Why Are There So Many Bible Translations?
Who ever thought that buying a Bible would be an overwhelming experience? You just go to the store and grab one, right? Well…no. You go to the store and you have to choose between this translation and that translation, between this study Bible and that study Bible. It’s more difficult than it should be.
So if you are looking for a new Bible, which translation should you choose? I thought that if I shared with you about the translation process and the differing methods used, it would help you make a more informed decision.
Some Translation Difficulties
As you know, the sixty-six books of the Bible were not written in English. The original authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote in three languages: Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. With the exception of a few words, the entire New Testament was written in Greek. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, but small sections, such as Daniel 2-7, were written in Aramaic. And, to make things even more complicated, there is a Greek version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint (symbolized LXX).
What we are dealing with today entails the translation of these original texts into other languages, such as English. On a surface level, it sounds like a somewhat simple task as long as someone knows both Greek/Hebrew and English. But, for several reasons, it’s more difficult than you may think. First of all, we do not have any original autographs of the biblical books. What we do have, though, are thousands of copies. But secondly, what arises when these books are copied are variants (scribal errors). The original Greek documents were written in all capital letters with no spaces in-between words. The original Hebrew documents were written with consonants only, no vowels. Both of these things made it difficult on the scribe to produce perfect copies. Besides making errors, some scribes even added short notes to give later readers clarity.
All this being said, when a translator sits down to work, s/he doesn’t do so with the original/perfect text produced by someone such as Moses or Paul. Instead, they may sit down with twenty differing copies of a certain book. The variants only compose a small percentage of the text, but nevertheless, they do present translators with a difficult task.
Another thing that should be mentioned concerning translation difficulties is the evolution of language. Not only were the biblical documents written in other languages, they were also written thousands of years ago. Over that span of time the Greek and Hebrew languages have evolved and changed. So it’s not enough to know modern Greek or Hebrew, you have to know the ancient languages.
There are other issues that could be mentioned, such as differing cultural idioms and the technological advances we have experienced, but the point is clear: there are many difficulties when it comes to translating the Bible.
The Translation Process
Anyone who is bilingual knows that translating a phrase or sentence is challenging, much less an entire letter or book. Why? Because each language has its own rules of grammar. Each language uses a different sentence structure. And, maybe the most difficult part of translating (and the reason we have so many versions of the Bible) is that each word in a given language does not have a one-to-one correspondence in another language. For example, the simple Greek conjunction καί (kai) is usually translated “and,” but can also mean “also/even/but/indeed.” So when a translation is to be produced, a method has to be determined.
Some translators prefer a word-for-word (formal equivalence) method, while others opt for what they call a phrase-for-phrase or thought-for-thought (dynamic equivalence) method. In all reality, most English translations available today combine these two methods. Take for example the explanation in the introduction to the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which uses what is called the “Optimal Equivalence Method”:
“Optimal equivalence starts with an exhaustive analysis of the text at every level (word, phrase, clause, sentence, discourse) in the original language to determine its original meaning and intention (or purpose). Then relying on the latest and best language tools and experts, the nearest corresponding semantic and linguistic equivalents are used to convey as much of the information and intention of the original text with as much clarity and readability as possible. This process assures the maximum transfer of both the words and thoughts contained in the original” (HCSB, Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2004, vii.).
A good example of a thought-for-thought translation is the New International Version (NIV). The translation committee for this project stated that they have “striven for more than a word-for-word translation.” Why? “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 meanings of words” (NIV, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002, xii.).
On the other hand, what is regarded among scholars as the most literal translation of the Bible in the English language is the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The translators of this project worked hard to maintain the Greek and Hebrew sentence structure when bringing the text into English. Yet even they admit that, “When it was felt that the word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom.” But, “In the instances where this has been done, the more literal rendering has been indicated in the notes” (NASB, Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, 1995, iii.). This is why it is so important to look at the footnotes.
Whenever you get a chance, look at the introduction or foreword to your Bible, whatever version it may be, and see which method of translation was used. This is also something to pay attention to when purchasing a new Bible.
