Author: Ron Graham

Bible Authority

Words and Thoughts in Translation
—The translator’s great challenge

There is a concern in translation of the Bible that the message inspired by the Holy Spirit in the original writings be accurately conveyed in another language. The problems surround two simple components of any message, namely the words used the thoughts intended.

There is sometimes a debate about what a Bible translator ought to convey primarily —is it the words of the original or rather the thoughts intended by those words? This may seem like a strange distinction, but an example will illustrate the matter...

1 Words Above Thoughts?

Let us look at Colossians 4:5 as an example of what we are discussing. It will help if I just write out the Greek text using English letters instead of the Greek alphabet: en sophia peripateite pros tous exoo ton kairon exagorazomenoi.

These are the words Paul used. Obviously he intended them to mean something. Now let us attempt to translate these words into English so as to convey Paul’s meaning to a person who does not understand the Greek.

We could make a "literal" rendering of the verse by matching an English word to each Greek word as near as possible: en-in, sophia-wisdom, peripateite-walk, pros-toward, tous-those, exoo-outside, ton-the, kairon-time, exagorazomenoi-redeeming. So our translation would come out as: "In wisdom walk toward those outside, the time redeeming".

We might rearrange the words a little to give, "Walk in wisdom toward those outside, redeeming the time". This achieves correspondence in words.

2 Words Above Meaning?

Some would argue that if you turn a string of Greek words into a string of equivalent English words, like we have done above, all the important attributes of the Greek words will pass across to the English words —they will carry virtually the same inspiration, authority, and meaning as the original Greek words.

Others argue that the important attributes of the original words do not always carry across in such a "literal" translation. They say that the right approach is to convey the intended meaning of the original words as accurately as possible, rather than the words themselves, so that the English reader will understand exactly what the Greek reader would have understood.

Equivalent thought, rather than equivalent wording, is the aim. This thought-correspondence is sometimes called "dynamic equivalence".

3 Words Above Clarity?

To help us assess the relative merits of word-for-word versus conveying the thought, let's return to our example above which translates Colossians 4:5.

If we think about what Paul means, we will realise that he is not using all these words in their literal sense. He is using words metaphorically. He is not, for example, discussing how we should "walk" in the literal sense. He is not thinking of the way we use our legs and feet to move from one place to another. He is talking about how we should behave and conduct ourselves in our journey through life.

However Paul’s meaning might not be clear to every English reader. We who have been reading English Bibles all our lives understand it because we have been taught to, however in everyday Australian English, the word "walk" is seldom used metaphorically in the sense that Paul used it.

The word-for-word translator will say too bad, the English readers will have to use their brains and work it out —which of course they could probably do. The thought-for-thought translator would prefer to make the meaning clear, believing that to be the translator's job.

So the first translator renders the Greek as, "walk wisely..." whilst the second translator renders it, "live wisely" or "behave wisely".

You probably can see that both approaches have their advantages and also have their dangers. The literal approach might sometimes leave the English reader confused, whilst the other approach might sometimes convey the translator’s own misunderstanding rather than the intended meaning of the original.

Some More Examples

As another example, take the phrase "our old man" (Romans 6:6). To a modern Australian, "our old man" means "our father". But that is not what Paul meant.

It seems sensible to substitute "the person we once were" to convey Paul’s meaning clearly, even though not one word of that rendering matches one word of the Greek.

If somebody asks, "What does Paul mean when he refers to our old man?" it does not seem sensible to reply, "He means exactly what he says!"

As another little example, take the expression, "...if any bowels and mercies..." (Philippians 2:1). The Greek reads, "ei tina aplagchna kai oiktirmoi" which word-for-word translates as "if any bowels and mercies".

This literal equivalence does not convey what Paul meant, because in modern Australian English we do not use the word "bowels" in any sense as Paul used it. Thus it does not make sense to us. A translator might, therefore, use the English word "affection" instead of the word "bowels". That is giving the sense that Paul intended, but not the word that Paul used.

Which Translation?

All translations use this "dynamic equivalence" to some extent. Some people think that the King James Version (in Australia sometimes called the Authorised Version) is a "literal" translation. Whilst it generally leans that way, many examples could be found where the King James tradition departs from a literal rendering.

The New International Version is one of several translations that depart from literal verbal equivalence more than the King James version. Nevertheless it uses dynamic equivalence in a restrained and responsible manner and for the most part it gives a fairly literal rendering.

The result is a very understandable and readable version. It's the sort of approach that changes "our old man" into "our old self" one of many examples. We may disagree, in some cases, with the choice of words. For example putting "sinful nature" instead of "flesh" fails (in my view) to accurately convey Paul’s meaning (Romans 8:4 etc).

There are disadvantages in both approaches. A sensible person will own and use at least one translation of each kind, read both and compare them, being aware of the disadvantages of each, whilst enjoying the advantages of both. The work that has gone into English translations of the Bible is quite amazing, and we ought to be thankful for it.