Contend Earnestly: Translating the Bible From An Idiot's Perspective

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Translating the Bible From An Idiot's Perspective

If you have read this blog for any amount of time, you know one thing: Seth isn't a theologian. I have no formal training in the Greek or Hebrew, I have no formal training in Christian History, I have no formal training in Preaching or teaching and I have no formal training in writing. I am your average idiot when it comes to these things. The other thing you know about me if you have read this blog is that I have never allowed these things to hinder me from learning or stating my convictions on a lot of subjects. In many ways, I am like most of my readers. Just a regular American citizen, who loves Jesus trying to figure out how Jesus should impact me every day through my reading and research in the Bible and culture. I think one thing I have that some don't is that I get that I am an idiot in these things. I get that those who have studied the things listed above are far more qualified to speak on these subjects than I am. I am merely a Berean.

The reason I get this is because the one thing I am trained in is investments. I would bet that compared to those reading my blog I am far superior in my knowledge of how to make money in both investments domestically and globally and in business. It's funny when I hear people try to speak about investments as though they know what they are talking about and they sound like a toddler giving their dad directions in the car.

Because of this understanding, I go to those I believe are experts. This doesn't mean I trust all the experts, but I try to discern from the experts, which ones I believe are true and which ones are just plain wrong. Recently, because of my friendships with people from different perspectives and cultures it has got me thinking of our English Bibles and the way that they are translated. I have spoken to Arab Muslims, today I spoke to a Westerner who just got his MBA in Turkey and is going back to start a business there, I also have a friend in my church who is a linguist (so is his wife). He is with Wycliffe Translators and actually built a written language for an Indonesian tribe where he translated two New Testaments from the ground up. He literally invented an alphabet for these tribes. It took him and his wife 15 years, which he said was quite fast for what they did, but the people were really hungry for a written language and specifically a New Testament in their language. As a side note, he pointed me to a book I am excited to read called, "Voices From the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World"

As I spoke to him, some of my "worries" or insights were confirmed about our translations of the Bible into English. This is what I mean. Ask yourself this:

What is the most important issue when dealing with translating the Bible into one's language and culture?

Think about it. Honestly, ask yourself, what is the most important thing about translations and the Bible?

The most important is simply this: To get the intent of the author across to the reader so that they can understand what is being said. That's it. It's not about certain terms or which words should be used or not, but about the author's intent to be clearly represented to the reader so that they can either clearly submit to the word of the Lord or reject it. What we shouldn't hold on to is making sure that certain terms are used, but making sure that certain terms are given over to clearly represent their meaning in their language and culture. Let me give you an example from the field.

My buddy, who is a linguist, said that the term "charis" or "grace" didn't exist in the language of the tribe he was working with. Not only that, but most tribal cultures don't have that term. Historically, what translators have done is been so forceful to make sure that the "charis" be coined as the western thought of "grace" that they miss the point. What my friend found out is that as he explained the term to the natives, they had the concept in their culture, but not the term. So, from that, he was able to translate the term "charis" into a concept that they would understand in their New Testament. Isn't that the point? We sometimes feel in the Western world that some terms are untouchable and should be literally translated. Some of these would be: Christ, propitiation, atonement, redemption, sin, Son of God, Son of Man, etc.

Let me ask you this. When you read the Bible with someone who has never sat under the reading of the word and you come to one of these words, do you just read it and expect them to understand it? Or, do you explain it to them so that they can understand what the term is speaking of? Just to give you another example. My buddy Michael, who presented Jesus at the dialogue with Muslims, had someone tell him that Michael's explanation of Jesus being the Lamb of God was transforming. He said before the explation, he thought that the reason he saw so many pictures with Jesus holding a lamb was because Jesus liked animals. Showing, once again, WE HAVE MISSED THE POINT OF PRESENTING THE GOSPEL CLEARLY!

I have preached and taught for the past 7 years, not long I know, but one of the first things one understands as a Bible teacher is that you must get the intended message to the hearers in a way they understand. It is not my job for them to respond, that is the Holy Spirit's job, but my job is to clearly articulate to whatever age group, culture, sex, that I am speaking to.

Why shouldn't our translations be the same? We are so worried about word for word translation that some don't even really understand how translations happen. Usually, what happens is that if a Greek word has multiple words in the English that can be used, the translator picks the one he believes is the best and then uses that English term throughout the entirety of his translation. But, what happens if Paul meant something different than Peter with that term. Or what if Paul meant something totally different depending on the context? Shouldn't we desire to get Paul's intended message across to the reader to make it easier to understand? If you want an example, just look at Romans 8 where Paul uses the term "flesh" 13 times yet the term isn't meant to be taken the same way each time. What if instead of translating the term as "flesh" it was translated so that we could actually understand it? This would be a far greater translation. The problem is that we are too bent on word for word translation instead of bent on getting the correct concept to be presented so that the reader clearly understands. Some say that if we allow this type of translation then the translator has too much room to be a "commentator" on the passage. But that is exactly what happens when someone picks from 15 different English terms to translate a Greek term. He chooses the one he feels fits the best. Plus, this is how good translations in tribal settings are put forth, they give the meaning, instead of merely a term. This is also exaclty what we ask our pastors to do every Sunday when they preach. We ask them to exegete Scripture. Meaning, we ask them to tell us what the passage means!

