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Bible Translation

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BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian Church

            I read an article once about the meticulous process by which the experts at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. have preserved the most precious documents from our country’s history, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Over a five-year period, they worked to extract them from the deteriorating encasements that had protected them for the past fifty years, and then placed them in high-tech, state-of-the-art encasements that will hopefully protect these crucial documents for centuries to come.

             As I read with fascination about the extreme care and honor with which these parchments were handled, I was reminded of Paul’s instruction to Timothy:  “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”  There is no more solemn and awesome responsibility in the world than that of “rightly handling the word of truth.”  I’m not talking about physical manipulation of the document; instead I’m referring to the duty that every generation in the Church has to ensure that God’s Word is faithfully and completely transmitted to two generations – its own and the one that follows.

             God revealed His word between 1,400 BC and 100 AD, using over 40 different authors to produce the inerrant and infallible book that explains that which the wonders of God’s creation cannot explain – who He is, for what purpose He created us, what went wrong, and how we can be delivered from our misery.  Every word that God revealed through the prophets and apostles – even every “jot and tittle”, as Jesus put it – is “God breathed” (II Timothy 3:16), and nothing is to be added to or taken away from what He has revealed (Proverbs 30:5,6; Revelation 22:18,19).  Therefore, this word of truth must be handled rightly and with extreme care.

             Alongside of the responsibility of each generation to guard and protect the content of the revealed word of God is the equally important responsibility of translating it into the common languages of the people.  It is the difficult task of Biblical scholars in every age and place to translate God’s word into the vernacular without distorting it.  We in the English-speaking world are deeply indebted to those “approved workers” who were willing to give up their lives in order to translate the Bible into English, beginning with John Wycliffe in England in the late 1300’s and later William Tyndale and others.

             In the 1600’s the King James Version became the dominant English translation of the Bible, and it remained so for the next 300 years.  However, since 1950 there has been a virtual explosion of new English translations of the Bible.  While the new translations have, in many cases, led to improvements in accuracy and readability, there also has been a troubling trend in the approach to translation that they reflect.  Whereas, until 1950, the concern was to translate the Bible word-for-word from the original languages into English, the move recently has been to translate the Bible “thought-for-thought”.  In other words, in an attempt to make the Bible more easily understood by modern readers, the concern is not so much to translate the words of the original texts as it is to translate the Biblical author’s meaning behind his words. 

             Some of the modern translations are known as “paraphrases” (e.g., The Living Bible, The Message), and the “translators” are very up front about the fact that words and phrases in the original text are changed and / or supplemented in an effort to make the meaning of the text more clear to even the most uneducated readers.  These “translations” are really more commentaries on the Scripture than Scripture itself.  More difficult to classify are translations like the New International Version, which employs a “word-for-word” method of translation for the most part, but uses a “thought-for-thought” approach where the translators felt that the text wouldn’t be easily read or understood by a modern reader with an eighth grade education.  For example, when the Bible uses the title  “the Lord of Hosts” for God, the New International Version of the Bible translates it as “the Lord Almighty”.  While this would be a limited but accurate interpretation of the title, it is not a translation of the original words.  Unfortunately, the imagery of spiritual warfare and the heavenly armies inherent in “Lord of Hosts” is obscured by the NIV’s “translation”.

             The danger of mixing translation and interpretation has become apparent in the controversy over a “gender neutral” version of the NIV several years ago.  In response to sexism and chauvinism in our culture, a version of the NIV has been produced that attempts to change references in the Bible to “man” or “men”, along with masculine pronouns, when it is believed that the original intent of the author was to include all humans of both genders.  In many cases this is legitimate, but in some cases it has changed or obscured the meaning of the original.  It clearly raises the question of what affect the translators’ agenda can have on the translation itself.

             As a preacher of the Bible, I am expected to have some knowledge of the original Hebrew and Greek and to be able to know exactly what the original authors wrote by the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  Then it is my responsibility to interpret what they wrote and communicate that meaning to others and to help them apply it to their lives.  But my interpretation and application of the words of Scripture can be wrong, and should always be measured by and held accountable to God’s word itself.  The translation and interpretation processes shouldn’t be combined or confused. 

 Therefore, I believe that the job of the translators of Scripture should be to translate the exact words of the original text, and – as far as possible – to not add their interpretation of the meaning of those words.  This is why Oakwood has chosen to use the English Standard Version (ESV) in our worship services.  It is very readable, but its translators were driven by a desire to come as close as possible to a “word-for-word” rendering of the original languages.