The Unattainable Quest for a Perfect Bible Translation

It is impossible to translate the Bible accurately. Your English Bible does not say what the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts said. And this isn’t just a problem with English — since Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the original Greek texts of the Gospels didn’t say what Jesus said.

These words might sound outrageous, but they are factual. Whatever we believe about the inerrancy, infallibility, and inspiration of the original autographs, and whatever we believe about the preservation of God’s Word through the ages, we need to come to terms with the nature of language and translation when we read the Bible in a language and a culture outside of that in which it was written.

Language is Rooted in Culture

Each human language is a product of the environment, culture, history, and collective consciousness of a group of people. These factors determine the vocabulary, syntax, idioms, and other features of the language that people speak in a given region at a given time.

Linguists believe that the human brain is wired for grammar and that babies don’t have to be taught to speak as much as taught how the language of their family fills in the blanks in the concept of grammar that they already have in their newborn minds. Despite this, because external conditions are different everywhere, languages develop in ways that make them markedly different.

Consider the Pirahã language, spoken by the Pirahã people of the Amazon. It has no words for specific numbers. It has concepts like “some” and “many”, but not “seven” or “seventy times seven”. If you believe that it is significant that Jacob had 12 sons and Jesus had 12 disciples, how do you convey that idea in in the Pirahã language? If you believe Daniel’s “seventy weeks of years” started on a particular date and ended (or will end) on a particular date, how would you translate that to Pirahã?

Sometimes the problems aren’t technical, but cultural. How do you convey the precise meaning of the Inuktitut word “qaggiq” in English to an American? Yes, it’s a large communal snow-house or igloo used for community gatherings, dances, and traditional celebrations, but are you sure you understand its full depth of its meaning to those who live in a communal culture with social practices very different from your own? Consider a more relatable example: are you sure you can explain to a person with no exposure to any Western religion the difference between a church, synagogue, temple, and a mosque? Even if they understand that these are all “buildings for religious activity”, and that a church is specifically Christian, can you convey the full range of memories and emotions that you recall when you speak of your church? And once you get that down, can you make that person understand that your local church is not so much a building as it is the manifestation of a metaphor?

The point is that the simplest words have meaning that are rooted in the culture in which they are spoken. An American might cringe to hear his British friend say he’s going to put on a jumper before going out in the cold. And imagine the shock to the Brit when the American says he need to change into a different pair of pants since they’re going to a fancy restaurant! Even though both of these people speak English, it’s not the same English because language is cultural. One puts on a sweater, not a sleeveless dress (“jumper”) before going out in the cold in America. And one might change his trousers, not his underwear (“pants”) when going to a fancy restaurant in the UK.

Languages Are Spoken, Not Written

We tend to think of English in its written form. Many or most of the grammar rules we learn in school apply when writing, and when we’re translating the Bible, we’re translating from one written form to another.

But languages are first and foremost spoken. It’s statistically rare for a language to have a writing system. Only about 10% of the world’s 6000-7000 languages have a writing system. And many of those 600 or so writing systems are understood only by the scholars and practitioners who create them — the people who natively speak the language have no need to read or write it.

As a result of the fact that language is a spoken phenomena, languages exist and have meaning for very short periods of time. And they naturally evolve. While English has been around in one form or another for about 1600 years, you’d have a very difficult time understanding any English speakers from just 500-600 years ago. Most of us struggle with the KJV, and it’s only 400 years old. And we only understand the KJV when you show it to us in writing, modernize the spelling, and explain to us that ye, yu, and yt should be read “the”, “thou”, and “that”, since “y” in those cases is standing in for the archaic English letter þ (thorn). We’d also need to think hard about “long s” in words like “ſinfulneſs” (sinfulness) and “Goſpel” (Gospel). These don’t affect how the language was spoken, but are evidence of how language (in this case, written language) changes over relatively short periods of time.

Languages Die

The implication of the fact that languages that are primarily spoken rather than written is that when the last native speakers of a language die, the language dies with them. This brings us to biblical Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. These are dead languages. Nobody speaks the ancient dialects of these languages any longer. What we know about them comes from analyzing ancient texts, inscriptions, and manuscripts; comparing with known languages and deciphering through similarities; studying modern dialects; translating ancient dictionaries and lexicographical works; and uncovering inscriptions or writings that shed light on ancient languages. These are imprecise and incomplete efforts.

