Translational Accuracy

Most conservative evangelicals will tell you that they want a Bible translation that is as accurate as possible. Yet closer examination reveals that it is almost impossible to define what that means let alone to produce a suitable translation. The difficulties involved are exacerbated when the target language and even culture are radically different from both the original biblical period and from that of the translator. Whilst not offering any genuine solutions this paper aims to at least lay out some of the issues involved.

For many people the translational debate has become sufficiently divisive at one point or another that it is now something that isn't mentioned in polite company. However the issue may well be rather more serious than we think. Here are a few examples where precision of translation is vital to understand the meaning of the passage:

  1. Luk 20:44 David therefore calleth him Lord, how is he then his son? Here we see the Lord make a vitally significant point regarding His pre-existence based purely upon the precise definition of the term 'Lord.' In fact this may already be somewhat broken in the English as a son could possibly be a Lord. We tend to skim over some of the subtle variations in name shift; perhaps we shouldn't.
  2. 1Sa 25:22 So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall. This verse which contains a startling vulgarity to the modern eye would be almost entirely meaningless in cultures where men squat as women do.
  3. Mat 5:18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. This is probably the most common verse used to justify precision of translation. The Lord is stating that even some of the more minor punctuation is core to the fulfillment of scripture.
  4. Rom 8:30 Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. I included this verse as it is an example of a crucial foundation of the faith type of verse that probably holds almost zero meaning to many English readers. Without a precise understanding of predestinate, justified and glorified this verse descends into meaningless platitudes. The reality is that whilst this verse could be interpreted correctly by an English dictionary very few believers that the vocabulary necessary to understand this verse without assistance or much work.
  5. Gal 4:5 To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. This may seem an odd choice but consider the weight that is placed upon the word adoption. There are many cultures where children are adopted in but where they become servants or companions of the 'real' children.

Given how difficult it is to pick a perfect English translation we must be all the more aware that creating or using a foreign one is at least twice as difficult. The reason for the escalation in complexity is that the translator will usually be going, at least implicitly, through his own language and culture. Thus a concept in the Hebrew may get westernized and then the western concept gets Africanized or Far Easternized as appropriate. Worse it can often be the case that the target language and culture actually had a better construct available than the English; but this fact was missed because of the intermediate step.

As I stated at the outset this paper offers no solutions. After twenty years of trying I have still not settled in my mind upon a single suitable answer when someone asks me the English translation they should use. Having moved from the UK to the US I also have a keen appreciation for linguistic and cultural differences that can exist between two very similar peoples. I am often amazed at the passages that Americans grasp instantly that are alien to the British mind. There are also some that the British readily relate to that need to be explained from first principles over here.

Having offered no solution I will however close with an observation. After seven years I am still learning new things about American language and culture. However I am blindsided (American term) with about half of the frequency I once was. I believe that if we really wish to communicate in a new language and to a new culture then we need to be thinking in terms of multiple decades.


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