God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Blank Slate of Incoherent Translation

In a comment to Mike Aubrey’s post on Dynamic Equivalence, Davis asks:

Do you think a lot of this misunderstanding in the method of translation comes from a shallow understanding of the original languages? Since most people are trained to basically decode a sentence into English, instead of actually learning the languages so that they think and understand in Greek and Hebrew, then entire translations are produced that are more of a decoding rather than a translation.

I think Davis is absolutely right. And I think two reasons lie behind what is frequently a superficial approach to translation.

First, some people don’t have the means to understand the ancient texts. Learning ancient Hebrew or Greek involves a lot more than learning the vocabulary.

Secondly, though, some people — consciously or unconsciously — don’t want to fully learn the ancient languages. I think there is sometimes something spiritually satisfying about an opaque text. Ironically, a phrase without a specific meaning can sometimes be incredibly meaningful, precisely because it offers a blank slate upon which readers can superimpose their own meanings.

For example, I do not believe that most English speakers today can understanding the following KJV translation of Matthew 17:25:

He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?

Yet many of these same English speakers prefer the KJV to the NLT:

“Of course he does,” Peter replied. Then he went into the house to talk to Jesus about it. But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him, “What do you think, Peter? Do kings tax their own people or the foreigners they have conquered?”

I think one reason Bible readers sometimes prefer the KJV is that the archaic language makes it easier for them make the text mean what they want it to mean.


September 22, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , ,


  1. I’ve been thinking about some of these issues for a while now, also. My response: http://blog.jasonstaples.com/2009/09/blank-slates-and-poor-english-equal-bad.html

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | September 22, 2009

  2. What an interesting perspective. I’m actually surprised not to have considered that (i.e., some people like archaic or “opaque” language precisely because it allows them to interpret the text as meaning whatever they want it to) myself.

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright | September 22, 2009

  3. I think one reason Bible readers sometimes prefer the KJV is that the archaic language makes it easier for them make the text mean what they want it to mean.

    I’ve thought this for awhile. I’m glad I now have company.

    Comment by A.Admin | September 23, 2009

  4. […] suggested here that people might have more than an accidental personal investment in strange or even incoherent […]

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  5. […] September 22, 2009 By Jason A. Staples Joel Hoffman has just observed that he thinks many people prefer the “blank slate” that comes from incoherent translation because it allows them to see whatever they choose in the […]

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  6. […] (as in The Message or the CEV) in a Bible translation. Others want loftiness (NKJV), or even near incoherence (KJV). Others yet opt for chattiness (Good News). And so […]

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  7. It lets amateurs play translator without making them work for it.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | January 12, 2010

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