well it can be an unlocking tool. That’s probably the first one that comes to mind, right? It can mean, as in I lost my key. It can mean a solution to a puzzle that is the key to the puzzle. It can mean the main or primary. You might get to the end of this session and say, “What in the world was his key point?” If you are a musician, you probably immediately recognize musical pitch. What key is this in? You may think of a typewriter. Anyone remember a typewriter? We call it a keyboard, right, which is appropriate. A keyboard is a key on a typewriter or a low off-shore island as in the Florida Keys. Of course, I am skipping the most important one which is the key of the basketball court right there underneath the basket.
So what’s the literal meaning of the word key? The word key doesn’t have a literal meaning. Words, the vast majority of words in any language, don’t have a literal meaning. They have a range of potential senses. So, if there is only one thing you get out of this session, when you are preaching or teaching, don’t ever say, ever say, the literal meaning of this word is . . . You could say the meaning of this word in context is . . ., but don’t say the literal meaning of this word is . . .
Let me illustrate this for you. Here is a Greek phrase at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. I just finished a commentary on Mark’s gospel so I came across these themes a lot. “Arche tou euangeliou lesou Christou.” You can all translate that if you have had any Greek at all. My beginning students can get it. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Is that a literal translation of that? Let’s look at it. Arche can mean beginning, or it can mean origin, or it can mean ruler or authority or office or domain or cause or even corner. Euangeliou can mean good news. Sometimes it is translated simply as news or announcement. Sometimes it is translated as the gospel. Tuo is the article, the definite article, or the article in Greek in the genitive, but it can mean of the, from the, by the, a whole range of meanings. Eaisu is the Greek version of the Hebrew Yeshua or Joshua or Jesus, translated various ways. Christou, actually from christos, which is an adjective which means smeared with oil or at least it originally seems to have meant that, came to mean anointed, came to mean the anointed one, came to mean the Christ or the messiah. So you could translate this sentence right here, “The source of the news about Joshua smeared with oil.” That is one possible way.
Now we know that is not the way to translate it. Why not? How do know how to translate those words? Context is the key. I tell my hermeneutic students that the answer to almost every question is either Jesus or context. If they put that on the exam, they will be fine. Context determines the meaning of a word in each particular passage.
All right, my objectioner then says, “OK, then just look at the context and decide what the word means. Then translate the text literally.” What’s the problem? The third problem, it’s not just words that are different. Languages use different phrases, clauses, idioms, to express the same meaning. I come from San Diego. I teach at Bethel Seminary not in Minnesota (it’s kind of nice in the winter), but in San Diego, the campus in San Diego. So we speak at lot of Spanish in San Diego. Como se llama? What does that phrase mean? What’s your name? Wrong. That’s not a very good literal translation. A literal translation is, “How yourself call” OK? That is taking each word and translating it literally. Or we could smooth it out and say, “How do you call yourself?” I tell my students, that’s an NASB translation. How do you call yourself.
We know, though, it is, “What’s your name?” There is the translation, “What’s your name?” But that is an idiomatic translation. It’s not a literal translation. Look at the original phrase – a question word, followed by a reflexive pronoun “se”, followed by a verb “llama.” I’ve changed that into a question word; the verb, to be, a possessive pronoun; and a noun. I’ve completely messed it up. Completely changed the form. What have I retained? The meaning. I’ve retained the meaning. So the goal of translation is not to retain the form unless that form in some sense is key to the meaning, but to communicate the meaning.
Pomme de terre. Anyone speak French? What’s the literal meaning of that phrase? Apple of earth. So you go into McDonald’s and you order an apple of earth, right? No, it means potato. You can’t take the literal meaning. Or dejeuner. Dejeuner means lunch. So if I add petite to it, petite means little, so this is a light lunch. Right? Not quite your lunch. Is that right? What does this mean? What does petite dejeuner mean? Breakfast. It means breakfast. Of course it does. As that great linguist and comedian says, “Those French, it’s like they’ve got a different word for everything.”
