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Fifteen More Myths about Bible Translation

1. Perhaps the number one myth about Bible translation is that a word-for-word translation is the best kind. Anyone who is conversant in more than one language recognizes that a word-for-word translation is simply not possible if one is going to communicate in an understandable way in the receptor language. Yet, ironically, even some biblical scholars who should know better continue to tout word-for-word translations as though they were the best. Perhaps the most word-for-word translation of the Bible in English is Wycliffe’s, done in the 1380s. Although translated from the Latin Vulgate, it was a slavishly literal translation to that text. And precisely because of this, it was hardly English.

2. Similar to the first point is that a literal translation is the best version. In fact, this is sometimes just a spin on the first notion. For example, the Greek New Testament has about 138,000–140,000 words, depending on which edition one is using. But no English translation has this few. Here are some examples:

RSV           173,293

NIV           175,037

ESV           175,599

NIV 2011   176,122

TNIV        176,267

NRSV       176,417

REB          176,705

NKJV      177,980

NET         178,929

RV           179,873

ASV        180,056

KJV        180,565

NASB 95   182,446

NASB      184,062

NLT, 2nd ed  186,596

TEV         192,784

It’s no surprise that the TEV and NLT have the most words, since these are both paraphrases. But the translations perceived to be more literal are often near the bottom of this list (that is, farther away from the Greek NT word-count). These include the KJV (#12), ASV (#11), NASB (#14), NASB 95 (#13), and RV (#10). Indeed, when the RV came out (1881), one of its stated goals was to be quite literal and the translators were consciously trying to be much more literal than the KJV.

Some translations of the New Testament into other languages:

Modern Hebrew NT             111,154

Vulgate                                    125,720

Italian La Sacra Bibbia      163,870

Luther                                     169,536

French Novelle Version2   184,449

La Sainte Bible (Geneve)    185,859

3. The King James Version is a literal translation. The preface to the KJV actually claims otherwise. For example, they explicitly said that they did not translate the same word in the original the same way in the English but did attempt to capture the sense of the original each time: “An other thing we thinke good to admonish thee of (gentle Reader) that wee have not tyed our selves to an uniformitie of phrasing, or to an identitie of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men some where, have beene as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not varie from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places (for there bee some wordes that bee not of the same sense every where) we were especially carefull, and made a conscience, according to our duetie.”

4. The King James Version is perfect. This myth continues to be promoted today, yet even the translators of the KJV were not sure on hundreds of occasions which rendering was best, allowing the reader to decide for himself. Again, the preface notes: “Therfore as S. Augustine saith, that varietie of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversitie of signification and sense in the margine, where the text is not so cleare, must needes doe good, yea is necessary, as we are perswaded… They that are wise, had rather have their judgements at libertie in differences of readings, then to be captivated to one, when it may be the other.” The original KJV had approximately 8000 marginal notes, though these have been stripped out in modern printings of the Authorized Version. Further, some of the typos and blatant errors of the 1611 KJV have continued to remain in the text after multiple corrections and spelling updates (weighing in at more than 100,000 changes) through the 1769 edition. For example, in Matthew 23.24 the KJV says, “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.” The Greek means “strain out a gnat.” Or the wording of Hebrews 4.8, which says, “For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.” Instead of ‘Jesus,’ Joshua is meant. It’s the same word in Greek, but the reader of the text will hardly think of Joshua when he or she sees ‘Jesus’ here since ‘Joshua’ is found everywhere in the OT.

5. The King James Version was hard to understand when it was first published. Again, the preface: “But we desire that the Scripture may speake like it selfe, as in the language of Canaan, that it may bee understood even of the very vulgar.” The reality is that the KJV was intended to be easily understood, yet today this 400-year-old version is difficult to comprehend in all too many passages.

6. There has never been an authorized revision of the KJV. There were three overhauls of the KJV up through 1769, involving more than 100,000 changes (the vast majority of which merely spelling updates). The KJV that is used today is almost always the 1769 revision. And the Revised Version of 1885 was an authorized revision of the KJV. It used a different Greek text than the KJV New Testament had done.

7. The Apocrypha are books found only in Roman Catholic Bibles. Although the Apocrypha—or what Catholics call the Deutero-canonical books—are an intrinsic part of Roman Catholic translations of scripture, a number of Protestant Bibles also include them. Even the King James Bible, a distinctly Protestant version, included the Apocrypha in every printing until the middle of the nineteenth century. To be sure, the apocryphal books were placed at the end of the Old Testament, to set them apart (unlike in Roman Catholic Bibles), but they were nevertheless included.

8. Homosexuals influenced the translation of the NIV. It is true that a woman who later admitted to being a lesbian was a style-editor of the NIV originally, but according to Dr. Ken Barker, one-time editor of the NIV, she had zero say on the content of the NIV.

