WHY ARE TRANSLATIONS SO DIFFERENT?

J. KIE BOWMAN

Recently I’ve been asked the reason why Bible translations are often so different.  There are two primary explanations. The most significant reason has to do with the ancient manuscripts which the translations are based upon. The second reason relates to translation philosophy. Both reasons are important factors in determining the final product. Let’s quickly examine these two issues. 

TRANSLATION PHILOSOPHY 

A true translation, as opposed to a paraphrase like the Living Bible, is based on the original languages of Scripture. One of the goals of the translator is to communicate the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text into readable English (or whatever language the modern reader needs). It sounds simple enough, but there are numerous considerations to take into account when moving an ancient language into a modern one. 

For one thing, the most literal translation of the original language may not convey to the modern reader what was obvious to a reader 2000 years ago. Language is crammed with cultural assumptions and colloquiums, immediately relevant to the time in which it written, but sometimes confusing to readers generations later who are removed from the ancient cultures. 

Good teaching can clarify most of those issues, but translators have to decide if they want to begin that teaching process by building it into the translation itself. In other words, the exact literal words from an ancient language, moved to a modern language, may require some additional explanation to capture the true sense of the author’s intention.

Consider, for instance, the instructions of the Apostle Peter regarding our call to live holy lives. In the historic and beautiful King James Version the Apostle advised, “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ;” (1 Peter‬ ‭1:13‬)

‭Perhaps you’re a biblical scholar and you get the meaning, but to the average American, what do you suppose it would mean to “gird up the loins of your mind”? Is that particular vocabulary, which employs a literal, though idiomatic, expression from Greek the best way to communicate the truth of the ancient Greek passage? After all, what does “girding the loins” have to do with our thinking process? Our minds don’t have “loins.” Obviously, Peter is using a metaphor of some kind, urging us to be mentally prepared. 

In Peter’s time, when men wore long robes, they would frequently need to pull the robe up between their legs and tuck the long cloth in their belts to free their legs for running, fighting, or working. In other words, “girding their loins” was a way of preparing for physical activity. So using the literal phrase, “gird up the loins of your mind” does not necessarily easily communicate to a modern reader what Peter meant, and what his ancient readers would have understood as a figure of speech. Obviously, Peter is urging us to be mentally prepared. 

Compare the literal King James passage to a couple of modern translations. The English Standard Version says, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:13). The New International Version takes a similar approach,  “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” ‭‭(1 Peter‬ ‭1:13‬) 

So here are 3 translation choices for the same phrase: 

▪️“Gird up the loins of your mind” (KJV)

▪️“Preparing your minds for action” (ESV)

▪️“With minds that are alert and fully sober” (NIV)

The differences in translation reflect a different translation philosophy. The King James Version is literal and reflects a “word for word” literal translation. The modern versions instead usually choose a “thought for thought” translation, to give the modern reader the benefit of not only what Peter says, but also what he means. 

ANCIENT MANUSCRIPTS 

The Bible is ancient literature. The oldest passages were written at least 3500 years ago and the most recent written passages are 2000 years old. We do not have any of the original manuscripts of any biblical book, but we have thousands of ancient copies in multiple languages. No other ancient literature in the world has anything close to the abundance of copies- from so close to the original writing- as the Bible enjoys. The translator’s  goal is to get back as close to the original manuscripts as possible so we can be confident of what the Bible’s authors originally wrote, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. 

It isn’t unusual for someone to notice that the modern translations do not include all of the verses or phrases included in the King James Version. This obviously raises questions, especially for those of us who believe in the trustworthiness of Scripture to lead us to God and guide our lives. So, we are tempted to ask why the modern versions leave out verses. Perhaps the more important question is why does the King James Version add verses

Remember, the Bible is between 2000 and 3500 years old while the King James Version is only 500 years old. The translators seek to get as close to the original manuscripts as possible- not as close to the King James as possible. 

Think about how many things have changed since the early 17th century when the King James Version was translated. The 19th century, for instance, brought the world a flurry of advances unknown to previous generations. Medical advances increased lifespans and overall well being of entire populations. Travel became more affordable, faster, and safer than ever before. Communication options took giant strides forward. In the Western world there was an increase in almost every aspect of the quality of people’s lives, including a greater quest for global exploration and a desire for more scientific knowledge. Compared to any other time in history the 19th century was on the fast track to modernity. As a result, the science of archeological discovery enjoyed a “golden age.” This was true in nearly every field of enquiry- including the discovery of breathtakingly important ancient biblical manuscripts, even continuing into the 20th century. How does archeology affect biblical translation? 

The King James translators did not have access to the oldest manuscripts available, even though it is an older translation. Today, almost all of the modern translations are based on much older manuscripts- written much closer to the date of the originals- while the King James Version is based on newer and fewer manuscripts. Over time, as manuscripts were copied by hand, it is obvious some of the copyists, in some of the manuscripts, added sentences in a few places. The King James Version is based on these less reliable manuscripts. At first glance we may think we can never know, as a result, what the original manuscripts, written by the prophets and apostles, actually said. Nothing is further from the truth. The sheer abundance of manuscript evidence – the thousands of copies- leaves us today with the most reliable text any generation has ever had. We know what the Bible says. It is reflected in many of the modern English translations. 

WHAT ABOUT INERRANCY?

I am an inerrantist- in other words I believe the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is without error. Inerrancy is not a political or denominational position – it is a doctrinal position. So you may ask “If there are differences in the translations, how can one believe in inerrancy?” That’s a fair question with a direct answer. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is a belief that the original manuscripts as the Spirit inspired them and as the prophets, apostles, and others wrote them, are completely without error. “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” ( 2 Peter 1:21) The transmission of the original text across the centuries has been incredibly pure and the sheer number of copies in numerous languages, along with ancient sermons and writings filled with enough Scripture to nearly reconstruct the Bible from those sources, demonstrate the reliability of our translations today.

We trust the Bible because it is the Word of God. Committed scholars, devoted to knowing the truth, have produced for us accurate Bible translations which are fully reliable. Whichever translation you choose remember, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

(2 Timothy 3:16-17)

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