We need translation because no two languages are the same in terms of word meanings, idioms, collocations, and a host of other ways. We sometimes forget that when we are staring at the Greek. We think if I just reproduce these Greek words, I am going to get an accurate translation. It is simply not the case. Anywhere real translation is done, go to the United Nations and listen to what’s being translated into a hundred different languages. Not one of those translators, I can guarantee you, is translating literally because if they were, they would be immediately fired because that is a poor translation. The phrase literal accuracy is generally an oxymoron in other words.
So let’s go through each of some of these and look at these. We’ve looked at word meanings first of all. What’s the literal meaning of the word key? Well, words don’t have literal meanings. They have a range of possible senses. So you have to determine to translate accurately, you’ve got to find the right word in the receptor language in each context. Let’s do this with the word key in English. I’m going to translate into Spanish. Let’s say if I want to say lock, I have to say llave. If I want to say the solution to a puzzle, I have to say clave. If I want to say musical pitch, I have to say tono. If I want to say a button, I would probably say teckla. If I want to say a low off-shore island, I would probably say kiyo. What if I insisted, no, no, no, you have to choose a single Spanish word for every time that English word occurs. What would you tell me? You’d say that’s just bad translation philosophy. The meaning is determined by the context.
This is certainly true with the biblical languages as well. Consider one Greek word. What’s the literal meaning of logos? (Audience calls outs). What did we just say about literal meanings? Words don’t have literal meanings. There is no literal meaning of logos. There is a semantic range. In fact, let’s take the most literal of English Bible translations available here, the NASB. Here is the way the NASB translates the word logos: word, statement, accounts, things, story, news, matter, question, message, complaint, and exhortation. Which one of those is the literal meaning? Now you can find there is a semantic range. So, they’re related to each other. It has something to do with communication in most cases, not in all cases, but in most cases. So, here’s our key principle. It is unreliable to translate words literally. Unreliable. You must translate them according to their meaning and context.
Let me illustrate this with a debate that I was involved in some years ago. The gender language debate. Take the Greek word Anthropos. If we look at its semantic range, it’s got a fairly wide semantic range, but two of those senses, the main senses, are person. That’s its primary sense, the one that has the most is person. It can also mean man or male. It can refer to a male person. We get the word anthropology, of course, the study of humanity, from this word. So, Paul says in Romans 3:28, for we maintain that an Anthropos is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Does Anthropos mean man as in a male, or does it mean human being? I hope it means human being. In that context, it clearly means its primary sense is human being. Well, the 1984 NIV said, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” Nothing wrong with that translation because in context, they intended man to be a generic or inclusive reference. When it was translated, when the NIV was translated by men in their senior years for the most part, that word really carried inclusive connotations. Actually most versions say, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” Which is more accurate? Well, obviously, person is because it is more precise, it is more accurate. So this is not political correctness. This is just being more accurate and more precise. Or take the Greek word anthropoi, the plural of that. It can mean people or it can mean men. In this context, “I tell you on the day of judgment, anthropoi will give an account for what they have done.” Is it primarily people, or is it primarily men who will give an account on judgment day? At this point, my wife would say, mostly men will give an account.
This may surprise you here. Here is the RSV, Revised Standard Version, 1952, “I tell you on that day of judgment, men will render account.” The ESV, which is a revision of the RSV, says, “I tell you on that day of judgment, people will give an account.” They recognize this as an inclusive term, and so translate it accordingly. Another inclusive term is adelphoi. We have many examples from Greek where adelphoi means siblings, brothers and sisters. It can also mean male siblings. So when Paul writes to the church at Philippi and says, “Therefore, my adelphoi, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown,” does he mean brothers as the NIV ’84 says, or does he mean brothers and sisters as the 2011? In that context, there is no doubt that Paul is writing to the church as whole. He addresses Euodia and Syntyche, two women in the congregation. So this is not a politically correct translation. This is just an accurate translation, precisely what the word means in context. We probably don’t want to say siblings. That sounds so sterile. “I appeal to you, therefore, siblings.” Brothers and sisters is much more familial, much more warm, so clearly the more accurate. Look at the footnote on the ESV, for example, and they’ll tell you that this is the meaning of the term in context even though they continue to translate it brothers in the text. OK, the key for the translator is to determine the meaning of each word in its context, then find a word with an equivalent meaning in the receptor language.
