Translations Aren’t THAT Different, but We Can Have Preferences

Jul 02, 2009 by Craig Blomberg

Having spent my annual week last week with my fellow members of the NIV-TNIV Committee on Bible Translation, sifting through large stacks of proposals for minor tweaking of how we translate this or that word or phrase in anything from Genesis to Revelation, I’m in the mood for writing a blog on translating Scripture. A series of conversations in recent months, linked only by the theme of Bible translation, has made me dramatically more aware than ever before of the following observations:

1) Many people, unchurched and churched alike, have never actually looked in any detail at multiple Bible translations and therefore don’t have a good feel for just how different and similar they are. As a result, they tend to think they are actually far more different than they really are, leading to strange questions like, “With so many different English translations, how do we know which one or ones, if any, we can trust.” The short and most basic answer is, except for those produced by unorthodox sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation or Joseph Smith’s personal Joseph Smith Translation, or those deliberately designed to be a paraphrase and not a bona fide translation at all (like The Message or the old Living Bible Paraphrased), you can trust ALL of them. Not one will ever flawlessly come up with the very best rendering in every passage, but not one will ever lead you astray on any important matter of faith and practice. Do yourself the favor of getting the software that allows you to compare a couple dozen major English translations for a representative cross-section of Bible verses or passages of your choice and prove it to yourself!

2) Because of the passion with which some scholars and church leaders have advocated one of the bona fide translations above others or criticized one or more of those translations, way too many people both inside and outside of the church have the misimpression that you can’t trust all of them the way point 1) above phrases it. It’s time for those scholars and church leaders to come clean and correct these misimpressions. With the wealth and luxury of so many options in the English-speaking world, it’s time to put a lot less money and effort into internecine argumentation and a lot more into letting the world know the magnificent wonders of this collection of books we call the Bible, regardless of what translation one prefers!

3) We must help our people, and others, understand the difference between formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, and mediating approaches. To oversimplify but to make the point, the more literal the translation is, the harder it will be for the general population at large to understand it. The more readable for one particular subculture the translation, the less literal it will be. It is simply inaccurate and thus irresponsible to say that the more literal a translation, the better, for all situations. The most literal translation of all is an interlinear, which is indecipherable to most people. The most readable, understandable and accurate, all in one package, will always be those translations that do not consistently aim for either formal equivalence (word-for-word renderings) or dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought), but aim at a middle ground between the two—as literal as possible while still being as fluent and understandable by the greatest number of people as possible.

4) In light of this last point, and completely apart from debates about inclusive language, the tradition of translating represented by the NIV-TNIV continues to achieve this balance most consistently. The next best options aren’t even close.