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Approaches to Translating God’s Word

The process of translating is more complicated than it appears.[13] Some people think that all you have to do when making a translation is to define each word and string together all the individual word meanings. This assumes that the source language (in this case, Greek or Hebrew) and the receptor language (such as English) are exactly alike. If life could only be so easy! In fact, no two languages are exactly alike. For example, look at a verse chosen at random—from the story of Jesus healing a demon–possessed boy (Matt. 17:18). The word–for–word English rendition is written below a transliteration of the Greek:

Kai epetimçsen autô ho Içsous kai exçlthen ap’ autou to daimonionAnd rebuked it the Jesus and came out from him the demon

kai etherapeuthç ho pais apo tçs hôras ekeinçsand was healed the boy from the hour that

Should we conclude that the English line is the most accurate translation of Matthew 17:18 because it attempts a literal rendering of the verse, keeping also the word order? Is a translation better if it tries to match each word in the source language with a corresponding word in a receptor language? Could you even read an entire Bible “translated” in this way?

The fact that no two languages are exactly alike makes translation a complicated endeavor. D. A. Carson identifies a number of things that separate one language from another:[14]

  • No two words are exactly alike. As we will learn in our unit on word studies, words mean different things in different languages. Even words that are similar in meaning differ in some way. For example, the Greek verb phileô, often translated “to love,” must be translated “to kiss” when Judas kisses Jesus in an act of betrayal (Matt. 26:48 in both KJV and NIV).
  • The vocabulary of any two languages will vary in size. This means that it is impossible to assign a word in a source language directly to a word in a receptor language. This kind of one–to–one correspondence would be nice, but it is simply not possible.
  • Languages put words together differently to form phrases, clauses, and sentences (syntax). This means that there are preset structural differences between any two languages. For example, English has an indefinite article (“a, an”), while Greek does not. In English adjectives come before the noun they modify and they use the same definite article (e.g., “the big city”). In Hebrew, however, adjectives come after the noun they modify and they have their own definite article (e.g., “the city, the big”).
  • Languages have different stylistic preferences. Sophisticated Greek emphasizes passive voice verbs, while refined English stresses the active voice. Hebrew poetry will sometimes use an acrostic (ABC) pattern, which is impossible to transfer into English.

Since languages differ in many ways, making a translation is not a simple, cut–and–dried, mechanical process. When it comes to translation, it is wrong to assume that literal automatically equals accurate. A more literal translation is not necessarily a more accurate translation; it could actually be a less accurate translation. Is the translation “and was healed the boy from the hour that” better than “and the boy was cured at once” (NASB) or “and the boy was healed from that moment” (NET Bible)? Translation is more than just finding matching words and adding them up.

Translation entails “reproducing the meaning of a text that is in one language (the source language), as fully as possible, in another language (the receptor language).”[15] The form of the original language is important, and translators should stay with it when possible, but form should not have priority over meaning. What is most important is that the contemporary reader understands the meaning of the original text. When a translator can reproduce meaning while preserving form, all the better. Translating is complicated work, and translators often must make difficult choices between two equally good, but different ways of saying something. This explains why there are different approaches to translation. Individuals and committees have differences of opinion about the best way to make the tough choices involved in translation, including the relationship between form and meaning.

There are two main approaches to translation: the formal approach (sometimes labeled “literal” or “word–for–word”) and the functional approach (often called “idiomatic” or “thought–for–thought”). In reality, no translation is entirely formal or entirely functional. Since source and receptor languages differ, all translations will have at least some formal features and some functional features. The situation is more like a scale, ranging from translations that are more formal to translations that are more functional (see below).

The more formal approach tries to stay as close as possible to the structure and words of the source language. Translators using this approach feel a keen responsibility to reproduce the forms of the original Greek and Hebrew whenever possible. The NASB, HCSB, and ESV use this approach. On the downside, the formal approach is less sensitive to the receptor language of the contemporary reader and, as a result, may appear stilted or awkward. Formal translations run the risk of sacrificing meaning for the sake of maintaining form.

The more functional approach tries to express the meaning of the original text in today’s language. Here the translator feels a responsibility to reproduce the meaning of the original text in English so that the effect on today’s reader is equivalent to the effect on the ancient reader.

Many contemporary translations utilize this approach, including the NLT and GNB. The functional approach is not always as sensitive as it should be to the wording and structure of the source language. When it moves too far away from the form of the source language, the functional approach runs the risk of distorting the true meaning of the text. The spectrum of translations might look something like this, moving from the more formal to the more functional.

In addition to the two main approaches to translation discussed above, you will encounter what is known as a paraphrase. Technically, a paraphrase is not a translation from the original languages at all, but merely a restatement or explanation of a particular English translation using different English words. The Living Bible (1967–1971), perhaps the most famous paraphrase, is Kenneth Taylor’s restatement of the ASV (1901) for the benefit of his children.

Another well–known paraphrase, the Amplified Bible (1958—1965), tries to give the reader an understanding of the many meanings contained in a particular verse through the “creative use of amplification.” For instance, John 11:25 reads: “Jesus said to her, I am [Myself] the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in (adheres to, trusts in, and relies on) Me, although he may die, yet he shall live.” This looks very much like the overload fallacy, which assumes that a word will bring its full range of meaning into every context.[16] The Amplified Bible leaves the misleading impression that the reader is free to choose from among the options presented.

Again, paraphrases are not translations from the original language. We do not recommend using paraphrases for serious study because they tend to explain rather than translate. We believe that the author’s meaning is encoded in the details of the text. In a paraphrase the “translator” makes far too many of the interpretive decisions for you. The result is that paraphrases add many things that are simply not in the Bible. Rather than translating the Word of God, paraphrases present a commentary on the Word of God. You should treat paraphrases like commentaries and use them as such. Our advice for those who are addicted to the Living Bible and other paraphrases is to switch to the New Living Translation.

Below are sample translations from across the spectrum, using 1 Corinthians 10:13. As you read the different translations, you will notice the subtle shift from an emphasis on form to an emphasis on function.

With all these contemporary translations to choose from, the natural question is “Which translation is best?” The next section is intended to help you choose a translation.


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