Right, that’s words. Let’s go on to another category, idioms. What’s the definition of an idiom? A phrase or expression with a meaning differing from the literal meaning of its parts. Well, you are probably going to have trouble translating literally if, in fact, the meaning is not based on the literal meaning of its parts. Again, from Spanish, let’s look at a couple of these. Ser pan comido, literally to be bread eaten. To be bread eaten. What does that mean? That’s an idiom. In Spanish, it means to be easy. We might say something like to be a piece of cake. Our own idiom, we use our own idiom to express the same meaning.
Here is another Spanish idiom, no tener pelos en la lengua. Not to have hairs on the tongue. It’s terrible to have hairs on the tongue. What does that mean? Well, it means to speak your mind. If you don’t have hairs on your tongue, it means you are speaking your mind, or you could say maybe to be a straight shooter. We could use an idiom in English to express the same thing. Estar etro un aji. This is one of my favorites. Literally, to be made a chili. That means to be very angry. When you turn into a chili, what are you? You’re very angry. We might say to be hopping mad. So, we have to determine what the idiom means and then find a way to communicate that in the receptor language. Here is another favorite, au pied ed la lettre. Literally, to the foot of the letter. To the foot of the letter. What it actually means literally, or word-for-word. So the point is in Spanish, you can’t even say literally, you have to say it idiomatically. Now, come on, that was funny. (laughter)
Suppose I am getting up early tomorrow to fly. I am flying to St. Paul tomorrow. By the way, I’m hitting the road at the crack of dawn. By the way, I’m hitting the road at the crack of dawn. Let’s translate this literally. By the way, beside the way, along the path. How’s that? Pretty good? I am hitting the road. I am punching the street. At the crack of dawn. I had trouble with this one. Crack right? At the fissure of sunrise. Along the path, I am punching the street at the fissure of sunrise. Is that a good translation? Is that a good literal translation? It is a literal translation, but is it a good translation? An idiomatic translation might say something like, “I wanted to let you know I am leaving very early in the morning.” Now you might say you missed something here. It’s not quite the same. That’s right. It’s never quite the same because you lose something in every translation; something is always lost in the translation.
Let me just give you some examples. I will pick on various versions, so don’t worry if you have a favorite here. Idioms missed in English translations. Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot who was of the number of the twelve, the ESV says. Of the number. That’s a good literal translation, but I would never say, “He’s of the number of the elders.” Right? What would I say? He is one of the elders, or he is part of the numbers. The NIV says, then Satan entered Judas called Iscariot, one of the twelve. New Living Translation, then Satan entered into Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve disciples. Here’s one from the New King James, for if I preach the word, I have nothing to boast of for a necessity is laid upon me. That is a literal translation. For a necessity is laid upon me. The ESV does the same thing. Now I would never say I got to do this, necessity is laid upon me. That is not an English idiom. It’s a Greek one. The NIV says, since I am compelled to preach. The New Living Translation says, I am compelled by God to do this.
Mark 1:2, behold I send my messenger before your face. Before your face. Before your face, well that’s an idiom. It means ahead of you, ahead of you. So the NIV says, I will send my messenger ahead of you. Now here is something interesting. The 1995 Revised NASB recognized the idiom and changed it to behold I send my messenger ahead of you. I would never say, she got to the restaurant before my face. Would you ever say that she got to the restaurant before my face? No. That’s not an English idiom. It’s a Greek one or a Hebrew one as well.
2 Samuel 18:25, in the New King James Version, the king said if he is alone, there is news in his mouth. If he is alone, there is news in his mouth. What does that mean? The king said if he is alone, he must have good news. The Holman Christian says if he is alone, he bears good news. I would never say there comes Johnny and he’s got news in his mouth. I can tell he’s got news in his mouth. He is spitting it out right now. Acts 9:28, so he went in and out among them at Jerusalem preaching boldly. NLT says, so Paul went all around Jerusalem with them preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. NIV says, so Paul moved about freely in Jerusalem. The idiom clearly means he moved about in the context there.
The last one here. Amos 4:6, NASB says, I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities. It’s nice that God distributed toothbrushes and toothpaste. I gave you cleanness of teeth. What does that mean? I gave you empty stomachs in every city. I gave you no food to eat in any of your cities, the NET Bible says. So these are idioms. Key principle, translating idioms literally doesn’t work because idioms don’t mean what they say.