I think with our translations, we are so bent on getting the word right, we miss out on it's actual meaning. One that is clearly misunderstood is the term "Son of God." Ask an average Christian, they have no idea how to unpack this term and revert to merely saying that Jesus had no earthly father, but his father was God in heaven. That isn't the entirety of the meaning of this term. This is NOT what was meant primarily with this term. Most of the time, you'll see the term closely related (usually in the same context) to the term Christ, which means to those Jews in the 1st Century as one who will come to redeem them from oppression. Why not use that explanation instead? Because Westerners are so bent on word for word translations and then don't even understand the actual words used because they are from a different culture and vernacular. (there is much more to unpack with the terms Son of God and Christ, but hopefully you get the point)

If we desire to see people hear the Gospel clearly, we need to ask ourselves if we care more about the terms used, or the concept that was intended by the author and by God himself. I believe most of the time, people care more about dying for a term than for the concept. It is actually killing opportunities to speak to other cultures about Jesus as America is becoming more and more global.

We should seek out to explain the concepts of terms instead of getting too concerned with the term itself. If the term itself is too loaded with controversy just because of how it has been misused, then why not explain what the term means instead of getting stuck on the term itself? Why get mad when someone hates the term Christianity or Son of God because it has been so abused? Why not explain the terms instead? You are not watering down the Gospel when doing so, but you are actually making it clearer to the hearers.

Honestly ask yourself. Are you more concerned with being able to clearly articulate who Jesus was, is and what he accomplished, or are you more concerned with holding certain terms "dear to your heart"? If someone rejects what you are saying because you can't articulate, maybe they aren't rejecting the Gospel, but rejecting you.

Just some thoughts from an idiot who loves to interject his opinions.


SnatchedFromTheFire said...

Seth -
i appreciate the spirit of your post and your desire (like me) to soak up every once of God and His word a "layman" can.
Couple things:
I think some of the issues you raise are valid however i would be careful about drawing too close a paralel between translating the Bible for a culture/people who have no written language or understanding of the concepts presented in the Bible and your average english speaking person who (in what i'm getting from your view) needs to be spoon fed their Bible to "get it". Someone who doesn't want to or know how to do the work of exegesis has plenty of translations today to go to (NIV,NLT, Good News, The MEssage, etc.). But it has long been the contention of those who support the word-for-word translations that the words themselves actually matter if - as Timothy wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit - EVERY WORD is God breathed and i think we need to take that seriously and not just discard it as some fundamentalist notion. Beyond that, i found your presentation of what translators actually do to be a pretty unfair representation as (to me) you made it sound like it's just one guy sitting in a room by himslef deciding which english translation of the Greek word he wants to use. The ESV is a great example of how you have over 500 years of scholariship, whole teams and committees coming together with the idea of presenting the truest/closest translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts. Two things come to mind now:
1: the Bible tells us that the things of God (and His word) are spiritually discerned and the the Holy Spirit either opens our eyes and ears to understand or closes them. The message of the cross os foolishness to those who are persihing; stench of death, etc.
2: What agreat oportunity if someone doesn't understand the terms to talk to them and explain as best we can or point them to other helps - the Ethiopian Eunuch comes to mind here in proving this point. He's reading and doesn't get it and God sends him someone (Phillip isn't it?) to be the instrument of the Holy Spirit to interpret. We could say, in some ways, pastors/elders hold a similar role today though not exclusively. Food for thought.

SnatchedFromTheFire said...

Seth -
have you been "silenced" by my post or have you just given up 'contending' with me ;) Love to hear your thoughts on my reply to this post.

Seth McBee said...


I read your comment and honestly forgot to respond...I'll get back to you

Josh F said...


I too, am waiting for your response. I am interested because your post reads like a counter to verbal plenary inspiration.

Seth McBee said...

Hey Guys...

Here are my thoughts in general.

I agree in the totality of Scripture, breathed out by God and believe that if it's in the's true.

But, I only believe this about the original breathed out terms. So does every translator/linguist that I have ever read on the matter. Meaning. From there, we need to translate those original terms, passages, etc. to be culturally understood in the way that the original breathed out terms were meant to be.

I also have no contention with word for word translation and see it's importance. I also see it's danger as well. We all are interpreters of what we read, whether from one language to another, or even from the same language. Descriptors are needed.

I personally use the NASB, NIV and ESV for my study. But, I also am reading much from other cultures in their interpretations from the original breathed out word and it is mind blowing.

I really appreciate your push back...hope you see what I am trying to get at. Also...I disagree that we are any different than other languages that aren't established...both need to figure out the original intended meaning.

Peace guys...ask any questions.

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