Question: What is a "good" or "the best" Bible Translation?

Having had an introductory look at New Age Bibles previously, let's examine the subject further by asking a very simple question... What is meant by a Bible "Translation"? What do translators mean when they say they have "translated" the Bible? This might seem like such an obvious question, and the answer so obvious, that it is not even worth asking.

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes obvious things are not obvious at all, if you are not even looking. After all, that is how a magician does tricks. He distracts your attention with one hand, while the other hand puts the card up his sleeve, or under the table, so that you don't see the obvious deception. The same thing happens with Bible translations today. Some deception is going on, and some tricks are being played on you.

Now, a "translation" means to translate, or put, the words in one language into another language, so that people who only speak the other language can understand it. The theory is fine... but let's take a look at how that would work, or should work, in practice.

Let's imagine that we have five examples of texts we would like to translate. All the texts were originally written in Greek - a language we are not familiar with - and we want to translate these texts into English. The five texts are:

1. A simple Greek fairy story for children.

2. A complicated story in Greek mythology.

3. A modern newspaper story, about a major event in Greek politics.

4. A contract of employment, in Greek, between a company and a future employee, which the employee needs to sign.

5. A textbook such as a technical manual or a medical instruction manual.

In the first case, of a simple children's story, sticking rigidly to the original Greek will probably just result in something which is too confusing for children to understand or enjoy. It is probably best to change a few details to make more sense to an English speaker. Instead of a story about a cute little Greek boy called Demetrius, in our translation let's call him David. Instead of a funny accident with his Tiramisu, a word which English readers are unlikely to understand or visualize, it would be best to change it to Treacle pudding. And instead of tripping up in a vineyard, let's change it to an apple orchard. Most people would agree that these changes are necessary to make the children's story easier and more relevant. Otherwise children reading the translation will constantly ask distracting questions - what's Demetrius? what's Tiramisu? what's Dolmades? We want our translation to sound good in English, to be fun and enjoyable to read, and to be simple, for its intended audience of children.

In the second case, of wanting to translate a more complicated story in Greek mythology, the target audience would be adults or teenagers, not children. Changing names and events around, as we did with the children's fairy story, will no longer work, because the readers will want to understand the original story. That's why they are reading it. Instead, it would be best to translate as simply as possible, changing as little as possible. Names which the English reader might not know, like Medusa or Damocles, would be best handled with a footnote - or a glossary, or a brief introduction. Specific Greek words which don't occur in English could be handled by providing the nearest (best) English word. However, it is important to realize that to fully understand the translation, readers would need to understand quite a lot about Greek culture and mythology. That would be unavoidable. In fact, it would be reasonable, even essential. There isn't much point in translating this classic Greek story if we wanted to avoid any cultural connection with Greece. That, after all, is why the translation is needed in the first place!

In the third case, of a modern newspaper story, it would be essential to make the translation as accurate as possible. You couldn't take liberties with the translation at all. Otherwise you will end up completely misrepresenting the events that took place. If you published your translation, you might even get sued for slander or libel. Being precise over this translation would surely be necessary, even at the expense of smooth or well-flowing English prose. Inserting an explanatory phrase or two into the translation would also be acceptable, perhaps to explain a few cultural quirks that don't have an exact equivalent in English.

In the fourth case, of a contract of employment, precision is of the utmost importance. We can't get away with the things we did in the previous examples. If the contract said we report to Demetrius and one of the perks is Tiramisu, we can't change it to say that we report to David, and we are given apple-pie as a perk, even though this would be a simpler translation. We would have to be very careful with the exact wording of the translation, because getting it correct is so important, and getting it wrong could lead to expensive mistakes. In fact, we would probably want the translation to be certified to guarantee it is correct. Ideally we would also want to go back to the employer and ask them to sign the English translation, so that we could rely on it. Otherwise, mistakes will happen.

In the fifth case, of translating a technical manual or a medical instruction manual, precision and accuracy must surely be the most important considerations. Your readers are not children - they are intelligent, and motivated to understand what they are reading. But they need to understand it properly, even if that takes time and effort. If a word is difficult, the reader needs to make more effort to understand it, or its context, or its meaning. For example, in the translation of a medical textbook, if the original Greek was about the workings of the duodenum, and in your translation you decided that the readers wouldn't know what a duodenum was, so you changed it to heart or kidney to make the translation flow easier, you will end up misrepresenting the original text. You will sow confusion and mislead people, probably with tragic results, or tragic levels of misunderstanding. Therefore, in this case, accuracy and precision are more important than a simple translation which reads smoothy. However, this means that the translation will, naturally, be easy in some places and difficult in others. It won't necessarily be a fun and simple bedtime read, like the children's fairy story was.

And so, hopefully this illustration will make it clear that how you translate something will vary according to what you are translating. If you are translating a children's fairy story, you will take a very different approach than if you are translating a legal text or a medical textbook. The more important and serious the text, the more important it becomes to have an accurate and precise translation, at the expense of an easy and smooth read. If your source text is a fairy story aimed at children, you can take liberties with the translation. But if you are translating a serious, important text for adults, then you cannot take liberties with the text. In fact, doing this could have tragic misunderstandings, or tragic consequences.

And so, given the different options and approaches available to Bible translators, which of the above approaches would be the most appropriate for a translation of the Bible, the wholly inspired Word of the Living God? Which of the above examples of texts is the Bible most like?

Having a liberal approach to translating the Bible, where, like a children's fairy story, we are free to change the words around and re-invent the story for an easier read, will lead to a translation which is not representative of what the Bible actually says. Given how important it is to understand the Bible, what precisely God wants from his creation, and what we must do to be saved, it must make sense that we want to translate the Bible in the most accurate and precise way possible, so that we fully understand its message. This, unfortunately, is often at odds with a nice, easy, smooth read that would fit well with a children's bedtime story.

Like a classic story in Greek, the Bible is written in a completely different culture than the modern western world. And just as we would want to preserve the essence of a Greek classical story in order to understand it, so too we should seek to preserve as much of the Bible culture as possible in a translation. Trying to divorce the Bible from its cultural context will just lead to misunderstanding.

The Bible is not exactly like a legal document or a technical textbook, but its correct translation is just as important as those examples, and it is just as important to provide an accurate and precise translation. If we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it is critical not to misunderstand anything that God was written for us. Whereas with the translation of a legal document, we can go back to the employer to check that he is happy with the translation, in the case of a Bible translation, we cannot go back to God to ask if He is happy with the translation. We are at the mercy of the translators.

And so, people often ask what is the "best" Bible translation, or whether a particular translation is "good" or not. It all depends on what you expect from a translation - whether you just want an easy read as you would with a children's fairy story, or whether you want an accurate and precise translation that truly helps you to understand God's Word, even if that takes more effort on your part.

Not understanding the issues involved or their extreme importance, most people (unfortunately) just go for the easy read.

And so, to understand whether modern Bible translations are "good" or "bad", we need an understanding of the different approaches to Bible translation, but also to understand the approach that modern Bible translations take. In the next article, we will start to take a look at the problems of modern Bible translations. The first problem, as we shall see, is that the modern (New Age) approach taken to translation might well be appropriate for a children's fairy story, but it is completely inappropriate to the nature of the Bible, as the wholly inspired Word of God.

But we shall see that there are other problems as well. New Age Bible translations do more than just translate - they also feel it is their job to interpret as they go along. And what they are actually translating may be highly questionable as well. All in all, modern Bible translations, or New Age Bibles as we call them, misrepresent the original message of the Bible in many important and fundamental ways.