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Using the Right Bible Translation? A professional translator’s perspective on translation choice, by Jonathan Downie


For church leaders, preachers and even ordinary Christians, choosing a Bible translation can be a difficult task. This is made even more difficult for those who study translation in order to make an informed decision. It is unfortunate that discussions of Bible translations tend to be centred on personal opinions (for example Taylor 2007) or discussions over the techniques used to overcome small-scale linguistic problems (for example Fee and Stuart 2002, Neff 2002 and Hill 2006) rather than on objective facts.  However, to be in a position where they can make a truly informed choice, pastors and leaders would need to have some sort of reliable guide as to what they can expect in the translation as a whole. Based on recent translation research and my own professional experience as a translator, this article will suggest an approach based on the intended purpose of each Bible translation. It will show that it is this approach, and not the traditional approaches that spark the “free vs. literal” debate, that has the potential to help church leaders and preachers to make informed, objective decisions on the translation or translations they choose to use.

The Traditional Approaches and their Weaknesses

Historically, most Bible translation scholars have described their work in relation to two main translation schools. Fee and Stuart, in their book, How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth (SU, 2002), arrange nine translations of various dates along a line with “Literal” at one end and “Free” at the other (Fee and Stuart 2002: 36)1. For them, “literal” translation is “the attempt to translate by keeping as close as possible to the exact words and phrasing of the original language, yet still make sense in the receptor language” (ibid, p. 35). Translators working using the “free” approach, on the other hand, would agree with Dr. Mark L. Strauss (2004: xx) who says that “translation is first and foremost about meaning, not form.” The goal of free translation is to get as close as possible to the ideas and meaning of the original and to express these in a manner more closely resembling modern-day speech. The following sample of possible translations of a simple question in French illustrates the differences between these two approaches.

French: Comment vous appelez-vous?
English 1: How yourself calls you?
English 2: What do you call yourself?
English 3: What is your name?

In this example, English 1 represents the version most likely to be generated if someone with knowledge of French grammar were to look each word up in a dictionary and translate the sentence accordingly. English 2 represents the version most likely to be generated by a translator using the “literal” approach—as few changes as possible have been made to the grammar of the sentence while still making sense in English. The verb “to call” has also been retained as the literal, dictionary translation of the verb “appeler.”

English 3 represents the “free” translation approach. In this case, more attention has been paid to the normal expectations and phrasings of English than to the grammar of the original. None of the words in English 3 can be found in any form in the original but this version has the advantage of being the version that most native English speakers would be familiar with.

In this simple example we can see that literal translation has the advantage of giving us an insight into the grammar of the original and the meanings of the individual words used. However, the disadvantage of this approach is that it is likely to generate translations that contain phrasings that are unfamiliar and do not reflect normal English use (Fee and Stuart 2002: 35; Strauss 2004: xix; Fee and Strauss 2007: 34). Free translation, on the other hand, has the advantage of offering translations that read more naturally. The disadvantage of this approach is that it makes it more difficult for readers to gain access to the patterns used in the original language (Van Leeuwen 2001: 30, Strauss 2004: xix, Fee and Strauss 2007: 57).

An example of the problems with either approach in Bible translation is found in how four different translations have handled 1 Kings 2:10. In this example, the first two translations can be roughly seen as traditional, literal translations with the second two representing the free approach to translation to differing degrees.

NKJV: So David rested with his fathers…
ESV: Then David slept with his fathers…
NLT: Then David died and was buried with his ancestors.
TM: Then David joined his ancestors.

It is clear from comparing these four translations that we have a phrase that can be loosely translated into English as “David died.” The NKJV and ESV, in order to translate literally, have tried to keep as much of the original Hebrew phrasing as possible. While their choice of phrasing may be clear enough for those who are used to reading the Word, they have turned a phrase that would have been natural and easy to understand to the original readers into a phrase that is foreign and, in the case of the ESV especially, can easily be interpreted in a sense that is completely different to that intended by the original author. In the two free translations, on the other hand, the phrase either had to be extended to include both elements of the Hebrew image, as in the NLT, or recreated to express these elements and keep the same meaning as the original, in the case of The Message. This verse, therefore, clearly illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Pneuma Review, Summer 2009

About the Author: Jonathan Downie is a conference interpreter, preacher and church interpreting researcher living in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is married with two children and is committed to helping churches reach out to their surrounding multilingual communities using interpreting.

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