Translating the Bible

Michael Spencer, that conservative internet monk, has a post up about Bible translations. Of course this is too much fun to pass up since plenty of bloggers within the biblioblogosphere have recently been posting on translation (and for those I didn’t link to you can check out the most recent Biblical Studies Carnival at Ketuvim).

So, on to Michael’s thoughts. After a lengthy disclaimer he gets to the meat of what he wants to say, which is basically: “Conservatives should stop yelling at each other about what Bible translation one uses, since they are all translations made by scholars.” Michael is right; in fact, often the same scholars work on vastly different translations. As a case in point, Moises Silva, whom Michael mentions as one of the translators for the NLT, also served as a translator for the ESV and the NASB (source here and here).

I personally think that we could get rid of the problem entirely by actually teaching Hebrew and Greek in our churches, but this opinion apparently makes me a “Bible Expert,” (though, to be fair, I think the Bible perfectly understandable–more or less–in any of the English translations we have). Ultimately I find all of these discussions about translation and translation philosophy extremely stimulating. But, at the end of the day I would still rather be reading Hebrew or Greek with the students in my youth ministry.

It’s true. Teaching others to read the language is far more exciting, to me, than discussing how one tries to make Hebrew make sense in English with any kind of regularity. It is also true that I have four high school students or recent graduates who are learning Greek. It’s an odd story, but extremely exciting. To be sure, anyone can learn Greek (and Hebrew is even easier). The amazing thing is not so much that they are learning Greek, but that they want to learn it. Someone should write a book about church youth ministries using language study as their main paradigm for ministry. Now that would be exciting!

In fact, writing this post has been somewhat of an inspiration to me. I plan to talk with my Greek students this evening about their preferred translations and why they prefer them. Of course, eventually, they won’t need them–does that make them Bible experts too?


8 thoughts on “Translating the Bible

  1. Interesting thoughts. I suppose my answer to your last question is no. I know a little Greek, however, I would hardly trust my understanding of it and its useage in a context to translate. I suppose it is a healthy pursuit as long as one does not find themselves in possession of some “new” truth as a result of their translation based on Greek 101. God bless. BTW, mine is NASB.

  2. I love that you have high schoolers learning Greek! I actually tried my hand briefly at learning the language on my own before I got to Bible college, but my efforts never really got off the ground.

    I do take exception to your final comment, that eventually your students won’t need translations. I had three years of Greek education, plus several graduate school classes that worked exclusively with the Greek text of various NT books, and I’ve continued to use my Greek almost daily for another four years. I’ve read through the entire NT, and most places more than once. Still, I rely heavily on published translations (not just the NLT).

    No matter how hard a modern reader works to learn the original languages, there is just no substitute for the use of published translations. Especially those that are produced by a committee of experts in the individual books and are heavily peer-reviewed, as most modern translations are.

    I laud the effort to help anyone read Greek and/or Hebrew, but I don’t think translations are going to become unnecessary for very many people, if any.

  3. @bshelley – I like the NASB, though I now use the ESV for most of my day to day reading.

    @Keith – To some extent, I agree. However, I think that if these students actually keep at it, learn the vocab, etc, that they would have no problem using something like the Reader’s Greek New Testament for day to day reading. As with anything, if they were trying to make some argument they ought to check their work. But the vast majority don’t plan on going into Biblical studies as a profession. They would be very well equipped to be able to read from the Greek testament as their primary text.

    Now, whether any of them will stick with it that long remains to be seen. At present I myself don’t feel confident enough to do that, primarily because of vocabulary. The same is true of the Hebrew Bible.

  4. I appreciate what your trying to do Calvin. I think it is wonderful that you have a handful of students that want to go in that direction (I have a hard enough time getting people to just read a bible), but I agree with Keith regarding the need for translations. Regardless of how diligent your students are, they will most likely never obtain the level of expertise of a scholar such as Silva, which is ok, seeing that none of them are planning to be “professionals”. The process of peer-review through committee has great value and is something that should not be overlooked or undervalued. I fear that students with just enough knowledge become dangerous (of course that is not a reason to stop teaching them), and become arrogant in their “skill set”.

    Regardless of why they are learning the Original Languages, I think students should always check their readings against various translations, it will sharpen their skills, by looking for the rationale behind the various interpretive choices, while giving them an appreciation for the scholars who toil with the languages for a living.
    just my $.02

    I am tentatively planning on driving up to GCTS on Thursday. If so, would you like to grab a coffee at Atomic?

  5. Calvin,
    That’s amazing that you’ve got youth group kids wanting to learn Greek. I wish I’d been that diligent back in high school. I’m working on a PhD in Hebrew Bible at Wisconsin. Learning any language is really hard work, especially learning it to the point where you no longer need dictionaries and grammars close at hand when reading. That can take years of study. For that reason, we’ll always need translations. I’ve found that one huge benefit of learning the biblical languages is that I can see firsthand what problems the translators and text critics faced, and I can evaluate the choices they had to make. It would be great if more pastors would continue to use the biblical languages and even teach a little to their congregations. I don’t see it happening, however, so I think we should all just agree to use the ESV instead. ๐Ÿ˜‰ (of course, I’m joking…)

  6. I think that, perhaps, we’re looking at this from different angles. I will readily agree that it takes a ton of work to get to the point that one doesn’t need dictionaries, etc. I will also readily agree that one should consult multiple translations, even when one knows the language (I’d, personally, rather we consult multiple dictionaries and multiple people…but if those can’t be had on the spur of the moment a translation will have to suffice).

    When I made the comment that students would not need translations I was referring, 1) to the idea that they would not need translations for a devotional reading of scripture. I was thinking, in my mind, of them getting up in the morning and reading several versus…which could certainly be done by someone with 1-2 years of experience in the language. 2) I was imagining that they would be using a tool such as the Reader’s Greek New Testament. Given this, I think it’s fair to say that they wouldn’t need a translation for a purely devotional reading of the text. At the same time, it isn’t to say that they would have no need for multiple translations if they wanted to study the Bible in more depth (a few commentaries would probably be a good idea too).

    Hopefully that clarifies a bit more what I meant, though you may still disagree. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. I agree. Someone should be able to read a few verses in the original for a devotional after having only a year of the language or so. The Reader’s Greek NT is a great tool for that. There’s also a Reader’s Hebrew Bible (new this year) that I would highly recommend too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts & clarifying.

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