What translation are you reading?

Over the last sixty years there has been a drastic increase in the number of available Bible translations.  By my count, there have been at least fifty full (both Old Testament and New Testament) English Bible translations published since 1949, and at least twenty-five of those fifty were published after 1990.  It appears this trend will continue with more translations being published every year.

There is no doubt that the Bible being translated from the original languages (Old Testament was written in Hebrew and New Testament was written in Greek) into other languages is a praiseworthy event.  It provides more people with exposure to the message of Jesus Christ, an opportunity to learn about God and make their own judgments about God’s will.   During the approximate one-thousand years when the Bible was only printed in Latin the layman did not even have ability to read the word of God.  They had to rely on a clergy to educate about them about God.  The result was a people largely ignorant of God and His will.

Despite this blessing of being able to read the Bible in our own language caution should be used when choosing a Bible translation.  With the number of translations being published in the last fifty years it would be a leap to say they have all been done well.  Accurately translating any writing from one language to another language is difficult.  Words and phrases do not match up perfectly and it is often difficult to express the same thought or feeling in a different language.  Translating the Bible is no different.

There has also been an alarming trend over the last couple of decades as more Bible translations have been made available.  The quality of the translation is being based more upon how easily it reads.  People have become increasingly more concerned about whether they can read and comprehend the text at first glance than they are about its accuracy. The root of this trend can be found in a method of translating the Bible that was developing during the 1960’s- dynamic equivalence, also referred to as a thought for thought translation.

Instead of accurately translating the text word for word the aim of dynamic equivalence is to accurately translate the thought that is being expressed in the original text.  If translators feel that they can more accurately express the thought by abandoning the exact wording then they will often change words, phrases, or sentence structure to portray the thought.  Different translations will take varying degrees of liberty when changing the text to match what they believe is the thought behind the original writing.  With this type of translation the reader not only has to be concerned about whether the translator has accurately translated the words but whether they have accurately translated the thought the original writer was trying to express.  This is putting a lot of faith into the translator.  They are not only being trusted to accurately translate words but also accurately interpret the meaning of the text.

The justification for using a thought for thought process is that it will make the text easier to read and easier to understand.  At the foundation of this justification is a misconception that translation is what makes the Bible difficult to understand.  The fact is the Bible can just simply be a difficult book to understand.  We can look into the Bible itself and find comments about its difficulty from people who were reading it in the original language.

2 Pet. 3:15, 16- “and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the scriptures (NKJV, emphasis added).”

Peter himself comments on the difficulty of understanding Paul’s letters and he was an apostle reading it in the original Greek.  When we read Paul’s letters, or any other portion of the Bible, and find them difficult to understand it is not inheritably because of the translation.  To what do we then attribute the difficulty?  One of the points Peter makes here is that the writings of Paul were from wisdom that was given to him by God.  This is one of the reasons why the Bible can be difficult to understand- it is the wisdom of God.  The Bible is a book that we can spend our whole lives studying and still continue to gain knowledge and wisdom.  Therein is some of the beauty of the Bible- depth that provides for a lifetime of study and growth.  But as an individual tampers with the original text in favor of readability they risk removing some of that depth.

We need to have faith in the understandability of the written Word of God.  Matthew 13 records the first account of Jesus preaching in parables.  It says in verse 2 that He was preaching to a great multitude.  The first parable that He gives to these people is the parable of the Sower.  After Christ teaches this first parable His disciples ask Him in verse 10 why He was preaching in parables.  They could not figure out why Christ was not being plain spoken with the multitudes.  In the verses that follow Christ explains to them that there are some who would understand and other would not understand Christ’s parables.  In verses 14&15 Christ quotes Isaiah and explains to the disciples the reason why some would understand and others would not.

Matthew 13:14, 15- “Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull.  Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears.  Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.”

The reason some of these people did not understand the parables was because their hearts were dull.  It had nothing to do with their intelligence.  It had nothing to do with the fact that Christ was speaking in parables- it had to do with their hearts.  And here Christ also gives the solution to this problem: “Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn.”   This can be viewed as a promise.  If our hearts are right and we diligently study the Word of God than we will be given understanding.  It may take work and it may take time but God is going to provide us with whatever understanding we need.  There are so many people in this world that look at the Bible, they see it is difficult and they turn to translations that are easier to understand.  They may have a better understanding of what they are reading but it goes back to the original question- what depth are they sacrificing?  We have to have faith that with the right heart and diligent study God will provide us with understanding.

What Bible translation we use is an important decision.  There are a lot of Bible translations to choose from and not all of them are good.  Careful thought and consideration should be taken when choosing what Bible translation to rely upon as God’s word.  This goes beyond simply finding the one that is easiest to read.