Lost in TranslationS

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By Raymond Harris

English Bible Translations
Over the last several years, I have learned so much about English Bible Translations (EBT) that at one time I began to question the Bible itself. But don’t interpret that to mean that I have thrown out the Bible; No! Without the Bible where would we turn to learn what we believe to be ultimate truth?

But after all my research, I have to say that EBTs are no longer my primary source of Biblical understanding. The translation does not matter to me: KJVW, ASV, NIVW or something more modern like The Message BibleW. I now prefer and want my studies to come through the Original Languages. Oh, how I wish that from a youth I had been trained to read Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek!

Throughout my lifetime, I have witnessed, read, and participated in debates battling EBT supremacy. No More! The reason? Each EBT is interpretation. Thus, for establishing and encouraging faith in God and Christ, no one EBT is superior to another.

The ultimate truth about the EBT argument is that is boils down to personal preference, where each person has vested interest in their preferred “translation” – irrespective of that translation. Choose an EBT. Read it. Study it. Buy a different EBT. Read it. Study it. Then, begin comparing the two. Then, compare the two against a third.

You will find that while they are similar, as interpretations should be, there are differences; these differences are created by nuances in the Original Languages and in the translator. This is because each EBT interpretation depends on the “preference” of the interpreter(s), this is why there are many nuances represented in English. This is also why some people are bound to the KJVW; while some to the ASV; others to the NIVW; and still others to some other translation. When it comes do to an EBT, most have, either knowingly or unknowingly, simply come to prefer one EBT interpretation over another.

Does this scare you? Anger you? Or bother you in some way? If not, it probably should.

English Bible Translations: Our Quandary
As people who read/write/speak only English, we have properly requested, but sometimes improperly demanded, the Bible be translated into our tongue. The demand is improper when an English only reader (whether minister or Christian) claims that it is possible to have equal or superior interpretation of the original meaning and original intent of the Bible’s Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages through any English translation. Is this not arrogant presumption?

Consider the Biblical abilities of John AdamsW. He was a Founding Father of the United States and her Second President. Even though he was important in establishing the United States and served as our President, knowledge of him and his lingual skills have probably fallen into obscurity for many Americans; but let me make one thing perfectly clear, John AdamsW was no “average Joe”.

It is claimed that John AdamsW knew nine languages, but for our purpose we need to recognize that John AdamsW could read both Hebrew and Greek. It is also known that he successfully translated portions of the Hebrew OT and portions of the Greek NT.2 He unequivocally had the ability to do something that most can’t, and that is read the Hebrew and Greek Bible.

To make the point more poetically, consider this quote from Haim Nachman Bialik: “Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your new bride through a veil.”3 Really, what groom wants to kiss his bride through a veil? I have yet to meet a groom who wants that – at some point every groom removes his bride’s veil.

The point of this article is to reveal that as English only readers, we have placed part of our faith in our favorite EBT, because we have given part of our faith to the Translators of the English Bible to reveal to us the meaning of the Bible’s Original Languages. We do this for two reasons.

One, from not having been trained, we do not know the Original Languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), this can be overlooked, but corrected.

Two, which is worse, in many instances, we are too lazy or too prideful to learn the languages – best expressed in the notion: “I don’t need to know Greek to go to heaven” – Oh yeah, I’ve heard that one, and it was from a minister.

We may not need to know Greek to go to heaven, but we simply cannot begin to grasp the deeper aspects of the Scriptures when we read it through an English Translation — when we make Christ, our Groom, kiss us through an English Translation veil.

I can hear the rebuttals now. “Then, Ray, what am I to read?” “Then, who am I to trust?” “Then, I am not going to read the Bible anymore.” Two of these are good thoughts, the third is not.

What am I to read?
Implicitly, we have been taught to place some of our faith in Bible Translators, because they are faithful men and/or women who want to reveal the truth. In essence, this is no different than the situation hundreds of years ago, when the church taught our brethren to trust their interpretation. Our brethren became fed up with the behavior and against the odds, learned Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and began interpreting and then publishing Early-English and Middle-English Bibles – in order to learn more about God and God’s revealed truth.

On one level, learning from a translator is acceptable, because we do believe them to be people who are faithful to God; but they are no different than you and me, they are simply doing their best to interpret the Bible. So, no matter how faithful and intelligent they are, there are two things we need to keep in mind: one, their interpretation is done through their particular interpretation of the Bible (their church affiliation); and two, their interpretation cannot be any more spiritually superior to mine or yours, when we learn to read the Original Languages.

Then, who am I to trust?
Perhaps, we were taught that God himself inspired the English Bible Translators; but this does not seem possible. In 2 Timothy 3.16, we find Paul telling Timothy, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” and while that is certainly true, Paul simple cannot, in any way, be referring to any Bible translation that comes after his life, to include all English translations and the Latin Vulgate.

From that, it seems needful that we understand that God certainly inspired the Original Scriptures, but it seems quite improper to think God inspired translations, 2 Timothy 3.16 seems properly applied to only the original utterances not translations. Yet, this EBT argument seems to be why some claim that KJV-1611 translation is inspired; the reasoning being that if the KJV-1611 is inspired, then the KJV-1611 has the “spiritual right” to correct other translations “when” they are incorrectly translated. Each EBT is simply honest human effort to faithfully reflect the contents of the original languages, nothing more.

The KJV-1611 inspiration assertion is, at best, odd, because the KJV-1611 Bible has one major issue. The issue: in 1604, King James specifically commissioned a new English Translation in order to address factional issues within the Church of England, which had been promoted, in part, by the Puritans’ problems with the Church of England translators’ interpretations within the Great BibleW and the Bishops’ BibleW (both were sanctioned for use in the Church of England prior to the KJVW).

