Cornerstone

“A ton of theology can hang on just one little word!”

Although it may not seem so, few subjects are more critical in life than Bible translations. Stop and think about it for a moment, and you’ll doubtless agree. The Bible is the world’s all-time bestseller, by far. It is, in fact, the most important book that has ever been. In it are contained the very words of eternal life. It vividly displays the greatest revelation of God ever given to man––the person and work of Jesus Christ. All people are commanded to depend on it for life and sustenance (Matt 4:4). And yet it was written in three different ancient languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), none of which are particularly widely known or studied––at least not when you consider that billions of people live on our planet. Hence the absolute need for translations; and not just any old translation, but translations in which every word has been carefully chosen and agonized over––all for the benefit of God’s people. 

If you think this is an overstatement, consider just one powerful example. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformers made a considerable “fuss” over the translation of one very crucial word in the Latin Vulgate. The Vulgate was a famous translation of the Bible into Latin, made over one thousand years earlier by an early church leader named Jerome. Over the course of time it had come to absolutely dominate Christian Europe, even though most people no longer understood any Latin at all. What were the Reformers so worked up about? The word was iustificāre, a verb that literally meant “to make someone righteous.” The Protestant Reformers, however, maintained that the gospel, or good news of Jesus Christ, is not about God making us into righteous, or good people. Just compare your life to the commands of Scripture for a minute and you’ll realize instantly that even as a Christian, you cannot claim to be truly righteous. In fact, if that’s what we are supposed to be in order to merit God’s favor, then the gospel is not good news at all! The root of the problem, the Reformers argued, was simply that iustificāre ​was an inadequate, even misleading, translation of the original Greek word dikaóō ​(the word that the writers of the New Testament used when they wrote Scripture). The true sense of this verb is the activity of declaring someone to be righteous, and then basically treating that person as if he or she were righteous. The good news of the gospel is that God declares us, ungodly sinners, to be in the right with Him (Romans 4:5). He did this on the basis of Christ’s incalculable sacrifice on the cross. A ton of theology can hang on just one little word!

Fortunately, we as English speakers are blessed with an abundance of good modern translations to choose from. In most cases, these have been produced by large committees of dedicated Christian scholars working together to produce the best possible translation. At the end of the day, however, no one translation is perfect, because of the simple fact that no two languages are alike or express concepts in exactly the same way. As Christians, we should therefore be aware of the strengths and limitations of Bible translations, making wise use of them in our study of God’s Word. Here are a few things to consider.

1. Be aware that your English Bible is a translation.

It’s good to keep in mind that what you are reading is in fact a translation. Any work in translation will always involve certain compromises. Two terms often discussed in this field are dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence. Don’t be bowled over by the terminology. The first (dynamic equivalence) is simply the goal and process of attempting to transfer the meaning of the original words, phrases, and sentences (as best one can) into a translation. This means that the translator will look for equivalent expressions in the language he or she is translating into, in order to accurately preserve and convey the meaning. The second term (formal equivalence) refers to the equally valuable aim of transferring the structure of the original words, phrases, and sentences into the target language. It is often helpful, in Bible study, to be assured that there is generally a one-to-one equivalence between an English word, or phrase, or expression, and its original. This, however, has its own host of problems. For example, in Genesis 30:2, when Jacob got angry at Rachel, a strict version of this approach (following the original Hebrew) would state that the nose of Jacob grew hot! Often, in fact, a ​formal equivalence ​approach leads to difficult or obscure English wording that may make for a less-than-ideal Bible translation.

Adding to all this complexity––it doesn’t take long for one to surmise that these two approaches are frequently in tension. That is to say, whenever you lean more toward dynamic equivalence, you inevitably give up something in the formal equivalence department. And vice-versa. So which approach is best? Or is there a happy medium? While this article is not the place to make that determination, it is important that one be aware of this fundamental tension in all translations.

2. Don’t buy the critics’ arguments.

Because of this and other complications, critics of the Bible allege that you simply can’t trust your English Bible. You’ve heard the arguments. “The Bible has been translated so many times, you can’t possible know what it originally meant!” “Are you really going to stake your life on a translation?” Laying aside the fact that it only takes one time to translate the Bible into English, the general suspicion of the reliability of translations may sound rather concerning to many Christians. After all, if languages are so different, and translators naturally make mistakes as humans, how can we as Christians really trust our English Bibles?

What the critics miss is the fact that actual translation between human languages, while difficult, is not an impossible feat. One of the fundamental tenets of modern theoretical linguistics is that all human languages possess the capacity to express an infinite variety of subjects and concepts (even though they may use different techniques to achieve this). Given this, any language should be able to express the meaning originally transmitted by another language. Admittedly, the problem of miscommunication––especially in translation, but also elsewhere in life––is always with us. Yet we can only judge and detect cases of miscommunication against the general background of accurate, successful communication. At the end of the day, countless organizations, businesses, and political entities constantly depend on successful, reliable translation work in order to function. A single visit to the United Nations in New York should convince anyone that the translation of critical information is possible and happens every single day. To sum up, there is no inherent need for Christians to doubt that the Word of God can and has been successfully translated into hundreds of languages, including our own.

3. Think of Bible translations as tools.

Once we have a healthy understanding of the strengths and limitations of Bible translations, we should make the best use of them in our vital study of God’s Word. One way to quickly make up for some of the shortcomings of translations is to actively make use of several of them. If you are studying a particular passage in the Bible and have a question about a certain rendering, make use of the many free modern tools available on websites like BibleGateway.com and BibleHub.com. These sites carry many English translations and even allow you to line them up side by side to get a quick glance at several. Comparing them in this way will often allow you to get a better feel for the original word, phrase, or sentence.

On the other hand, given that there are many good translations available to us in English, consider making one version your main go-to Bible. Look for qualities such as ease of reading, while avoiding translations that tend to paraphrase heavily. You want a translation that will serve you well for detailed Bible study and memorization. Ultimately, you should view your goal as the internalization of God’s very Word in your heart. May the Word of God be more desireable to us than gold, and sweeter than honey (Ps 19:10).

To learn more about the importance and history of Bible translation, listen to audio from our Navigating Bible Translations seminar.

Kaspars Ozolins

Kaspars is a member of Cornerstone and serves through teaching.

Additional articles that might be of interest.