Watch the Video Presentation: “Some Issues in Bible Translation” along with the following notes.
This presentation is just over 10 minutes long and introduces a number of issues faced in translating the Bible from its original languages. It is only a brief introduction but might help to make the student aware of a number of areas that could be pursued later.
The Text To Be Translated (0.15)
For the Hebrew Bible, the agreed starting point is known as Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia – or BHS for short.
The agreed Greek text is that published by the United Bible Societies (UBS) or the German Bible Society ‘Nestle-Aland’ edition. Both texts are identical, the difference being in the way the ‘critical apparatus’ is set out. This refers to the information concerning variations between different manuscripts and how the editorial committee reached its conclusions as to which readings to accept. Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994) explains these decisions for the non-specialist.
‘Literal’ versus ‘Dynamic’ Translation (2.12)
The word ‘literal’ has different meanings according to the context in which it is used. In the context of translation it has the sense of ‘word-for-word’ in contrast to the dynamic equivalence approach to translation which is ‘idiom-for-idiom’ or ‘thought for thought’ .
Examples of extremely literal translations: Aquila’s Greek Old Testament, the first Wyclif translation before its revision by John Purvey, and to a lesser degree the New American Standard Version.
A clear example of ‘dynamic equivalence’ is the Good News Bible but most recent English versions since the middle of the twentieth century have, to a greater or lesser extent, taken the dynamic approach. Even the conservative translators of the New International Version state that their first concern is “the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers” (and note that it is “thought” not “words” to which they aim). The translators also affirm that “faithful communication of the meaning of the writers of the Bible demands frequent modifications in sentence structure and constant regard for the contextual meanings of words.”
The problem of religious conservatism (4.11)
“The old is good” (Luke 5:39).
There are many and various reasons why new versions of the Bible are not always accepted by the church at large. Some of these are positive reasons and are to be commended. We do not want to be forever chasing the latest fad and Gamiel’s principle from Acts 5 is apposite: if it is from God it will succeed and if not it will fail. Then there are practical considerations. If your congregation has sufficient copies of whatever translation of the Bible you use then the cost of replacing all of them will have to be a consideration, particularly if you need to add some large print editions to the bill.
While we can understand the desire to remain steadfastly committed to a trusted translation and appreciate the wisdom of not rushing it to follow the latest trend there will be times when all of us need to ask why we are using a particular version and whether there might be something better available. For our private and family study and devotional reading this can be easily done but if your congregational policy is not only to sing from the same hymnbook but also to read from the same Bible then changing might be a once in a generation decision.
Public and private reading (5.55)
See Perry, M., The Dramatised Bible (London: Marshall Pickering, 1990).
An example of putting pauses in the wrong place that drastically changes the meaning:
“Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God / who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus / who died . . . .” (Romans 8:33-34)
Inclusive language (6.56)
The Greek ̣`ανθροπος / anthropos (human being) is masculine in form and is not the same word as `ανερ / aner, a male human being. To translate both as ‘man’ is to miss something and risk distorting the meaning. And what of Jesus’ regular self-designation as ‘the Son of Man’, a phrase that literally means a human being? If the ‘son of man’ in Psalm 8: 4 becomes ‘human beings’, what are we to do with Hebrews 2: 6 where on the basis of that verse the writer sees the Psalm as pointing to Jesus? All this is to do with Biblical ways of speaking about people. Feminist discomfort with masculine language about God (a masculine devil seems to be less offensive) has not yet been reflected in Bible translation. This has rightly been regarded by translators as a different issue from the exclusion of half the human race by pronouns.