Thinking about Bible Translations? Part One

(I’ve decided to take a break from the pod casts on holiness. Will be back with more on that subject later.)

Bible Translation 2b

An old Christianity Today article, entitled “We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation,’ by Raymond Van Leeuwen, (Oct. 2, 2001, pages 28-35) has stimulated my thinking about Bible translation and ministry.  People often begin by asking, “Well, what Bible translation is best?” or “What Bible translation do you use?” or “What Bible translation is best for Bible study?” or “What Bible translation is best to read in public?”

“What-the-text-says” Translations:

Let’s begin by talking about the two basic kinds of Bible translations. We often refer to them as “literal” and “figurative.” “Functionally equivalent” is actually a better term than “figurative.” By “literal” we usually mean that the translations in question follow the Greek or Hebrew word order and the syntax of the Greek sentence as closely as possible.  Of course, no translation can follow the order and syntax of another language exactly. Greek, for instance, often puts a predicate noun at the beginning of a sentence (John 1:1, “God, was the word”), while English puts it at the end (“The Word was God.”) Van Leeuwen calls this type of translation a “what-the-text-says” translation. The New American Standard, the New King James, the English Standard Bible, and the Revised Standard Version tend to be “what the text says” translations.

“What-the-text-means” Translations:

A “functionally equivalent” translation, on the other hand, attempts to reproduce the impression of the original on a modern reader. Thus, in order to make the meaning or significance clear words and structure may be significantly changed. Van Leeuwen helpfully calls this kind of translation a “what-the-text-means” translation. The New International Version, Revised English Bible, amd New Jerusalem Bible tend in this direction. The Good News Bible, New Living Translation, and the New Century Bible certainly fall in this category, as do paraphrases such as J. B. Phillips and The Message. I have not used the relatively new Common Bible enough to evaluate it.

What’s the Difference?

Let us clarify the difference between “what-the -text-says” and “what-the-text-means” a little further.  “What-the-text-means” translations aim to make the significance and implications of the text, determined by its background and context, immediately accessible to the reader.  On the other hand, “what-the-text-says” translations aim at giving readers the material to make those implications themselves.  “What-the-text-says” translations are not aiming at unintelligibility and their language need not be wooden or archaic. It is time for an example of the difference between “what-the-text-says” and “what-the-text-means”:

An Example:

In Mark 2:16 the Teachers of the Law who were Pharisees question Jesus’ actions when they say to the disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (NASB).  This translation accurately gives us what they said.  The NLT, on the other hand, has them say, “Why does he eat with such scum?”  The text has already identified these people as “tax collectors and sinners” so the NLT is free to use the term “such scum” so that the modern reader immediately grasp the scorn and distain in the Pharisees voices. On the other hand, the modern reader will have to study the context and look at related references to tax collectors in order to get this same understanding from the NASB.  The NASB gives us accurately “what the text says.”  The NLT gives us immediate access to at least one aspect of its significance. In the next verse Jesus says, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  Again the NLT says, “I have come to call sinners, not those who think they are already good enough.”   Jesus said, “righteous.”  Context, however, shows that he was using this word ironically and thus meant something like, “those who think they are already good enough.”

“What-the-text-says” is Best, Right?

So, obviously, since we want to know what the Bible “says,” a “what-the-text-says” translation is best? Not so fast. We will begin to answer this question next week! See you then!

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