English Bible versions critiqued

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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.

Thorough accuracy

A translation is not adequate unless meaning is translated accurately. And this accuracy must not only be at the word level, but also at every grammatical level of the language. Translators may accurately use the correct words of a target language to express the meaning of the source (original) language, but if those words do not relate to each other according to the normal rules of grammar and language usage, then the translation, overall, is not accurate. My own observation of English versions of the Bible is that they often are far more accurate at the word level than they are at the higher levels of language, such as the phrase, clause, interclausal, sentential, and intersentential levels. This probably reflects a proportionate attention paid to the words themselves, as opposed to how the words relate to each other and what those combinations of words mean to hearers.

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.

Testing

It is my impression that most English versions of the Bible were never field tested before they were published. This is unfortunate, for field testing of any important product is an important step in making that product as helpful to users as possible. Today all computer programmers know that their software must undergo field testing before it is released. Of course, field testing is not the final step; it must be followed by adequate revision based on the results of the field testing. Software which is full of bugs does not sell well and creates disgruntled users. The best software is that which is not only useful, but also user-friendly. We who accept the challenge to translate God's Word for others must pay just as much attention to be sure our product is accurate, useful, and user-friendly. Our translations must be field-tested before they are released to the general public. Translators of tribal languages call this "community checking". Or we might use the computer term beta testing. Only we Bible translators not only have beta tests, but we must test the "alpha and omega," the entire translation, from beginning to end!

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.

Common language

The Bible was written in the language of the common man, especially the New Testament which was written not in classical Greek, but Koine Greek, the language of the street, the language of the peasant, the fisherman, the ordinary person. We translators would do well to translate for the same audience, the ordinary speaker of the target language. Field testing with average speakers can guide our work so that we translate using the same social level of language as that found in the original Scriptures. We do not want to "dumb down" the language in our translations, but we also do not want it so sophisticated that a large number of readers cannot understand it. It is humorous but wise advice to anyone (including translators) writing for the average speaker of a language: "Eschew obfuscation!"

Varieties of translations

No one single English version ever completely communicates all of that original meaning to its readers. In addition, the various English versions have different purposes for their existence. Those which attempt to retain as much formal equivalence as possible, such as the NASB, NKJV, and Young's Literal Translation, are valuable for helping the reader experience the original metaphors, euphemisms, and other features which are unique to every language. These versions give greater focus to the FORMS of the original and less attention to CORRESPONDING NATURAL forms of the target language. Sometimes in the attempt to be as literal as possible, these versions actually lose some accuracy IN TERMS OF MEANING IN THE TARGET LANGUAGE. Versions which are stronger in terms of idiomatic equivalence better communicate the original meanings within terms which NATURALLY occur in the target language, in this case, English, but in doing so the reader loses some of the sense of how the original language expressed meanings. The highest goal of idiomatic translations is communication of MEANING, whereas the highest goal of more formal translations seems to be transference of form. Formal translations make greater demands on their readers, since the language used is often not fully natural and so it becomes more difficult for the reader to try to figure out what the original meaning was.

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.

Passages


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Latest page update: March 18, 1999

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