One of the commonly suggested solutions for overcoming bad Bible translations is to “learn Hebrew and Greek” and “read the Bible in the original.”
While there are many good reasons to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek, I don’t think that better insight into the original meaning of the Bible is one of them.
This came up most recently in Dr. Bill Mounce’s latest post in his weekly “Mondays with Mounce” column about Bible translation: “A Translation Conundrum – 1 Tim 2:9 (Monday with Mounce 165).” There he addresses the Greek phrase en plegmasin, commonly “with braided hair” (ESV, NIV, etc.), but “with elaborate hairstyles” in the NIV2011 and “by the way they fix their hair” in the NLT.
Dr. Mounce explains that braided hair was one way of “enforcing a social pecking order and class system that was woefully inappropriate for the church.” Accordingly, just to translate “braided hair” leaves the modern reader wrongly thinking that there is something inherently undesirable about braided hair, when the point is really what that braided hair represented.
He concludes that this is “a good reason to learn Greek and Hebrew….”
In this particular case, what’s needed to understand the passage is not only a knowledge of the Greek language but a detailed understanding of Greek fashion (though, in fact, I think the fuller context of the verse makes the meaning pretty clear: “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes.” [NRSV]).
This sort of issue is exactly what an amateur or even advanced Greek student would get wrong. Armed with a knowledge of Greek, such a student would look at the word plegma, discern that it means “woven,” and proudly announce that the NIV2011 got it wrong.
More generally, the notion that studying Greek (or Hebrew) leads to a better understanding of the original texts is predicated on the idea that a student can do better than the professional translators. While, unfortunately, Bible translations tend to be of lower quality than other translations, they are still good enough that it’s pretty hard for all but the most expert students of Greek and Hebrew to find a true mistake.
What usually happens instead is that a professional translation takes a variety of factors into account while the student misses some of the nuances. Most people, unless they intend to become an expert, will understand the Bible better in translation. Worse, because of their limited knowledge, they’ll think their own reading is better than the accepted translations. This is a case of the clichéd way in which a little knowledge is dangerous.
I still think there’s value to learning Hebrew and Greek. I see it as akin to going to a museum to see an artifact versus just reading about it. It brings people closer to the original in very powerful ways.
Additionally, both Jewish and Christian traditions hold that there’s inherent value to the original words, even beyond their meaning.
So, absolutely, learn Hebrew and Greek. But I think it’s a good idea to keep professional translations handy, too.
In 2008, as I was writing And God Said, I described the King James Version (KJV) as the “fool’s-gold standard” of English Bible translation. That was approximately 397 years after the watershed publication of the KJV, hardly a date worth noticing.
But today the KJV turns 400, and with that anniversary has come renewed world-wide attention to what certainly ranks as one of the most important and influential translations of the Bible ever. But some of the celebration is misplaced.
It’s not that I don’t like the KJV. I do. It’s often poetic in ways that modern translations are not. And I recognize all it has done both for English speakers who are serious about their faith and more widely. Dr. Alister McGrath is correct when he writes in his In The Beginning that the “King James Bible was a landmark in the history of the English language, and an inspiration to poets, dramatists, artists, and politicians.”
Equally, I appreciate the dedication and hard work that went into the KJV, as Dr. Leland Ryken passionately conveys in his Understanding English Bible Translation: “[f]or people who have multiple English Bibles on their shelves, it is important to be reminded that the vernacular Bible [the KJV] was begotten in blood.”
Yet for all its merits, the King James Version is monumentally inaccurate, masking the Bible’s original text. There are two reasons for the errors.
The first is that English has changed in 400 years, so even where the KJV used to be accurate, frequently now it no longer is. (My video-quiz about the English in the KJV — Do You Speak KJV? — illustrates this point.)
The second reason is that the KJV was written several hundred years before the advent of modern translation theory, linguistics, and, in general, science. Just as advances like carbon dating and satellite imagery help us know more about antiquity now than people did 400 years ago (even though they were a little closer to the original events), we also know more about ancient Hebrew and Greek now than they did 400 years ago. In fact, we know much more, both about the ancient languages and about how to convey them in translation.
Like Heinrich Bunting’s famous 16th-century “clover-leaf map” of the world that adorns my office wall (the map puts the holy city of Jerusalem right in the middle, surrounded by three leaves: Europe, Asia, and Africa), the KJV translation is of enormous value historically, politically, sentimentally, and perhaps in other ways. But also like Bunting’s map, the KJV is, in the end, not very accurate.
