Reformed Articles

Translating the Bible

This post was originally published on this site
There are different Bible translation philosophies. These go by different labels. For instance:

Major Bible translations typically reflect one of three general philosophies: formal equivalence, functional equivalence, and optimal equivalence. Formal equivalence is called a word-for-word translation and attempts to translate the Bible as literally as possible, keeping the sentence structure and idioms intact if possible. The NASB and KJV are representatives of this camp. Functional equivalence is typically referred to as a thought-for-thought translation. This is an attempt to translate the text so it has the same effect on the current reader as it had on the ancient reader. The NLT exemplifies this theory. Optimal equivalence falls between the former approaches by balancing the tension between accuracy and ease of reading. While striving for precision in translation, it also seeks clarity to the modern day reader. The ESV leans toward the formal equivalent translation philosophy. The NIV tries to balance these approaches and may lean toward a functional equivalence theory. The HCSB is an optimal equivalence translation.


Here’s an approach I haven’t seen discussed (which doesn’t mean it hasn’t been discussed). Suppose I’m translating the Bible into English. (I’m using English as an illustration because that’s my mother tongue, but the approach I’m suggesting is applicable to receptor languages in general.) I’d ask myself, if Ezekiel, Jeremiah, St. Paul, or a Psalmist was a native English speaker, how would he express himself in idiomatic English? If he wasn’t speaking or writing in Greek or Hebrew, if English was the original language, how would he speak or write in English? Instead of treating Greek or Hebrew as the original, and rendering that into a receptor language, suppose we imaginatively put Bible writers in a time machine and transport them to our own time and place. What words would they use? Rather than viewing the process in terms of translation from one language to another, we might switch that around by viewing the process as if the Bible writer was, in fact, speaking in our own language. If, say, he was a 20C American. Put yourself in that mindset. 

Now, what I just said is deceptively simple. There are complications to that hypothetical. There are different periods in English usage, so the answer would vary depending on whether we recast the Bible writer as a 17C English speaker, or 18C, 19C, 20C, 21C English speaker. Likewise, if even I confine myself to American examples, there’s literary English, working-class English, Black English, Southern English, colloquial English, and so on. So the choice of English might depend on the target reader instead of a generic English translation.

If I was translating Ecclesiastes, the Psalter, or poetic sections in Isaiah, I’d use literary English. At the opposite extreme, if I was translating Ezk 18 & 23, I’d use street English or slang. Because that’s how Ezekiel would talk if he was speaking English.  

Keep in mind that Bible translations never replace the original. We always have the Greek and Hebrew text to refer back to, as the theological benchmark.