Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bible Commentary - Introduction - Translations

Lastly, I am going to briefly discuss some of the major Bible translations and how they have been built on top of the documents I have just mentioned. As a precursor to all this, the reader should understand that the original biblical manuscripts *do not contain chapter or verse divisions*. This is really important when reading the bible because it might sometimes appear that certain thoughts run across chapter boundaries, and that's because the chapters (and verses) are themselves added long after the original writing of any of the books of the bible. These divisions were added partially in the 13th century and then fully in the 16th century, well over a thousand years after the writing of the last book, Revelation. So chapters and verses are useful for study, useful for reference, but are not to be used for biblical exegesis (for instance, "this part is in chapter 14, and this part is in chapter 15 so clearly the author did not consider them related" - don't do this).

Before mentioning any specific Bible translation, I want to talk about two ways of translating Bibles. In truth, these two philosophies extend far beyond just Biblical scholarship, and can be equally applied to any type of translation work, whether ancient or modern. The first is "word for word". This is the translation philosophy where the translator essentially tries to come up with a literal, word by word translation, without consideration for the intention of the phrase or any cultural references, etc. For example, in contemporary english there is an expression, "it's raining dogs and cats". If you perform a word for word translation into French, it's something like "il pleut des chiens et des chats". This is good and all, unless the French speakers reading it are not familiar with our American, English aphorism. In which case they would be rightfully confused.

The second translation philosophy is "thought for thought". In this case, the translator tries to capture not the literal phrasing of a sentence, but the higher level *intention* of the expression being translated. It essentially looks beyond the literal meaning and tries to come up with something applicable and understandable by stripping out aphorisms and what are even more subtle, language artifacts. An example of a language artifact is the frequent use of connecting conjunctions in Hebrew, which I mentioned above in this post. We don't really need to use "and" all the time in English because we have punctuation, so maintaining a proper word-for-word translation in that context can be either confusing or just not read very well.

Generally speaking, word-for-word bibles tend to adhere closer to the original text, as the name implies, but thought-for-thought bibles tend to be easier to understand. As such, people generally recommend thought-for-thought translations for new bible readers or people who are looking for some easier and simpler, which is not saying too much because the bible is long and complicated regardless of how it's translated. On the other hand, word-for-word translations are best for serious study, experienced bible readers or people who are interested in the nuts and bolts of the idiomatic constructs of the bible. Many people have two or more bibles and will use different translations depending on what they are using it for, whether serious study or lighter quiet time reading, etc.

Here is a great quote from wikipedia that summarizes much of what I just said regarding translation philosophies. In this quote, "dynamic equivalence" describes thought-for-thought and "formal equivalence" describes word-for-word.

Dynamic equivalence (also known as functional equivalence) attempts to convey the thought expressed in a source text (if necessary, at the expense of literalness, original word order, the source text's grammatical voice, etc.), while formal equivalence attempts to render the text word-for-word (if necessary, at the expense of natural expression in the target language). The two approaches represent emphasis, respectively, on readability and on literal fidelity to the source text. There is no sharp boundary between dynamic and formal equivalence. Broadly, the two represent a spectrum of translation approaches.

In the real world, no translation adheres strictly to one or the other. There is a spectrum of positions between the two extremes, and every Bible falls somewhere on that spectrum. That said, I will now discuss specific Bibles.

No proper discussion of Bibles can begin anywhere but the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV is one of the oldest English translations and by far one of the most influential in terms of world history and theological impact, both due to its merits and due to its flaws. I cannot now give a proper history of the KJV, that would fall outside of the scope of my writing, but I will briefly mention that the KJV was commissioned by King James of England. There are several different versions of the KJV, but with the exception of the modern NKJV all of them were written around 1600 CE. In the 1600's, there did not exist a large selection of modern NT manuscripts and the Minority text was largely unknown and unused. In addition, modern scholarship has been able to find a number of mistranslations in the KJV, due to lesser understanding of ancient Greek at the time. Nevertheless, even with these mistakes, the KJV is a magnificent achievement for its time and for the relatively high accuracy it achieves. I personally would not use the KJV for any meaningful study due to these issues, as well as the older English style in which it is written, but I still have a lot of respect for it due to its legacy. With regards to the spectrum of translation philosophies, the KJV tends fairly heavily toward word-for-word. For the OT, the KJV is based predominantly on the Masoretic Texts, with substantial input from the Septuagint and the Vulgate.

