The question, “Which Bible translation should I use?” is one that isn’t going away. It’s a question that has stirred up quite a lot of controversy and disagreement which has led to some division among Christians (the problem being Christians, not Bible translations!). But it remains a question that requires thoughtful consideration by each believer and discussion within the broader church community. The decision over which translation to use has no easy answer, however, what follows are some things I’ve learned as I’ve considered this important and complex question.
Is That A Literal Translation?
When it comes to discussions concerning Bible translation there is quite a lot of misinformation available (sometimes propagated by the translators themselves!) because explaining translation philosophy is a difficult task and we often want it explained simply, however, sometimes it happens that the explanations we receive are simplistic rather than simple (an important distinction).
Simplistic explanations are essentially caricatures. They reduce issues in such a way that misrepresent them so people come away feeling like they know much more about the issue than they really do. By contrast, a simple explanation breaks down a complex issue and explains each point so that when taken together we gain a basic grasp of the issue but we are left knowing that we’ve only just scratched the surface.
With regards to Bible translation, simplistic explanations abound. Chief among these simplistic explanations is the idea that any of our modern translations are literal (or word-for-word, usually contrasted with thought-for-thought which is another misnomer). To describe any Bible translation as literal is a misnomer because if we were to translate the Bible literally the end product would be, at best, excruciating to read, and at worst, entirely unreadable. To demonstrate the veracity of my assertion we’ll look briefly at four translations of John 3:16, the first three will be modern translations which have differing translation philosophies and the final one will be a literal translation from the Greek New Testament.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)
For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (NLT)
As we can see, the translations are all very similar. However, none of them translate the verse literally from the Greek text:
Cleaned up a little it might read like this:
Thus loves God the world that the Son of him – the only – he gives that everyone believing into him should not be being destroyed but may be having life eternal.
Even in the literal translation the meaning is not unclear but can you imagine reading, let alone explaining, John 3:16 from either of these woodenly literal translations? And this is a verse that, in each of the modern translations, adheres quite closely to the form of the Greek; there are places in the Greek New Testament that if they were to be translated literally would be unrecognisable as well as unreadable.
Rethinking Our Paradigm
The inadequacy of the language of ‘literal translation’ is apparent. A literal translation (as shown above) has its place in the study and in discussions concerning how best to translate Greek and Hebrew into comprehensible modern English but it doesn’t cut it as an option for being our choice of Bible translation for regular and communal reading for the simple reason that it’s too difficult to read and understand. What we need, therefore, is a better way of talking about translation philosophy that isn’t misleading in the way the term literal is. Thankfully, we have just that!
The best way to discuss Bible translation and translation philosophy is by employing the language of formal and functional equivalency. However, the discussion is not one of either/or rather it is of the degree to which each is employed in the translation process. Therefore, the committees responsible for producing our Bible translations have a clear goal in mind. Some will want to produce a more formal translation while others will aim for a more functional translation, others still will try to produce a translation that doesn’t favour either approach but which combines the best of both approaches. Consequently, all modern Bible translations combine both formal and functionally equivalency in their overall translation. It would be impossible to produce a Bible translation that is simply one or the other because it would either be unreadable or it would cease to be a translation and instead become a commentary on the text. But what does all this mean?
When we speak of formal equivalency what we mean is that the translators have sought to retain (as much as possible) the sentence structure and distinctive style of the biblical authors, in other words, they have sought to retain the form of the text. As a result of this, formal translations are unique in their stylistic composition. Some people argue this makes the Bible sound distinctive when it’s read, i.e. hearers know the Bible is being read because it sounds like the Bible. Formal translations can also help modern readers discern textual links (such as the repetition of key words and phrases) because they tend to translate words and phrases consistently. As a result, a formal translation may prompt further study because it will be necessary to understand the meaning behind these textual links before they are of significance.
Functional equivalency, on the other hand, seeks to translate the biblical text so it reads like natural English (or whatever the receptor language happens to be). Sometimes the form of the source language translates well into natural English, in which case, the functional equivalent and the formal equivalent can be one in the same. However, this is not always the case. Functional translations are also concerned with modern readers experiencing the text as its original hearers/readers would have because the authors originally wrote using language their hearers/readers would have immediately grasped but when translated formally into English some of that meaningful impact may be lost because idioms or ideas are foreign to us.
To get a idea of what these two approaches look like in practice we’ll consider one brief example. The ESV aims at formal equivalence, the NIV tries to balance formal and functional equivalence, and the NLT favours functional equivalence. All three are great translations!
“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the LORD. (ESV)
“I gave you empty stomachs in every city
and lack of bread in every town,
yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the Lord. (NIV)
“I brought hunger to every city
and famine to every town.
But still you would not return to me,”
says the Lord. (NLT)
In Amos 4:6 the ESV translates the Hebrew idiom for hunger formally which gives us the phrase cleanness of teeth while the NIV and NLT translate the idiom into natural English so we are able to appreciate the immediate impact of God’s word through the prophet. In a formal translation we get a glimpse into the ancient Israelite culture and their turns of phrase which can be very interesting for building a picture of their culture, similar to how J.R.R. Tolkien included broken references (such as the Cats of Queen Berúthiel which no one blinked at) in the Lord of the Rings to create a world that went beyond the Shire in both space and time. In all three translation the meaning is apparent as the second line clarifies the first: lack of bread/famine so the reader (as long as they are aware of parallelism in Hebrew poetry) will not misinterpret this verse as God providing free dental care then sending a famine (the Lord gives and takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord?).
All translations are a combination of formal and functional translation. And each approach, however much it is used, contributes certain unique benefits to the translation produced which will help readers in different ways (another good reason to own/use multiple Bible translations when studying the Bible – don’t forget that they available to view online for free!).
In my next, and tentatively final, post on Bible translation (for the time being) we’ll consider what I think is probably the most important factor in choosing a Bible translation for regular reading which will hopefully bring all that I’ve said so far together in a helpful and meaningful way.