God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What percentage of your Bible translation is accurate?

I’ve just returned from a three-day festival of learning in Kerhonkson, NY, where I spoke about, among other things, Bible translation.

Right at the end I was asked a great question, which I repeating here: What percentage of your Bible translation is accurate?

We all know that there is no Bible translation that’s 100% accurate. So:

1. Which Bible translation do you prefer?

2. How much of it do you think is accurate?

3. Why?

I’m looking forward to reading your responses.

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January 18, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , ,

18 Comments »

  1. I like the standard King James Version which was translated from what I understand to have been a more reliable text – the Textus Receptus. However, it is not without its problems being translated by non-inspired translators many centuries after the events and on the other side of the Dark Ages during which many traditions crept into our understanding.
    I try to work around this by effectively allowing the Bible to translate itself. The procedure is to find the Strong’s number for a word in question, find all the other uses of the original word from which it comes and then read them all in context. Takes a bit of reading but often the meaning will be quite clear. I have used this for many studies on my website, for example see the page on Colossians 2:14-17 at http://www.jesus-resurrection.info/colossians-2.html

    Comment by rayfoucher | January 18, 2012 | Reply

    • How is looking through a translation for different occurrences of a word in the original
      describable in any way as having the original “translate itself”?

      Comment by Kate Gladstone | January 20, 2012 | Reply

      • Kate, ray, this is often an effective way, albeit unreliable way to study. I mean, you will often find fascinating coincidences. It is a popular “devotional” way to study the scriptures.

        Doing this on the Strong’s *numbers* rather than the English words, is often a bit more revealing.

        But for the more serious translator, it is soooo fraught with peril (such as completely ignoring the grammar!) as to become The Road to Perdition for the unwary.

        Comment by bibleshockers | January 20, 2012

  2. Accuracy to me is to trigger the same response in the receptor language as the orginal Hebrew speaker (or Greek). Poetry, feeling, and understanding can be as ‘accurate’ as a ‘literal’ translation. I am involved in translating a dynamic equivalent version from both Hebrew and Greek. Just finished the Psalms, working now on Luke. Accuracy is difficult to measure. The versions that I am using most is the Stone version, RSV, and find The Living Bible also interesting. Thank you Joel for your brilliant work.

    Comment by Brian | January 18, 2012 | Reply

  3. While I have lots of English Bibles, no one constitutes what I would say is the most accurate, go-to translation.

    If the question I’m working on involves the Hebrew Bible, I’ll usually translate it as I read it. However, because I don’t really trust my translations all that much, I’ll consult books written by people who know what they’re talking about to get a variety of opinions. This is especially helpful for words that depend on context.

    In the end, I often end up with a translation that reads like a mix of English translations.

    As for the New Testament, all bets are off and I am unable to even come close to judging whether an English translation is accurate or not. I do not know Greek, but have several good grammar books and a number of commentaries. So, if the passage is a short one — say one or two verses — I’ll use a lexicon and do my own interlinear translation, study the key words in other contexts, study the commentaries. I can usually come up with a respectable, reasonably accurate translation — but it’s a lot of work.

    However, if an NT passage is a long one, I’ll pick out what seem to be the key words and run ’em through the same process.

    Short answer: I can not cite a Bible that I think is the most accurate.

    Blessings,

    Michael

    Comment by Michael Peterson | January 18, 2012 | Reply

  4. I like the Jewish Study Bible, which often gives alternate readings for passages that are unclear and/or difficult to translate. They also note possible textual variants in the Hebrew that sometimes clear things up.

    Comment by jonkatz | January 18, 2012 | Reply

  5. Subscribing to comments…

    Comment by bibleshockers | January 18, 2012 | Reply

  6. My favourite is still my Jerusalem Bible. It has great footnotes, preserves some unusual readings from the LXX and other sources, and has nice literary qualities.

    The CEB is growing on me, but there’s the odd verse where it’s downright weird.

    Comment by Paul D. | January 18, 2012 | Reply

  7. Like you said, I can’t really pin down accuracy to one English version. I don’t know the original languages, so when I study a passage, I use at least 3 translations to get a better understanding. Currently, I use the NASB, NIV, and the HCSB.

    Comment by John | January 18, 2012 | Reply

  8. This is a fascinating question. I suppose an equally fascinating way to ask that question is to say what percentage is INaccurate. This is difficult. I experiment with different translations quite a bit and read both Greek and Hebrew. Often when I am reading a comparing translations to the original I will ask “now why did they do it that way?” I don’t usually say “wow. That’s inaccurate!” Since the art of translation is never as easy as substituting English words in for the Greek and Hebrew words, there are many factors at work that make one translation different from another. Translation decisions are never made on a binary scale of accurate-inaccurate, but should be seen as more or less helpful for conveying the text behind the translation. So, to try and answer with those caviats,

    1. Right now I am enjoying the Good News Translation and the HCSB.

    2. I can’t give a percentage but I appreciate a few things about these. The Good News is refreshing in some of the more poetic parts. I have not ventured much into the dynamic translations much so this has been fun. I like to read this one to my 4 year-old son. The HCSB has made some big changes that I really appreciate (John 3:16). I did language study under some of the translators, so I know the methodology behind some of it. I also like how it seems to adjust the language based on the genre. Read 1 and 2 Corinthians sometime in one sitting (or two) and you feel like you’re reading a letter.

