Bible Translations—Does It Matter Which One?
TODAY all the Bible manuscripts we have are only valuable copies of the originals in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek—and most of them are in museums. In any event, few of us are able to read these ancient languages. So we have no alternative but to use modern translations. It is essential, therefore, to use good discernment in assessing Bible translations to be sure that we are reading a faithful and accurate reflection of the original writings.
THE GENERALITY OF PARAPHRASE
What do you look for in a Bible translation? Basically, there are two types: a literal rendition and a paraphrase. The first clings as closely as possible to the original language, that is, as much as idioms and word choice will allow. In contrast, the paraphrase is a “free” translation in which the translator seeks to express the original writer’s thoughts as he may interpret them rather than the exact words used in the text. Evidently these two lines of approach are quite different, and the looseness of the paraphrased Bible does hold hidden dangers, as we shall see.
In the Preface to the paraphrased Living Bible, the following statement is made: “Whenever the author’s exact words are not translated from the original languages, there is a possibility that the translator, however honest, may be giving the English reader something that the original writer did not mean to say. . . . For when the Greek or Hebrew is not clear, then the theology of the translator is his guide.” Let us consider just one example to illustrate this problem.
In Acts, chapter 15, we have recorded for us the important meeting of the apostles and older men held in Jerusalem to decide on the issue of circumcision. The outcome of this gathering was also the settling of the matter of Christian doctrine on the vital issue of blood and its uses, along with the prohibition on fornication. Notice, however, how The Living Bible interprets the words of James at Acts 15:19 and the declaration of the letter as recorded in Ac 15 verse 28: “And so my judgment is that we should not insist that the Gentiles who turn to God must obey our Jewish laws.” “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden of Jewish laws on you.” (Italics ours)
A check on Greek manuscripts clearly shows that the references to the “Jewish laws” are interpolations, added as a direct result of the free translation. Does that matter, bearing in mind that James and all those in his company were of Jewish lineage and that the Jewish laws did prohibit the things mentioned? Indeed, it does! In fact, if accepted, this rendering could put Christians in a state of dangerous compromise, for the simple reason that the prohibition on blood and its uses was imposed centuries earlier by Jehovah upon the patriarch Noah and his family. (Gen. 9:1-6) Although that prohibition later was incorporated in the Mosaic law, which did pass away, it has never been repealed and its application to the entire human family today is beyond question.
Paraphrase Bibles are often colorful and easy to read. But, in their use, caution needs to be exercised at all times. For rapid reading, to get the overall feel of a passage of Scripture, they may have some merit. However, guard against taking what you read in detail as being completely reliable and accurate. Kenneth N. Taylor, in his Preface to the Living Gospels paraphrase translation, summed up the situation well in saying: “For study purposes, a paraphrase should be checked against a rigid translation.” It is essential to follow such good advice if we are to “come to an accurate knowledge of truth.”—1 Tim. 2:4.
TRANSLATION OR INTERPRETATION?
During the Church of England’s Synod in July 1978, an altercation developed between bishops concerning the value of the popular Good News Bible. The Bishop of Chichester criticized the translation as being ‘too full of paraphrases,’ and particularly for its rendering of the Greek word sarx at Galatians 5:19. Sarx means “flesh.” Instead of translating erga tis sarkos as “works of the flesh,” the Good News Bible paraphrases the three Greek words, attributing the vices listed at Galatians 5:19-21 simply to “human nature.”
By following the thinking of such an interpretation, we could well justify and excuse unchristian conduct. How easy, but how wrong, to blame our “human nature” instead of ourselves! Paul’s argument continues (in Galatians, chapter 5) to show what fruitage of God’s holy spirit can be expected in a Christian life. Yes, in spite of our fleshly tendencies, we can change and bear such fruitage as love, joy, peace and self-control.
According to The Living Bible, Job’s sons celebrated their birthdays. (Job 1:4) Yet the Good News Bible, in full harmony with the original Hebrew, merely speaks of a feast, with no allusion to birthdays at all. The first rendering is a clear case of interpretation. This example also illustrates the extreme variations existing between paraphrased translations.
The Living Bible paraphrases the words of Ruth 1:1 as follows: “Long ago when judges ruled in Israel.” Yet, is it correct to imply that judges rule as do kings? No. In further contrast, the Good News Bible loosely states: “Long ago, in the days before Israel had a king.” To an inexperienced Bible reader the continuity of Jehovah’s purpose in directing the nation of Israel through the turbulent times of the judges is thereby lost, and there is no gain from the paraphrase. But a literal and meaningful translation reads: “Now it came about in the days when the judges administered justice.” (New World Translation) Thus the historical picture is clearly presented.
