I find it helpful to read what actual translators have to say about their own translations. When I present our ministry of translating the Bible into the languages of people groups around the world I often receive questions regarding modern English translations. Our primary goals in the translations with which we work are accuracy, clearity and naturalness. By implication these goals should also apply to English translations. I think the following quote from a recent English translation provides very helpful insight into the challenge of translation work even in our English language. (underlined emphasis mine)
"To those who point out defects in the translators words, they(we) answer that perfection is never attainable by man, but the word of God may be recognized in the very meanest translation of the Bible. Just as the Kings speech to parliament remains the Kings speech when translated into other languages than that in which it was spoken, even if it be not translated Word for Word, and even if some of the renderings are capable of improvement. To those who complain that the translators have introduced so many changes to the translation in relation to the older English version, they(we) answer by expressing surprise that revision and correction should be imputed as false. The whole history of Bible translation in any language is a history of repeated correction and revision."
In summary, these English scholars view their work in the following ways:
1) The translators explicitly deny the perfection of their translation.
2) They freely admit that even the poorest translation of Scripture is to be regarded as the Word of God.
3) They make a qualitative distinction between the text written in one language and the translation of it into another. Regarding scripture they admit that only The original text in Greek and Hebrew was inspired.
4) They implicitly approve all later revisions of their own work because the very nature of Bible translation involves a history of repeated revision and correction.
We have such a plethora of translations and biblical studies available to us in English today that it's difficult to step back and accurately consider what an accurate, clear and natural translation in English should look like. Our first reaction is to start counting differences and comparing among translations. This is further compounded by that fact that most of us are mono-lingual so we are not use to moving between different languages and we know very little, if any of the many linguistic factors involved.
All this to say, we somehow must force ourselves to overcome the established stereotypes and even personal familiarity to which we have grown a custom. It is not easy, I understand, and many are not willing to make the sacrifice. I believe it's a sacrifice worth making, because to do otherwise is to be in danger of obscuring God's Word all over again.
The above summary argues that no translation is perfect. I've talked to many who would strongly disagree. Plenty more would also condemn the various translations we have in English as heretical conspiracies. A position that would contradict the reasoning of the English translators above. While most would agree with the exclusive inspiration of the original languages some of the same people would try to carry that inspiration over to one particular English translation, again contrary to the statement of the translators above (and more importantly, contrary to what scripture teaches about itself). And finally, there appears to be a misunderstanding in our English speaking churches regarding the definition of preservation. For some, the very idea of a need for regular revision and correction of a translation is fuel for a heated debate because they genuinely believe that the doctrine of preservation must eliminate any and all human error. If that were true then I would never be involved in the work of translating Scripture for people groups in Asia. How could I possibly know that my work was infallible or not? Moving that kind of weight from the original manuscripts to a translated version would be a responsibility too heavy for any person to bear, or at least for one who believes the cannon of scripture is complete and that God has indeed given us "everything we need for life and godliness."
If someone disagrees with the four preceding arguments I realize I probably cannot say much to change their mind. Which is why I hope and pray that they would listen to a better source, the English translators whom they so highly respect. The above quote comes from the preface to the King James Version. I highly recommend everyone read the entire preface (available HERE). While certainly not one of the most recent English translations the KJV is recent considering the 2000+ years of translation history (we often forget that translations of scripture we're being done for over 1500 years before an English version was ever started). These KJV scholars recognized and relied on the value of the translators before them (a majority of the wording of the KJV comes from the work of William Tyndale). Their version certainly wasn't the first translation in English but these men were committed to the ideal of making God's Word available in the common language of the people. And they sought to employ principles of translation philosophy with which I whole heartedly agree. These are men for whom I thanks God! We stand as recipients of the work they and many others before and after them have done. They accurately grasped the challenge of translation as expressed so well in their preface to the readers. If the translators themselves didn't expected their translation to be above revision, why should we? I pray we don't lose the insights they promoted as we try to apply the same principles now 400 years later, with even greater resources from which we can benefit.
The question is not "if" we should revise a translation, but rather "when" is necessary to do so. If our goals are for a translation in every heart language that is both accurate AND clear & natural, then we must be conscious of obscuring the meaning and understanding of God's Word as a result of the normal course of development and change that every language continues to experience. The history of Bible translation is a history of revision, and rightfully so. May we never point to a particular version for our acceptance, nor blame one for our ignorance!
- Joel Wagner
- Joel Wagner