Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne, Phillip Jensen and occasionally Talar Khatchoyan – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
This episode is a discussion of the use of different Bible translations and factors that need to be considered when reading and choosing different translations.
THE TROUBLE WITH TRANSLATIONS
Talar Khatchoyan: So Phillip, you’ve just gotten back from NTE.
Phillip Jensen: Yes, I have. NTE is the National Training Event run by AFES, which is the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students. And it’s a fantastic conference.
TK: Yes, I’ve been at it a few times as a uni student and then also as a Moore College student, just helping out and leading some of the strand groups. It’s an excellent week. I learned so much there. It was probably the first time I was introduced to biblical theology and it was amazing. A good number of our young people from my church went and they were really encouraged. How did you find it, Phillip?
PJ: I find one of the great things about NTE is after four or five days of Bible teaching and training, they then go out on missions to different churches around the place. Do you know where your people went to?
TK: They had a few different locations, and a group actually came to our church to serve at the Japanese-speaking congregation at our church. So that was encouraging. They had a lot of great events and engaged with a lot of community members at that time.
PJ: Yes, and it’s one of the few national conferences around. Australia is a hard place to have a national conference because Perth is so far from Sydney—or on this occasion, Canberra. It’s expensive, it takes time to travel there; so it’s hard to run national conferences. And also, when you have 2,500 people, the preaching and the teaching of the Bible is difficult especially because there are so many different translations. Which one do you use? Why you choose to use certain translations is now such a problem.
A little while back in September I talked about translations with Tony, discussing words and changes of words and meanings of words. But translation is one of those difficulties for us Bible-readers, because very few of us are reading the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. And so once you read it in English, then how accurately can you translate from one language to another?
Talar, you speak both Armenian and English?
TK: I do, yes.
PJ: Does it translate from one to the other easily?
TK: No, it takes work. It’s hard. There are definitely ideas in one language that you won’t find in the other, such as idioms, that really make sense in one culture and don’t make sense in the other. So yes, it is a hard thing to translate one language to the other. It’s not easy to find an equivalent. That’s definitely been my experience.
PJ: Tell us about the word ‘you’.
TK: Yes, it’s interesting. In Armenian, the word ‘you’, when you hear it in preaching, is often used in terms of ‘the abstract one’ or ‘that one’ rather than to refer to the invidual. And so I often find when I’m speaking or teaching the Bible in English, I will just use the word ‘you’, which can sound quite confronting or aggressive in English because it’s like you’re talking to the person right there. Whereas in Armenian, it carries a different weight.
PJ: So when you talk to me and call me ‘you’, you might actually not be talking about me at all.
TK: No, I might be talking about ‘that one’ rather than ‘you’ as in Phillip. Yes. So it has caused me to trip up a few times in terms of conversation with people.
PJ: Yes, and that someone could include you as an individual.
TK: Yes, and it could include me too.
PJ: It’s therefore impossible to go word by word and find an equivalent from one language to another, isn’t it?
TK: Yes, that’s right. And it’s not just with words, it’s with idioms, too. I came across a fun one the other day. So Australian English, if something is really far away, we say it’s in Woop Woop, right? In Armenian, we say it’s the place where the donkey died. That’s the literal translation of the idiom. It’s very fun. And then I was reading the Bible one time with a girl at church, and we were reading through Jeremiah 22:19. I found this verse, Phillip, that just made me so excited. It says, “With the burial of a donkey, he shall be buried, dragged and dumped beyond the gates of Jerusalem.”
PJ: It’s where the donkey died!
TK: Yes, it’s where the donkey died! It’s Woop Woop! I found Woop Woop in Jeremiah 22:19.
PJ: Yes, idioms don’t translate easily, do they?
TK: No, they definitely don’t. So it’s hard to translate from one to one equivalence. Is that why we have so many different translations in English?
PJ: In part, yes, because you can’t just have one authorized translation that will work for all time because the language keeps changing. English is a wonderful language, because it’s such a ‘world language’, meaning it just keeps absorbing information from elsewhere and everywhere.