    3. There are so many factors at work that I don’t think we can point to most translation decisions in a translation and classify them as accurate or inaccurate. Perhaps “more helpful” or “less helpful” would be better.

    Comment by Daniel | January 18, 2012 | Reply

  9. I don’t have a favorite English translation of the Bible. I do have several favorites. And I find that some translations are more useful for some purposes than others. I like to use a translation with more natural English than most Bible versions when I am trying to get the flow, the big picture, of some larger section of the Bible.

    I have studied English Bible versions intensely for quite a few years. I have used a number of them as my main version for extensive periods of time, often due to the version that was used by the particular community of faith I was a part of at the time. After I did formal studies in linguistics, I better understood the many of the differences among different Bible translation were more apparent than real. Many Bible translations for many verses translated from the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament mean the same thing. The differences have more to do with aspects of Enlgish, such as how natural the English is or what register (social level) of language is being used, whether technical words are use or more commonly used equivalents of them, etc.

    I don’t put much stock in claims that some particular Bible translation is more accurate than another. I have found that when I actually study that version, it usually says the same thing as other Bible translations, just with different words. There are a few more significant differences for translation of some words or phrases in the Bible. But here, the differences often have to do with different ways that something written in the biblical languages can be understood. I like it when a Bible translation is footnoted to indicate other legitimate ways something can be translated.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | January 19, 2012 | Reply

  10. I like the New American Bible, mainly because of its readability. Not sure how accurate it is, but it does point out any ambiguities or discrepancies in the footnotes. It even talks about the wordplay and the poetic significance of the text in its original language in some passages.

    Comment by Omar Orestes | January 19, 2012 | Reply

  11. So far we have ten comments, all of them interesting, but not one with an answer to the question: What percentage of your Bible translation do you think is accurate?

    Any takers?

    Comment by Joel H. | January 19, 2012 | Reply

  12. I love Robert Alter’s translations of the Prophets. There are many Torah commentaries for lay audiences, not so many of the Writings and the Prophets.
    For the Torah, I don’t have any true favorites. During some of my favorite Torah studies, everyone at the table has a different translation/commentary so we get a more complete view of what’s being said.
    It’s been a while since I picked up a New Testament except when visiting a friend’s church. I will be a true heretic and say that I like the one from the Jesus Seminar: The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, It has commentary, similar to a copy of the Torah. I don’t always agree with their conclusions, but I like the questions they raise. And I like the references to historical evidence.

    Comment by marian42 | January 19, 2012 | Reply

  13. The only way to reasonably ensure accuracy, people would have to learn to read Hebrew; context would require studying history, and for a great majority of people that is not going to happen. Either the resources aren’t available to learn, or, in the case of many, lack the desire to, prefering to continue being told what certain verses mean.

    Comment by Herb | January 20, 2012 | Reply

  14. […] last attempt to see how people understand the accuracy of their Bible translations didn’t work. I got a […]

    Pingback by What percentage of your Bible translation is accurate? (Trying again.) « God Didn't Say That | January 20, 2012 | Reply

  15. I think the question you’re asking is valuable and interesting, but it requires far more expertise than I have. And, to be honest, you’d have to explain it a little bit. Specifically, what do you mean by “accurate”?

    I’m an engineer; we have a settled definition for accuracy. An accurate measurement process is one which, when repeated independently, produces results that have an average value near the average measurement for a large number of different measurement processes. Picture a dartboard, and your process tends to land its darts in the same general area of the board that everyone else’s process does.

    (By the way, compare this to the engineering definition of “precision”. A precise measurement process is one which, when repeated, produces results which cluster together tightly. An ideal measurement is both precise and accurate. A precise but inaccurate measurement isn’t usually worth carrying out; an accurate but imprecise measurement must be performed many times.)

    I think, therefore, that you’re asking us to evaluate, for every statement in our favorite translation, how closely its meaning comes to approximating the average meaning of all other decent translations. That’s a ton of work to do, and I haven’t done it.

    On the other hand, you know what? Right now I have six English translations running in parallel in my Bible study program. Do you see what that tells me about what I believe? It’s that my translations are accurate but imprecise. I EXPECT them to differ, and I expect to have to take the differences into account.

    (I also have two views saved, one with NET/ESV/Hebrew/LXX and the other with NET/ESV/WHNU with variants/accented WH. Obviously, I don’t expect six translations to be enough to give me an accurate reading.)

    -Wm

    Comment by Wm Tanksley | January 20, 2012 | Reply

  16. I have read and used several different versions of English bibles, but the one I use the most is the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). I find this to not only be the easiest to read, but the most accurate of all English translations.

    Comment by Erik Shonts | April 8, 2012 | Reply


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