A Word About Paraphrases
Besides English translations, there are also English paraphrases of the Bible. A couple you have probably heard of are The Message Bible (MSG) and the New Living Translation (NLT). The main goal of a paraphrased Bible is to make it easy to read. Although the publishers of the NLT call it a “translation,” it is, in my estimation, a paraphrase. While they understand that “The goal of any Bible translation is to convey the meaning and content of the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts as accurately as possible to contemporary readers,” they also admit that their translation is “easy to read and understand” and good for “devotional reading” (NLT, Colorado Springs, CO: Biblica, 2004, A15.). These paraphrases are basically thought-for-thought translations on a grand scale. They are more focused on conveying the original meaning to a contemporary English audience than getting all the grammar correct.
Before moving on, a few more things should be said about paraphrases…
There is nothing wrong with reading a paraphrased Bible, especially if the language in an NASB or KJV Bible is difficult for you. A paraphrase is great to use if you are setting out to read through the Bible in a year. At the same time, you need to be careful when studying a specific verse or word. Because paraphrases are geared toward contemporary understanding, we shouldn’t develop any theological stances from them. But, truth be told, we shouldn’t develop a theology based on an English word from any translation. Theology and doctrine should be derived solely from the original languages and sentence structures. Paraphrases are useful for reading, but I wouldn’t advise teaching or preaching from one.
Translation vs. Interpretation
Because of all the aforementioned challenges and difficulties that come with the translation process, it is almost impossible to translate a text without also interpreting it in some way. What do I mean? On a word-for-word level, since not every Hebrew or Greek word has a perfect English equivalent, translators have to make a choice. What English word or words do I use to convey the meaning of this Hebrew word? A good example is the Hebrew word חֶסֶד (chesed). English Bibles translate it in various ways, including “faithful love” (HCSB), “love” (NIV), “steadfast love” (ESV), “loving kindness” (NASB), “faithful deeds” (NET), and “unfailing love” (NLT). Obviously the general meaning can be determined, but you can still see the number of ways it has been translated. In fact, in the KJV alone this word is translated twelve different ways!
On a thought-for-thought level the same issue arises. How do I convey this ancient Greek phrase into English and not influence how a reader will understand it? In making these decisions, not only is the Bible translated, but it is also interpreted.
Chapters, Verses, and Subtitles
Even though I think this is pretty common knowledge, I want to take a second to touch on it. The chapter and verse divisions in our English Bibles, or any Bible for that matter, are not original. The biblical authors did not subdivide their work. Chapter and verse divisions were added much later to help congregations find a certain phrase or sentence within a given book.
The subtitles and paragraph divisions that almost all Bibles have are also later additions. Like I mentioned earlier, in order to save space on their papyri, biblical authors did not put spaces in-between their words, sentences, or paragraphs. Neither did they use subtitles within their books.
Although the subtitles and chapter divisions in our English Bibles are mostly accurate, they can be misleading at times. Sometimes it is hard to determine whether a certain phrase or sentence should be connected with what comes before it or after it. An example is the paragraph comprised of 2 Peter 1:12-15. Commentators debate whether it concludes vv3-11 or if it introduces vv16-21. When Peter says in v12 that he will always remind his readers “about these things,” do “these things” refer to what he has just said or what he is about to say? Can you see the difficulty?
There are also a few strange situations with chapter divisions. In the HCSB, chapters such as Galatians 4 and 1 John 3 begin in the middle of a paragraph. This suggests that those who added the chapter division felt there was a break in thought, but the newer translators disagreed.
In order to avoid these issues, try to pay minimal attention to these divisions and subtitles and remember that they are not original to the text. If you just can’t ignore them, they do print Bibles with no verse divisions and no subtitles and you might look into purchasing one.
Let me be clear: I have not written this to discourage you. I don’t want you to go away from this thinking, “Man, is what I’ve been reading even a Bible? Is it even anywhere close to what Paul or King David or any of the other biblical authors wrote?” Though each translation differs from its counterparts in certain ways, and though none are perfect, all have had a great amount of scholarly thought and effort put into them.
Instead, I have written this to inform you. I want you to understand how the Bible you read every day came about. I want you to be amazed that we can read biblical texts that were written so long ago. I want you to have a good working knowledge of Bible translation the next time you go to purchase a new one.
And in the end, no matter which translation of the Bible you use, I pray that every time you read it you are challenged and you are changed!