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Bible Translations are Both a Blessing and a Curse

translation 2 small sxc huI hardly need to recount the blessings of translating the Bible. It is the most basic sense of preaching… translations seek to present the word of God, the Gospel of God, the Gospel of Christ in a language that people from every part of the world can understand. Translations, when done well, bring the Word of God near. One can hardly praise the efforts of Bible translation groups like Wycliffe enough. It is a sacrificial, difficult and noble task.

I’ve titled this post, “Bible Translations are Both a Blessing and a Curse,” and perhaps, curse is far too strong a word… (I was hoping to catch your eye) but there are definitely some problems that arise from the very concept of a translation when introduced to the masses. The problem, of course, is not with translation itself, but with the masses themselves and their failure to understand the limitations of translation in their desire for certainty.

Absolute certainty is the Holy Grail of the human heart and mind. Everyone wants to believe that if they think hard enough, believe aggressively enough, study long enough that certainty of truth can be theirs. Hard enough, aggressively enough, and long enough, however, are rarely what the average citizen of earth puts into thinking, believing and studying. Mostly we just have opinions that we cherish, traditions that we embrace and visions that we nurture with selective data collection.

And this is the problem with translations. Translations offer no certainty. Translations are interpretations… low level interpretations that seek to find terms, phrases, clauses and other grammatical elements in one language to adequately express the meaning of the terms, phrases, clauses and other grammatical elements in the Biblical texts as originally penned in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, within the world of the biblical authors, and the documents & genres (i.e. special types of literature) in which these texts were written.

When interpretive options exist in the original texts, translations often force the translator to make choices… these choices frequently eliminate options, remove legitimate possibilities, lean for good or ill in one direction or another. The more dynamic a translation (Like the NIV, Living, or Good News) the more choices they make and the more options they eliminate. Simplicity has its costs.

Prepositions alone force translations to make option eliminating choices. Martin Luther once said that all theology is in the prepositions (a fun and largely accurate overstatement) and one of the most complex things to bridge from Greek, Hebrew & Aramaic into other languages are the prepositions. These are the terms that build logical relationships between parts of clauses and sentences and have a subtlety to them that stresses the skills of the best linguists and interpreters.

Hebrew has one main conjunction that occurs some 50,000 times with a wide range of logical relationship possibilities woven into it. A literalist translation wants to use AND while a dynamic translation wants to make a choice about logical connection. The first is hard to sort out without knowing the rules of the conjunction in context, and the second obliterates every other option, leaving the reader completely unaware of what possibilities are available in the text.

The only thing that makes this a major problem is the general resistance to the idea among the masses that translation is not enough… that serious students of Scripture need to learn biblical languages… that, while the gospel message has a basic quality to it, there is nothing simple about Scriptural interpretation or theological engagement of the text.

“I just read it and believe it!” sounds nice, but ignores the real complexity of wrestling with Scripture.

People, however, don’t like the idea that there is some special class of student who, having learned biblical languages, has an advantage over those who are limited to translations. This sounds elitist, and we hate elitist folk.

When a person has been raised to believe that their leader’s lack of knowledge concerning biblical languages is NOT a disadvantage, that these “power-houses for Jesus” HAVE obtained certainty without all that excessive elitist garbage weighing them down, it takes no more than a brief encounter with what is taking place on the level of the original languages to shatter their world, to send them spiraling into confusion, to lose faith in everything all at once. The uncertainty that they should have been taught to deal with in bits comes flooding in all at once and threatens to unseat their faith, to overwhelm their minds, to exhaust them in their souls to even imagine the labor involved in regaining the precious certainty that has been lost.

If we don’t have certainty, after all, what do we have?

May I suggest, Faith? The love of a journey? The joy of discovery? The beginning of a life-long romance with Scripture and the God of Scripture?

The fact is that reading Scripture in a good English translation is like listening to a TV show on the radio. If you are reasonably intelligent, a careful observation of the English text (particularly if you read in multiple translations) will take you a long way. Truth be told, however, it will only take you so far.

If you want to study Scripture seriously, you need to learn biblical languages and you need to learn to make use of the all the tools that learning biblical languages will open to you.

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