A simple guide to Bible translation

A simple guide to Bible translation

There are lots of different translations of the Bible. It’s the same book, but the translations read quite differently at times. On top of this, some Christians think their translation is the only one you should read. This can get very confusing! Let me try to cut through the technical arguments and simply explain what Bible translation is and how we should approach it.

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The Old Testament was written in Hebrew (with some short sections in Aramaic) and the New Testament was written in Greek. That means that Bibles in any other language to this have been translated from the original languages. Having the Bible available in the language people actually speak is very important. The Bible was not intended to be restricted to especially educated people. When the Old Testament was written, people spoke Hebrew so they understood it. Likewise, the New Testament was written in the kind of Greek common people spoke, not the type academics wrote in. It is a blessing to have not only one English Bible option, but many to choose from.

Options in how you translate from one language to another

If you’ve ever had to translate from one language to another, you’ll know this is a difficult task even if you’re fluent in both languages. There are three basic approaches:

  • Give the basic idea. You could read a paragraph and then paraphrase it, explaining what was said in a simple way. It might not be the most accurate way to do it, but you can explain the main ideas clearly. Bible translations that are really paraphrases include the Message and the Good News Bible.
  • Translate idea for idea. You could try translating sentence for sentence or thought for thought. This makes it more fluent in the second language, because word order and sentence structure are very different between languages. A Bible translation that uses this model is the NIV.
  • Translate word for word. You could try to translate each word carefully into the second language, keeping consistent translations of each word in the original. This sounds more accurate, but it has its problems too. The final product can sound weird as it keeps some of the sentence structure of the original; kind of like how Yoda talks in Star Wars. A Bible translation that uses this model is the ESV.

You cannot help interpreting as well as translating

One of the issues with Bible translation is that a translation is never just a translation. It always has some interpretation. Words rarely have just one meaning. When you translate a word, you need to pick one of the meanings. The reader of the translation might never know it could have been translated differently, so some interpretation has been made. For example, the Greek word for ‘church’ also just means ‘gathering’. It might not be clear if the writer means to speak of a local church or simply a gathering, so the translator picks the one they think makes most sense.

Because of this issue, many churches (including the one I serve) require all pastors to study and be examined in Greek and Hebrew. This means pastors are equipped to understand the original text and are not limited to translations.

So…which translation is best?

I know it’s frustrating, but the answer is ‘it depends’. It is not so easy as picking the one most technically accurate and discarding the rest, for translation is more an art than a science. Different translations are best in different contexts.

What you should look for are Bible translations that are widely accepted across denominations, so you don’t end up with something modified to fit a specific church. This would eliminate the New World Translation favoured by the JWs, for that translation differs from others in key areas to fit JW theology.

You should preferably use real translations and not paraphrases. God’s word is important down to the details, so you don’t want to miss too many of those. The Good News Bible, for example, cuts down the size of the Old Testament dramatically, and you don’t know what you’re missing. That being said, of course reading a paraphrase is better than not reading the Bible at all!

And you should consider the context of the people reading the Bible. If you are fluent in Shakespearean English, you’ll love the King James Version (KJV). If you speak modern English and are not familiar with old English, the KJV is not a good choice, for language has changed and you can’t help but misinterpret some bits. If English is a second language for you, something easy to read is a must. The NIV is good if your English is OK; in our church, we use the Easy-to-read Version from the Bible League for our English class students for it is easier still.

If you are teaching the Bible, a more formal kind of version like the English Standard Bible (ESV) is helpful for its consistency in translation. It is always helpful to compare it to other versions though to make sure you don’t miss the concepts if things are phrased a little oddly.

Let’s remember the big picture: it is a blessing to have the Bible in our own language, and to have so many choices! Let’s make the most of this gift and actually read it.