TK: And it’s even faster now with social media and things like that. It’s just evolving all the time. I find that when I talk to 20-year-olds, they’re using words in ways that I’ve never used before. The language has just shifted completely.
PJ: Yes. So it’s hard for old people and young people to talk.
TK: We use emojis now.
PJ: Yes, we use emojis as a way of solving our problems. But it’s a very fast-changing language, isn’t it? So although you can’t have the one translation that is fixed for all time, when you’re dealing with a group, it’s really helpful if everyone has the same Bible. And one of the essences of a good Bible translation is community acceptance because words have meanings based in relationships. So if we all agree that a certain thing is what we’re meaning, we can talk with each other. But if we all use words completely differently, we wouldn’t be able to use any words. We can’t talk because we actually think in words. And we also think in the grammatical structure and the syntactical structure of sentences. And that’s also different when you move from one language to another. Again, I don’t know about Armenian, but I know the Hebrew structure of thinking is different to the Greek structure of thinking.
TK: And I wonder if you’ve got more than one language and you’ve done any kind of translation or interpretation, you can actually cope with the clunkiness of different translations more easily because you are always having to think in different languages and translate your family to other people. So I think if you’ve got more than one language, it kind of helps you know that language is sometimes clunky.
PJ: Yes, I like the word clunky. It’s a good word for us, isn’t it, because I think the English Standard Version is clunky. And the English Standard Version is what I call translated English. It’s not the language that anybody actually speaks in. It’s a little clunkier than normal English. Whereas the NIV is very smooth as it is the language of modern, educated English speakers. The Good News Bible, which originally was translated for Eskimos who had English as their second language, now that is even more so the language of the common man that anybody can read and understand.
But of course, every time you make it more readable and less clunky, you’re moving away from the original language in terms of syntax or grammar, and away from unusual words. And that’s the price we pay. We do have a lot of English translations.
TK: Why do you think that’s the case?
PJ: Well, the standardization of English happened because of the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It was the time of the printing press. It was the first time when the community had a standard spelling. Prior to that, spelling was inconsistent. But now spelling became consistent, grammar became consistent, and the structure of how the sentences work became consistent. And everybody had this set of books—two books, in particular—the Bible at the Book of Common Prayer, which was the standard authorized version of how to speak. And that continued into the 19th century.
TK: Wow, so it became the reference, and it was Christian.
TK: What an amazing thing!
PJ: It was an amazing thing. But since then, language has been moved, not by Christianity, but by the de-Christianization of our culture.
TK: Yes, and that’s getting faster and faster all the time.
PJ: And some of the key words we had such as ‘faith’, they mean something quite differently today. Christians want to hang on to the old meanings and the old ways of saying things and technical words like propitiation, which no one uses as a word…
TK: Yes, but we want to keep it.
PJ: Yes, because it’s our word and it’s an important word. Other words are ‘atonement’ and ‘repent’. Helen and I do quick crosswords in the paper, and it’s interesting how the clues show a non-Christian view of things, for example for the word ‘repentance’, the clue was ‘feel sorry’. That’s not what we mean by repent, but that’s what the world means by repent. And ‘friendship’ or something like that turns out to be atone, which does not quite capture it. So the movement of language is in words, but it’s also in grammar and syntax. When you read the older translations of the Bible, we have very long, complex sentences with subordinate clauses.
TK: Tell us what you mean by subordinate clauses.
PJ: They’re introduced by relative pronouns. And so I’ve got a sentence: A cat jumped out the window. But then I want to say something about the window and something about the cat. So I want to talk about the cat, which is brown and blue, and jumped out the window, which is on the third floor. So the part where it says ‘which is on the third floor’, is not necessary for the sentence. It’s not the main sentence; it’s a subordinate clause to that sentence. Now, in modern English, you just have short sentences, and you would say, “The cat jumped out the window. And the cat was blue and brown.” That’s a very weird colour for a cat, isn’t it? “The window is on the third floor”
TK: Why is there such a change? Is it just that we moved away from print?
