40. The Most Accurate Bible Translation

Accuracy requires a single standard

I remember seeing an ad for a new translation of the Bible claiming to be the “most accurate translation” available today.  Although a good marketing tactic, it is less than honest because accuracy in Bible translation is relative to the underlying philosophy and goals of the translation.  Such a claim is similar to shooting an arrow and then painting a bulls-eye around it. Each version needs to be evaluated for faithfulness to the source text according to its stated purpose.  For example, to translate “Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD” (Gen 10:9), may be “accurate” for a formal translation that seeks to reflect the Hebrew idiom, but it would be “inaccurate” for a receptor focused, meaning based translation.  In contrast, to translate “Nimrod, the mightiest hunter in the world,” may be “accurate” for a meaning based translation but would be “inaccurate” for a formal translation.  Both styles of translation are legitimate, but they cannot be contrasted on the basis of “accuracy”.  Rather they reveal different aspects of the original text.1

Form verses Function

The Bible translation in the Sindhi language of Pakistan with which I am involved seeks to be a receptor oriented, meaning based translation, also referred to as “dynamic” or “functional” equivalence2.  The goal is to provide a translation that a Sindhi with a minimum of grade six education can read and understand within a non-Christian cultural context.  This is accomplished by ensuring that the function of the text to communicate a message is represented in an equivalent manner in the Sindhi language.  Our goal is that the meaning, the impact, the emotion, and the purpose of the passage intended by the author is comprehended by the average Sindhi reader.  To accomplish this we replace the forms and structures of the original text with equivalent Sindhi forms and structures.

The problem with formal translations that attempt to maintain the metaphors, structures and grammatical distinctives of the original text is that the result can be obscure, awkward and misleading.  In contrast, a weakness in meaning based translations is that they often sacrifice the flavor of the original culture for the sake of clarity and naturalness in the receptor language.  In the example of Nimrod provided above, the meaning based translation has lost the underlying Hebrew assumption of God’s omnipresence as a frame of reference, for the sake of clarity in a more secular worldview.  Our Sindhi translation manages to provide for that element to a limited extent with the translation “Nimrod was the greatest hunter in all of God’s creation.”

All translations gain and lose some aspects of the original and translators must constantly make choices concerning the implicit and explicit information available within the original text.  Formal and meaning based translations simply lose and maintain different aspects according to their distinct translation goals.  Both styles of translation are important depending on the audience and the purpose. For readings in a church service or for devotional reading it would be better to use a meaning based translation because the goal is immediate understanding and engagement with the message.  However, for a Bible study both styles can be helpful resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of the text.

Meaning based contrasted with Formal in Amos 5:5

During my last visit to Pakistan we worked on Amos 5:5. The RSV (a formal translation) has:

But do not seek Bethel,

And do not enter into Gilgal

Or cross over to Beersheba;

For Gilgal shall surely go into exile,

And Bethel shall come to nought.

 

In contrast our Sindhi translation has:

Do not go to Bethel, Gilgal or Beersheba

Yes, Do not at all become followers after their worship places

Because surely their inhabitants will be taken into exile

And their cities destroyed.

 

The RSV follows the pattern of the Hebrew in

Poetry (chiastic structure for the city names – ABCBA, as well as using parallel lines),

Grammar (a variety of verbs to express one thought: “seek, enter, cross over”),

Connotation (cities rather than people going into exile), and

Idiom (the phrase, “Bethel shall come to nought” is a play on the Hebrew word “Bethel” meaning “God’s house” and the word “nought” referring to a deserted ruin, therefore has the impact of “going to the devil”, or being wiped out3. Unfortunately this idiom mistranslates in English and has the force of  “not successful”).

The RSV is a good resource for those doing Bible study and seeking to understand the Hebrew context, worldview and poetic depth.  However several misunderstandings are possible to the casual reader: Does the variety of verbs mean that the cities are to be treated differently? What is the problem with these cities that they should not be entered into (there is implicit information here that is not stated)? Why is there no punishment for Beersheba?

However, if the goal is immediate comprehension of the message, the meaning based Sindhi translation is much clearer because

  1. It clarifies that the cities are treated the same (the parallel structure of the Hebrew poetry means that the verbs “seek” “enter” and “cross-over” are intended to have the same force).
  2. It clarifies the point that these are places of worship and that is why they are displeasing to God.
  3. It clarifies that the “exile” and “destruction” refers to the people of all three cities and not describing separate punishments for each city with Beersheba free from punishment.
  4. It picks up on the emotion of the passage through emphatic words (“not at all”, “surely”) Mimicking the poetic form of the Hebrew would not have communicated the intensity of the emotion for the Sindhi reader.

