Which is the most FAITHFUL translation of the Bible to the original texts? – 2

How do we define Bible faithfulness?

Many conservatives tend to define faithfulness as applied to Bible translation to the degree of literality of a certain version – ‘the more literal, the more faithful’, they say. I beg to differ.

First, I am convinced that a ‘literal’ translation of the Bible is not possible. And, if it was possible, it would be incomprehensible. The main reason is the nature of language. In my opinion, this is the point where structuralists are wrong. They tend to understand language mechanically and unfolding a text would be like an engineer taking an engine apart. That is, I suggest, what the Romanian Beni Faragau tends to do in his approach of the Bible. If this view of the nature of human language would be right, computer scientists would have been able long ago to provide us with automated translation. I have a good friend who is working as an expert for over 25 years in this field and I know very well from him what a nightmare automated translation still is for specialists until this day. And, by the way, precisely because of that, he tends to be even more critical than I am about Beni’s method.

Language is a mystery, like the human being. We may dissect it and study it, but it will always be something that eludes us. Another friend of mine, who is a top specialist in Biblical linguistics, tells me that languages are discontinuous realities. There is no such thing as a perfect translation. We can only approximate. That is what made Italians say ‘traduttore, tradittore’ (the translator is always a traitor). Besides, spoken languages (by opposition to ‘dead’ ones, like classic Hebrew, Greek or Latin) are alive and continuously changing. That is why we need to retranslate, again and again, at least every 20 to 50 years, the classic texts, including the Bible. Therefore, what was a ‘good’ translation 100 years ago or more may be quite incomprehensible today (from this point of view, in spite of its many weaknesses, the 90 years old Romanian Cornilescu translation is a remarkable accomplishment in its present degree of comprehensibility; the relatively simple vocabulary for which the translator opted – generally a weakness in such a complex text, may have been in fact providential in this sense). The lack of understanding of this basic linguistic reality makes the fundamentalist KJV ‘sect’ look so ridiculous. The humorous saying ‘if it was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it is good enough to me’, sums it all up beautifully.

Literalists concentrate most of their energy on finding the exact word correspondence and reproducing as close as possible the syntax of the original text. Now, finding the best correspondence in terms of vocabulary is important, especially on weightier theological terms, but reproducing syntax from one language to another makes absolutely no sense. Besides, the real crux of the matter is not the ‘word for word’ equivalent, but the ‘idea for idea’ rendering. This is what Bible translation specialists call ‘dynamic equivalent’. That is, I suggest, the best approach. Without it, we risk, as the saying goes, ‘to miss the forest for the trees’.

Such an endeavour is, however, hugely complex. That is why the best contemporary translations are done by committees, not individual persons. A Bible translation project like the one that was undergone by the late Bartolomeu Anania (even if he used, without the proper credit, the work of Dumitru Fecioru) is a real oddity in present days.

By saying all this I do not want in any way to throw the whole area of Bible translation in complete relativism. There are, of course, objective rules and standards for good translations. People like Eugene Nida, for instance, have dedicated their entire lives to this matter. Thus, there are, of course, good and bad translations, but, in my estimation, that has nothing to do with the degree of literality of those translations.

I would like to suggest that there are legitimate kinds of translations for various purposes. A Bible translation for study has to be as precise as possible, even at the expense of easy readability. Besides, if it meant for ecclesial use, it requires a certain degree of sobriety and nobility of language. At the other end of the spectrum, a Bible translation for devotional purposes may sacrifice to a certain degree exactness to readability. It may, as well use more colloquial and up-to-date language, in order to facilitate comprehension. And we may find many legitimate variations between these two reference points.

It will continue…


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

20 thoughts on “Which is the most FAITHFUL translation of the Bible to the original texts? – 2”

  1. My friend, you are totally lost. Words mean nothing, unless they are set in a context. They have nothing o communicate in themselves. They mean something only when they communicate ideas.
    You worship the Letter. Christians follow the Spirit.
    May God have mercy on your fundamentalist soul!


  2. “Besides, the real crux of the matter is not the ‘word for word’ equivalent, but the ‘idea for idea’ rendering.”

    You got that 180 degrees backwards.
    John 14:10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds.


  3. Gabriel, you sound way too apologetic on the side of Lutheranism. Nobody here tries to attack Lutherans. If you allow me a friendly advise, try to be a bit more relaxed. It’s more up building for us all.
    After all, there will be no Lutherans in heaven… nor Anglicans. Only genuine (and humble) followers of Christ.