The fact that the biblical languages are no longer spoken yields interesting problems. For example, we refer to Habakkuk as “Habakkuk” only because the Hebrew word חֲבַקּוּק occurs in two places in the book and it looks like it might be someone’s name. We don’t really know what it means or where it came from so we simply transliterate the Hebrew. Similarly, the last verse of Habakkuk contains the word נְגִינָה, which occurs only in this one place in all of ancient literature. It’s usually translated something like “stringed instrument” or left out entirely, but any translation of it is just a guess.

The word translated “daily” in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:11) is ἐπιούσιος in Greek, and occurs nowhere else in Greek literature. We don’t know what it means. The prefix ἐπι- means “upper” or “above”, so we assume “needed” or “necessary”. So maybe “daily bread”. It’s just a guess.

There is No “Right” Philosophy of Translation

These problem in translation don’t necessarily change any major doctrine or invalidate your salvation. But what they do is speak to the issue of the big argument we all like to have about whether our favorite English Bible is better than the others. Does it emphasize “formal equivalence” or “functional equivalence”? Or is it one of these other translation philosophies:

  1. Formal Equivalence:
    • This is another term for the “word-for-word” or “literal” approach, emphasizing maintaining the form of the source text, including sentence structure and words.
  2. Functional Equivalence:
    • Similar to “dynamic equivalence”, this approach focuses on conveying the intended function or meaning of the original text rather than adhering to a strict word-for-word translation.
  3. Optimal Equivalence:
    • This approach attempts to strike a balance between formal and functional equivalence, aiming for a middle ground between adhering to the source text and ensuring comprehension in the target language.
  4. Free Translation:
    • This is a more liberal approach to translation where the essence of the original text is retained, but the translator has the liberty to rephrase, add, or omit text to make it more comprehensible or relevant to the target audience.
  5. Paraphrastic Translation:
    • Similar to paraphrase, this approach involves rewording the original text extensively to explain or clarify the meaning, often expanding the text considerably.
  6. Idiomatic Translation:
    • This approach focuses on translating the ideas into the idiomatic expressions of the target language, ensuring the text resonates with the cultural and linguistic norms of the target audience.

It is a logical fallacy to think you can pick one of these and have a chance of being “right”. That’s not how translation works. There is no “correct” way to translate the Bible. One Christian cannot say to another that the translation he or she is using is “bad” because it is a paraphrase. Or because it is too literal. Or because it isn’t literal enough. You can’t have a preference among these translation philosophies because none can lay claim to being accurate all the time.

So What Do We Do?

It should be obvious that we’re asking all the wrong questions when it comes to choosing an English translation of the Bible. It is literally and objectively the case that no translation of the Bible can be said to be “best” (or “worst”), and that even “better” (or “worse”) is a subjective term. Any translation that makes an attempt to convey the meaning of the source material without introducing bias (such as changing the gender of a person or injecting the translator’s dogma or tradition into the text) is as good as any other.

This leaves you and I in the position of having to use external resources such as commentaries and Bible encyclopedias to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. We should compare multiple English translations and explore the causes for differences when we discover them. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to find The One English Bible that is True and Accurate. It would be nice if such a thing existed, but life isn’t always easy.

This is PocketBible’s very raison d’être, and why we’re not satisfied with doing what other major Bible apps do when they publish dozens or hundreds of translations of the Bible and no reference material.

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Steve Aubrey
Steve Aubrey
6 months ago

I very much enjoy the riches that Pocket Bible provides. On my phone, I have five tabs. Devotional in one, Bibles next (generally four or five for comparison), then commentaries in the last three tabs. OT, NT, and commentaries on the whole Bible. As many as will fit on the screen.

Just got a new phone last weekend, with a taller screen. More commentaries!

Gregg Lind
Gregg Lind
6 months ago

A good overview never knew this about the verse you called out in the article… Useful read…

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