Friday, 10 February 2017

Which Bible Is The Right Translation?

Like most people in my non-denominational group of Christians that I know, my go to English translation for the Bible is the NIV, the New International Version. It's easy to read and does a decent job of staying true to the text. And like most people in my non-denominational group of Christians that I know, as well as a wider spread of other Christians of various denominations that I do and don't know, none of us ever use The Message. 

But at other times, I prefer some of the translations in the ESV, the English Standard Version. There have been a fair few times where I think this one has nailed a verse, where the NIV doesn't quite hit the mark.
But then, other people have a fondness for the KJV, the King James Version. I personally like the old timey language with the thee's and thou's and such, but there are some things in this translation that put me off using it generally.
Sometimes specific denominations have their own preferred translation. Jehovah's Witnesses tend to stick to the NWT, New World Translation. Or it might be that a certain church pastor has their own favourite so that's what they keep in their pews.

But when you have all these different versions floating around, and various people saying they like this one, or that one, to an outsider it can look like the Bible is in a mess. How can we read and trust the Bible, if we don't know which one is the right one? Of all these versions surely we need to figure out which one is the one to stick to and then ignore the rest?

Well, no actually. Because what all these have in common, is that they are English translations. The original trustworthy Bible is penned in Hebrew and Greek. And because most of us on this side of the world don't speak those languages, we have to have it translated for us.

And translation, as any translator will tell you, causes problems.

In fact, way back in the day when the first English translations were being compiled, the powers that were wanted to put a stop to it. They all knew that the original Hebrew and Greek texts were the only accurate ones, and any English version would likely do damage to the message.
But fortunately sense won out, and translations are now available to thousands of languages around the world.

I understand completely that those who were opposed to translating the Bible wanted to preserve the original meaning and protect God's word. But fortunately the Bible is and always has been, a work written by men, through inspiration. It's not like the Muslim Qu'ran, which they believe is actually God's own word. Their belief is that the book is incorruptible and perfect because it came from God himself, through an angel, to Muhammad. To translate that might be taking God's word and making it into a human project, and if a mistake is made, then people would be reading a human error while believing it was God himself speaking.

But the Bible doesn't have that problem. It's always been understood to be written by humans from their perspective and so there is some room for the information to not always exemplify God's perfect wisdom. And so translating the work of a group of humans, is not so much of a big deal.

The important thing is that the people who have been doing the translating have used the original texts as their sources, so even if they make mistakes, their work can be checked over and over against the old Greek and Hebrew versions. They can always repair the damage.

Say, here's a major reason why I don't like the KJV so much. The Sixth of the Ten Commandments in the KJV reads "Thou shalt not kill". And quite irritatingly, this is very often quoted.
But since the KJV, the majority of translations don't use that phrase any more. Because it's wrong. The better translation that you'll see in most Bibles now is "You shall not murder".
That might not seem like much of a difference, but the nuance there is really significant.
To kill could mean all sorts of things: killing animals for meat, or pest control, or it could mean killing in defence during war, or it could mean mercy killing someone who is going to die a slow agonising death anyway and saving them from suffering. "Thou shall not kill" tells you not to do any of those.
But "You shall not murder" is specific. It tells you not to take the life of another person out of spite or for selfish reasons. It's massively different when you realise that. It's things like that that all these translations are trying to iron out.

But it's not always easy. I can demonstrate just by using English with you.
Say if I put the word 'fumigate' in front of you. You know what that means. It's using gas to disinfect an area. No confusion there.
Now if I put the word 'seal' in front of you. What does this mean? It could mean: a lock, or a wax stamp used by royalty, or a type of aquatic mammal, and even a few other things.
So if you're trying to translate something and you see the word 'seal', what do you do with it? Do you throw a dice and go with whichever definition lands? Not the best method really. What you would do is look at the context. So you would read the rest of the sentence.
If it said something like "The seal dove into the icy water", you know that you've got the mammal.
If it said something like "He put his seal on the box", what would you do then? It sounds like maybe a king is stamping a package to be sent somewhere important. So is that the translation you would go for? No. Because before that sentence it says "The clown wanted his animals to get a better view of the circus tent." It's the mammal again.
Just like in English where we have several words with multiple meanings, it was the same in Hebrew and Greek. So translators have to do this work of digging through context that isn't always clear to try and pull out the right words.

They've got the added difficulty of having to figure out words that don't have an accurate English equivalent. In those cases they have to use a word or phrase that's close enough to keep the meaning, but like we saw with the kill/murder distinction, sometimes the nuance can be lost, or even new connotations can be added, which confuse the message.
Because of these difficulties, various translators have come up with different interpretations of the texts. Some translators have attempted to make their versions word for word translations to try and stay as accurate as possible to the original language but can be difficult to read in English, while others (like The Message) do a lot of paraphrasing, so that they can try to keep the information, at the cost of accurate language. The best translations seem to do try and get a balance of both so that they're easier to read, but they don't lose the nuances of certain words and phrases.

So, I would be very wary of saying that there is a best Bible translation. Like I said, sometimes I prefer ESV over the NIV, or vice versa, or sometimes even one of the others has it best. People are working on it. If we all spoke perfect Greek and Hebrew we could read the originals and not have this problem, but in the meantime we have to work with what we've got.