Reflections on the nature of Bible translation

I have been strangely quiet on this blog for a long time now. Part of the problem is that I don’t have much that I want to say about the particular wording of English Bible translations. I am much more interested in the bigger issues, like the philosophical, theological, theoretical, cultural and sociological dimensions of translation.

I see trust and competency as huge issues in Bible translation. The average Bible user has to trust that those who produced a certain translation are trustworthy and competent. And in fact, without an expert knowledge of biblical languages and textual criticism, the average reader of the Bible does put a great deal of trust in whoever provided the Bible version that their church recommends. That’s good. It makes sense. Trust is a good thing, assuming you trust in something that is trustworthy.

It is also easy to see a lot of mistrust these days, which is sad. Factionalism seems to be on the rise with respect to Bible translations, as it is with respect to politics. “You can trust the translation that we endorse, but don’t trust that other one. They have an agenda.” Regardless of whether I can be happy that a translation I like is at the top of the best-sellers list, or whether I can be disappointed that a translation that I wouldn’t endorse is at the top of the list, the bigger issue for me is the distrust and factionalism.

A recent development that prompts me to write is a report I heard, that seminaries are starting to develop translation courses that support their distinctive views on translation. I should be happy that translation is being taught in seminaries, but the impression I get is that these new study programs are intended to support a word-for-word approach to translation that I think is misinformed. I heard this from a colleague who is an ordained minister in one of these denominations and who is better informed about seminary and denominational trends than I am.

It looks like, rather than leading to a common understanding on the nature of Bible translation, the trend in the seminaries will lead to further factionalism. I am not an ecumenist, necessarily, but I would hope that Christians could at least agree we are all reading essentially the same Bible, even if it is in different forms.

Certain other religions and worldviews hold that holy scriptures are not translatable. For Christians, translation is integral to our view of the Bible, God, salvation and Christianity in general. The words of the scriptures are not like an incantation. It is the message the words convey that is important. As Lamin Sanneh said in his 2003 book Whose Religion is Christianity? (p. 97), “Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their Scripture well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark: the church would be unrecognizable or unsustainable without it.”

I read a story a few days ago that I can’t properly document right now, and it might not even be true, but it was about a woman who was so mad at her husband over their disagreement concerning the interpretation of a verse from the Bible, she scalded him with hot water while he was sleeping. Obviously, in this story, somebody’s missing the bigger picture.

As a professional linguist, I could tell you that one of the most basic things about language is that it both underspecifies meaning, and at the same time is redundant. There is more than one way to say the same thing. The redundancy and the contextual information help make up for the underspecification. There is no perfect language and there is no perfect translation. We would all be better communicators if we made an effort to understand, and didn’t use (one’s favorite translation of) the Bible as something to beat each other over the head with.

13 thoughts on “Reflections on the nature of Bible translation

  1. Rich Rhodes says:

    It is scary that we have turned the enterprise of translation on its head. The order should be:

    1) find the meaning in the text, and then
    2) derive our theology from the meaning.

    But we fail to handle the text properly in two ways.

    First, we get a lot of the framing and pragmatics wrong. I posted about this a couple weeks ago. (These areas represent a huge contribution that contemporary linguistics could — and should — make to Bible translation, but no English translation reflects any of this. In fact, most of the basic research in Koine has yet to be done. Missing the framing and the pragmatics are the real weaknesses in the Nida inspired, dynamic-equivalent translations.)

    And second, in our lust for theologically consistent answers we’re impatient with the ambiguities and underspecification in the text — somehow forgetting that God put them there — so we try to resupply the “missing” meaning from our theology.

    I’m distressed at how much theology informs the exegesis I hear from pastors and theologians alike nowadays. And I’m horrified that we as a Church put up with it. We say we are people of the Word, but by our actions we show we value theology above the text.

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    Well, Mr Frank, David – nice to hear from you. I am not sure I was aware you were there. I like the phrases underspecification and redundancy. As a systems engineer, I get them both. It has seemed to me recently that the NT is itself a translation of the Hebrew experience written for the Gentiles. God speaks in any tongue, not just one or two.

  3. David Frank says:

    Mark Denning, no the Gordon-Conwell Doctor of Ministry degree is not what I had in mind, though I should have remembered that important development. I have a lot of confidence in that program, and I would have been interested in it myself, except that I already have a doctorate and couldn’t justify at this point in my life going for another one. I’ve met and interacted some with Dr. Roy Ciampa, and I know Dr. Bryan Harmelink, and if you are interested in the theory and practice of Bible translation, and have the right prerequisites, that is a study program I would recommend.

  4. David Frank says:

    Bob MacDonald, I have some historical references that indicate that Matthew’s gospel was originally in Aramaic. The Greek form of it that we have is apparently itself a translation. And of course, all of the quotes of Jesus in the gospels would seem to be a translation. I don’t think Jesus ordinarily spoke Greek.

  5. Rich Rhodes says:

    Underspecification is a technical term in linguistics. At one level it refers to situations in which it is not necessary to store all the information in a linguistic unit because the patterns of the language allow the information to be supplied from context.

    For example, Turkish suffixes contain high or low vowels. You only need to know if a vowel is high or low, whether it is front or back, round or unround is supplied by the preceding vowel. The usual analysis of this is that the vowels in Turkish suffixes are underspecified.

    In this sense it is merely the flip side of redundancy.

    But the kind of underspecification that is of most interest for Bible translation is semantic/pragmatic. In one of my old posts I discussed this point. It’s worth quoting the relevant paragraph.

    In actual communication context is everything. The essence of language is that it gives you just enough information to pick out of the context what it is that the speaker intends to communicate. Why do we call red hair red? If meanings were absolute we would call it orange. It’s red because it has a reddish cast compared to blonde hair. We say red because that’s enough information to enable you to pick out the right class of hair colors. If you order a sandwich in a deli you’re likely to say:

    A ham and cheese on rye, please. Hold the mayo.


    I’d like to order a ham and cheese sandwich on rye bread, but don’t put any mayonnaise on it.

    It’s this kind of underspecification that theologians seem not to want to allow for.

  6. John Hobbins says:

    Interesting conversation.

    I think it’s true that theologians are averse to underspecification.

    But I think translators are averse to underspecification, too.

    Translators love to make the source texts clear and understandable. Even if that means rewriting them in the sense of eliminating “extraneous information” they contain, and adding new redundancies to emphasize what is thought to be essential.

  7. David Frank says:

    John Hobbins, I agree. The term I use for this is that sometimes translators “overtranslate.” What I am really pondering is what translation is all about. In keeping with the sentiment of my post, I do believe that different Bible translators or translation committees with different approaches to translation all want to translate the original text as completely and as accurately as possible. We get different results that could all be considered proper translations of the same text because of the fact that there are different ways to say the same thing, because of different audiences that the translators have in mind, and because of different ideas as to how best to capture the meaning of the source text as completely as possible. Yes, overtranslation, or over-explicating the text, is one of the ways that a translation might go somewhat astray.

  8. cantueso says:

    In Spanish there is a great translation made by some Domenicans. It is not the translation offered by Catholic web sites, but it was the official version in Franco’s time. The translators are Nacar Fuster and Colunga Cueto.


    It is a good example of the basic problem. I am a translator and the trade slogan is: If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is not beautiful (and in Spanish, instead of “it”, it would be “she”…..)

    My primary language was German, but I could never read any Bible until I saw that Nacar Colunga translation. All the English translations that I have looked at strike me as drab, sometimes because of their archaisms, sometimes because of clumsy attempts to sound like the next guy.

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