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The Bible

Why So Many Translations?

Psalm 119:103
How sweet are Your words to my taste, Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
NKJV

So then, one might ask, why if all this is true, do we have differing interpretation of passages? Why do we have so many different Bible versions?

Does anyone here speak a foreign language? Does anyone here have a lot of contact with teenagers? For that matter, consider the problems of talking to someone in a completely differing line of work - "geeks" have a different set of slang phrases from medical doctors.

The problem of language lies in both the meaning of words and the use to which they are placed, their context. "To strike" means one thing in a fist fight, but something different in baseball or some other sports (strike the football with the foot, not with a bat), and yet "to strike" has still another meaning in a labor dispute.

If Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible as tradition holds, and if scholars' timelines are accurate, Moses wrote these books during the Exodus which occurred between approximately 1445 BC and 1405 BC, that is, almost 3500 years ago. What kinds of "slang" did they have then? How much of it consider some of the archaic problems of the King James:

What about today's slang, how will it be viewed a thousand years from now (assuming Christ tarries that long)? As my daughter would say, cool man.

This is where historical, cultural, and ancient language studies play such an important role in our understanding of the Scriptures.

Formal versus Dynamic

So then, how do translators approach these problems? This is part of the issue which leads to multiple versions. Most people today, if asked what makes for a faithful translation of the Bible would say that it should be a word-for-word account. If the original has a noun, one would expect a noun. If the original had sixteen words, they expect to see sixteen words in the translated sentence. This is call "formal equivalence." The King James, the American Standard, and the New American Standard versions are the translations which come closest to this ideal.

At the other end of the spectrum is the dynamic equivalence or phrase-for-phrase translation. If my daughter wrote her phrase "cool man," a translator using the formal equivalence approach might translate it as a cool or cold man. But one using the dynamic approach would use words meaning neat or awesome or ok, depending upon the context. The dynamic equivalence approach is not so much concerned about the grammatical form of the original language as it is about the meaning of the original. This approach is, by nature, more interpretive, but it is easier to understand. To a great extent the NIV is a dynamic equivalent translation, although the New English Bible is a better example.

In reality, no translation can be completely formal or dynamic. For example, in the King James, the Hebrew in places such as Psalm 76:7 and 1 Kings 11:96 and 17:18 literally reads "God's nostrils enlarged." KJV translates this phrase as "God became angry," an example of dynamic equivalence. Another example from the KJV is found in the New Testament, where in Matthew 1:18. Here the KJV tells us "Mary was found to be with child." The Greek actually reads "Mary was having it in the belly!" Paul writes in his letter (Romans 6:2; 7:7) "God forbid!" Literally the phrase in the Greek means "May it never be!" Neither the Greek for "God" or for "forbid" appears in any of the texts.

So these differences in interpretative philosophy help to dictate the manner in which a version is generally written. The formal equivalence translation lets the reader interpret for himself. Often the average reader does not have the background or tools to interpret accurately. This results in poor understanding of some passages. On the other hand, a dynamic translation is usually clear and understandable, but if the translators missed the point of the original, whether intentionally or unintentionally, a foreign or poor interpretation will result.

In my opinion, the New English Bible is an example of this problem. Here the philosophy and theology of the Church of Scotland greatly influenced the views on many passages, although it is written in beautiful, poetic language. At the extreme, the New World Translation of the Jehovah Witnesses is an example of theological doctrine at work in a dynamic translation. They, rather than writing their own "addition" to God's Word like many other cults, simply reinterpreted passages to fit their incorrect views.

The difference in philosophy is not the only reason for the significant increase in Bible versions over the past 50-to-100 years. 1881 is the year of break point in the issue of Bible translations.

 

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