On Bible Translations

No translation from one language into another is perfect.  There are subtle nuances of meaning that must, of necessity, be sacrificed when moving form language to another.  Of course, new subtleties can then be introduced, but these are the translator’s, not the author’s.

With Bible translations, there is always the problem that one’s understanding of what a passage is supposed to mean will color the translation of that passage, to the point that it will mean something entirely different in the new language than it did in the original.  (NIV, I’m talking about you.  And we won’t even discuss your most recent revision.  It’s just an embarrassment.)

The ESV, for the most part, has no particular theological axe to grind.  And that’s a good thing.  The translation is generally faithful.  But it suffers from a peculiar problem, that is otherwise unique in biblical translation, as far as I can tell.  It tries to be ultra-scholarly.  How is that a bad thing?  If there is a simple, but poetic way of saying something, as well as a convoluted and egghead-ish way of saying the same thing, guess which one the ESV will pick?

Part of the discipline for the pastor is using a bible translation.  That is, explaining things when necessary, but actually using a translation that you know to be inferior to the original languages.  This means disciplining yourself to actually read one translation from the pulpit week after week, even though another translation might be better that particular week.

But there are limits.  Obviously, a pastor can not allow false doctrine to intrude. The most egregious example known to me is from NIV, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”  The original is, “today I have begotten you.”  The new version allows for (encourages) Adoptionism, a heresy of the early church.  In this case, the pastor must ‘fix it’.  He can not read the heretical translation.

Then there is the ESV for Epiphany.   This is a hard one.  It isn’t heretical, but it takes “scholarliness” to a whole new level of stupidity.  The wise men come from the east, and say, “We saw the star when it rose!!!??!?”  The greek word is the same in both places.  Yes, it can mean “when it rose.”   Etymologically, the Greek word for ‘East’ makes reference to the rising sun.  So, one can translate it that way, if you want to get really scholarly.  But no one who isn’t just trying to impress everyone with their smartiness actually does translate it that way.  It ruins the symmetry of language between the Wise men from the east, and the star in the east.  It also violates two of the fundamental rules of translation: use the most common  way of translating unless there is ample evidence to the contrary, and be consistent within a section, unless it simply makes no sense to do so.

Now, no theological point is lost in this goofy translation.  But it just makes no sense and it sounds sooooo bad.  In this case, I think the proper solution is to make the change.  It makes the passage fit with every other english translation.  To leave it as it is in the ESV will make everyone go “Wait, what?”  because it sounds wrong.  We know the passage.  They saw the star in the east.  It’s how we all memorized it as children.  And having it different enough to make everyone go ???!!! only makes sense if it was wrong the other way.  So pastors, this Friday, please change the bible reading.  You will be doing your parishioners, the English language, and the Greek language, a big favor.

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3 Responses to On Bible Translations

  1. DWCasey says:

    I’m not a pastor. For my personal and family use, I keep coming back to the NKJV. Not sure how it rates in the technicals, but it’s my preferred. I have and use a few others, but I prefer NKJV.

    • Country Preacher says:

      Among the modern translations, NKJV is among the best. I recommend it. And, despite the pre-ordained adoption of the ESV, I kept hoping for NKJV for the new hymnal.

  2. Rev. Andersen says:

    Consider, however, Numbers 24:17. If we keep the translation “in the East” then we lose a possible connection with that prophecy of the Messiah. It might, instead, be better to add the Numbers text to the service as a second OT reading so that the congregation can see the connection.

    Actually, this may very well be one of those situation where we have no good English translation since the word means both “rising” and “east” and both are probably intended here. I would say that the meaning “rising” would have drawn the Jewish reader to the remembrance of the Numbers text while the meaning “in the East” added emphasis that the Magi had, in fact, come from the East, reminding us that Christ in Matthew 8:11 saw the various prophesies of the people of God coming from all directions as including the Gentiles (such as the Magi).

    As such, probably both translations are clumsy and this would be one of the times the pastor might want to add an explanation either within the sermon or in a brief comment before reading the text.

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