Bible Translators Face Challenges of Accuracy and Readability (Part 2)

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a series examining different aspects of Bible translation, inspired by the recent controversy surrounding Wycliffe Bible Translators and its translation for a Muslim context. While The Christian Post series will not be focusing exclusively on the Wycliffe controversy, the topics in the series are related to the situation and are helpful to understanding the complicated nature of Bible translation. 

Bible translators must understand both the meaning of the original text as well as the language they are translating it into – something Wycliffe Bible Translators describes on its website as being "like the clasping of two hands." But even with a good understanding, the nuances between languages present a challenge to translators who strive to convey the text's original meaning as accurately as possible.

Eugene Merrill, an Old Testament scholar and professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, has worked on both literal (or word-for-word) and dynamic equivalent (or thought-for-thought) translations of the Bible. He translated the Book of Jeremiah for the New King James Version (NKJV), the Book of Deuteronomy for the New Living Translation (NLT), did editorial work for the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), worked on several books in the New English Translation (NET) and has personally seen what is to be gained and lost through different styles of translation.

Though he has taught and preached out of the New American Standard Bible (NASB) for about 50 years, Merrill says such a literal translation isn't for everyone. "It's just so wooden – some put it in those terms," he told The Christian Post last week. "It's too much attached to Hebrew syntax and style, form and so on. But, the plus of it is, that you can more easily reconstruct what the original language had to say when you have a translation that is attempting to be true to the original text, but it makes for more cumbersome reading."

That's why the New International Version (NIV) "swept the field" when it was first released, he says, because people enjoyed it more and could better understand it. Like the NIV, Merrill says the Bible versions he has worked on are free from the accusation that they're "too old fashioned" in style, but something was sacrificed when they were translated that way. "If you want a more contemporary style form of translation, you're going to have to give up some accuracy. And if you want the accuracy, you give up readability," he said.

So who decides what type of translation it will be? Merrill says the publisher is the one who makes that call.

"The New King James was interesting in that I was instructed to translate not only from the Hebrew text, but to stay as much as possible in the flavor of the King James Version, so that a reader would read it and still recognize it as King James but would not have the problems of some of the archaic words and phrases that are no longer used in modern speech," said Merrill

The NET Bible, in comparison, seems mostly accessible to scholars and students, as the translation was taken straight out of the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, but included with it are thousands of footnotes which show alternate translations of certain words and passages.

In Merrill's experience there are usually systems in place to make sure the translation turns out as accurate and readable as possible, though each translation process could be different. When he worked on the NLT Bible, for example, he and two other translators – one in Britain, one in Australia – each translated the Book of Deuteronomy independently, and then submitted their translations to an editor who decided which parts were to be used.

"Then there will be an English stylist, who may not even be a Bible scholar, but...who's recognized as a literary craftsman just to go over the whole thing for readability and style," said Merrill. Before any changes made by the stylist become permanent, though, the text is sent back to the translators for review and approval.

In order to make the translations as accurate as possible, understanding the cultural context the scriptures were written in is also important for translators. Gaining a better understanding the ancient biblical world, in turn, helps them to also better convey the meaning of the text in modern languages.

But translators have to be very careful in their handling of the text. The updated NIV Bible released in 2011 came under harsh criticism from some people for its use of gender-inclusive language. This non-gender-specific language wasn't used when talking about God, but it was used when referring to mankind, and some saw that as an attempt at changing the meaning of the text.

Merrill says the Hebrew phrase translated "sons of Israel," which appears throughout the Old Testament, could seem confusing to modern English readers when literally interpreted because it gives the impression that it is referring only to the men in Israel. In that ancient culture, though, the phrase would actually be understood as referring to all Israelites, but the original language reflects the "highly patriarchal world" that existed at the time.

Merrill says he doesn't have a problem with translating phrases like "sons of Israel" into, for example, "people of Israel," because the author's intended meaning is still the same. He would, however, make a footnote to show that the literal translation is "sons."

"The translations that are done with a mind toward the original setting, and sensitivity, also, to the modern audience – that's a chasm that's difficult to bridge sometimes. But I think it needs to be done, because 3,000 years or 2,000 years and 8,000 miles – that's a huge, huge difference," he said.

There are several practices Merrill views as potential problems in the world of Bible translation and reading.

"I'm somewhat put off by the need that publishers seem to feel to produce their own versions, translations, of the Bible. It seems to me sometimes that it's profit-driven. Sometimes it's a desire to have some competitive product," he said. He admits that it might be unfair of him to say that, since he cannot confirm that any translations were completely profit-driven ventures, but he suspects that is the case in some instances.

He also emphasized the importance of translations being done from the earliest possible texts, as opposed to being mere paraphrases of already existing translations.

"My concern is that these be indeed translations that are true to the intent of the ancient texts, and not interpretive translations that try to recreate an ancient setting out of thin air. That's a concern that I have. And it's much easier, of course, just to paraphrase an existing translation – put it in little different words – but that's not translation. That's theft almost," he said.

He cautions against movements such as the "King James only" segment of Christianity, which "sees Elizabethan English as the final way in which the Word of God can be transmitted to an English audience." It isn't right, he suggests, to essentially canonize any one English translation of the Bible.

Some people may question the accuracy of any Bible version simply because translators don't have the original letters and books, called "autographs," to translate from. So how do we know that the manuscripts translators work from completely express the intended meaning of the original letters and books?

"Well, we don't for sure," said Merrill "But we do believe – I do, at least – that the same God who inspired the sacred texts, and collected together these texts into the canon, has been well able to preserve His intention in His revelation up through the centuries into the best manuscripts that we possess. In other words, that's a God-blessed process as well."

Wycliffe Bible Translators USA Chief Operations Officer Russ Hersman told OneNewsNow in December that, for the first time, there are now more translation projects already started than have yet to begin. With projects encompassing 2,075 languages already in progress and 1,967 that haven't yet been started, the organization estimates that the languages which still need a Bible translation will have them by the year 2037.

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