The Perfect Translation Illusion
The translation of Scripture into other languages is a cross-cultural mission activity that enjoys enthusiastic support in evangelical circles. But curiously this support is coupled with wide spread ignorance concerning what constitutes an accurate Bible translation. There seems to be an illusion that the perfect translation is possible, one which will provide an exact representation of the text found in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Translations are judged according to a one dimensional scale in the attempt to find that one translation which is more accurate than all the others. This perspective demonstrates a lack of understanding concerning language in general as well as ignoring the necessary limitations placed on a translation project by its stated purpose and philosophy.
Form Versus Message
A recent book review on the English Standard Version Bible (ESV) illustrates some of these misunderstandings1. The article questions the accuracy of the NIV stating that its "’dynamic equivalence’ approach has always raised questions with respect to its faithfulness to the original languages." Although the NIV may have some weaknesses as a translation, its lack of "faithfulness to the original languages" is not one of them simply because the very nature of translation demands that the forms, rules and structures of the receptor language be used in order for communication to occur. The point of translation is to represent the meaning of the original text using the symbols and linguistic assumptions of another language and culture. Only Muslims can be faithful to the original language of their holy scripture, the Quran, because they are convinced that it is untranslatable. They believe that the Quran remains God’s word only in the Arabic language because that is the language in which it was written when it was handed to the prophet of Islam directly from heaven. However the evangelical view of scripture is that God’s message is transcultural (for the whole world) and therefore can be communicated accurately in any and all languages. It is this faith in the transferability and sacredness of the message, as opposed to a belief in the sacredness of form and structure of one specific language, that motivates the translation of Scripture. The resulting translation, inevitably changed in words, form and structure, is as much the word of God as the original text as long as it accurately communicates the same meaning to the intended audience.
Accuracy is Relative to Translation Style
Although translation is far more complex than can be expressed in this article, there are basically two types of translations. Formal correspondence attempts a literal word-for-word and form-for-form translation reflecting the original styles and phrasings of the original text. Dynamic or functional equivalence strives to present the same meaning and impact that the text would have had for its original audience to a new audience living in a different culture and using a different language. The advantage of a formal translation is that it is helpful for those familiar with the original languages and cultures in determining the possible range of meanings allowed in the original as they engage in more comprehensive Bible study. The weakness of a literal translation is in the frequent failure to communicate due to an awkwardness and obtuseness of language, a shortcoming which can result in an understanding contrary to the intent of the original message. Formal correspondence translations are not good pulpit Bibles, nor are they good devotional Bibles. Functional equivalent translations, on the other hand, focus on providing the original meaning using forms and idioms natural to the receptor language so that the reader quickly and accurately grasps both the intent of the writing and the impact of the message within his or her cultural setting.
A formal equivalent translation will sacrifice impact and meaning for the sake of reflecting parallel linguistic symbols. A functional equivalent translation will sacrifice the form in order to communicate the meaning. As an example, Hebrew poetry is arranged in couplets with the second line often reflecting the meaning of the first line without adding further meaning. This is not a common style for writing in English and the uninitiated will attempt (incorrectly) to gain further information from the second line when reading a formal translation. A functional equivalent translation will often telescope the two lines into one thus providing the full meaning in a common English style without confusing the reader. Because functional equivalent translations are receptor-focused they are more accurate in communicating the meaning of the Scriptures. Because formal translations are literal-focused they will reflect more accurately the form and style of the original text.
Language Limitations in Translation
Newbigin’s2 comments concerning cross-cultural communication are as equally valid in the translation of Scripture. He says, “a missionary or an anthropologist who really hopes to understand and enter into the adopted culture will not do so by trying to learn the language in the way a tourist uses a phrasebook and a dictionary. It must be learned in the way a child learns to speak, not by finding words to match one’s existing stock, but by learning to think and to speak in the way the people of the country do. A person who seeks to learn it in that way quickly discovers that the two languages are mutually translatable only to a very limited extent. Words used in the two languages to denote the same kinds of things have very different meanings because of the different roles that these things play in the two cultures.”
The book review mentioned above reflected another basic misunderstanding in translation with the comment that "many will appreciate the ESVs commitment to maintaining consistency with the original languages when it comes to gender. The generic ‘he’ has been retained…." The implication is that gender inclusive translations (incorrectly labeled "gender neutral" in the article) by not formally reflecting the grammatical style of the original text are somehow less accurate. A literal translation will usually follow the style of using the singular male pronoun when referring to people in general. However even though this more accurately reflects the style of the original language, it is less accurate in reflecting the meaning. A functional equivalent translation will ensure that the appropriate English written symbol is used so that the equivalent meaning of the original is communicated. For example Paul often uses a Greek word somewhat equivalent to the English "brother". At times the word refers only to men (e.g. 1 Th 3:2), but at other times it is inclusive of women (e.g. Rom 14:10). However in ordinary English usage "brother" does not include women. A receptor-oriented translation will be concerned to communicate the meaning of the original (e.g. TNIV), whereas a formal translation (e.g. ESV) will more accurately reflect the style of the original text.
Receptor Oriented Translations
Our translation of the Bible into the Sindhi language of Pakistan aims to be receptor-oriented and a functional equivalent translation with a desire to make the original meaning of God’s message clear and accessible to any Sindhi with at least a grade six education. Thus the goal is not to introduce or perpetuate difficult theological terms (cf. many formal translations), but to provide a translation that the average Sindhi Muslim, with no Christian theological training or Bible study helps, can read and understand. It will not help them understand the form and style of the original languages, but it will communicate God’s word so that they are able to relate the message to their lives.
- 1 p. 17, Daniels, D, March/April 2003. Book Review: English Standard Version Bible in The Evangelical Baptist. Guelph: FEBCC.
- 2 p.56, Newbigin, L. 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.