More on Bible translations: how many do we need?

August 21, 2018 by Joe Small

Ezekiel was surrounded by the ‘likeness’ of the glory of the LORD, and he heard ‘someone’ speaking: “eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 1:28, 3:1). Each week, pastors continue to eat what is offered to them, and continue to speak to the community of faith. From time to time, the Presbyterian Foundation will offer brief studies of Scripture that may be useful to pastors in teaching and preaching God’s word.

Bible Translations: Part 1

How many English translations of the Bible do we need? New translations appear at a dizzying pace, each one promising superior accuracy and readability. The profusion of translations is evidence that they will all sell at a brisk pace – publishers publish what they think people will buy.

How is a person to choose? Is it enough to go by personal taste? Or by the recommendations of others? Or because it is the preferred translation of one’s church? Few Bible readers have meaningful access to Hebrew and Greek, and so checking the original languages is only possible for scholars and the occasional pastor.

Two recent books provide insight into the problem caused by total reliance on English translations. First, David Bentley Hart, an eminent Orthodox theologian has produced his own translation, The New Testament: A Translation (Yale University Press, 2017). Unlike paraphrases (e.g. The Message), he aims for “literal” rendering of words, grammar, and syntax. Why does he bother? Because he has little confidence in the translation process that produces most English versions:

I have come to believe that all the standard English translations render a great many concepts and presuppositions upon which the books of the New Testament are built largely impenetrable, and that most of them hide (sometimes forcibly) things of absolutely vital significance for understanding how the texts’ authors thought. At times this is the result of the peculiarities of the translators’ linguistic, historical, or conceptual training. More often it is the result of their commitment to one or another theological tradition or predisposition. And occasionally it is the result of their loyalty to some prevailing theory of translation (such as dynamic equivalence theory) that encourages them to make the line between translation and interpretation perilously hazy. Really, it is usually the result of all these things at once, inasmuch as almost all modern translations of the text have been produced not by single scholars with their own particular visions of the texts but by committees. The invariable consequence of this is that many of the most important decisions are negotiated accommodations, achieved by general agreement, and favoring only those solutions that prove the least offensive to everyone involved.

I believe Hart is right, but this does not solve our problem, it exacerbates it. Hart’s own translation is not free from “impenetrability, concealment, peculiarity, commitment, and theory of translation.”

Its value, however, lies in its commitment to a translation that attempts fidelity to Greek vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. The result is awkward, but when placed beside one’s preferred translation Hart’s often provides fresh insight into the text that enriches preaching and teaching.

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