And those who would navigate the Bible solely with this 400-year-old translation journey in perils.
The debate between “formal equivalence” and “functional equivalence” has come up again at BBB, this time in the comment thread to a post about David Ker’s The Bible Wasn’t Written To You. (It’s a free e-book. Take a look.)
Dannii started the debate with a reference to his post “In which I ask if there’s any value to conveying morphosyntax.”
John Hobbins countered that “mimicking syntactical patterns of the source text in translation is […] a reasonable default strategy.”
That is, essentially, the crux of the debate: whether or not the grammatical details of the original should be mimicked in translation or not. The formal equivalence camp thinks yes. Functional-equivalence translators disagree.
My take is that mimicking the grammar is as foolish as mimicking the sounds. We don’t translate the Greek ho (which means “the”) as “hoe” just to mimick the sounds. And we shouldn’t translate, say, a passive verb in Greek or Hebrew as a passive one in English just to mimic the grammar. Failure to realize this basic point, it seems to me, is to misunderstand what translation is.
So why is this basic theoretical point nonetheless so hard to grasp?
I think part of the answer lies in the practice of Bible translation. By and large, published English versions of the Bible are either formally equivalent or flawed in other ways, so the debate ends up, in practice, pitting formal equivalence not against functional equivalence but instead against other kinds of mistranslations.
The non-formally equivalent CEB can help us understand how this plays out.
Among that translation’s aims is that it should be written at a 7th-grade reading level. But I think that that goal is a mistake, because the Bible is not written at a 7th-grade reading level, so from the outset, the CEB has made a decision to abandon accuracy in some regards. And as part of pursuing that goal, the CEB’s editors make other mistakes. For instance, the CEB recasts Hebrews 12:1, turning it into a statement about going in a different direction in life, while the original is about going unburdened in the same direction.
Similarly, from the CEB translation comparison, we see that Genesis 2:7 now reads, “the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land” instead of the NRSV, “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (their italics, to highlight the comparison). But the original doesn’t have any notion of “fertile,” and “topsoil” is almost certainly wrong for what should be “dust.”
My point is not to pick on the CEB, but rather to use it to highlight what I think goes wrong in the formal equivalence versus functional equivalence debate.
The formal equivalence crowd looks at the kinds of mistakes we just saw in the CEB, and, rightly in my opinion, notes that these versions miss essential aspects of the original. Then they compare, say, the NRSV renditions of these verses. The NRSV correctly has “lay aside every weight” in Hebrews 12:1. It correctly has “dust” in Genesis 2:7. And it doesn’t introduce the notion of “fertile” there.
In these cases, the NRSV is more accurate that the CEB. But I don’t think that the NRSV’s accuracy here comes from its philosophy. Rather, I think it comes, in this case, in spite of its philosophy.
After all, it’s this same philosophy that leads the NRSV to translate Mark 12:18 as, “The Sadducees … asked him a question, saying:” even though we don’t “say” questions in English; we ask them. The NRSV makes the same mistake in Genesis 44:19.
The supporters of functional equivalence use mistakes like these in the NRSV to attack formal equivalence.
And what follows is a debate where both sides are right — because both the CEB and the NRSV have mistakes — but where neither side is really talking about translation theory. They are talking about practice.
So instead of asking which version is better, I think the right questions are:
1. Can functional-equivalence translations be fixed without abandoning their translation philosophy?
2. Can formal-equivalence translations be fixed without abandoning their translation philosophy?
Zondervan has a chart (reproduced immediately below at right) suggesting that effectively conveying both the form and meaning of the original Biblical documents is the best way to reflect the original reading experience.
I disagree, and I think that Zondervan’s approach represents a common and fundamental misunderstanding about how form works.
Form and Meaning
For one thing, form contributes to meaning. So I think it’s a mistake to put “form” and “meaning” on separate axes, as though a translator can convey one without impacting the other.
We see a very basic example in English. “John sees Mary” does not mean the same thing as “Mary sees John.” The form — in this case, the order of the words — contributes to the meaning.
By contrast, word order works differently in Greek. So in Acts 10:38, we find “Jesus of Nazareth anointed God” — “Iesoun … echrisen o theos” — but it very clearly means “God anointed Jesus.” In Greek, grammatical changes to the words themselves (“case endings,” as in the change from iesous to iesoun, for example) sometimes do the same thing as word order in English.
