Translators Are Traitors

The title is an Italian proverb. It’s a reminder that translating from one language to another often evokes strong feelings. Strong feelings are especially involved when the translation is the Bible. One story from church history illustrates this. When Jerome’s Latin Vulgate was read in one North African church for the first time, a riot ensued. Of course, the Vulgate went on to become a standard translation for more than a millennia and is still used today.

Many of us can remember a time when most people would have been reading from the same translation – the King James Version (although Roman Catholics at that time would have been reading the Douay-Rheims). Now different translations are the norm.

I want us to be Bible readers, but I also want us to be wise students as we deal with the situation of multiple translations. Accuracy is important. It does matter to me whether I’m reading God’s word or the faulty opinion of a translator. The final court of appeal in translation issues is the Bible in the original languages, which is why I study Greek and Hebrew. I realize that not everyone has the time or inclination for that, but many helps exist in English to go back to the original. It is not an impossible task.

Having read the Bible in multiple translations, the good news is that translations agree more than they disagree. You don’t have the impression that you are reading different books. Where they disagree, often they are bringing out different possible nuances in words. Noting differences and studying them can lead to fruitful discoveries.

Two different approaches to translating are used, and it is important to know which approach was used in the Bible you are reading. They are formal equivalence and functional (or dynamic) equivalence. Formal equivalence attempts to be a literal as possible. It attempts to match as closely as possible the forms of the original (word for word, verb for verb, noun for noun, etc.) with the forms of the receptor language (the language of the translation, which in our case is English). Functional equivalence attempts to elicit the same meaning of the original in language forms that are natural to the receptor language.

The extreme end of formal equivalence is found in an interlinear. The English gloss under the original language in an interlinear is extremely difficult to read except for checking a word. Formal equivalence translations can be difficult to read so that we fail to get a meaning or we get the wrong meaning because the language is unnatural to us. The extreme end of functional equivalence is unduly free. Unduly free means that the translator misrepresents the original. I think some paraphrases definitely fall into the category of unduly free. All functional equivalent translations may have places where they have been unduly free. It is important to know what kind of translation you are reading. If it is formal equivalence, you may find some phrases that are harder to understand than normal English. If it is functional equivalence, you may have something that is not faithful to the original.

 What is the English Bible reader to do? I hope to sort some of this out in a series of articles. What should you do now? Keep reading the Bible, and read the preface of the translation you are using. Find out what approach the translators are using.

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