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Can You Trust Translations of the Bible?

translation 1 small sxc huI was asked once to deliver a lecture titled, “Is the Bible Reliable?” I asked, “Reliable for what?”

One asks, “Can you trust translations of the Bible?”

I counter ask, “Can you trust translations of the Bible to be or do what?”

Can you trust translations of the Bible to be a perfect representation of every thought of the inspired author that needs no further interpretation, investigation or thought? NO! A thousand times, NO!!!

No translation of anything can do that. Translations are approximations. Translators make choices and having made choices they eliminate choices that might have been considered in the original, and having made choices, inadvertently introduce new choices in the translation language that didn’t exist in the original.

If this crushes you and makes you panic and threatens that most precious certainty that you’ve been cultivating since childhood over your understanding of Scripture then I am sorry, but it can’t be helped. Your faith was placed on the wrong thing to begin with.

Let’s put on our big boy pants and move on… the rewards at the end of this journey are great.

Disillusionment is hard, but what’s so great about being deluded?

My brother got a cool radio for Christmas when we were boys… radio was new back then so we were impressed…just kidding. This radio was cool because it could pick up TV. You see, once upon a time, TV was picked up through things called antennae. Sometimes you had to move them around on top of the TV (we called these rabbit ears), and family members might make you stand through entire shows with one leg stuck out touching the antennae to keep the picture solid. Sometimes we mounted the antennae on top of the house and had a cable connected to the TV in the house.

The novelty of listening to TV on my brother’s radio was short-lived, though the radio itself provided years of musical enjoyment as we moved through the neighborhood. TV was not, after all, created to be heard alone. It was created to be seen. You got the gist of the episodes when just listening, but vast portions passed you by unnoticed, and only on occasion did the sound track of laughter into a moment of silence clue you in that you missed something.

That’s how I think of translations.

Major English translations are carefully made and thoughtfully produced, but translation from one language and culture to another can only do so much. After 25 years of studying the Bible fulltime in the original languages, let me tell you, what you don’t know you don’t know about Scripture would boggle your mind. I don’t want your mind boggled, however; I want it inspired to push further, deeper.

Imagine translating poetry… say, Japanese Haiku… into English. One might approximate the content, and, if the translator has great skill, might get the syllable count right, and might capture some alternative poetry form. One will not, however, be able to replicate the original poetry of the lines… those belong to the native poet and his native tongue.

Texts are written to an intended audience in a chosen language, culture, place, time, and both literary and historical circumstance. Translation rarely captures all of this… it just can’t. It’s not part of the nature of translation. A deeper capture requires extensive commentary. Translations are a type of commentary, but only barely.

That was the “NO” answer to “Can translations be trusted.”

So, here is the “Yes” answer.

Can you trust translations to be an individual’s or committee’s learned and carefully prepared attempt to describe in as simple and graspable way as possible what the inspired authors of sacred Scripture intended to communicate as they wrote in their own time, language, culture and place? YES!!! A thousand times YES.

Major English translations are excellent in so many ways, and a careful study of them, observing and comparing them, asking the right kinds of questions, and getting answers from the right kinds of sources, can take a student of Scripture a long way in his or her discovery of the authorial intent in most of the Bible.

Constant reading, a solid interpretive method and a constant appeal to commentaries and Bible dictionaries will take you far. So develop them.

If you really mean business with Scripture, however, and want to go further, learn Greek and Hebrew. It’s not as hard as you imagine.

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