Bible Study Tip #3 The Gist of Bible Translations

Since most people will not be reading the Bible in its original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) we typically rely heavily on English translations. In the previous post I said the best translation is the one you will read consistently just make sure it is a fairly modern translation (so the language is current) done by committee (to help keep theological/denominational bias out). Let’s look at a few other basics of Bible translation that is helpful to understand the basics of when you study the Bible.

The main thing I want to point out are the two major approaches to translation: word for word (literal or formal equivalence) and thought for thought (dynamic equivalence). Word for word translations try to be as literal as possible, typically but not always, one word at a time. There isn’t a perfect way to use one English word for every original language word. Every translation has to supply extra words in English in order to make sense of the text (in the KJV and NASB these words are in italics). Once you understand this practice you will start seeing the italic words all over the place in the translations that use it and you will very quickly see why translators who were usually trying to be quite literal actually include words that weren’t originally in the biblical text. One might try to object that these translators are adding to the very words of God! But that isn’t really what they are doing. Let me give you an example so that you can see why they do this. In Galatians 5:9 Paul wrote, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough.” (NASB). You can very quickly see why they supplied “of dough” because the reader is left wondering “lump of what?” Some people wrongly think that literal translations don’t have any interpretation done in them, they simply give you an English word for a word in the original language. That isn’t really the case. All translation requires interpretation in order to get the right word (or words) in English for the right word in the original language.

Because word for word translations try to be more literal there are places where the translators are going to leave the text in less than understandable state and allow the reader the room to work out what the scriptures are saying. This can mean the translators are going to require more interpretive work on the part of the reader. Let’s say you have a figure of speech in the Bible…a word for word translation is typically going to give it to you how it is in the original language but that expression may not be one we are familiar with today and so we are left wondering what it means. For instance, in Hebrew a figure of speech for living your life is to “walk.” It is the idea of life as a journey. Paul, who was Jewish and familiar with Hebrew, used this in the Greek New testament as well. In Galatians 5:16 Paul wrote the following, “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (NIV). Here it is in the NRSV, “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” In Greek Paul says to walk. That is the literal translation. But Paul isn’t worried about how you ambulate. The meaning of this Hebrew idiom is to live so the walk doesn’t really involve actually walking. It is about how one lives and to live by the Spirit. The reader has to decipher this when it is translated literally.

A thought for thought translation may actually give you what the figure of speech actually means (like the NRSV above). The thought for thought translation does some of the interpretation for you because they are trying to give you the overall thought (meaning) of what is being said that can be harder to determine in a literal/word for word translation.

None of these options are more right or wrong than the other on the whole. You just need to know what you are looking at when you pick up a given Bible translation. Often you can find out what you need to know in that one part of most Bibles that no one bothers to read – the Introduction or Preface to the Bible. It is important that we pay attention to these things.

Last, there is one common tip given when studying the Bible that relates to everything I have been explaining here. If you take a translation from each of the philosophies and compare passages you can get a better feel for the text. I would recommend for study a NRSV (dynamic) and an NASB (literal) and for general reading or use in churches the NIV (dynamic) and an NASB (literal). This has proven very helpful to me at times. I do find the NASB difficult to read out loud at times because they have made it so literal that it is very choppy in places and quite wordy that makes the public reading of the text hard.

I hope this gives you a general idea on Bible translations on some specific points that can improve your study.


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