Another major Bible translation that has taken much of the world by storm in the last few decades is the New International Version, the NIV. The NIV was a project that began sometime around 1965 and produced its first complete Bible in 1978. Since it was produced after the discovery and analysis of the Minority Text, the NIV's NT is mostly conformant with that grouping of documents, in opposition to the KJV. The NIV also takes advantage of the recent discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as modern linguistic scholarship, so it tends to correct a number of mistakes in the KJV. It is written in contemporary English, so for first time Bible readers it is much easier to follow than the KJV. For the OT, it is similar to the KJV in that it is mostly based on the Masoretic Texts and with input from the Septuagint, Vulgate, etc. In terms of the spectrum of translation philosophies, it generally falls in the middle somewhere, translating some parts by thought and some parts by word. I personally learned the NIV first, and I think it's one of the best intermediate bibles. It adheres reasonably closely to the underlying text while smoothing out the most difficult-to-understand passages.

The last bible I will mention is the New American Standard Bible, also known as the NASB (sometimes also the NASV, the NAS Version). The NASB is a revision of a prior bible translation, the appropriately titled American Standard Bible, and it was first translated between 1963 and 1971. The latest revision is 1995, so it is another contemporary Bible translation. As such, it shares many characteristics with the NIV, including its reliance on the Minority text in the NT and composite usage of the Masoretic text, Septuagint, et al in the OT. The biggest difference between the NASB and the NIV is that the NASB is much more strongly a word-for-word translation. As such, in recent years I have utilized the NASB much more heavily because (as should be evident) I am a pretty serious bible reader and I want to have a translation that approximates the native language as closely as possible. I will likely use the NASB as my primary translation for this bible commentary, but possibly also use the NIV and other translations as appropriate (Amplified, Message, NLT, etc).

To conclude this section, I have left out a bunch of other Bible translations, but many of them share the fundamental characteristics of the bibles I have mentioned. In fact, you can learn nearly everything you need to know about a bible by just finding out its date of original publication and its translation philosophy. The date will (almost always) implicitly tell you what underlying texts were used, and the translation philosophy will tell you how closely the translation resembles the original documents.

To conclude my introduction, I definitely just brain dumped like 3 years of scholarship in one post, so I wouldn't be surprised if peoples' heads are spinning after reading this. Fortunately, it is a written medium and therefore anyone can reference it in the future at their leisure. I will be using these concepts and principles in my future posts without any further explanation (except where warranted), so if anyone reads those future posts and gets confused, you can just come back here and re-read the explanation. It's the magic of the internet. ;) And with all that, I can now gladly move on to my first real book, Genesis!!


Anna Tan said...

Hey Daniel, this is Anna from ROL.
Just dropping by to say hi before plunging into the rest of your exegesis. (Yeah, I'm working through it from the archives!)
Very good introduction here.
I like what you've been covering about the language and translation. I think a fallacy that a lot of English speakers have is the tendency to think that the *English translation* of the Bible is the literal word that can never be wrong.
But as you said, in any translation, there are difficulties between word-for-word translations (which may not make sense between Hebrew/Greek/Latin English, seeing how many layers it's been through to reach the English version) and even in conceptual translation (as the translators would bring in their own biases).
Anyway, cheers. :)

Daniel S. said...

Cool, I hope you like it! Feel free to post comments with questions/additions if you think that I've missed anything important.