One of the first translations to make its mark after World War II was clergyman J. B. Phillips’ Letters to Young Churches, first published in the year 1947. Expressly stated as not being a version for close meticulous study, it has the acceptable flow of a paraphrase. Of unusual interest, however, is the rendering of 1 Corinthians 14:22, which says that tongues are a sign “not for those who are unbelievers but to those who already believe.” Likewise, “preaching the word of God” is said to be a sign “to those who do not believe rather than to believers.” (Italics ours) This is the exact opposite of what the Greek manuscripts say.
In his Translator’s Preface (Twelfth Edition), J. B. Phillips explains why he so deliberately departed from the accepted text. “I felt bound to conclude that we have here either a slip of the pen on Paul’s part or a textual corruption, and I have therefore been bold enough to alter the verse in order to make good sense.” The serious Bible student is naturally glad for this honest explanation. Indeed, a weighty responsibility rests on any translator of the inspired Scriptures to convey facts accurately.—2 Tim. 3:15-17.
SCHOLARSHIP AND LITERAL TRANSLATIONS
The complete New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures is now printed in seven languages and has been circulated world wide in 23 million copies. In the foreword to the 1950 first edition of the Christian Greek Scriptures, it is stated: “We offer no paraphrase of the Scriptures. Our endeavor all through has been to give as literal a translation as possible, where modern English idiom allows and where a literal rendition does not for any clumsiness hide the thought. In that way we can best meet the desire of those who are scrupulous for getting, as nearly as possible, word for word, the exact statement of the original.” In view of such integrity, a Bible student can, in full confidence, approach this translation and measure the thoughts of the original inspired writings. Let us take some examples.
In the Christian Greek Scriptures, the quality of love is mentioned nearly 200 times (over 250 times, if related words such as “loving-kindness” are included). What is not generally realized is that Greek has four basic words for the English equivalent “love.” In the Christian Greek Scriptures, three of these words are employed: Storgé, relating to the special love existing between parents and children; philía, denoting personal attachment and tender affection among friends; and agápe, often described as the love that is governed or guided by principles—such as Jehovah’s love for the human family.—John 3:16.
To differentiate between these words calls for skilled translating—a fine point not always acknowledged by those who undertake the task. The conversation between Jesus and Peter, recorded at John 21:15-17, is a clear example. Here most translations use the simple word “love” seven times. But not so the New World Translation. This is because the Gospel writer John, in quoting Jesus, twice used agápe, calling for Peter’s unselfish love in ministering to others (“Simon son of John, do you love me?”). However, in giving Peter’s answers, John used philía, denoting very personal affection for Jesus. The use of philía when citing Christ’s third question (“Simon son of John, do you have affection for me?”) underlines the warmth of affection that existed between Jesus and Peter.
You may recall that, according to Matthew chapter six, Jesus condemned in a very forthright way those who hypocritically made a showing of their gifts of mercy. Most translations are content to say that such ones already ‘have their reward.’ The Greek verb apécho, however, carries the distinct thought, conveyed by the New World Translation, that they were “having their reward in full.” (Matt. 6:5) They sought the praise of men and that was all they would receive. How pointed were Jesus’ remarks!
The King James Version of 1611 always uses the word “hell” to translate three distinct Greek words, Hades, Gehenna and Tartarus. Modern translations often differentiate between these words, but not consistently so, as does the New World Translation. Hades, transliterated from the Greek, literally means “the unseen place.” Peter’s use of it, as noted at Acts 2:27, shows that it is equivalent to the Hebrew word Sheol (the common grave of mankind), whereas Gehenna, descriptive of the Valley of Hinnom to the southwest of Jerusalem, denotes everlasting destruction. Tartarus occurs but once, at 2 Peter 2:4, and applies only to the fallen angelic spirits.
For many sincere people, the word “hell” is an emotive one on account of their religious training. A concise and accurate translation of the Greek clears out false teachings. Not all translators desire this, however, as seems apparent from this paraphrase of Matthew 7:13: “Go in through the narrow gate, because the gate to hell is wide and the road that leads to it is easy, and there are many who travel it.” (Good News Bible) The introduction of “hell” here for the Greek apóleia, meaning “destruction,” is quite misleading. The precision of the literal New World Translation dispels any ambiguity, in stating: “Go in through the narrow gate; because broad and spacious is the road leading off into destruction, and many are the ones going in through it.” (Compare the use of the Greek “Apollyon” as transliterated at Revelation 9:11 along with the Hebrew “Abaddon,” meaning “Destroyer” and “Destruction” respectively.)
When Paul wrote to the Christian congregation at Colossae, he spoke of the need to have “accurate knowledge” and the ‘riches of the full assurance of our understanding.’ (Col. 2:2) The New World Translation has undertaken to draw its readers as closely as possible to the original divinely inspired writings. It merits serious study. Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful to have this translation for use at their meetings, in their public preaching activity and for vital personal research. Yes, it really does matter which Bible translation you use.