We hold in our hands the living word of God: the Bible. But is there a possibility that what I hold in my hands could be harmful to me? Does it really matter which Bible version I choose? Surely, all the translations are pretty much the same? In this article I will argue that God’s life-giving word loses its worth and true effect when we underestimate the impact a translation can have.
We need to be sure the translation we hold is as true as possible.
We need to be sure the translation we hold is as true as possible. Otherwise what we’re reading is little more than mere human meanderings. If that is the case, your Bible version could in fact be really bad for you.
Bible Translation: A Challenging Art
Translators must take a few things into consideration. Broadly speaking, we might summarise these considerations under two headings: consistency and culture. Other ways of speaking about these two poles include: word-for-word and thought for thought; or literal precision and readability. Culture means translators need to be able to understand the original ancient Hebrew or Greek word (i.e. what it meant when it was written). Then they must find the culturally relevant word in the receptor language it is being translated into (i.e. what it means to us now). Culture is about making it accessible and readable to the hearer. But both accessible and strictly literal translations can hinder understanding.
Both accessible and strictly literal translations can hinder understanding.
Consistency is not allowing culture to dictate so much that we lose the close ties to the original languages. But that’s not all. Translators also have to look at how the sentence is structured. Greek sentences are often back-to-front, especially for English readers. That makes for hard reading. So, the translator has to juggle culture and consistency as well as being sure the reader can understand what is actually being said. Consistency is about being true to the written text.
Literal Consistency vs. Cultural Sensitivity
So, for every Bible version you must ask, is it literally consistent with the original text? And can I understand it for myself? This is no simple exercise. It is a tug-of-war. Therefore translations will deliberately lean into one of these or seek to find a happy medium. You need to know which way your Bible version leans. If one end is culture and the other end is consistency, you want to know where your translation has plotted itself along the spectrum.
Bible Versions Can Vary Wildly
Have you ever tried reading a King James Version (KJV)? It is tough. Why? Because they have plotted themselves extremely close to the consistency factor. This means sentences are at times very hard to understand. For example, “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8, KJV).
A good Bible translation seeks to be culturally accessible, yet as consistent with the original language as possible.
In the New International Version (NIV), the sentence reads: “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read”. The NIV, like the English Standard Version (ESV), tries to keep the tension between culture and consistency. It is always seeking to be culturally accessible, yet as consistent with the original language as possible.
The overcommitment to consistency in more literal translations makes the biblical text difficult to understand for modern ears. On the other hand, an excessive sensitivity to culture can obscure the original meaning. In both cases what we hold in our hands may very well be deficient, even dangerous. For either we are unable to hear God’s word clearly due to an impenetrable translation or we have lost God’s words altogether.
Choosing Between Bible Versions
Our choice cannot be based on which translation we like most. Our desire must first and foremost be what God wished for us to hear, not how or what we wish to hear. This is his word. Therefore great lengths should be taken to read what he originality intended to say. We should not forsake reliability for the benefit of accessibility. So be careful which translation you choose, as it may obscure your view of God.
Be careful which translation you choose: it may obscure your view of God.
We need to be able to carry the word of God to our hearts and into our lives. Thus a trustworthy translation is one that seeks to accommodate the tension between culture and consistency, rather than opt too far for one of them. Or better yet, use two different versions to compare.
I use a NIV which is a good “tension” version. But I also opt for the ESV. On our spectrum, the ESV is one step closer to the consistency or literal end. Therefore I can pick up nuances where meaning might be obscured. One of your preferred versions should lean into the consistency camp, so that you can prioritise God’s original voice. Make sure your Bible translation is trustworthy. Because, when push comes to shove, a translation has the ability to shape your mind and form ideas of who God is and how he works.
Should You Trust Me?
Sometimes understanding all of these ideas can be difficult when we are not able to see the processes and their outcomes in action. Just as you should not take any translation at face value, nor should you treat my words as the gold standard. It’s worthwhile to spend time seeing the discrepancies and differences in action. In my next article we will spend time seeing how the Bible versions differ and the impact it has on our theology.