Field Guide to Bible Translation-Part 2

What Bible translators must wrestle with when translating the most important book that ever existed

Among the translators that acknowledge the Bible is God’s Word and have all the required skills to accurately translate, there are some things that they must wrestle with as they translate.

Should an expression in the original language be translated word-for-word, or should the expression be translated with an expression in English that has the same meaning and impact?

If the original language of the Bible uses a figure of speech, should the English reader be the one to have to research and figure it out or should the translator find a figure of speech (or just plain English) that accurately explains what the figure of speech was meant to communicate? I can give an example from the New Testament. In koine Greek, there was not a single word for “pregnant”. Instead, there was an expression in Greek that translates to “having in the womb” Would we say that a good translation would be that Mary had something in the womb or that Mary was pregnant? Some might say that because it is God’s Word, we should translate as literally as possible, even if that means being less clear. Others might say, a good translation would be one that can be understood easily even if not every word is translated literally. How far should a translator go in a word-for-word translation?

The difference between these two philosophies is also the difference between two main types of Bible translations—Formal Equivalence and Dynamic Equivalence.  I want to be clear that men and women of God who believe in the inspiration of the Bible and the fact that it is inerrant make up both groups. Also, most translations in both groups were translated by committees not a single person. That is a huge advantage in that there are checks and balances. One person cannot come up with some wild, inaccurate translation without someone else catching it.

Formal Equivalence

This type of translation is also called a “word-for-word” or literal translation. The philosophy behind these translations is that they should be word-for-word whenever possible as long as  it is understandable in English. The advantage is obvious. You can get as close to the original language as possible in English. There is a disadvantage, though. There are some translations that may seem odd in English. Sometimes, expressions from the original language are translated into English which makes for some confusing verses. Below I will list a few literal translations of the Bible and websites where you can find out more information. However, I want you to be aware of a few things:

Even literal translations are on a scale from more literal to less literal

The translations I chose to list as literal translations are not all literal in all verses. The translators had to make very educated judgment calls in many verses and groups of verses on how literal to translate and if English speakers could understand.

Bible scholars often disagree about how literal a translation is and how literal certain verses should or should not have been translated

Please do not let this alarm you. The differences these scholars have are very minor and would not change the overall meaning. This will also make sense if you start googling discussions about different translations. The disagreements can go on until Jesus comes. Here are a few of the most popular literal translations in order from most literal to less literal. This is the order in the research I did.

Interlinear

Unless you are studying the original languages of the Bible, this type of translation will not do you much good. The only reason I mention it is that it is the only true and fully literal translation of the Bible. This type of translations has the original language of the Bible with the closest English word printed below each word in the original language. Since the word order of the languages of the Bible is vastly different than ours, it will probably not make very much sense to you and sound a bit like a five-year-old trying to use big words.

King James Version

I wanted to do a deep dive into this translation because there are some special considerations. The King James version was the standard English Bible until the beginning of the 20th century. It was published in England in 1611 and the last update to it was done in 1769. This is the translation that we usually know as the one with the “thee’s, thy’s, and thou’s”.  There are some good things about this translation. It is simply a beautiful language. People know you are quoting something special when you quote the King James Version. Many verses I know by heart I know from the King James Version and it is difficult to replace them in my mind with a different translation.

There are some things, however, that make the King James Version a much more difficult translation today. Two hundred years ago, the year of the last update, that language was the common language of the day in England and people understood it easily. That was two hundred years ago and that was in England. The fact is that English has changed drastically since then. Grammar has changed since then. There is not many today that know the proper grammar for thee, thy, and thou. There are words that have completely changed meaning in two hundred years. For example, the word “conversation”  is what we have with another person when we talk to them. Now, if we look at Ephesians 4:22 in the KJV, we see this, “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts[1]” Is this verse talking about talking? It would be easy to think that. However, in King James English, conversation meant manner of conduct, not just a talk with someone. See the obsolete definitions at https://www.dictionary.com/browse/conversation. For an article with more words that have changed meaning, see https://www.gotquestions.org/KJV-words.html.

The King James also has expressions and figures of speech that we no longer have today. Let’s take a look at Isaiah 30:6 from the King James Version:

“The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches upon the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, to a people that shall not profit them.”

What are the bunches of camels? Were there several groups of camels tied together? No. This was an expression in King James English that meant the humps of the camels. Do you see how this could be confusing and hinder someone from understanding the Bible? For more expressions from the KJV, see https://carm.org/KJVO/the-kjv-and-archaic-words.

What is my point here? The King James Version is a beautifully worded translation. And although this Bible was not the first English Bible, it was the one that became the standard. However, in my opinion, it is a hindrance to understanding God’s Word. We have a whole generation coming up that has not grown up in church and has not been exposed to King James English throughout their young life. This language is foreign to them. It is my opinion it does not make sense to essentially learn another language—Shakespearean English—before being able to read the Bible in English accurately.

However, if you have done the work to learn and get past the old terms and expressions, then it can be a beautiful translation to learn and use.

A Word of Warning about King James Only people

There is a group of people who have taken a legitimate love for the King James Version to an extreme, frightening, and irrational level. Although not every King James Only group would agree with all these ideas, most do:

  • They believe the King James is the only true Word of God because the modern ones are trying to leave out verses to water down doctrines like Jesus’ virgin birth, his deity, the Trinity, and others
  • They believe the King James translators were supernaturally inspired to translate perfectly.
  • They believe the King James can even be used to “correct” the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts
  • They believe those that use modern translations are either deceived or going to Hell

You can usually recognize them by their insistence that you use the KJV and their statements that all other translations are corrupt. If you encounter them online, it is honestly best to either ignore them or to block them if you can. From my experience, their thinking is so much like a cult that rational arguments will not be effective. Some of them are quite rude and sometimes even vulgar. It is best to just leave them alone.

 

Conclusion

In my opinion, literal translations of the Bible (except maybe the King James for the reasons I talked about above), should be the type to use for studying the Bible. I would recommend any of the other translations above to study with. My personal favorite is the NASB. It is the main one I use to study.

 

In the next article, we will look at “though-for-thought” translations. The technical name is Dynamic Equivalence. We will also look at some Bibles that are called a “Paraphrase” and why, in my opinion, it is never a good idea to use them.

[1] The Holy Bible: King James Version. (1995). (electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version., Eph 4:22). Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.