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August-September 2018


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Lost in Translations?

By Zach Vickery


Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtaine, that we may looke into the most Holy place; that remooveth the cover of the well, that wee may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which meanes the flockes of Laban were watered. Indeede without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacobs well (which was deepe) without a bucket or some thing to draw with. [1]

This quotation comes from the introduction to the original 1611 version of the King James Bible. It expresses the need for Bible translations people can understand. Just like the editors of the KJV, many other translators have seen the need to continue producing English Bible translations in language that makes sense to modern-day people. Today, with so many Bible translations available we are left asking: What Bible translation should we use? Which translation is the best?

The Bible, or at least the Old Testament, has been often translated since the second century BC when 70 scribes took on the task of translating the Pentateuch. This Greek translation, along with Greek translations of other books of the Old Testament, came to be known as the Septuagint, the very first “version” of the Bible. [2] These scribes used a variety of translation techniques, just as translators use different approaches to Bible translations today, each aiming to represent the original language. Some translators attempt to match the original text formally, meaning they attempt to reflect the same word order, grammatical forms, and word-for-word equivalents in their vocabulary. Other translators are more interested in creating a translation that best captures the meaning of the text.

Some people prefer translations that follow the original text in word-for-word fashion, or at least in the most literal way possible. Others prefer a translation that reads more like a modern English letter or book. Sadly, the issue of translation methods has divided many churches and stirred up much controversy. Some argue adamantly there is a single authorized version everyone should use. Unfortunately, settling on a single translation is not that simple.


Terminology Problems

The most common way a translation is judged is based on its literality, but many issues arise from using the terms literal and free to describe a translation. If one uses these terms, he must specify the aspect of the translation to which he or she refers. In what way is translation literal or free?

Most of the time, when one discusses the literality of a translation, he is referring to how closely it follows the original languages in terms of quantitative equivalence. In other words, the term literal describes a translation that follows the source text word for word. For every Hebrew or Greek word, the translators use one English word, following the same word order most of the time. [3]

Conversely, the term free describes a translation that translates in a thought-for-thought manner, or perhaps phrase by phrase. This approach gives translators more flexibility to make sense of the source text in the target language. It allows them to use common terminology, syntax, and grammar to convey the meaning of the original text.

The problem with describing a translation as literal or free is that the terminology is ambiguous. Translations can be, and often are, both literal and free in different respects. For example, a so-called literal translation may literally reproduce the word order of the original text, but in doing so, it is not as precise in conveying the meaning as a free translation. Thus, a translation can be literal in terms of word order but free with respect to meaning. At the same time, a free translation, while accurately conveying the general meaning of the text, may miss various points of emphasis in the original passage. [4] Furthermore, a translation can be free regarding the word order but still convey the literal meaning of the text.

Because of these issues, one should not judge the quality of a translation solely on its literality. The process of translation is complicated, and these ambiguous terms literal and free are not helpful when assessing the accuracy of a translation. [5]


Translation Challenge

The abundance of English translations evidences the fact that producing a quality translation is challenging, primarily because of semantics. Semantics deals with the study of meaning in languages, and this complicates finding a simple English equivalent for a Hebrew or Greek word. A single word in an original language may take on a variety of meanings in different contexts, and a single English word may be the correct translation of the original in one context but wrong in another.

Mark Strauss illustrates this problem of semantics using the word key. In the English language, key can refer to a number of things: an unlocking device, a solution to a puzzle, a main point, a musical note, the buttons on the keyboard, a location on a basketball court, and perhaps others. If someone were translating the word key into another language, he probably could not find a single word to convey its entire semantic range. [6] The same challenge presents itself when translating the Hebrew and Greek Bible into English.



So, which translation should we use, and which approach is best? The main thing we need to remember is that translations are simply that—translations produced by imperfect humans. From the most formal equivalent to the most dynamic equivalent, flaws are apparent in each method.

The important thing is to know what type of translation you are using and to understand its purpose. Formally equivalent translations leave less room for subjective interpretation but often result in hard-to-understand English. Dynamically equivalent translations may be easier to read, but one must remember that translators took some liberties by deviating from the original syntax and word order to produce a smoother translation.

It might seem daunting to learn how each translation committee approached the text in the original languages, but this is a fairly simple exercise. Many Bibles include an introduction in which the committee explains their translation philosophy and provides information about the exact Hebrew and Greek versions from which they translated. A great example is the introduction to the 1611 KJV quoted at the beginning of this article. The introduction provides a lengthy explanation of the translators’ reasons for producing another English translation. It gives a brief history of Bible translations up to that point and stresses the need for another translation people could understand properly.

If your Bible does not have an introduction, readers may find translation information online. For instance, the webpage for the ESV translation starts by saying, “The ESV is an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer.” The reader immediately knows the translators’ intention was to produce an English translation that accurately captures the essence of the original languages, attempting to produce a word-for-word translation while also paying close attention to using understandable English. On the other hand, the NIV website makes clear the intention was to produce a translation focused more on the meaning of the original rather than the precise words. The approach is said to “balance transparency to the original with clarity of meaning.”

Even with their flaws, translations are a gift for which we should be thankful. Not everyone has the easy access to Scriptures in their own language as English speakers. Rather than allowing translation options to overwhelm us, we can take advantage of the unique benefits each translation method offers.

About the Writer: Zach Vickery and his wife Emily live in Cambridge, United Kingdom, where he is studying the Greek Old Testament at the University of Cambridge. Zach holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee. When he isn’t studying, Zach enjoys spending time outdoors and reading.


1 Find the original introduction to the King James Bible online:

2 The word Septuagint originally referred to the first translation of the Pentateuch. Today, scholars refer generally to the Greek Old Testament as the Septuagint, even though the term is not precise.

3 As much as some would like to produce an English translation that matches the original word order exactly, it would be nearly impossible to understand in English if the translators did not give themselves at least some flexibility.

4 For example: biblical authors would sometimes place a noun or verb at the beginning of the sentence to emphasize the subject or the action.

5 Because of the ambiguity in the terms literal and free, many have resorted to using the terms formal equivalence to refer to translations that closely bind themselves to the original text, and dynamic equivalence to describe translations that are more like a paraphrase.

6 Mark Strauss, “Bible Translation Philosophies.” NIV:

8 “Preface to the English Standard Version.” ESV:

9 Translation Philosophy.” NIV:

©2018 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists