41. Clarifying Bible Translation

Importance of Clarity in Bible Translation

In discussing Bible translation and Bible versions with a number of people in our churches I have discovered a not uncommon assumption – that the more formal or literal a translation is in maintaining the form of the original language of the text, e.g., NASB, the more accurate the translation. The saying “as literal as possible, as free as necessary”1, captures the essence of this view.  However, if the goal of translation is the communication of meaning, which seems a logical assumption, then translations that are restricted by the need to provide a formal representation of the original language will be less likely to communicate the meaning clearly.  In a sense this can result in a mistranslation in that an awkward or obscure translation misrepresents the clarity that the original languages would have given their original hearers.  Meaning based translations, e.g., Good News, view the functions of the source and receptor languages as separate and distinct in order to provide a natural and understandable translation.  The source text is read according to its linguistic and cultural assumptions in order to interpret the meaning.  The receptor language is used according to its linguistic and cultural assumptions in order to communicate the meaning.

Contrasting Formal and Meaning Based Translations

Mark Strauss provides a number of illuminating examples2.  In Matt 5:2 the NKJV translates: “Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:….” While understandable this is an unnatural English construct that fails to recognize that the Greek idiom “open the mouth” and “speak” are used together to indicate one action.  The GNT provides the same meaning in more natural language: “and he began to teach them.”

In Acts 11:22 the NASB translates: “the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem.”  The NASB does not provide a completely formal translation since a more word for word translation of the verb would be “heard into the ears….” Nonetheless, the Greek idiom of “reaching the ears” is retained even though it is not common English.  The NLT gives a translation closer to our modern day English: “When the church at Jerusalem heard what had happened….”

ESV translates 1 Cor 6:15 as “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?”  This literal translation of “make” (Gk. poieso) and “members” (Gk. mele) obscures the sense of the sentence which is better represented in the NLT: “Should a man take his body, which belongs to Christ, and join it to a prostitute?”

In order to provide a sense of the source language, formal translations do not fully take into account the semantic range of meaning of words in either the source and receptor languages, thus weakening their ability to communicate the meaning.  For example some translations add footnotes to words to provide “literal” meanings different from the words used in the translation, as if their translation choice has somehow deviated from an imagined core meaning of the word.  For example, in Matt 24:22, “And unless those days have been cut short, no life would have been saved…,” the NASB provides a footnote  for “life” which reads “Lit., flesh.”  However, “life” is as legitimate a representation as “flesh” within the semantic range of the Greek word sarx, and in this case provides a clearer meaning. 

ESV provides a footnote for “human being” in Rom 3:20 “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight…,” which reads “Greek flesh.” This is confusing as “flesh” is not a Greek word, but English.  The Greek is actually sarx.  Furthermore the average reader will assume that “flesh” is somehow a more accurate rendering of sarx than “human being.”  However, both terms are legitimately within the semantic range of the Greek word and in this sentence “human being” provides a more accurate translation than a consistent use of one particular nuance.

What is a Successful Translation?

A translation succeeds in its task when the readers understand the meaning of the original text within their own language.  This cannot occur through a word for word translation because words in the original text will have a dissimilar range of meaning than words in the receptor language and, furthermore, the relationship between the words (grammar, syntax) in any given sentence will be different.  In any language words have a functional relationship with each other in order to produce meaning and that relationship differs from language to language.  I cannot simply write “ball” to communicate.  I must provide a sentence structure: “I am having a ball. Cinderella went to the ball.  He threw the ball.”  To establish appropriate meaning in another language, each of those sentences would likely require thoughtful crafting since the first sentence is an English expression of an emotion state (often used facetiously!), the second sentence refers to a common fairy tale within our culture and the third describes an action upon a round object.

Consider the concept of the kinsman redeemer represented by the Hebrew word ga’al found in Ruth 2:20, “the man is related to us, one of our ga’al” and Prov 23:11, “For their ga’al is mighty.” This was a challenge for our Sindhi translation3 because this Hebrew concept of a person who is obligated to rescue their blood relatives does not have an equivalent expression in the Sindhi language.  Moreover the translation is further complicated in the Proverbs’ verse because the word is used metaphorically referring to God. A formal translation will seek to find an equivalent word, such as “redeemer,” and use that word as consistently as possible throughout the translation. However, even strictly formal translations find it difficult to translate this word the same way in both these cases due to the importance of the “kinsman” concept in Ruth and the difficulty of associating blood relationship with God in Proverbs.  Following our goal of providing a meaning based translation in Sindhi we used the descriptive phrase “rescuing relative” with a clarifying footnote for the Ruth passage. In Proverbs we avoided the idiomatic usage of ga’al for God altogether and gave the essence of the thought as “the Almighty God alone is their protector.”

By limiting linguistic and structural concerns of the source language to interpretive concerns, a meaning based translation has greater flexibility in using the receptor language to communicate the meaning in culturally appropriate forms. While both formal and meaning based translations have benefits as well as weaknesses, the clarity found in meaning based translations provides the reader with a better grasp of the meaning of the original text.

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  • (1) Quoted in Strauss, Mark L. Form, Function, and the “Literal Meaning” fallacy in English Bible Translation in The Bible Translator, Vol. 56, No. 3 July 2005 pages 153-168.
  • (2) ibid.
  • (3) I am currently involved with FEBInternational in the Pakistan OT Sindhi translation project.
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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