On this page we critique the translation of passages found in various English versions of the Bible. My observations come from a lifetime study of the Bible and my own experience of translating the Bible for a tribal language, an experience which makes strong demands on ourselves as translators and of the Biblical helps needed in our work. To translate the Bible properly into another language it is crucial that we understand the meaning of the original Biblical texts. One important way to understand the original meaning is to consult national language translations of the Bible, such as those in English. Part of meaning, of course, is expressed in individual words. We linguists call this lexical meaning or semantics. But meaning is also expressed in the way that words of a language relate to each other, in larger units of language such as phrases, clauses, sentences, and entire discourses. Such interrelationships are part of phrasal, idiomatic, and grammatical meaning and are no less important than word-level meanings.
If a hearer does not understand from a translation the same meaning that the original writer of Sripture intended, then that translation is not accurate, no matter how closely the individual words of the two langages may correspond. Language is more than words; language is a means of communication. If a translation does not communicate properly, then it falls short of the purpose for which the original text was composed and also the purpose for which the translation itself was purportedly made.
An adequate explanation of translation field testing requires more extensive description, but, in brief, we can point out that testing of translations is a commonsense approach to discovering what hearers understand from our translations. Then, as with computer software, revision must take place until further testing indicates that the hearers' understanding lines up with the intended meaning. Field testers should not ask questions which can be answered with a simply "yes" or "no". Such questions and answers often do not give the information necessary to understand what is really understood. Besides, if we ask a hearer, "Do you understand what this Bible verse means?" many hearers will give the socially preferred response of "yes," regardless of what they actually understand. Better testing questions model the traditional questions asked (and answered) by journalists, with content questions that begin with What? Who? When? Where? Why? and How? Let's try an example.
In the newly released ISV (International Standard Version), 1 John 3.18 reads, "Little children, we must stop loving in word and in tongue, but instead love in work and in truth." (Note: the latest edition of the ISV revises "work" to "action," which is much better. A footnote to "action" states "Or work.") The average reader of this page will likely immediately spot several places in this verse where the translation is not adequate, that is, that it does not use an accurate (and natural) combination of words to express the meaning. But we can also bring greater objectivity to our initial subjective reaction by field testing this verse from the ISV with average speakers. To increase the reliability of our field testing, the hearers with whom the translation is tested (we should never test the hearers, only the translation) should be of a wide range of ages, social backgrounds, and knowlege of the Bible. The phrases in the ISV rendering which are most problematical are "loving in word," "loving ... in tongue," "love in work," and "love in truth." We want to find out if these phrases are grammatically and semantically acceptable in "standard English" and, if so, what they mean. Besides testing in the field with average hearers, we can also comb through collections of standard English writing to see if these phrases have ever been spoken or written by speakers of any standard English dialects. (I suspect the answer will be no, especially for "loving in tongue" and "love in work.") To field-test these phrases we can say to the hearer, "I need to test some translation to see if it has good English or not. I would appreciate your help." Then read them this verse. Then ask some questions which will, hopefully, give informative answers, such as, "When would you say you are "loving in tongue"? Most hearers will probably answer by saying they don't know or that it sounds odd or doesn't sound like good English. Hearers often try to make some sense out of any utterance, so do not be surprised if some creative hearers answer that they might say something like this if they show love with their tongue using a technique said to be used by the French!
Similarly, you could ask, "When might you say that you 'love in work'"? Some hearers will simply say that they would never say that, that it doesn't sound like English, or at least not like any English they have ever heard. Others may say they can think of a situation where they might say something like this. Your followup question can then use What? as in "What would you mean if you love in work"? And they might respond by saying that it might mean they really enjoy their job, but, even then, they might add that something still sounds odd, like whoever said that must not be a native speaker of English. The careful translator will then evaluate their response to determine if it indicates a correction understanding of the meaning desired in this verse. (The responses suggested here would not, of course, since the meaning desired in the tested phrase is that a person's love should be shown in loving actions. The English word "work", as it relates to the other words in this verse, is an inaccurate translation of the original Greek.)
After we have tested the translation with a sufficient number of speakers of a variety of ages and backgrounds, we use the results to guide our revision. We then test our revision, or more likely, revisions, since an adequate translation can often go through ten to thirty cycles of testing and revision. Only when a translation passes field tests should it be released to the general public. We honor God's Word when we treat it with this kind of care and respect; we must not use less care in our translations than computer programmers do when field-testing and revising their programs. We must test our translations until they are as accurate as possible, at all levels of accuracy, not simply at the word level. A more thorough explanation of translation testing is in the final chapter of the excellent book Meaning-Based Translation, by Mildred L. Larson. All Bible translators, regardless of their target language, would do well to assimilate the translation principles and techniques described in this book. The author was herself a translator of the Bible for a tribe in Peru, South America.
All comments here, including those which are negative in tone, are intended to advance the cause of communicating God's written word accurately, naturally, and clearly to each person in their own language. Comments are not intended to diminish confidence in anyone's favorite English version of the Bible. Each of us will choose our favorite version(s) on the basis of factors which are most important to us, whether they have to do with literary beauty or style, perceived accuracy, church tradition, confidence in the original texts from which a version was translated, confidence in the translators, clarity of meaning, readablity, etc. Critique here is focused on translation of specific passages in the Bible, and is not intended to be an overall evaluation of any version of the Bible. This page will essentially be a record of my own reactions to verses in various versions as I consult them. My comments will not be exhaustive, nor will my study of each of the versions.
English version abbreviations (acronyms) used are found in the English versions section on our website.
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Latest page update: March 18, 1999