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How to Choose a Translation for All Its WorthA Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions
By Gordon D. Fee Mark L. Strauss
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2007 Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Need for Translation
Many years ago a much-admired teacher of Greek stood before her first-year Greek class. With uncharacteristic vigor, she held up her Greek New Testament and said forcefully, "This is the New Testament; everything else is a translation." While that statement itself needs some qualification (see chap. 8 below), the fact that it is still remembered fifty-plus years later by a student in that class says something about the impact that moment had in his own understanding of the Bible. For the first time, and as yet without the tools to do much about it, he was confronted both with the significance of the Greek New Testament and with the need for a careful rendering of the Greek into truly equivalent-and meaningful-English. And at that point in time he hadn't even attended his first Hebrew (or Aramaic) class! Since the majority of people who read this book will not know the biblical languages, our aim is to help readers of the Bible to understand the why, the what, and the how of translating the Bible into English. It will beclear in the pages that follow (esp. chap. 2) that we think the best of all worlds is to be found in a translation that aims to be accurate regarding meaning, while using language that is normal English. Nonetheless, our goal is not to tell the reader which translation to use; in the end, that is a matter of personal choice. And while we think that everyone should have a primary translation of choice, we hope also, in light of the richness of available options, to encourage the frequent use of more than one translation as an enriching form of Bible study.
The Why of Bible Translation
The question of "why biblical translation" seems so self-evident that one might legitimately ask "why talk about why?" The first answer, of course, is the theological one. Along with the large number of believers who consider themselves evangelicals, the authors of this book share the conviction that the Bible is God's Word-his message to human beings. So why a book about translating Scripture into English? Precisely because we believe so strongly that Scripture is God's Word.
But we also believe that God in his grace has given us his Word in very real historical contexts, and in none of those contexts was English the language of divine communication. After all, when Scripture was first given, English did not yet exist as a language. The divine Word rather came to us primarily in two ancient languages-Hebrew (with some Aramaic) and Greek, primarily "Koine" Greek. The latter was not a grandiose language of the elite, but "common" Greek, the language of everyday life in the first-century Roman world.
Although modern Hebrew and Greek are descendants of these languages, the reality is that the languages spoken in ancient Israel and in the first Christian century are not the same languages spoken today. For contemporary Israelis and Greeks, reading the Bible in their original languages is like our reading the English of its early writers, such as the fourteenth-century Chaucer. We recognize many of the words, but many we do not, and the grammar is especially strange to our ears.
The third answer to "why do we need biblical translation" lies with a reality that might seem obvious to all, but which is often misunderstood. This is the reality that languages really do differ from one another-even cognate languages (i.e., "related" languages such as Spanish and Italian, or German and Dutch). The task of translation is to transfer the meaning of words and sentences from one language (the original or source language = the language of the text being translated) into meaningful words and sentences of a second language (known as the receptor or target language), which in our case is English. At issue ultimately is the need to be faithful to both languages-that is, to reproduce faithfully the meaning of the original text, but to do so with language that is comprehensible, clear, and natural.
As we will see, this means that a simple "word-for-word" transfer from one language to the other is inadequate. If someone were to translate the French phrase petit déjeuner into "word-for-word" English, they would say "little lunch"; but the phrase actually means "breakfast." Similarly, a pomme de terre in French is not an "apple of earth," as a literal translation would suggest, but a "potato." Since no one would think of translating word-for-word in these cases, neither should they imagine that one can simply put English words above the Hebrew words in the Old Testament or the Greek words in the New, and have anything that is meaningful in the receptor language. After all, the majority of words do not have "meaning" on their own, but only in the context of other words.
One might try in this case, as one of the authors has done regularly in introductory classes, to present the word "bear" to a group of students and ask them what it "means." In response one gets a large number of "meanings" for the word (large furry animal, to give birth, to carry, to endure, to put up with, etc.), but never the meaning that was actually in the mind of the professor. For he and his family were from the American west coast and were now living in New England. They had asked a service station attendant for directions to a high school gym in a neighboring town so they could watch their son play basketball. "Go down this (winding) street," we were told, "and when you come to the tree, bear right." Although context gave us a fairly good idea of what was intended by the word, this was a usage we had never before encountered.
In other words, knowing "words" is simply not enough; and anyone who uses an "interlinear Bible," where a corresponding English word sits above the Greek word, is by definition not using a translation, but is using a "crib" that can have some interesting-and, frankly, some unfortunate-results.