PJ: Well, no, I think that that change has come about by testing people’s comprehension, and people can comprehend sentences that are short and simple more easily than they can comprehend a complex sentence.
TK: And in doing that, though, don’t we just reduce our ability to keep coping with longer and longer sentences?
PJ: Yes. And with more and more complex thinking.
TK: Yes, so it’s not so good for us?
PJ: Well, no, it’s bad for the community because it means the kinds of information that we process has to be very simplistic. But on the other hand, it’s good for us because it’s much quicker and easier to read little, short sentences.
TK: Like texts and things like that. It’s how we communicate.
PJ: Yes, more and more. So we have this problem of: how do you speak in modern English? How much can you translate into modern English without losing the argument of the sentence? The New International Version, for example, which is written in lovely modern English, doesn’t translate the word ‘because’ or for very often, and that’s a real linkage between one sentence and another. If you leave out the word ‘because’, you don’t see the connection between the sentences. And that’s a great weakness, especially in passages like Romans where it is presenting a tight knit argument, because to get rid of the connective words is to get rid of the connections between ideas. But that’s how modern English operates.
TK: What are we doing in its place in modern English?
PJ: Well, we don’t.
TK: We just lose the art of argument?
PJ: Yes. But we still try and persuade in other ways, more and more in modern English by personal truths. This is how I see it. I tell stories, rather than use logical arguments. But that’s another subject for another time.
It’s the same problem, though, isn’t it? If you try to convey the meaning of the text in modern English, you can do it. You don’t have to teach everybody Greek and Hebrew, but you do it at a cost. And the more you accommodate modern English thinking as well as speech, the more you compromise the accuracy of the translation.
TK: Yes, and the example you’ve given is, especially when we read the epistles and we’ve got—like you said with Romans—you’ve got a tight argument there. I wonder… poetry is not written for readability. It’s written for other purposes. There is a clunkiness to poetry, so when you try and make poetry readable in a modern translation, you can lose some of the way the words have worked and the ordering of words and things like that. And so I do wonder if different translations for different genres even work?
PJ: Yes, I agree with you. I think there’s a demarcation dispute between preachers and translators. Translators want to do the preacher’s job for them and make it absolutely simple for the Bible reader to understand exactly what’s in the Bible and I’m for that. But the preacher actually wants to explain to people what is in the Bible and what it means.
And sometimes it’s got to do with emphasis. For example, the little word ‘man’ is a powerful word because it’s so short. This is the poetic point, isn’t it? “What is man that you are mindful of him?” In this sentence, ‘mindful’ is the only polysyllabic word—the only word with two syllables. That makes it a very powerful sentence, unlike the translation: “What are human beings that you think about them?” It just does not carry the same weight.
Or another verse in Psalm 49, “Man in his pomp is like the beasts that perish.” It’s a powerful way of saying it, as compared to “Human beings are like animals in that they die.” It doesn’t work poetically. The English version is kind of clunky in one sense, but it’s meant to be clunky. That’s what carries its power.
TK: And it’s not just in poetry. It’s also in prose where one translation can have a different emphasis to another.
PJ: Yes, it’s not a difference in meaning; it’s a difference in emphasis.
TK: Yes. I was recently teaching 1 John and at our church, we use NIV. But I was keen for us to use the ESV on this occasion because throughout 1 John, there is a word that comes up often that the NIV translates as ‘dear friends’, but in the ESV it is translated as ‘beloved’. And I thought that was a really important emphasis to know because the whole letter is about God’s love and how God has created his people in his love, and has given them new birth in his love and transformed them. So they have been made in his love. And so I thought the word ‘beloved’ was a really precious word that I wanted to talk about.
PJ: Which, once again, is just an emphasis, isn’t it? ‘Dear friends’ is not wrong, but ‘beloved’ just catches something different in a book about love.
