A friend emailed this week about an online conversation that has centered around banning the use of the word “literal” with regard to English translations of the Bible. My friend sent me this short video by scholar Bill Mounce.
Mounce also an article called Lost in Pronouns on his site that I appreciated. His last sentence is great:
This is the tradeoff between formal and functional translations. Even though the formal equivalent are more word-for-word, they can be more difficult to understand, and they certainly cannot claim to be “clear” and “understandable.” That’s just marketing mumbo-jumbo.
When Mounce mentions tradeoffs I think that is more helpful than emphasizing how literal something is or isn’t. Translations are always dealing in tradeoffs – adding words for clarity, or rearranging word order – this is a necessary part of translation. He’s right also to mention marketing.
Part of my job as a pastor is to help people understand the Bible, not just to believe the Bible, but to use it well. So I appreciate these two terms – tradeoff and marketing.
ESV is a trusted translation and my favorite partially because I know or know of individuals who worked on it. But like all translations, it deals in the kinds of tradeoffs Mounce mentions in his article. (Even the translators will humbly admit this.)
If you use the Bible regularly, it is important to understand these tradeoffs in translation that make the text either more word-for-word in places or more thought-for-thought in others. These tradeoffs are in the service of clarity for the reader. They are not tradeoffs that compromise the message or the truth of the Scripture.
The word tradeoff brings to mind two cautions:
1. Be careful when you look at a passage and point to a word and say, “But it says…” or “This word means…”
The more intensely we make a point that rests on a particular word or particular phrase, the more important it is that we have checked multiple translations along with the original language. It is possible to misuse a passage.
2. You should be in regular contact with someone you trust who is not only trained in the original languages of the Bible, but continues to grow in this knowledge and application.
What I’m really saying is that we should read the Bible in the community of the church. That community needs to have a trustworthy leader who regularly works in the languages. They must not only work in the original languages of the Bible but in the heart language of the community, be it English, Korean, French, etc.
I’m also saying that as pastors we need to be able to answer questions about how a translation handles these tradeoffs. It doesn’t mean pastors have to be a language expert, but we have to be comfortable enough in the technical language that we can find solid answers that will help the community we serve.
Another caution could be given regarding the word marketing:
With so many English translations, and even with non-profit organizations producing them, there is always the danger of serving sales rather than the church. How a translation is marketed calls for discretion on the part of both the publisher and the buyer.
Let me be very clear that the above is a caution, not an accusation. Whenever something is marketed, there is a danger of over stating what a product is or does. The Christian publishing world is not immune from this danger.
In other words, just because an atheist publishes something doesn’t mean it’s “bad” and just because it’s a book sold at a major Christian bookstore doesn’t mean it’s “safe” or “good”.
When was the last time you had a specific question about the meaning of a specific word or phrase in the Bible? Who would you go to for help?