According to a recent report by Lifeway Research, described by David Roach in the Baptist Press, “most American Bible readers … value accuracy over readability,” which is why they “prefer word-for-word translations of the original Greek and Hebrew over thought-for-thought translations.”There is overwhelming evidence and near universal agreement among linguists that word-for-word translations are less accurate than other approaches.* Equally, translators generally agree that, when the original is readable (as much of the Bible is), accuracy and readability go hand in hand. That is, valuing accuracy is often the same as valuing readability.
So what’s going on?
One question might be, “why do so many Bible readers still make the basic mistake of choosing the wrong translation (word-for-word) to achieve their goal (accuracy)?”
Another question might be, “is there some merit to the word-for-word translations that linguistic approaches are missing?” (I try to answer that question here: “the value of a word for word translation.”)
A third question might be, “is there something about thought-for-thought translations that makes them unsuitable even though they ought to be more accurate?” (I think the answer is yes.)
But I’m starting to wonder about the ongoing Bible-translation debate that pits accuracy against readability, and words against thoughts. Maybe it’s not primarily about language and translation at all. Maybe the issue is part of the broader disagreement about the roles of religion of science and how to balance the two. In other words, sticking to a word-for-word translation may be like opting for a literal biblical account of history and rejecting evolution, at least for some people.
What do you think?
[Updates: Mike Sangrey has a follow-up on BBB with the delightful title, “Headline news: Accuracy Battles Readability — Surreality Wins.” And in a post on the same topic at BLT, J. K. Gayle creates what I think is the right frame of mind with, “Imagine having to chose between accuracy and readability in a translation of Orhan Pamuk or Homer or Virgil.”]
(*) Just for example, my post on “what goes wrong when we translate the words” gives a sense of one problem; my post on “what goes wrong when we translate the grammar” gives another. My recent TEDx video explores the issue in more detail, and my And God Said goes into much more detail.)
This past July I had the pleasure of presenting at a TEDx conference in East Hampton, the broad theme of which was “The Next Generation.”
So I offered an 18-minute segment on Bible translation, on what so often goes wrong with translations, and on how to avoid the common mistakes. I couched these topics in the broader theme of why the Bible is important for the next generation.
The edited version of my presentation is available here and on YouTube:
After watching it, you’ll be able to answer these questions:
- Why is the King James Version (“KJV”) so important for understanding Bible translation today?
- What are the three most common ways of understanding ancient languages?
- Why don’t those ways work? How do we know? And what are some consequences?
- What is a better approach? Again, how do we know?
- Why are the Ten Commandments still uniquely relevant?
- What does all of this have to do with supermarkets?
I’ve touched on many of these themes in individual blog posts here, and I go through all of them (except for the supermarkets) in And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, but here’s a compact and relatively complete introduction. Enjoy!
And then take a look at the other presentations.
I also want to express my thanks to Left of Frame Pictures for producing the videos.