When we think about how to read the Bible well, we have to take a step back and ask: how do I find a good Bible translation? Often people approach this purely based on their subjective opinion. They choose the one that sounds good or that is the most readable to them. Granted, this is a somewhat valid approach, but there is more to it. Understanding the art and science of translation will help us choose a translation wisely and objectively.
Basically, there are two approaches to translation. The first is formal equivalence, and the second is functional equivalence. The former seeks to preserve the semantic form of the original, the latter strives to preserve the meaning of the original in a way that is clear in the receptor language. The first approach translates word for word, the second translates thought for thought. An example of the first is the NASB, an example of the second method is the NLT. Which is better? Well, the truth is, we can’t choose between one or the other. Something is always lost in translation as they say.
The key to understanding the art and science of translation is that words do not have a literal meaning in and of themselves. Rather, they receive their meaning from the context in which they appear. To provide an example, the word trunk can mean a variety of things depending on the context: it can be part of a tree, the back of a car or part of an elephant. So what’s the literal meaning? Well, it depends. The same is true for other parts of a language, such as compound expressions or idioms. The English expression “something is a piece of cake” makes no sense whatsoever in my native language, German. There we say, “to do something with your left hand.” If I translate this formally, I will ruin 100% of the meaning, because there is no equivalent in the receptor language.
So which translation should I use? Well, to be frank, use more than just one. I personally like the ESV, although it’s more on the formal side of translations. But whenever I study a passage, I like to read it in all kinds of translations because all of them together give a pretty good picture of what is being said. While this is true, there is value in sometimes using only a formal or only a functional translation. We’ll explore some of these features next time.
Grace & Peace