God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Top Translation Traps: Seductive Translations

Some readers want clarity (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 forth.

I think what these approaches to translation and others like them have in common is that they put the proverbial cart before the horse. Rather than looking at the Bible and seeing what its text is like, readers opt instead for a translation that adheres to their own sense of attractiveness.

This is why comments on this blog, BBB, and others often run along the lines of: “I prefer that translation because it sounds better / is more meaningful / is more spiritual / resonates / reminds me of my childhood / sounds biblical.”

These seem like worthy goals. For example, isn’t a spiritual translation of the Bible better than a non-spiritual one?

I don’t think so, or, at least, not necessarily.

I think, rather, that chasing attractive Bible translations is similar to falling prey to other forms of seduction: the superficial qualities of beauty or what-not mask the fundamental drawbacks.

It seems to me that the value of a translation lies primarily in its fidelity to the original. After all, this is what distinguishes translation from creative writing.

In this regard, translation can be likened to photography. By example, we might consider two photos of war carnage, one that shows the violence of war in all its ugliness, the other than has been manipulated to appear beautiful. Simply as a shot for hanging in the living room, the aesthetic photo is probably a better choice. But as a representation of what happened, the ugly photo has the upper hand. Those who want to understand war would have to be careful not to let the false depiction mislead them.

Similarly, choosing a translation only because of the qualities of the writing — rather than taking into account accuracy — is to decide what the Bible should be rather than to discover it.

For example, Steve Runge recently wrote about redundancy and, in particular, the NET’s decision to remove it from Deuteronomy 9:25. The NET explains in a footnote there that “The Hebrew text includes ‘when I prostrated myself.’ Since this is redundant, it has been left untranslated.'” As it happens, I don’t think this is a case of redundancy in the Hebrew, but my point here is not the nature of the Hebrew but rather the brazen NET footnote that seems to suggest: “We didn’t like the original, so we’re giving you something better.” The redundancy-free translation is seductive, but is it accurate?

We also see from the NET footnote that it’s not just lay readers who chase seductive translations. It’s official translators, too. The NET, in this case, doesn’t want redundancy. The ESV — which seemingly has nothing in common with the NET — wants formality. But this, too, is a form of seduction. What good is formality if the original is not similarly formal?

Bibles are created, sold, purchased, and read in a consumer-driven world of personal choice. Marketers have known for a long time that seduction sells. Is it possible that it sells Bibles, too?


January 11, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , ,


  1. Equally subjective is the appeal of making the translation more “orthodox,” more “harmonious” or “more scientifically accurate.”

    The NETBible has shown significant integrity in avoiding “back-translation,” which is the practice of mistranslating a Hebrew text to agree with an NT citation from the LXX.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 11, 2010

  2. Thankfully “resonates” is on the decline. Used to drive me nuts.

    A little typo at “falling pray”. A good word to mis-type (sp?).

    Thank you for the post.

    Comment by Scripture Zealot | January 11, 2010

  3. Thankfully “resonates” is on the decline. Used to drive me nuts.


    A little typo at “falling pray”.

    I’d love to call it a typo — which I’ve now fixed — but if I’m going to be honest, I just spelled it wrong (hardly the first time, and surely not the last).

    Comment by Joel H. | January 11, 2010

  4. What clues do we have to determine the relative formality of the text, when dealing with the way a language was used 2000-3000(+) years ago?

    Similarly, how do we spot idioms, let alone discover what they originally meant, complete – presumably – with their original connotations? I’ve enjoyed having several of Paul’s allusions to contemporary Greek writers pointed out, but I guess there were more, and earlier – including to writers we no longer have access to.

    Comment by Peter Parslow | January 12, 2010

    • If I am not mistaken, “Thus saith the lord” was not vulgar language, even when it was written, but was a form used for lofty effect. We would not say, “Thus saith Dad, do the dishes…,” nor would they. That is what I read in some commentary or other, I believe.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | January 12, 2010

    • What clues do we have to determine the relative formality of the text, when dealing with the way a language was used 2000-3000(+) years ago?

      Excellent question.

      Even without the added complication of the passage of time, register (formality, informality, crudeness, irony, etc.) is one of the hardest aspects of a foreign language to detect. I would guess that we’re missing a lot of the nuances of the ancient texts. Even so, I think we should be clear on what our goals are.

      And at the very least, we can often detect changes in style. It’s hard to know what they represent, but these changes do tell us that a uniformly formal translation, for example, or a uniformly chatty one, is unlikely to be accurate.

      I also think that we might have better luck with Greek than with Hebrew, because we have more extra-Biblical sources to help.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 12, 2010

  5. Someone has suggested that the third gospel was prepared for Paul’s legal defense. There does seem to be the suggestion that the text was written to an official:

    Lu 1:3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, **most excellent** Theophilus,

    Ac 23:26 Claudius Lysias unto **the most excellent** governor Felix sendeth greeting.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 12, 2010

  6. Actually, I would say that The Message is vivid/poetic, not clear. It reads like a piece of creative writing (which it is), not a clear reflection of the basic meaning of the original (cf. CEV).

    I’ve never quite warmed up to The Message, but I believe it does what it intends, and that is not to be clear but to be “gripping”.

    Just my rather unrelated thoughts.

    Comment by John | January 12, 2010

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