How Can You Choose a Good Bible Translation?
THE Bible was originally written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. So most people who desire to read it must rely on a translation.
Today, the Bible is the world’s most widely translated book—parts of it being available in over 2,400 languages. Some languages have not just one translation but scores of them. If you have a choice in your language, you surely want to use the very best translation you can find.
To make an informed choice, you need to know the answers to the following questions: What different types of translations are available? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each type of translation? And why should you be cautious when reading some translations of the Bible?
From One Extreme to the Other
Bible translations cover a broad spectrum of styles, but they fall into three basic categories. Interlinear translations are at one end of the spectrum. These translations contain the original-language text along with a word-for-word rendering into the target language.
Paraphrase translations fall at the other end of the spectrum. Translators of these versions freely restate the message of the Bible as they understand it in a way that they feel will appeal to their audience.
A third category embraces translations that endeavor to strike a balance between these two extremes. These versions of the Bible strive to convey the meaning and flavor of the original-language expressions while also making the text easy to read.
Are Word-for-Word Translations Best?
A strictly word-for-word translation is often not the best possible way to capture the meaning of each Bible verse. Why not? There are a number of reasons. Here are two:
1. No two languages are exactly alike in grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure. Professor of Hebrew S. R. Driver says that languages “differ not only in grammar and roots, but also . . . in the manner in which ideas are built up into a sentence.” People who speak different languages think differently. “Consequently,” continues Professor Driver, “the forms taken by the sentence in different languages are not the same.”
Since no language exactly mirrors the vocabulary and grammar of Biblical Hebrew and Greek, a word-for-word translation of the Bible would be unclear or might even convey the wrong meaning. Consider the following examples.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul used an expression that is literally translated “in the (dice) cube of the men.” (Ephesians 4:14, The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures)a This expression refers to the practice of cheating others when using dice. In most languages, however, a literal rendering of this allusion makes little sense. Translating this expression as “the trickery of men” is a clearer way to convey the meaning.
When writing to the Romans, Paul used a Greek expression that literally means “to the spirit boiling.” (Romans 12:11, Kingdom Interlinear) Does this wording make sense in your language? The expression actually means to be “aglow with the spirit.”
During one of his most famous speeches, Jesus used an expression that is often translated: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Matthew 5:3) But a literal rendering of this expression is obscure in many languages. In some cases, a strictly literal translation even implies that “the poor in spirit” are mentally unbalanced or lacking in vitality and determination. However, Jesus was here teaching people that their happiness depended, not on satisfying their physical needs, but on recognizing their need for God’s guidance. (Luke 6:20) So such renderings as “those conscious of their spiritual need” or “those who know their need for God” convey more accurately the meaning of this expression.—Matthew 5:3; The New Testament in Modern English.
2. The meaning of a word or an expression may change depending on the context in which it is used. For instance, the Hebrew expression that normally refers to the human hand may have a wide variety of meanings. Depending on the context, this word may, for example, be rendered “control,” “openhandedness,” or “power.” (2 Samuel 8:3; 1 Kings 10:13; Proverbs 18:21) In fact, this particular word is translated in over 40 different ways in the English edition of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.
Because the context can affect the way a word is translated, the New World Translation uses nearly 16,000 English expressions to translate some 5,500 Biblical Greek terms, and it uses over 27,000 English expressions to translate about 8,500 Hebrew terms.b Why this variety in the way words are translated? The translation committee judged that to render the best sense of these words according to the context was more important than to produce a strictly literal translation. Even so, the New World Translation is as consistent as possible in rendering Hebrew and Greek words into the target language.
Clearly, Bible translation involves more than simply rendering an original-language word the same way each time it occurs. Translators must use good judgment in order to select words that present the ideas of the original-language text accurately and understandably. In addition, they need to assemble the words and sentences in their translation in a way that conforms to the rules of grammar of the target language.
What About Free Translations?
Translators who produce what are frequently referred to as paraphrase Bibles, or free translations, take liberties with the text as presented in the original languages. How so? They either insert their opinion of what the original text could mean or omit some of the information contained in the original text. Paraphrase translations may be appealing because they are easy to read. However, their very freeness at times obscures or changes the meaning of the original text.