The poetic structure of the Hebrew is lost in the Sindhi translation.  But what has been gained is a natural and clear representation of the meaning.  Translation is about gains and losses.  A meaning based translation maximizes the gains in the area of clarity and understanding for the receptor audience to the detriment of form.  A good formal translation maximizes gains by reflecting the forms of the source language, but at the expense of clarity.  Just like a good tool box will have a number of different screwdrivers to deal with a variety of contexts, so both formal and meaning based translations play a role to help us discover the meaning of God’s word.

    _______________

  • (1) See also Cross-Cultural Impact numbers 4 and 25 for other articles on translation issues.
  • (2) “Dynamic Equivalence” is the old name for “functional equivalence”. The term “dynamic” had a number of problems associated with it and it was decided that “functional” better expressed the translation process.
  • (3) p. 103.Waard, J. and Smalley, W. 1979. A Translator’s handbook on the Book of Amos. New York: UBS.
Mark Naylor

About Mark Naylor

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development
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4 Responses to 40. The Most Accurate Bible Translation

  1. mmm says:

    Accuracy of the words of bible translations is the main question, not accuracy of some humans interpretaion of the meaning of the words, as u alluded to in ur first paragraph… so, do u know which english bible translation is most accurate in “traslation” as the initial questions asks/ Not in interpretation? It’s ashame that humans have taken it upon themselves to create so many bible version that they contradict eachother in both words and meaning… which are 2 different things… i want my own interpretaion of the bible, not someone elses, which apparently i can’t have until i have the most accurate in words english translation of the original texts/ manuscripsts. Please help. . . King James seems the best to me.

  2. mmm says:

    also, 1, my critisism was meant only to be constructive, and 2, now that i thought about it, all these bible translations are not all bible translations, they r bible interpretations, so maybe that’s why u alluded to accuracy in meanings, “stated purposes of translations,” and “aspects,” etc instead of just word for word accuracy. I do agree that each bible version has it’s own stated or unstated purpose of interpretaion of the words to give a different or more easily understood meaning, etc, but that has caused great contradiction in words and meaning among versions, as i no longer call them translations as that is misleading, because translation means something in a different language, not picking and choosing your own words and meanings (which is interpretaion, which can be right/ accurate to original words and meanings or wrong/ innacurate to the original words and meanings…

  3. mmm says:

    correction in my 2nd post… “all these bible translaions are “translations” in the sense that they are translations from other languages into english (which i think is the only correct use of the word “translation”), but also interpretaions (as they must be as so many of them do contradict eachother in words and meaning).

  4. Mark Naylor Mark Naylor says:

    Hi MMM,

    Thanks very much for reading and responding to my article. May I recommend an excellent book that will help you work through this issue of accuracy in translation. It is not an academic book, but written to help the average Christian understand how translation works and how to pick the best Bible version. It has been highly recommended by Dr. Don Carson who is an esteemed evangelical theologian.

    How to Choose a Translation for all its worth: A Guide to Understanding and using Bible Versions by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss
    Zondervan 2007

    The reason why translation cannot occur without interpretation is because of the nature of language. Words, while having a “semantical range” of meaning that can be found in a dictionary, but only have specific meaning within a context. For example, I mean something very different when I say “I love my car” and when I say “I love my wife.” The word “love” takes its meaning from the context and the only way to communicate the correct meaning is to interpret. To insist that a word for word translation is possible without interpretation demonstrates a lack of understanding concerning the nature of language.

    People want an absolute, certain, unmistakable message from God and we expect that from the Scriptures. As an evangelical I believer that what God says is the truth. However, because that message comes to us within the limitations of language, we need to recognize that our only access to that absolute message is through the messiness of language and interpretation. Thus, there is no version that captures that message and communicates it to us in a way that we can interpret it in an absolute way. This doesn’t mean that we cannot access that message, but we do need to recognize that it is not in our power to present it in an absolute way outside of interpretation.

    Hope this is a bit helpful. I know the book will be of great help.

    Blessings,
    Mark

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