9. No translation can claim to be the word of God except the King James Bible. It may seem as though we are beating a dead horse, but the KJV-Only crowd is persistent and continues to exercise an inordinate role in some circles. In the preface to the KJV, the translators noted that the king’s speech is still the king’s speech even when translated into other languages. Further, even poor translations of the Bible deserved to be called the word of God according to the preface to the KJV. And yet, in all particulars, only the original Greek and Hebrew text can be regarded as the word of God. Something is always lost in translation. Always.

10. Modern translations have removed words and verses from the Bible. Most biblical scholars—both conservative and liberal—would say instead that the KJV added words and verses, rather than that the modern ones have removed such. And this is in part because the oldest and most reliable manuscripts lack the extra verses that are found in the KJV.

11. Essential doctrines are in jeopardy in modern translations. Actually, no doctrine essential for salvation is affected by translations, modern or ancient—unless done by a particular cult for its own purposes. For example, those Englishmen who signed the Westminster Confession of Faith in the seventeenth century were using the KJV, yet it is still a normative doctrinal statement that millions of Protestants sign today even though they use modern translations.

12. “Young woman” in the RSV’s translation of Isaiah 7.14 was due to liberal bias. Actually, ‘young woman’ is the most accurate translation of the Hebrew word ‘almah. Although this created quite a stir in 1952 when the RSV was published, even the NET Bible, done by evangelicals, has ‘young woman’ here. The TEV, REB, and NJB also have ‘young woman’ here. And it is a marginal reading found in the NIV 2011, TNIV, and NLT. The NRSV has a marginal note that indicates that the Greek translation of Isaiah 7.14 has ‘virgin’ here.

13. Gender-inclusive translations are driven by a social agenda. In some instances, this may be the case. But not in all. The NIV 2011, for example, strives to be an accurate translation that is understandable by today’s English speaker. And the translators note that the English language is changing. In reality, the older gender-exclusive translations may miscommunicate the meaning of the Bible in today’s world if readers understand the words ‘men,’ ‘brothers,’ and the like in numerous passages to be restricted to the male gender. Translations must keep up with the evolution of the receptor language. For example, the RSV (1952) reads in Psalm 50.9, “I will accept no bull from your house.” In today’s English, that means something quite different from what the translators intended! The NRSV accordingly and appropriately renders the verse, “I will not accept a bull from your house.”

One of the great challenges in English translations of the Bible today is to avoid language that can become fodder for bathroom humor. Or, as one of the translators of the ESV once mentioned, a major challenge is to remove the ‘snicker factor.’

14. Red-letter editions of the Bible highlight the exact words of Jesus. Scholars are not sure of the exact words of Jesus. Ancient historians were concerned to get the gist of what someone said, but not necessarily the exact wording. A comparison of parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels reveals that the evangelists didn’t always record Jesus’ words exactly the same way. The terms ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox are used to distinguish the kinds of dominical sayings we have in the Gospels. The former means ‘the very words,’ and the latter means ‘the very voice.’ That is, the exact words or the essential thought. There have been attempts to harmonize these accounts, but they are highly motivated by a theological agenda which clouds one’s judgment and skews the facts. In truth, though red-letter editions of the Bible may give comfort to believers that they have the very words of Jesus in every instance, this is a false comfort.

15. Chapter and verse numbers are inspired. These were added centuries later. Chapter numbers were added by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the early 13th century. Verse numbers were not added until 1551. Robert Estienne (a.k.a. Stephanus), a Parisian printer, added verse numbers to the fourth edition of his Greek New Testament. The pocket-sized two-volume work (which can be viewed at www.csntm.org) has three parallel columns, one in Greek and two in Latin (one Erasmus’s Latin text, the other Jerome’s). To facilitate ease of comparison, Stephanus added the verse numbers. Although most of the breaks seem natural enough, quite a few are bizarre. Neither chapter numbers nor verse numbers are inspired.

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20 Responses to “Fifteen More Myths about Bible Translation”

  1. I am in general agreement with most of this. In the disagreement over formal and dynamic translations I have not seen a discussion on favouring a literal translation at the smallest reasonable level. That is use a word (or concept) for a word (or concept) when accurate, moving to larger groupings of words when accuracy requires it.

    This takes into account the dynamist’s complaint that idioms cannot be translated literally, and the formalist’s complaint that paraphrase unnecessarily over interprets.

    Dynamists rightly complain that word order does not carry thru to English, and verb tenses don’t fully correlate, and more than one word may be needed to translate a single Greek or Hebrew word; but then use that as justification for more sweeping changes. It would seem preferable to either institute changes at this level, or argue for more widespread dynamism based on improving readability or targeting specific groups.

