Sunday, 23 September 2012

When the Greek New Testament is Translated into English

     Every book of the New Testament was originally written in Koinē Greek – the common language of the first-century Greco-Roman world.1 Beyond establishing the underlying text (see Text of the NT Part 1), the next big challenge is how to go about translating it into English. Seeing that New Testament Greek and the English language do not neatly correspond, an absolutely literal word-for-word translation would be unintelligible. On the other hand, a mere paraphrase is no better if it does not accurately capture the true sense of the text. Since the goal of translation is to clarify the biblical message and avoid distortion, most translators have opted for more practical approaches and employed one of the following translation philosophies.
     It is the aim of the Formal Correspondence method to translate the text as literally yet as intelligibly as possible, approximating a word-for-word translation.2 Formal correspondence versions include the American Standard Version, the King James and New King James Versions, the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version. The principal merit of this approach is that it tries to remain as faithful to the original wording of the text as the translation process will allow. The biggest drawback is that ease of comprehension is reduced, i.e., the reading tends to be more arduous and cumbersome due to basic grammatical and syntactic differences between the two languages.
     Dynamic Equivalence is an attempt to convey the meaning of the text in free and idiomatic language, approximating a thought-for-thought translation.3 The principal merit of this method is that it makes the message of the Bible easier to read and clearer to the modern reader. The biggest drawback is that translational decisions are more contingent on the subjective preferences (theological biases?) of the translator, who essentially functions as an interpreter4 and commentator. Dynamic equivalence versions include the New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible, the Contemporary English Version, Today’s English Version, and the New Living Translation.
     To illustrate the different approaches, compare the following renderings of Ephesians 6:12.
Greek Transliteration: hoti ouk estin hēmin hē palē pros haima kai sarka . . .
Literal Translation: "because not it is to us the struggle against blood and flesh . . ."
Formal Correspondence: "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood . . ." (NKJV).
Dynamic Equivalence: "We are not fighting against humans . . ." (CEV).
Paraphrase: "This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish . . ." (The Message)
     If a translation is too literal, the original sense is lost to the modern reader. For example, Philippians 1:8 reads literally: "I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ" (KJV). Seeing that ancient Greek-speakers understood splagchnon ("internal organs") figuratively as the seat of emotions, the actual sense is better expressed in contemporary western cultures by a more idiomatic rendering: "I long after all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus" (McCord).
     If a translation is too loose, the original sense is lost to the modern reader. For example, the NIV renders Acts 13:33, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father" (a quote from Psalm 2:7). However, the word "Father" (pater) is not in the original text, and the verse actually reads: "You are my Son, today I have begotten [gennaō] you" (ESV). The context concerns the resurrection of Christ (vv. 29-37), not his birth or the beginning of a Father-Son relationship, i.e., he was metaphorically "begotten" or "brought forth" from the tomb (cf. Romans 1:4).
     Realistically no standard English translation is entirely formal or entirely dynamic. While a mediating position between these two philosophies may be preferable, almost every Bible version more heavily favors one translation philosophy or the other. Optimal Equivalence has been touted as a more balanced alternative, but versions based on this translation philosophy (e.g. the Holman Christian Standard Bible) do no better in achieving this elusive balance.
     Admittedly all translations of the Bible have their share of strengths and inadequacies, though some are more accurate than others in conveying the sense of the biblical message. In view of the fact that the very "words" [logois] of the original text are inspired by God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:12-13), it seems there is greater merit in a more literal (formal correspondence) translation. Surely it is a reasonable expectation for modern readers to have the opportunity to be exposed to the linguistic forms and images of the historical-cultural settings in which the message of scripture was first communicated. The bottom line is, I want to know what the inspired writers actually said rather than what an uninspired translator thinks they meant by what they said.
     As far as currently available English translations, I prefer the New King James Version for the following reasons. First of all, it is based on a more extensive Greek text and therefore provides readings that are omitted from other versions (see Text of the NT Part 2). Secondly, the NKJV contains marginal notes that inform me of important textual variants, prompting further investigation to make my own textual decisions rather than having to rely solely on text critics with whom I may disagree. Thirdly, the NKJV closely adheres to the formal correspondence translation philosophy, providing an English translation that essentially corresponds to the original text. The NKJV is not a perfect translation, but my own copy of it gets revised almost every time I use it by handwritten symbols, brackets and marginal notations from my own personal study.
Kevin L. Moore

    1 While there were reports of Matthew’s Gospel having been originally composed in Aramaic or Hebrew, the Greek of Matthew does not read like a translation and no early Aramaic or Hebrew text of the Gospel has ever been found.
     2 Although sometimes called "essentially literal" or "formal equivalence," the designation "formal correspondence" is preferred because it produces similarity of form but not necessarily of meaning (cf. E. A. Nida and C. R. Taber, Theory and Practice of Translation 202).
     3 Also known as "functional equivalence," the goal is to have the same impact on modern readers as the original message had on its initial audience.
     4 While a certain amount of interpretation is admittedly unavoidable in the translation process, the above criticism is aimed at translators who take unnecessary liberties with the word of God.

Related Articles: Martin & Julie Johnson's How to Choose the Best Bible for You; Wes McAdam's Things You Need to Know about Bible Translations; Tom Miller's The Best Translation; Greg Gilbert's Why So Many Versions?
Dewayne Bryant, "How Bad is the KJV?" <video>.

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