I’m going to jump ahead. I’ve got collocations in the next section of slides which are fascinating. Collocations are words that take their meaning from other words. I can say, the word “make,” for example, can mean a huge range of different things. You can make a plane, catch a plane. You can make pancakes, construct them. To try to translate those collocations into another language, you have to change all of their collocations. There is no literal translation of collocations. I was talking to an international translator, and I said, “Are the idioms in your language (he was working in a language in Iringa). Are the idioms really hard in your language?” He said the idioms aren’t bad, but the collocations, he said, are a nightmare because whenever you learn what a word means, like to make something, you can’t assume that you can use that with any other sense of make. Those are collocations. But let me skip over that. I can show it to you later if you are interested.
Here’s our summary right here. Languages say the same thing in different ways; that is, using different forms. So translators must be in a constant mode of interpretation. There is no translation with interpretation. What does that mean in terms of how we started? Formal or functional? From a linguistic perspective, there is no question that a meaning-based approach for functional equivalence is more reliable. Here’s Don Carson saying the same thing. Carson writes this. He says, “For the vast majority of people actually engaged in Bible translation, the importance of functional equivalence is a given and rightly so. Its victory is hailed by numerous pieces of evidence recognizing that language is idiomatic. The way you say something in one language, you cannot necessarily say it in another.”
Now I said I was going to support multiple translations, and obviously all I have been doing is defending functional equivalence or idiomatic translations against formal equivalence. But, I encourage my students to use literal or formal equivalent versions as well because they can be helpful. I encourage them to use versions from across the translations spectrum. So, as we wrap it up here, I want to give you some strengths of both formal and functional equivalence. All right?
Some of the strengths. Here is formal equivalence. One of the strengths of a formal equivalence or literal version is to identify the formal structure of the original Greek. When you are studying Greek, it is nice to be able to see a window on that. Here is the New American in Romans 8:21, the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Now you try to figure out what that phrase means, the freedom of the glory of the children of God. It is a very, very difficult phrase, but at least you’re replicating. Every word is parallel to a word in Greek. My students, my Greek students, love the NASB. In fact, they try to sneak it under their Greek text. If they’ve forgotten to do their translation for the day, they’ll cheat by just moving and looking at the NASB. They know they are going to get close to the formal structure of the Greek.
Here’s a second strength of formal equivalence, tracing repeated words and verbal illusions. It’s nice to translate a word the same way as much as possible. Then you see these illusions picked up elsewhere. Let me give you an example of this. 1 Corinthians 3:10, Paul says, according to the grace of God which was given to me as a wise master builder, I laid a foundation. The Greek word for wise is sofos in that case. If you think about it, we don’t really normally call a builder wise. We added a room addition to our house, and I would not say the architect who designed it was a wise architect. He was a skilled or expert architect. And so most translations say something like, according to the grace of God given me, like a skilled master builder or an expert.
The ’84 NIV said, an expert master builder, I laid a foundation. The problem with that translation is sofos means expert, but Paul is also alluding back to chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians where the wisdom of God is the scandal of the cross. So when he says he built as a sofos master builder, he is alluding that he built only on the foundation of the cross. So, you don’t want to miss that, so do you translate according to good English, expert or skill, or do you translate to connect to the first chapter? That is a huge challenge. We actually went back in the NIV 2001; we went back and used wise. It is somewhat awkward English, but it makes that connection back to 1 Corinthians chapter 1, by the grace that God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, so that readers, as they are coming along, will go, “Oh, this is what Paul was talking about back in chapter 1.” So, tracing repeated words and verbal illusions.
A third strength of a formal equivalence or literal versions is reproducing Greek metaphors and idioms. Here’s an example. The New King James Version says in Acts 11:21, and the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. The hand of the Lord was with them. Some translations take that metaphor and they concretize is it. The make it less abstract. The New Living Translation says, the power of the Lord was upon them. The power of the Lord was upon them. Well, you lose something there, don’t you, when you lose that anthropomorphism. So most versions, and certainly the mediating versions, retain almost all those metaphors of Scripture so that we can see the power of the metaphor. So, retaining metaphors or retaining idioms in that regard.