  4. there are some areas in the NT, where ESV has been criticized … as a friend of mine (lutheran semnarian, now pastor) said

    “Overall ESV is an excellent translation. Some are valid criticisms, like translating the Hebrew mishphat as “rules” or using gender inclusive language. Other examples he gave are unfair because the ESV is translating some unusual Hebrew idioms that would not be understandable to the average reader (like the phrase “those who piss against a wall” being used for “men”). Overall I have been pleased with the ESV, but of course it does not replace studying the original languages.”

    Apparently there is a little jealousy/competition between LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) using and sponsoring ESV and the more conservative WELS (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) using and throwing their support behind 2011 NIV.


  5. Thanks for the reply (explicit vs. implicit). … that is why lutherans and others read the Bible by using the most clear texts on a topic to elucidate the less clear ones (on the same topic) …and not ‘cherry-pick’ verses as Jehovah’s WItnesses and others do to prop up their new doctrines / idiology.


  6. I add here Gabriel’s review to Metzger’s book. I am sure he will not mind it.

    The famous Italian adage (translated “Translator … Traitor!”) is the first thing that came to mind as I was reading through “the Bible in Translation” by well known New Testament and biblical canon scholar Bruce M. Metzger. This 200 pager offers a fast read (and a good introduction) of the history of ancient biblical manuscripts, and the progression of english translations across the middle ages into our modern times. I whole heartily recommend “the Bible in Translation – ancient and English versions” to any clergy member, seminarian/theology student (if they haven’t had it in their courses), and any God-fearing Christian who wants to understand why and how come we have various english translations in our modern times (KJV, ASB, JB, RSV, NIV, etc. and their newer revisions).

    Bruce M. Metzger is best known for his classic “The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance,” Oxford University Press.

    When it comes to the topic of biblical canon, history of the New Testament, and New Testament studies all put in one, there are only two names that come to mind: F.F. Bruce and Bruce M. Metzger. These authors are often required material for many Protestant and sometimes Catholic and Orthodox seminarians.

    I think the other reviewers did an excellent job at giving you an outline of the content of the book. The value of this book is that the author includes the evidence from antiquity to show the continuity of the English translations with the original Hebrew and Greek texts. As such, Metzger presents with precision but in a concise manner, the history of the Septuagint, the Jewish Targums, and the ancient Bibles known as:
    Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Sogdian, old church Slavonic, and Nubian versions. Part 2 of the book deals exclusively with the English versions (British and American). Also, included are modern Jewish translations and paraphrase versions of the English Bible. All in all, a very good introduction into the times, history, and culture of how each of these translations came to be.

    Here are some excerpts about the SEPTUAGINT:

    * “The Septuagint is the traditional term for the Old Greek translation of the Hebrew Scritpures. The word means ‘seventy’ and is often abbreviated by using the Roman numeral LXX, referring (with some rounding off of the figure) to the seventy-two translations reputed to have produced the version in the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.).”
    * “The translation is not only the earliest but also one of the most valuable of ancient biblical verions. Whether oen considers its general fidelity to the original, its influence over the Jews for whom it was prepared, its relationship to the Greek New Testament, or its place in the Christian church, the Septuagint stands preeminent in the light it casts on the study of the Scriptures.”
    * “The importance of the Septuagint as a translation is obvious. Besides beign the first translation ever made of the Hebrew Scriptures, it was the medium through which the religious ideas of the Hebrews were brought to the attention of the world. It was the Bible of the early Christian church, and when the Bible is quoted in the New Testament, it is almost always fromt he Septuagint version.”
    * “By the end of the first century of the Christian era, more and more Jews ceased using the Septuagint because the early Christians had adopted it as their own translation.”

    As a conservative Protestant, I have a lot of reverence and respect for God’s Word – the Bible. As a result of reading this book (and others), I have come to realize the importance of using many translations for a better understanding of the original biblical texts. Since I do not speak, old Hebrew, Koine Greek, or ancient Aramaic, I rely on various English (along with Roumanian and German) translations to have a more comprehensive understanding of the original text (and its variants; since there are over 5,000 segments and manuscripts of the biblical texts and not two of them are identical in content). The beauty of the variants is that it enhances the text, not changes the core theology of traditional spiritual Christianity (universal Christianity of first millenium).