So in this case, we see that capturing the form means missing the meaning, and vice versa.
Acts 10:38 demonstrates the point particularly clearly, but the grammar there is not exceptional. Rather, mirroring the form of the Bible in English often means sacrificing the meaning, because form works differently in Hebrew, Greek, and English.
I have more examples in my post on mimicry.
Form and Flavor
I suspect that people often have “flavor” in mind when they think of “form.” Flavor (which I call “affect” in And God Said) includes the difference between formal and informal language, between funny and serious, etc.
In English, “God, no one has seen” is either particularly formal, or, for some speakers, ungrammatical. But I think everyone can understand that it means the same thing as “No one has seen God.” The difference between the first version (“God, no one has seen”) and the second is a matter of flavor.
And, like meaning, this difference in flavor is conveyed by the word order.
But in Greek, “God no one has seen” — theon oudeis eoraken — is not formal in the same way. That’s why John 1:18 (theon [God] oudeis [no one] eoraken [has seen]) is translated “no one has ever seen God” as opposed to “God no one has ever seen.” To translate “God, no one has seen” is to misunderstand how Greek and English work.
As with meaning, we see that form contributes to flavor, but it not the same as flavor. More generally, in order to capture the flavor, a translator often has to sacrifice the form.
The Inherent Value of FormOnce we see that conveying the form doesn’t help with the meaning or with the flavor, I think we see that conveying the form is only helpful for actually studying the original languages of the Bible, not for conveying the original reading experience.
So my version of Zondervan’s chart (at left) notes that a good translation conveys both the meaning and flavor of the original, and further notes that slavery to form makes it difficult to do either one well.
Still following up on my question about accuracy and choosing Bible translations, and by way of answering my question about whether it’s okay if people choose what the Bible is, it occurs to me that music might be a useful comparison.
Many, many parts of the Bible have been set to music, and the options for any single passage usually range considerably. So people get to choose, for example, if they want Isaiah to be majestic or meditative, or if they want the Lord’s Prayer to be glorious, powerful, or pensive.
And most people — myself included — don’t see any problem with this. We should be able to choose how we want our religious music to sound.
But most people also agree — and again, I’m one of them — that we don’t get to choose what our religious texts mean, or, at least, that the options are more constrained.
So it seems to me that another way of looking of the question of choosing a Bible translation is this: Should a Bible translation be more like a melody (where everything is fair game), or more like a mirror (where accuracy is paramount)?
One interesting (though entirely predictable) result was that some people prefer more than one translation: the NLT for “readability,” for example, but the NET for “accuracy,” or the NASB for use in formal settings.
Even people who only have one preferred translation usually like the translation for similar kinds of reasons.
The upshot of this, though, is that people are deciding for themselves what the Bible is.
You can decide to have a formal Bible, a chatty Bible, an accessible Bible, or an esoteric Bible. You can opt for a Christian OT or a Jewish OT (even though it’s the same text).
Do you think this is okay? Do you think it’s okay that people get to choose what the Bible is (for them)?
I found out that I had a lot to learn from the God of my New Living Translation Study Bible […]
Why didn’t I discover this about him earlier? I had allowed my pride and prejudice to cloud my judgment. The kind of pride that sometimes keeps me from recognizing the Jesus of the New Living Translation Study Bible.
If I’ve understood the author’s point (the post is signed by Gladys N.), the claim seems to be that the NLT has its own God and its own Jesus. If so, obviously, the NLT is not a translation but a rewrite, and one that, presumably, readers who are interested in the original God and Jesus would want to avoid. In other words, what the author seems to think of as a merit is in my mind a fault.
Later on, the author posits that, “God made this [message] clear in His Word in the New Living Translation Study Bible.”
But the statements seems so outrageous — almost like a parody of the KJV-onlyists — that I have to believe I’ve missed what’s really going on.
The question of the value of consulting multiple translations comes up from time to time (recently here, for example). But beyond flagging passages where a reader might want to investigate a bit more, I’m not entirely sure what the value is. As the chart to the right depicts (click on it to enlarge it), multiple translations can easily cluster around a meaning which is wrong.
One easy way for this to happen is when translators base their work on older wrong translations. They might do this directly by consulting the older translations, or indirectly by looking up words in a lexicon that in turn is based on an older translation.