I have written a bunch about the Bible, why we should read it and how we can read it. I have also been critical of commentaries disguised as “paraphrases,” like the Message. In this three part series, I want to outline some constructive suggestions for future Bible translations.
Purpose of Bible Translation
The role of a modern Bible translation is NOT to make the Scripture personally relevant or culturally meaningful (these are the function of the Holy Spirit and Bible study). It IS the role of a Bible translation to faithfully render the original source language into a comprehensible modern language. Comprehension is a function of both Accuracy and Intelligibility.
Lets take the following sentence and illustrate the ideas of “personal relevance,” “cultural meaning,” and “comprehensible language.”
“The smoke stacks rose above the city.”
The sentence above is comprehensible to anyone who reads the English language.
Personal Relevance: This sentence, although comprehensible, may lack personal relevance. The average reader may read this and say, “so what?” But if the reader grew up in steel town like Johnstown or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and their father worked in a steel mill, this sentence would have immediate relevance to their life and may even elicit strong emotions from their past.
Cultural-Meaning: What if the reader is from a small African village and has never seen a smoke stack? Is the “smoke stack” floating above the city like some kind of bird? Without some research, this sentence lacks cultural meaning to anyone who has never seen a refinery, steel mill, or lived in a city.
In summary, this lack of personal relevance and cultural meaning, does not invalidate the fact that the sentence itself is comprehensible. A good translation must be comprehensible, whereas personal relevance and cultural meaning are left to the Holy Spirit, gifted teachers, and personal study.
Here are some of the key goals for any modern translation that seeks to faithfully render an ancient language into a comprehensible modern language.
- Don’t subvert the role of the Holy Spirit.
- Allow the character of the ancient literary styles to shine forth
- Respect the art of poetry.
- Maintain the historical integrity of key words throughout the entire text.
- Translate to the highest possible standard, instead of the lowest common denominator.
- Maintain textual harmony through consistent translation of key words.
- Don’t force the text into a “system” of theology.
- Allow for ambiguity where the text is ambiguous.
- Don’t shield the modern reader from the culture surrounding the text.
- Don’t try and make the Bible culturally relevant.
- Choose the simplest and easiest reading of a passage that does not violate any of the above.
I think this is a good place to pause and get some feedback. In Part 2, I will begin to share some specific examples of key translation features.