June 5, 2012

What are the two main types of Bible translations?

Translations are done according to certain theories or approaches to doing translations and they actually meet different kinds of needs. First of all, there's always going to be a need for new translations. Language is in the process of constant change. And in the early centuries of the church, what happened was as the gospel was taken into different cultures and places, people could not speak Greek. They couldn't speak Hebrew. And so there was a need to translate those original scriptures into the vernacular of the people who were being brought into the church.

And even today if you think about the English language, the English language changes dramatically over time. I was reading Robin Hood earlier in the summer and going back to some of those original works, and one of the words that was used consistently in these books was "gossip." And you know what the word "gossip" meant a couple hundred years ago, it meant something like "friend." Your gossip was someone who was your close companion who you could talk to about things, and you might even greet someone on the street and you're using that word instead of the word "friend." Well the word "gossip" means something completely different for us. In fact, gossip is not likely to be somebody who's your intimate friend. You don't want to tell them things. Well, language is always changing and so we're always going to need new translations.

Now here's the trick in doing translation. What we want to do is we want to, as much as possible, parallel the original wording, the original meaning, but at the same time what we want to do is we want to communicate when we do a translation. And so what translations try to do is in some way they try to balance what it means to be faithful to the text as it was originally written and at the same time communicate clearly to what would be called the target audience. Now the two main kinds of translations that we have are, number one, formal equivalence. And what formal equivalence is, is more word for word. Now let me give you an example of a more formal equivalence translation. King James is formal equivalence. New American Standard, which is one that I grew up with, is more formal equivalence. There are many places in the New American Standard translation where what they opted to go with was very much more of a word-for-word type translation even though it may not be readily apparent exactly what the words mean. Let me give you an example of that. The New American Standard in 1 Corinthians 7:1 reads, "Now concerning the things about which you wrote" — the Corinthians had written to Paul and asked him a series of questions, so he says, "Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman." Now if you read that, immediately what is communicated to us is it's good for a man not to touch a woman. Now I am very thankful that that's not what Paul was talking about. But that is more of a formal translation of that passage.

There are other translations like the English Standard Version, which has been released recently. It was kind of a redoing of the Revised Standard and it's a very, very good translation. The thing that is good about formal equivalence translations — a couple of things. First of all, you're left to study the text for yourself to discern what it means. Now that's actually a good thing because with the other kind of translation theory we're going to talk about in a minute, those translations — in fact, all translations to a degree — are going to involve interpretation. But with a dynamic or a functional equivalence translation we're going to see in a minute, that translation makes more decisions about what the text means in order to bring it over and communicate in modern language.

So the formal equivalence will leave more of the study and the discerning up to you. It also leaves more of the poetic structure of the text intact, the word order and things like that, left more intact with the formal equivalence translation. So it has a very important place, and I want to suggest that a formal equivalence translation like the ESV or New American Standard, those translations are important for you to do your Bible study with. It's important that you have that kind as your base approach to doing Bible study.

Now the other kind of translation, though, is what I mentioned just a second ago: the functional equivalence translation. It's not word for word; it is thought for thought. And what a functional equivalence translation is going to try to do is it's going to take the words that are there and bring over the thought faithfully. It's trying to communicate what the author was intending to say by the translation. So when we look at the New Living Translation, which is an example of a functional equivalence translation, it says this in 1 Corinthians 7:1, "Now about the questions you asked in your letter, yes, it's good to live the celibate life." Because what Paul was probably talking about there was marriage or more specifically the sexual relationship between a man and woman, but it's clear from the broader context when he says it's good for a man not to touch a woman, he was using a softened way of saying it's best for a man not to be bound up in the marriage relationship and all the responsibilities that go along with that and the sexual relationship and that kind of thing.

Now we don't have time to get into 1 Corinthians 7 today. Paul had a very specific reason for talking about that in 1 Corinthians 7, and he comes around and says everybody has their gifts from God and marriage is a gift from God, and God calls people to that. But the point is that what the New Living Translation does is it interprets those words for you in the translation. Now I think the functional equivalence translation approach is vital. I think it's very, very important because what it does is it allows us to read the text and hear what is being communicated in our own language and to readily grasp it and understand it. So what I would suggest is that for broad reading of the text, for rapid reading of the text, especially if you're a fairly young Christian, what you want to do is you want to have a very good functional equivalence translation to do your reading in, because you can cover a lot of ground and understand what is going on very readily. So functional equivalence, what it's trying to do is to communicate. It's trying to communicate, and that has a very, very important place in how we do our Bible study and our Bible reading.