This means that when King James’ commissioned Bible became the new English Translation in 1611, the King James BibleW became the only “Authorized Bible” for the Anglican Church. This “Authorized Bible” thus made all other EBTs (whether the Great BibleW, the Bishops’ BibleW, or the Geneva BibleW) “unauthorized” (as in unacceptable) within the Anglican Church.

So the Authorized KJVW was not so much an “authorized” inspiration, as it was an “authorized” commission that was suppose to stabilize the Anglican Church by resolving interpretive issues from previous EBTs like: the Tyndale BibleW, the Great BibleW, the Geneva BibleW, and the Bishops’ BibleW (all major EBT efforts during the 1500s). But the KJVW was intentionally and specifically designed to reflect the theology of the Church of England. Therefore, it seems proper to conclude that Protestants and modern non-denominationalists who depend on the KJVW have no choice but to be, knowingly or unknowingly, influenced by Church of England theology and scripture interpretation, irrespective of translation alterations since 1611.

During the late 1500s through the mid- to late 1700s, it was the Geneva BibleW that helped continue the spiritual Protestant reformation in Europe and in America, not the KJVW. This is because the Geneva BibleW predated the KJVW by nearly 50 years, roughly five decades before England’s King James (the head of the Church of England) commissioned and issued his new EBT. Yet, I have no doubt that the readers of the Geneva BibleW will be, knowingly or unknowingly, influenced by CalvinismW, the theology of John CalvinW.

Anymore, it simply baffles me that non-denominationalists, since the mid-1800s, claim the KJVW as their “authorized” Bible. In part, I feel this is why the American Standard VersionW came into being about 50 years after non-denominationalists seem to have unwaveringly accepted the Anglican Church Theology of the KJVW. But reality is the Puritans and many of the Colonial settlers read the Geneva BibleW, and/or, like some Founding Fathers (as seen earlier with John AdamsW), were capable of reading the Hebrew and Greek Bible Languages.

What I am insinuating is that throughout history, Bible Interpretation has led to the need of Bible Translations. The great European church battles of the 14, 15 and 1600s, and the American church debates and divisions of the 17, 18 and 1900s are due, in no small part, to Bible Interpretation and Translation. Each EBT has corrected or has been edited for preferred interpretation. Even to this day in modern America, the battle over “correct Bible interpretation” continues, this is why we have so many EBTs. It seems we should be thankful to God that we are no longer taking the English Bible Battle to literal sword-point in personal life; but the battle over Bible interpretation, intellectually rages on in churches, pulpits, seminaries, Bible book stores, and websites.

The question is: In whom will we trust?

I assert that we should first trust God, Almighty; but then we should (but I would rather assert must) learn to study for ourselves in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and stop relying on other people to do our work for us, who through their interpretative translation pass to us their theology. Do we really want someone else’s theology or do we want our own? If we want our own, it is incumbent upon us that we do our own research in the languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

Then, I am not going to read the Bible anymore.
This thought is simply a “knee-jerk reaction” and is not a valid response. Because this reaction is basically claiming, “If I can’t have it my way, then I’m taking my ball and going home.” This behavior is, at best, immature. Each English Bible has value, but no English Bible is the final “authority” for understanding the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

This means that The Message BibleW and The Living BibleW are just as beneficial as the New American Standard BibleW and the King James BibleW but for completely different reasons.

Each EBT is beneficial for building up and helping establish faith in God and Christ, but not all English Bibles are as equally helpful in understanding the complexities of the original words and statements found in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Read the English Translation you prefer, but recognize and accept that it, along with every other English Translation, is limited. There is a reason why the phrase “lost in translation” was coined.

English Bible Translations: Our Faith
Our Faith should belong and remain in God through Christ, period.

Our faith should not be, and should never have been in either the English Bible Translators (no matter how “qualified” they are), or in the “accuracy” of any EBT. Translators are people, plain and simple, and we must remember this – which means that your interpretation and my interpretation of the Original Languages can be just as valid as theirs. Each EBT is a unique work aiming for a specific English reading audience – which means interpretation and translation are aiming to match the particular needs of that Translation’s English audience (as evidenced with the KJVW Bible).

Neither the Original Languages, nor an EBT, have the power to save. While it is true that the Bible teaches us that the Scriptures have all things for life and godliness (2 Peter 1.3); we must remember that our salvation is found in God through faith in Christ. God certainly is the One whom gave by inspiration the Original Scriptures (2 Timothy 3.16), yet it is by His grace that He permits uninspired interpretations, known as translations – we must remember this.

If you choose to remain an EBT reader, take heart; God sees your faith and your desire to love him. You don’t have to be an Original Languages Bible reader to go to heaven.

If you choose to remain an EBT reader, keep in mind that the translators are doing their utmost to help you, but you simply will not begin to see the greater nuances of the Original Languages, nor truly see the lingual arguments that lie behind any EBT.

If you choose to remain an EBT reader, I beg you not to argue EBT supremacy, the argument is empty and invalid. Each EBT has a role to play in developing a person’s faith, even if I, you, and/or someone else feels that the translation is better equated with that of a Children’s English Bible.

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1. Lost in TranslationS was not my original working title, but after I had someone review the article, they suggested “Lost in Translations” as a word play on the phrase “lost in translation” that was mentioned in the article. But, I added my own little flair to the title by capitalizing the final “S”. I have done so, in order to reveal that not only Original Language nuances are lost in translation, but that the multitude of English Bible TranslationS creates an even larger issue – creating an atmosphere of contentious debate about Bible interpretation and translation.

2. John Adams, could speak nine languages, could read and translate Hebrew and Greek, Wikipedia.org, July 2, 2011.

3. Kissing Bride through a Veil by Haim Nachman Bialik Ancient Hebrew Resource Center, July 2, 2011.