6 Reasons We Shouldn’t Freak Out over Word Variations in our Modern Translations
In my last blog post I discussed "Augustine's Angst" over words in Jerome’s Latin translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew, words that didn’t line up with the beloved Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). Most of us can identify with Augustine. In the 1970s, when I was a high school student, I was greatly puzzled by the omission of the words “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (1 John 5:7, KJV) in my new “modern” translation! You may have had the common experience these days of hearing a text read from the pulpit, which doesn’t seem to line up exactly with the wording of the translation you hold in your hands. So should this trouble us?
Now there are times when a version of the Bible simply doesn’t measure up, or at least should not be used as one’s primary translation (which I will deal with in an upcoming post), and I am NOT suggesting that the specifics of Bible translation do not matter. In fact, I spend a good bit of my life dealing with those specifics and arguing for particular interpretations and ways of translating the text! But, generally speaking, I want to suggest that the variations in wording in our standard modern translations should not concern us greatly.
Here are 6 reasons why.
1. They are translations and translations have various ways to express an idea accurately. By its nature, human language is wonderfully flexible, most words in any language having a range of possible meanings or ways it can be expressed in a translation. This means that I could translate the Greek word thlipsis in 2 Cor. 1:4 as “tribulation,” “trouble,” “oppression,” or “affliction,” each rendering being valid. The choices mean there will be variations between translations.
2. Modern translations generally follow one of two main methods of translating, the first we refer to as “formal equivalence,” the second as “functional equivalence.” I believe both are valid approaches, and they will lead to different ways of expressing ideas in English. Formal equivalence translations, like the ESV, attempt to follow as closely as possible the pattern of words found in the original languages. Functional equivalence translations, on the other hand, focus more on rendering the sense of the original language in a way that is clearly understood in the target language (the language into which the Word is being translated). The NLT would be an example of a functional equivalence translation, and, incidentally, the vast majority of Bible translation work going on around the world today, from the jungles of South America to the mountains of Eastern Asia, follows a functional equivalence approach. All true translations line up along a spectrum between these two approaches, some, like the HCSB and the NIV attempting to strike a balance between the two.
In reality, there is no such thing as a strictly “literal” translation, since all translations involve interpretation, all translations must render Greek and Hebrew grammar in ways that are understandable in English, and all translations have places that are “functional” in nature. At many points a literal rendering of Greek and Hebrew word order, for instance, would sound like gibberish in English!
In short, translations sometimes vary in their wording because they are following a slightly different approach to rendering the sense of the original Hebrew or Greek passages in the Bible.
3. Our primary English translations are consistently very good, for which we should praise God. In English especially we have an embarrassment of riches. I would suggest that the NIV, ESV, HCSB, NET, and the NLT, for instance, are all excellent translations. I would not agree with any of them at every point, and I think there are strengths and weaknesses of each, but they all faithfully render the Word of God in a way that a Bible reader can hear, understand, and live the truth of Scripture, and for this we should give thanks to the brothers and sisters who spent years laboring on these translations but also to God for the gift of being able to read the Bible in our own language—and for giving us options for doing so!
4. Variants in the manuscripts behind our translations do not affect the message of the Bible, neither the theological truths, nor the exhortations and commands for living. In a near-future post I am going to deal more with how scholars today deal with the manuscripts that lie behind our Bible (and specifically why there are some variations from the King James Version specifically). There are places where you will notice slight differences in wording between two translations, or a translation in a commentary may vary slightly from the translation you have in hand. This is because we have a wealth of manuscript evidence, and judgment calls have to be made when the manuscripts have slight variations. But let me emphasize that these variants never change the theological teachings of Scripture, nor basic commands. More on this soon.
5. All the variations in wording can be studied by any person willing to learn. In evangelicalism we are blessed with an army of biblical scholars who are deeply committed to the truth of Scripture and the ongoing study of the Word. Over the past half century Christian publishing houses have produced a host of outstanding Bible study tools that explain the details of the text, tools such as commentaries, study Bibles, Bible dictionaries, word study tools, etc., etc., etc. There also are excellent Bible Study Software programs and online sites that are wonderfully accessible. In short, the variations in wording do not need to remain a complete mystery. Some of the issues are very technical in nature, but we can understand more about the issues if we are willing to learn.
6. Finally, the variations in wording keep us humble, seeking God for understanding, growing in our study of God’s Word. God’s Word is not always easy to understand. Some of the issues that lie behind the variations in wording between our translations are real items for discussion and study. We have to “lean in” to Scripture, learning how to study the details in order to hear the Bible well! For this we should be grateful. The complexity of Scripture resists any of us being arrogant, thinking we have all the answers. The study of the Bible offers us a joyous life of humble study, dialogue, and growth if we will engage it. Thus, the variations in our translations call us to be thinking Christians who are dependent on the Lord—as well as brothers and sisters in the Body—for ongoing growth in the faith.
So don't freak out over the slight variations in wording between our modern translations. Let those variations prompt you to a deeper study of the Word!