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

Given the disadvantages of the pure forms of either approach, it is not surprising that the translators of many versions include the idea of varying their approach in the prefaces to their work. The translators of the English Standard Version, which classes itself as an “essentially literal” translation (ESV 2001: xxxix), found that freer translations were required at points in order to make their translation intelligible in English (ESV 2001: xl). Similarly, the translators of the New Living Translation varied their approach between literal and free translation depending upon which gave “an accurate, clear and readable English text” (NLT 2004: xliv).

Some scholars have therefore suggested that the ideal approach would be to find some sort of middle-ground between these two. Fee and Stuart (2002: 36) suggest the term “dynamic equivalence” to describe such an approach. However, this approach, while presented as “the best translational theory” (ibid) seems to be nothing more than the choice to adopt either approach as required, in much the same way as all translators do anyway (Kohlenberger 2004: ix, x)2. For example, they suggest that euphemisms be translated using modern equivalents where possible (Fee and Stuart 2002: 39), however, in the case of weights, measures and monetary amounts, they state that

…either equivalents or transliterations with marginal notes would be a good procedure with most weights and measurements. However, the use of equivalents is surely to be preferred in the passages like Isaiah 5:10 and Matthew 18:24-28. (ibid p. 38)

Such a combined approach, while convincing at first, does not actually solve the problems associated with the traditional approaches; for example, issues such as how to translate biblical measurements. In passages like Revelation 21:17, for example, where the measurement “one hundred and forty-four cubits” (NKJV) is likely to have symbolic significance (Ngundu 2006), Fee and Stuart would presumably prefer the Biblical measurement to be retained. However, the authors themselves show that retaining the original biblical standards can lead to the translation becoming unclear in places (Fee and Stuart 2002: 39). Therefore, their method is very likely to cause inconsistency or confusion in translation and leaves the translator without clear guidelines.

Since the differences between the methods are unclear, it would seem that discussion over which is preferable will be of more interest to theorists such as Molina and Albir (2002), whose interests lie in translation techniques rather than preachers whose interest lies in finding a way to preach the truths of the Word in a vivid way week-after-week (Monroe 2008: 12; Peterson 2003: li). Yet, even Bible translation theorists have found that these approaches are inadequate to describe an entire translation3.

Theorists and practitioners of professional translation therefore no longer use these terms to describe entire translations.  The only use of equivalent terms is to describe how translators and interpreters handle individual words or expressions (e.g. Shlesinger 1995 and Downie 2007). Given that discussions over Bible translations tend to be based on conclusions gained from the analyses of short stretches of text anyway (e.g. Fee and Stuart 2002: 36-42 and Strauss 2004) such a change is to be expected.

For those with limited knowledge of the problems of translation, the use of these terms is therefore likely to be misleading, especially since the preference for one method or another is often as much about theology as it is about linguistics. Kuykendall (2007: 263) for instance, shows how one Bible translator saw his choice of a ‘literal’ translation method as a reflection of his views that each word in the Bible was individually inspired. Similarly, the translators of the New King James Version were asked to sign a statement affirming their belief in a similar view of the inspiration of the Word of God (NKJV 1982: xxxiv)4.

Other writers, such as Taylor (2007: 35) have also noticed that the choice to use a particular translation can be seen as a mark of belonging to a particular strand of Christianity. Kuykendall’s assertion that “it is impossible to produce a neutral English Bible translation” (2007: 279) is therefore valid. Two terms, whose only consistent use can be found in the description of small-scale translation choices, have become pregnant with theological meaning. The “literalists” find it easy to accuse “free” translators of tampering with the Word of God (e.g. Wenham 2003: 77) while translators favouring freer approaches point out the fact that literal translation can often be misleading (e.g. Fee and Stuart 2002: 42). The “literalists” have the weight of the history and tradition of the King James Version behind them. The “free” translators can point to the two Eugenes—Nida and Peterson—as their champions, the former for his insistence that translators should portray “what the text means—not what the words are” (Nida in Neff 2002: 46) and the latter for his work to translate the Bible “in the language of Today” (Peterson 2003: lii).

A truly neutral and more useful approach would therefore need to avoid the traditional classifications in order to avoid misleading readers and escape the associated theological controversies. In order to be understandable and usable by those who do not have deep knowledge of the original languages, such an approach should also be focussed on longer stretches of text than are traditionally discussed.

Individual examples would still have a place but would need to be long enough to show how the translation would perform in normal use. Modern, non-Biblical translation theory has begun to gain the same interest and it is to a theory from this domain that we will now turn. This will require the addition of a new term to the discussion.

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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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