  2. I don’t know that I agree that all these are myths.

    1) What is the best kind is a matter of opinion. For example, in the OT its common to translate “Son of Man” as “Human being”. While I would agree that this is mostly the idea that is being conveyed, something is definitely lost in that translation. The question is, do you want a version than someone ignorant can pick up and get the most out of it? Or do you want a version that takes some study to understand, but when you do you get more out of it than the pre-interpreted version?

    3) In my opinion, the KJV is a very literal translation. Often more literal than any other version. (though not always).

    4) I suspect that “strain at gnat” might have been an original typo that never got corrected.

    5) The KJV was probably intended to be originally easy to understand, but I’m not sure that it really was.

    10) Of course, there are a few places that the modern text is a longer text.

  3. @#2, John, you say you’re not sure that the KJV was really originally easy to understand. Do you have a particular reason for thinking this? As far as I understand, the style of the language is similar to that of other contemporary writers, such as Shakespeare, so it seems reasonable that the typical people of the time would be able to understand it.

  4. I’ve always wondered if those notes like “of David” or “when David did such and such” at the beginning of some psalms are considered inspired/canonical? Or are they more like verse numbers and footnotes?

  5. Excellent post, you have my complete agreement for whatever that is worth. For further study with the same final conclusion, see my study at:
    http://www.deadsoulsyndrome.com/best_translation.htm
    I attempt to answer which ytranslation is the absolute best by understanding history.

  6. Great post to share, especially here in the Bible Belt. I would like to hear more about the choices made about Is. 7:14. I use a NET quite often and carry one to church and the literalness of “young woman” is not easy to defend to naysayers, but the actual decision to go with literal instead of “probable” is much more difficult without being accused of questioning the Virgin Birth. I believe I understand the decision but its hard to articulate. Its also hard to find material on this decision.

  7. Remember that when Isaiah wrote that prophecy he was speaking to king Ahaz. The prophecy must have personal and direct meaning to Ahaz. God does not speak over people’s head in secret code language that would not be understood for 100’s of years. In the 7th century BC a child was born that would be a sign to Ahaz for comfort that Samaria and Damascus are not a threat. The original Emanunal child was not a virgin birth, so “young woman” is correct within the short term context. Several hundred years later the LXX translates this as ‘parthanos’, a Greek word clearly meaning virgin. Matthew picks up on Jesus birth by referenceing the LXX. If anybody is interested , I have a study on that too:
    http://www.deadsoulsyndrome.com/isaiah_7.htm

  8. The NLT is a paraphrase? That will come as a shock to the 128+ translators who worked on the project. I think you’re thinking of “The Living Bible” by Ken Taylor which was the historical foundation for the NLT project by the same publisher, Tyndale House.

  9. #8 True fact: Heterosexuals influenced the translations of the NIV. They also influenced every other translation.

  10. The word counts of various versions are very interesting, but the fact that in the NT, the TR (140722 words) is 2-3000 words longer than Westcott-Hort (137681) or NA27 (138020) means that the order of versions listed above are probably not very helpful estimates of which are the most literal versions.

  11. Baptists: Please throw your Greek lexicons in the trash!

    Why do Baptist always want to go to the Greek to understand the Bible? It is as if Baptists do not trust their English Bibles: “Sorry, hold on a minute, I need to check the original Greek before we can believe that God really loves the whole world as your English Bible seems to say in John 3:16…we can only know for sure if we understand and read ancient Greek.”

    When God promised to preserve his Word…did he really mean that he would only preserve it on 2,000 year old parchment and papyrus in ancient forms of Greek and Aramaic?? Did God really intend that the only people who could REALLY know what he had to say to mankind…would be ancient Greek-educated Baptist Churchmen?? Is the non-ancient-Greek- speaking layperson sitting in the pew supposed to just shut his English language Bible and sit at the feet of these Baptist Greek scholars to learn what God couldn’t explain himself in plain, simple ENGLISH??

    Do you REALLY believe that God intended for only Baptist, Greek-speaking Churchmen to understand the Gospel? Because that is really what Baptists are saying, because the Greek scholars of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Methodist Church think that Baptist Greek scholars are all WET on their positions that the Bible does not support infant baptism and that baptism MUST be by immersion!

    Is it really possible that ONLY Baptist Greek scholars truly understand ancient Greek, and that the rest of the world’s Greek scholars completely bungle the translation of the New Testament? How is that possible? It defies common sense. And if I hear another Baptist start talking about how the Greek genitive case proves that the Baptist position is correct, I swear I’m going to puke! Seriously, every time I get into a discussion about Biblical translation with a Baptist he starts in with the genitive case nonsense. If you want…

  12. I agree with what Gary Says. The Bible has already been translated for the English speaking people. For 400 years God the Holy Spirit has honored the KJV. No other bible can even come close as far as heritage. It’s elitist to think that common folks need these so called Ancient Greek and Hebrew scholars to understand what born again Christians have been understanding for all these years, the Word of God in the English.

  13. I meant the Bible has already been translated for the English speaking people.

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