By Dave Brunn | Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Photo by ideacreamanuela2/Flickr
What does it mean to translate the Bible faithfully and accurately?
This question was paramount in my mind when my wife and I first arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1980. As a new missionary-translator, I was committed to translating God’s Word as faithfully and accurately as possible.
I thought I had a good understanding of what that meant; but when I started translating into the Lamogai language, I quickly realized that my view of translation was incomplete and even a bit idealistic. Bible translation is an incredibly complex undertaking, but somehow I had developed an oversimplified view of the translation process.
It didn’t take me long to realize that some of my standards of faithful and accurate translation were based on parts of English grammar that simply don’t exist in Lamogai. If those standards were God’s universal standards, then Lamogai would automatically be disqualified from having a faithful or accurate translation of God’s Word.
One piece of the puzzle that I had not taken into consideration is the fact that English and koineGreek—the original language of the New Testament—are related languages, both members of the Indo-European language family. I realized that I had unintentionally made English the ultimate standard for Bible translation. This realization became even more noteworthy when I learned that only six per cent of the world’s living languages are classified as “Indo-European.” That means 94 per cent of the languages spoken around the world today are not related to koine Greek in the way English is. My view of translation was based on a pretty narrow segment of the worldwide linguistic landscape.
As I continued translating the New Testament into Lamogai, I frequently compared various English versions side-by-side. That’s when my idealistic perception of translation really started to unravel. It quickly became apparent to me that the English Bible versions identified as “literal” versions are not nearly as literal as I had previously thought. In fact there are a surprising number of places where notably non-literal versions are more literal than versions we think of as literal.
For example, in Psalm 44:14, the New Living Translation and the New International Version, (bothdynamic equivalence translations) translated the phrase “shake their heads” quite literally; but the English Standard Version and New American Standard Bible (both literal versions) changed it to “laughingstock.” This is a perfectly appropriate way to translate this phrase, but it is far from literal.
The point is, when I hear Christians arguing about “which English Bible version is best,” I am convinced that much of the debate is unnecessary, because it is based on an incomplete, oversimplified view of the Bible translation process—similar to the view I held when I first started translating. It’s fine to have a favourite Bible version. But it’s not appropriate to disparage another version that is not our “favourite.” When we criticize another version for employing a particular translation practice, we need to remember that our favourite probably does the very same thing in other contexts.
No translation is perfect. There will always be room for discussing English Bible versions. But our discussion needs to be respectful, and rooted in a realistic understanding of Bible translation. I find that when Christians gain a more complete understanding of the complex challenges faced by every translator, they tend to be less dogmatic—and the urge to argue seems to fade away.
Dave Brunn is the author of One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (InterVarsity Press 2013) and spent more than 20 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary-translator with New Tribes Mission, completing a translation of the New Testament into the Lamogai language.