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Bible Translation

Translating to Be Understood

The most important feature of a translation of the Bible is that people can understand it. Henry Neufeld illustrates this colourfully:

One of the experiences that shaped my approach to Biblical languages and Biblical studies occurred late in my first year of Greek.  The teacher was Lucille Knapp at Walla Walla College (now Walla Walla University), and she really enjoyed Greek and was quite expressive.  She kept us on our toes.  I was translating a verse for the class and used the word “propitiation.”

“Henry!” she exclaimed.  “I am not teaching you to translate Greek into Latin!”

Read the whole post.

One of the great advantages of translating the Scriptures into a language for the first time is that you don’t have a history of Bible translation to fall back on and you are forced to think creatively about every translation decision rather than simply fall back on the work of others. This is hard work, but it is rewarding.

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2 replies on “Translating to Be Understood”

I’m not sure that this is “the most important feature,” because I think sometimes the original language is difficult to understand. And when it is, I think the translation should reflect the difficulty in the original.

I think I’m on safe ground when I suggest that a translation into English should be written in English (it’s amazing how many translations aren’t!), but sometimes very difficult English is appropriate.

It also seems to me that there’s something of a red herring here, because as a matter of practice there are many published (English) translations that are easy to understand but that are also inaccurate. Many readers have no way to evaluate the accuracy of a translation, so they end up opting for the one that’s easiest to read, not realizing what they are missing. (There are also people who want formality in their translation, so they go the opposite but still errant route — choosing a formal or even archaic translation regardless of the degree to which it reflects the original.)

Fair comment, Joel. I don’t think I can disagree with anything you say. It would have been better to say ‘one of the most important features…’.

I absolutely agree that where the original is not clear or ambiguous, then the translation should reflect that lack of clarity or ambiguity and I certainly agree that clarity of language should never be an excuse for inaccuracy. That being said, I’ll defend the stress of my introduction because I fear that discussions of Bible translation forget that the point of the Bible for people to understand and be transformed by God speaking through the text.

Thanks for commenting by the way. Since I’ve discovered your blog, I’ve become an avid follower and very much appreciate what you write.

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