All right, let me turn to functional equivalent versions and give you a couple of quick strengths of functional equivalent versions. We have already said this, so I will just illustrate it. First of all, communicating accurately the meaning of the text. If our goal is to communicate the meaning, then we want something that is more functional. Formal equivalence, here in Luke 15:20, the New King James Version, this is the father sees the prodigal returning. It says, his father saw him and ran and fell on his neck. That sounds like a judo move or something, he fell on his neck. That’s what I would have done for that son after her squandered the inheritance. I would fall on his neck right there. Maybe break it as well. New Living Translation and most other versions, his father saw him coming, ran to his son, and embraced him. The idiom means clearly to embrace. OK.
A second strength of functional equivalence is natural sounding language, natural sounding language. New American Standard, opening his mouth, he began to teach them, Matthew 5:2. God’s Word Translation, he began to teach them. Matthew 5:2. These are not two different actions. Opening his mouth and then teaching, this is one action. Began to teach. That’s what the idiom means. So by translating those words literally, you create very unnatural language.
Finally, clarity is another strength of functional equivalent versions. Clarity. Here’s the English Standard Version, Hebrews 1:3, he upholds all things by the word of his power. By the word of his power. Now that might sound powerful, but what in the world does it mean? What it is the word of his power? I can see the power of his word, but what is the word of his power? When we translate sort of word by word, we tend to think, there, we’ve got it. When, in fact, if you think about it, that’s almost a meaningless statement. Here’s the NIV, sustaining all things by his powerful word. It’s a descriptive genitive there.
In conclusion, translation is not about replacing words, but about reproducing meaning. At the same time, both kinds of translations are helpful tools for Bible study. This is not something new. Go back to the original preface. You should read this. The original preface of the King James Version about a long preface, about 30 pages or so, and they talk about what they’re trying to do in terms of the translation. It’s a complete refutation, by the way, of a King James only perspective. The original preface. If you want to ever read it, read it. It is amazing. They point to themselves as just one link in a long chain of revision. But, here’s what they say about translation. We have not tied ourselves to a uniformity of phrasing or to an identity of words as some poor adventurer would wish that we had done. For has the kingdom of God become words or syllables? They go on to say that they don’t even use the same English word for each Greek and Hebrew one because they want to communicate the meaning.
Another great advocate of meaning-based translation was Martin Luther. Translating the Bible into his vernacular German, he said this. He said, “I must let the literal words go and try to learn how the German says that which to the Hebrew we could add, or Greek, expresses. Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style, rather he must see to it once he understands the Hebrew author, that he concentrates (here it is) on the sense of the text asking himself pray tell what do the Germans say in such a situation. Let him drop the Hebrew words and express the meaning freely in the best German he knows.”
It always bothers me when I hear a student say, “Now the Greek word for this is sarks. In the Greek, the word is flesh; or in the Greek, the word is soul. But the word flesh doesn’t occur anywhere in the Greek New Testament. Look it up. You will never find the word flesh in the Greek New Testament. You’ll never find the word soul in the Greek New Testament. Why is that? Because they are English words, right? They’re English words. That’s right. So you only have Greek words. So sarks might mean flesh in a particular context, but the flesh never occurs in the Greek. So be careful how you use your language when you are talking about Greek and Hebrew. Martin Luther understood that translation is not just about replacing words, but about reproducing meaning. It’s about making the riches of God’s word understandable to people everywhere.
Now, there are needs for different kinds of translations, certainly, in different kinds of context. But I started off with the question, “What is the best translation for you in your church?” So I am going to give you an answer right now. Now we get the NIV answer. OK. We’ve got translations across the spectrum. There is a reason for that because each of them brings out certain strengths in you. I would suggest to you that if you are going for a standard Bible that you are going to use publically from the pulpit that you tend to use a more mediating version. It’s going to be idiomatic and clear enough for your people to understand, yet they’re going to have a constant eye on the metaphors, on the words that recur again and again. If you are working with a younger group or just for your own personal study, these functional equivalent versions are fabulous in terms of trying to discern and to interpret what Paul was saying or what John is saying in their particular contexts. Now do they sometimes interpret wrong? Of course they do, but at the same time, they’re giving you what the primary or the most scholars would argue is the meaning of the text compared to the others. And then, of course, for your own personal study, I would highly recommend to also always check the formal equivalent versions especially if you have a rudimentary understanding of the original languages because they provide a window on the original languages.