    As a result of this read, I have come to better understand the benefits in reading and interpreting the Holy Bible in other ways next to the literal. The science of interpretation, or exegesis, according to Origen (early Christian scholar and theologian) consists of four steps of ascending importance: literal, ethical, allegorical, and anagogic.

    “The Bible in Translation” only covers the stories behind the many translations over the past two millenia” and does not discuss interpretation (hermeneutics). For anyone who loves the Bible and is curious of how we got our current modern English translations, this is simply a FASCINATING and TITILLATING Read!


  7. Did you know that the ESV (English Standard Version; 2001 Crossway Bible publisher) is a revision of the ESV (English Standard Version, 1952) which is a revision of the American Standard Version (1901) … which uses the Tyndale Bible as its basis ?


  8. In light of how language changes (look at the weird influence, progression, and tangential developments of the English language across the last millenium) … I do agree with your statement “That is why we need to retranslate, again and again, at least every 20 to 50 years, the classic texts, including the Bible. Therefore, what was a ‘good’ translation 100 years ago or more may be quite incomprehensible today.” I do not think this grants the translators the right to water down or PC-ize the Bible (using loose colloqual phrases or gender-neutralize nouns/pronouns).

    A FASCINATING read on the development of Bible translations across the first 1900 years has been Bruce Metzger “Bible in Translation, The: Ancient and English Versions” http://www.amazon.com/Bible-Translation-Ancient-English-Versions/dp/0801022827/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1312398273&sr=8-1

    My book review: http://www.amazon.com/Bible-Translation-Ancient-English-Versions/product-reviews/0801022827/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1 “Tradutore … Traditore !” – simply put, a Fascinating and Titillating Read


  9. I was not aware of the Dumitru Fecioru issue either. Last time I checked, my Anania Bible, there is on the first pages a list “cu o droaie de persoane” ca consulenti, contributori, etc. It gave me the impression that the translation was done by a committee or group consensus or collaboration. Was it not ?


  10. I do not know Rev. Fisk well enough, nor do I have the time to listen or read enough of his work to be able to evaluate that. Beni, on the other side, I know too well.
    Not all exegetical or expository preaching is necessarily structuralist, but it can be, depending on one’s (implicit or explicit) view on the nature of language, biblical or not.


  11. Danut, you said “structuralists are wrong. They tend to understand language mechanically and unfolding a text would be like an engineer taking an engine apart. That is, I suggest, what the Romanian Beni Faragau tends to do in his approach of the Bible.” …

    would you consider the exegetical preaching style of Rev. Fisk (from WorldviewEverlasting) … as he dives into the lectionary text for Sunday (Matthew 14:22-33) called “The Water Walkin’ Boogity” as structuralist ?!?

    Link: http://www.worldvieweverlasting.com/

    Thank you.


  12. I quite agree with Badilita on the need for a good new translation of the Bible, based on the Septuagint. I am sure he has no illusions that this new translation, published by Polirom, will be accepted in the church. But it may be used as a basis for a future translation. Maybe in 20 years from now. These pathological times are not conducive to such solid constructions.
    I continue to believe that committees (that include biblical scholars, dogmatists, liturgists, cultural anthropologists, etc are the best solution.
    Anania’s translation, I contend, is quite dissapointing. Consulting with other (a matter which was not among his strengths) could have saved him some embarrassment.


  13. Recently, Cristian Badilita made a short retrospective of the initiative of translating the Septuagint into an ‘exact’ Romanian version. His concern, among others, was that a Church can not function properly without such a translation.

    His project was indeed one of entire team, contrary to the Anania exemplary effort (I was not aware of the Fecioru issue).

    However, I’d beg to differ, both to Badilita statement and to what seems to be your point of view.

    I think that now, after 20 centuries of Christianity, we have enough hermeneutical literature to be able to get over translation inexactitudes.

    The best committee that can translate the Scriptures is formed by the Parents of the Church. Anania’s project is not absurd in itself, as long as he respected the hermeneutical tradition of his confession (I’m not stating that he has). I agree though, it’s best to have more people in the same time on the job (that’s how the Septuagint was created, that’s why councils represent a theological authority).

    If by now a church didn’t learn how to function properly and didn’t get the Bible’s message right, it will most certainly not, in spite of the most scientific and most rigorous translation.


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