Sunday, May 30, 2004

Bible Translations

I've noticed a bit of discussion on other blogs about the best Bible translations. In particular, Letters from Babylon and Parablemania have discussed their favorite translations. While I think getting a good translation of the Bible is helpful, I'm not sure it's sufficient. I have two Bibles I tend to use.

One is the NIV, which I find easy to read and understand, despite complaints about it being a dynamic equivalence--not a word-for-word translation, but one which converts idiom and language into our way of speaking. Now while dynamic equivalence involves some interpretation, so does a formal equivalence translation, which follows the original language more closely. Any translation requires finding an equivalent word, but no word in English contains the exact same history, nuance, and cultural context of the Greek word. Consider John 1:1, and the use of the word logos. In English, it's translated as Word, while in Greek it could mean word... or message, or purpose. In Stoic philosophy, it was used to signify the driving power and reason behind the Universe, and it would have been recognizable as such instantly by the Greek readers of John's Gospel. Idiom is also very tricky. Consider Matthew 12:40: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." The phrase "three days and three nights" has drawn much interpretation as people tried to reconcile it with the one day and two nights Jesus actually spent in the tomb. It would be helpful to know that ancient peoples reckoned inclusively (saying that Sunday is three days after Friday, because they would include Friday in the count), or that x days and x nights was a common idiom, referring not to whole days and nights but to the day-night cycle, which we would simply call days. These are famous problems which even dynamic equivalence doesn't try to solve. While I think a dynamic equivalence does infer some interpretation, I also think that it can, when done properly, convey more of the original meaning to modern readers than a formal equivalence translation.

The other Bible I use is an interlinear one. It has one very literal translation, and the original Greek and Hebrew. The very literal translation is hard to read and follow, but it's useful, especially when coupled with the original language and some knowledge of that language. (I may be rusty, but I still remember some Ancient Greek.) Which brings me to my question: Why don't more Christians study the original languages? I don't expect every Christian to attend seminary, but there are many Christians in college who could easily take a semester or two of Greek and/or Hebrew. I'm curious why they don't.

Update: Cleared things up a bit.

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