Thus the why of biblical translation is self-evident. The Bible is God's Word, given in human words at specific times in history. But the majority of English-speaking people do not know Hebrew or Greek. To read and understand the Bible they need the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words and sentences of the Bible to be transferred into meaningful and equivalent English words and sentences.
The What of Bible Translation
The ultimate concern of translation is to put a Hebrew or Greek sentence into meaningful English that is equivalent to its meaning in Hebrew or Greek. That is, the goal of good translation is English, not Greeklish (or Biblish). Biblish results when the translator simply replaces Hebrew or Greek words with English ones, without sufficient concern for natural or idiomatic English. For example, the very literal American Standard Version (ASV) translates Jesus' words in Mark 4:30 as, "How shall we liken the kingdom of God? or in what parable shall we set it forth?" This is almost a word-for-word translation, but it is unnatural English. No normal English speaker would say, "In what parable shall we set it forth?" The TNIV translates, "What parable shall we use to describe it?" The formal structure of the Greek must be changed to reproduce normal, idiomatic English.
At issue, therefore, in a good translation is where one puts the emphasis: (1) on imitating as closely as possible the words and grammar of the Hebrew or Greek text, or (2) on producing idiomatic, natural-sounding English. Or is there some balance between these two? In the next chapter we will introduce technical terms for, and a fuller explanation of, these approaches to translation.
While we believe that there is a place for different translation theories or approaches, we think the best translation into English is one where the translators have tried to be truly faithful to both languages-the source language and the receptor language. In any case, the task of translating into English requires expertise in both languages, since the translator must first comprehend how the biblical text would have been understood by its original readers, and must then determine how best to communicate this message to those whose first language is English. At the same time, since English is now the most commonly known second language throughout the world, at issue also must be how well nonnative English speakers will be able to understand and use the translation. Some of the versions we will examine in this book were developed especially for remedial readers or those with limited English-language skills.
The How of Biblical Translation
The how question concerns the manner in which translators go about their task. Here several issues come to the fore. First, has the translation been done by a committee or by a single individual? While some translations by individuals have found a permanent place on our shelves (the Living Bible being a case in point), there is a kind of corrective that comes from work by a committee that tends to produce a better final product.
Second, if the translation was produced by a committee, what kind of representation did the committee have? Was there a broad enough diversity of denominational and theological backgrounds so that pet points of view seldom won the day? Did the committee have representation of both men and women? Was there a broad range of ages and life experiences? Did the committee have members who were recognized experts in each of the biblical languages and in the matters of textual criticism regarding the transmission of both the Hebrew and Greek Bible? Were there English stylists on the committee who could distinguish truly natural English from archaic language?
Third, if translation decisions were made by a committee, what was the process of deciding between competing points of view? Was the choice made by simple majority, or did it require something closer to a two thirds or three-quarters majority in order to become part of the final version of the translation?
While the majority of readers of this book will not have easy access to the answers to these questions, most modern versions have a preface that gives some of the information needed. It is good to read these prefaces, so as to have a general idea of both the makeup of the committee and of the translational theory followed.
We should note at the end of this introductory chapter that in recent years there has emerged a great deal of debate over which of these kinds of translation has the greater value-or in some cases, which is more "faithful" to the inspired text. But "faithful" in this case is, as with "beauty," often in the eye of the beholder. While we are convinced that a translation based on "functional equivalence" is the best way to be fair to both the original and receptor languages, we are also aware that at issue ultimately is which version communicates God's eternal Word in language that is accessible to the majority of English-speaking people. In this regard, almost all of them do. But some do so for certain readers more adequately than others. Related to this is the need for the translation to "read well in church."
While the authors of this book think the greater overall value lies with a translation that attempts to be faithful both to the biblical languages and to English, our ultimate goal is not to convince others of this. Rather, we hope to help readers understand the how and the what that goes into any good translation of the Bible.
In the chapters that follow, we will take up the issues of the what and how of biblical translation, spelling out in more detail why and how certain kinds of translations differ from others. We will also indicate the benefits and limitations of each type of translation. We then offer examples of the kinds of issues that all translators must face in order to render into both accurate and understandable English something that was originally expressed in Hebrew or Greek.
Excerpted from How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee Mark L. Strauss Copyright © 2007 by Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss . Excerpted by permission.
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