The one that amused me for many years is Judges 4 where Deborah is introduced. I’ll give you the ESV which shows what most translations say: “ Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time.”
But actually, the word ‘now’ is not there in original Hebrew, and actually the next word in the Hebrew text is ‘a woman’. So it reads: “Deborah, a woman, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she was judging Israel at that time.” The word ‘she’ is emphatic as well. So you got all these words which indicate she was a woman. That’s the heading of the whole two chapters. The story of Deborah is a story about a woman. She’s a prophetess (she’s feminine). She’s a wife (she’s feminine).
The translators are right to leave out the word ‘she’ and ‘woman’ in the sense that you don’t need that word because it’s obvious she’s a prophetess and a wife. But by putting it in you are indicating the important theme of the passage. You don’t need the word in Hebrew, just like you don’t need it in the English Standard Version. So why did the man who originally wrote it in Hebrew put it in? Well, it’s because he’s emphasizing something here.
TK: There’s no word wasted.
PJ: No word wasted at all. The word is there for a very important reason. To translate just for meaning without taking recognition of the wording changes the emphasis unintentionally. Translations have always struggled with the changing of English.
What you said about the word ‘you’ in Armenian is very funny because in English, the word ‘you’ used to be plural. ‘You’ and ‘ye’ were the two plurals. Whereas, ‘thou’, ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ were the singulars. And so in English, we used to differentiate between singular and plural second person pronouns, but over time, ‘thee’, ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ have all disappeared. And so we just use ‘you’ for all second person pronouns.
But sometimes we want to know if the ‘you’ is singular or plural.
TK: So they use ‘yous’.
PJ: Yes, if you’re a bogan, you go for ‘yous’. If you’re someone in the southern states of America, you go for “y’all”. Which shows the need to have that indication.
For example in John 3 when Jesus says “You must be born again.” Is it singular? Is it plural? And it’s actually singular. He’s saying to Nicodemus, you need to be born again. Now, it’s true that y’all need to be born again, but the text is really addressing the one person.
And so English as a language changes for better or worse. There’s no point in demanding that it doesn’t change. And in trying to convey meanings, we have this problem. The ESV is clunky, and some people find it difficult to read because it retains some long sentences with subordinate clauses, so its comprehension level is not as good as the NIV or the Good News Bible. But comprehension level is important.
TK: You can grow in learning the translation. I love the ESV; it’s what I use, but I also have the NIV which we use a lot at church. You can hear someone who is reading the ESV for the first time; there’s a bit of a struggle sometimes, but you learn it, and the clunkiness in some ways can slow your reading down, and that has a merit.
PJ: Yes, that does have merit. That certainly is the case for me in reading Greek or Hebrew; it really slows me down because I’m your average college graduate in theology who knows his Greek and Hebrew poorly. So I struggled. But slowing down is very helpful because it forces me to think much more carefully, and continually doing it improves your knowledge. So likewise, continually using a hard translation improves your English and your capacity for reading and understanding.
But all this affects then, which translation do you use, because every church has to make its choice. And as an itinerant, I’m constantly now having to change translations. Some churches use the Holman, but it’s not called the Holman anymore. Others use the RSV or the new RSV, and the NIV is the most common in our part of the world. Still others use the ESV. So I often have to ask “Which translation do you want me to preach from?” ESV is the easiest to preach from, whereas NIV is the easiest for people to read and understand. So is there a right? Is there a wrong? No, there’s just different horses for different courses. For a new Christian, I wouldn’t start them on the ESV. For a new Christian who is not confident with their English, I’d still look for the Good News Bible. But for the average educated Australian, I’d be giving them the NIV to start with. So there’s no right answer as to which one to read. But it’s important to understand what each one is doing, what it will achieve, what its aims are and what its purposes are.
TK: And how that works with what you’re trying to do with the people you’re teaching or the Bible study and the church that you’re part of.
PJ: Yes, that’s right. That’s the important question in serving people with our translations.