Consider the way that one paraphrase Bible translates Jesus’ famous model prayer: “Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are.” (Matthew 6:9, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language) A more accurate translation of Jesus’ words renders this passage: “Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified.” Note, too, the way that John 17:26 is rendered in some Bibles. According to one free translation, on the night of his arrest, Jesus said to his Father in prayer: “I made you known to them.” (Today’s English Version) However, a more faithful rendering of Jesus’ prayer reads: “I have made your name known to them.” Can you see how some translators actually hide the fact that God has a name that should be used and honored?
Why the Need for Caution?
Some free translations obscure the moral standards conveyed in the original text. For example, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language says at 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10: “Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.”
Compare that version with the more accurate rendering found in the New World Translation: “What! Do you not know that unrighteous persons will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be misled. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men kept for unnatural purposes, nor men who lie with men, nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit God’s kingdom.” Notice that the details outlined by the apostle Paul on exactly what kind of conduct we should avoid are not even mentioned in the free translation.
Doctrinal bias can also color a translator’s work. For example, Today’s English Version, commonly called the Good News Bible, has Jesus saying to his followers: “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.” (Matthew 7:13) The translators inserted the term “hell” even though Matthew’s account clearly says “destruction.” Why did they do so? Likely, it is because they want to promote the idea that the wicked will be eternally tormented, not destroyed.c
Finding the Best Translation
The Bible was written using the common, everyday languages of average people, such as farmers, shepherds, and fishermen. (Nehemiah 8:8, 12; Acts 4:13) Therefore, a good translation of the Bible makes the message it contains accessible to sincere people, regardless of their background. A desirable translation will also do the following:
◼ Accurately convey the original message that was inspired by God.—2 Timothy 3:16.
◼ Translate the meaning of words literally when the wording and structure of the original text allows for such a rendering in the target language.
◼ Communicate the correct sense of a word or a phrase when a literal rendering of the original-language expression would distort or obscure the meaning.
◼ Use natural, easy-to-understand language that encourages reading.
Is such a translation available? Millions of readers of this journal favor using the New World Translation. Why? Because they agree with the approach taken by its translation committee, as stated in the foreword to the first English edition: “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.”
The New World Translation has been printed in whole or in part in more than 60 languages, with a total printing of more than 145,000,000 copies! If it is available in your language, why not ask Jehovah’s Witnesses for a copy and see for yourself the benefits of this accurate translation?
Sincere Bible students want to grasp and act upon the message that God inspired. If you are such a person, you need an accurate Bible translation. Really, you deserve nothing less.
a An interlinear translation enables the reader to see a literal rendering of each word along with the original-language text.
b It is noteworthy that some English Bible translations use a greater variety of equivalents than the New World Translation and thus are less consistent.
c The Bible teaches that at death we return to dust, that the soul dies, and that we no longer have thoughts or feelings. (Genesis 3:19; Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6; Ezekiel 18:4) Nowhere does it teach that the souls of the wicked suffer eternal torment in a fiery hell.
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Paraphrase translations may be appealing because they are easy to read. However, their very freeness at times obscures or changes the meaning of the original text
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The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures has been printed in whole or in part in more than 60 languages, with a total printing of more than 145,000,000 copies!
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AN ANCIENT PARAPHRASE
Paraphrases, or free translations, of the Bible are not new. In ancient times, the Jewish people compiled what are now called the Aramaic Targums, or loose paraphrases of the Scriptures. Though they are not accurate translations, they reveal how the Jewish people understood some texts and help translators to determine the meaning of some difficult passages. For example, at Job 38:7, “sons of God” is explained to mean “bands of the angels.” At Genesis 10:9, the Targums indicate that the Hebrew preposition used in describing Nimrod carries the hostile meaning “against” or “in opposition to” rather than simply meaning “before” in a neutral sense. These paraphrases accompanied the Bible text but were never intended as a substitute for the Bible itself.
A SECTION OF WALTON’S “BIBLIA POLYGLOTTA,” COMPLETED 1657 JOB 38:1-15
Hebrew Bible text (with Latin Interlinear Translation)
Corresponding text of Aramaic Targum
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A SECTION OF “THE KINGDOM INTERLINEAR TRANSLATION OF THE GREEK SCRIPTURES,” EPHESIANS 4:14
The left column shows a word-for-word translation. The right column shows a translation of the meaning
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Background: Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, Jerusalem