The New International Version has made a commitment to ongoing updates necessitated by changes in the English language and new scholarship discoveries. Members of the Committee and Bible Translation discuss why this is important for translation accuracy.
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(Dr. Bill Mounce) One of the things I really enjoy about the NIV is that it has this commitment to ongoing work. I talk to a lot of people about the NIV, and the number one question actually is, “Why are you guys still working on it?” They don’t know that it’s always been this ongoing thing. We’re going to constantly be tweaking it, making it better, keeping it updated with scholarship and how English language is going. I hope that people understand that’s always been the way it is, that we want to make it better and better. I’m not aware of many other translations, if any, having made this kind of commitment to really keep things going.
(Dr. Bruce Waltke) A decisive moment was after the 1984 edition came out, and we had to make a decision whether to let the translation, as I put it “fossilize,” and not keep up with scholarship and not keep up with the language or to keep it more living and dynamic.
(Dr. Karen Jobes) I think it’s important that even though we respect the traditional language, when we become aware that the traditional language is either not accurate or language has moved on, and so what that traditional language how we hear it and what it means to us is not really the way a 20-year-old would hear it, then the work of the translator is accuracy and clarity to the language, the contemporary language.
(Dr. Bruce Waltke) As the church gets older, its memory becomes better because we now know it better than our fathers did because we now, I mean, that’s why when we went onto ancient languages, we get insights out of the cognate languages, we get insights out of archeology. And to my mind, it’s irresponsible stewardship not to keep current with that scholarship and to keep it available to church.
(Dr. Karen Jobes) One of the things we changed, which is from Psalm 23, which is what, you know, a lot of people have favorite psalms, Psalm 23 about walking through the valley of death. That was the way that verse was understood, but in the original language, it’s not death, it’s darkness. It’s that death was an interpretation of the original Hebrew that was in the King James which kind of influenced all other English translations. That’s one that I think is more accurate and is actually in some ways more clear because the valley of darkness can come into our lives. We may feel we are in the valley of darkness in lots of different ways other than kind of with impending death. So, I think that’s one place where the NIV made an improvement in both accuracy and clarity, but yet it breaks that traditional reading that we, many people, have memorized from the King James and earlier English translations.
(Dr. Bruce Waltke) I don’t want to become fixed. I want to interact. I want to hear the criticism, and if it’s legitimate, let’s hear it. So I hope that continues, that it will be looked as a valuable tool to learn. I think there’s two things. You have to listen to the community, but you also have to lead the community, and I think that’s what you are doing, that in your work and Zondervan’s work, it’s leading the community; and sometimes the community balks, but sometimes you have to lead and overcome those difficulties. And I think it’s doing it well.
Members of the Committee on Bible Translation speak about the New International Version’s usefulness for the entire English-speaking world.
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(Dr. Mark Strauss) Well, it is the New International Version, and from the very beginning, that’s been a really important part of the translation. This is not just an American translation. This is for the whole English speaking world all around.
(Dr. Paul Swarup) You know, Christianity now is really growing in the majority world. Most Christians are in the global south rather than in the west so really are catering to a huge number of Christians that are in the global south.
(Dr. Karen Jobes) I know that the committee was always from the beginning interested in having a translation that would be useful in various English-speaking parts of the world. It was not conceived of as an American translation. So wherever English was spoken, the goal was to produce a translation that would be meaningful and useful in that culture. Now that’s a huge task actually, and we can only have limited representation on the committee. So as I mentioned, we had an Australian on the committee for some time, and now we have two scholars from India. But, I think it’s that intention of being geographically inclusive and trying to get as best as we can a perspective of how people would read the translation in their idiom and in their culture that has given the NIV this larger sense of success than, for instance, a translation that is produced by a particular American denomination for use in their particular churches which defines the mission in such a way that it is going to limit the geographical success of the translation.