A guest post by Donna
Donna is a Bible translator working in South Asia
Have you ever heard someone talking about a particular English Bible translation and saying it's the best? I've heard that said about the ESV, the NIV, the NRSV, the NLT and The Message. Can they all be the best?
I was sitting in a Translation Priciples lecture recently and started to think about the different English translations and what their relative strengths are. Before I get there, let me outline the three different kinds of translation.
1. Some translations are literal or "word for word" translations. This means that they try to translate each word as closely as possible to the word that was used in the original Greek (or Hebrew/Aramaic in the Old Testatment). The ESV is a good example of this. This means that you will be able to see the language structure and word choice of the original language more clealy (though you are still reading it all in English).
2. Some translations are "meaning based" translations, which means that they first take a whole idea (might be a sentence or a clause) in the original language and translate the meaning of that idea into English. So the sentence structure will be more different to the original language than in a more literal translation, but it will also use more natural English. The NLT is a good representative of this approach, which is also sometimes called "dynamic equivalence".
3. Some translations are "paraphrases". These go further than the "meaning based translations" and apply the point of what was said in the original to today's situation and might even change what is being talked about to make the same point. The Message is usually placed in this category. Some people say that The Message, though it might be very helpful, is not a translation at all because it changes the meaning too much.
The risk with using a too literal translation is that the language might be too unnatual English to be understood properly (I have heard some people say that the ESV is too difficult for their children, even teenage children, to understand). The risk with a meaning based translation, and especially a paraphrase, is that you may not have understood the meaning correctly, and therefore what you translate might be wrong.
In summary literal translations run the risk of being unintelligible, other types of translations run the risk of being wrong!
These are not three discrete categories, they're a continuum, so the NIV and NRSV are placed somewhere in between the literal and meaning based translations.
To repesent the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, I came up with this little table:
Before explaining my table I should say that I'm talking about good translations here. There can also be very bad, literal and meaning based translations and bad paraphrases, but I'm not including those in my analysis.
Ideational Meaning is what people usually mean when they say "meaning". When we say "John walked out the door" the ideational meaning refers to this person called John and that he moved, putting his feet in front of one another to go out the door.
I think that meaning based translations do ideational meaning best. Literal translations don't convey the ideational meaning quite as well, because the meaning can be obscured when it uses foreign idioms or phrases. Paraphrases don't attempt to accurately convey the ideational meaning.
Textual meaning refers to how what is read relates to the rest of the text. For example in Mark chapter 2 Jesus refers to himself as "the son of man". The ideational meaning of this phrase is "I", people used this phrase to refer to themselves often. But on a textual level we can see that Jesus might have used this phrase to remind people of something else - in this case maybe the passage from Daniel 7.
Since they use a "word for word" translation strategy, links between texts can be most easily seen in literal translations. (From the introduction: "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.") This is not always as clear in meaning based translations - though footnotes can help - and it is not clear at all in paraphrases.
Affectual meaning relates to how reading the passage affects readers' emotions [ed. how it effects affects]. How are we to feel when, for example, Jesus is betrayed, or when he dies, or when he is transfigured, or when he feeds the five thousand? The original readers might have felt a certain way about something, but because we are so far removed from their culture we might miss some things and not be affected the same way.
Affectual meaning is best conveyed by paraphrases (as long as you belong to their target audience, if not the meaning can be lost on you, or misunderstood). Their aim is to affect the emotions of the readers and motivate the reader. In paraphrases there is no question of the original language affecting the grammar structure used, thus they are best at conveying affectual meaning, meaning based translations are next, and literal translations come in last in terms of affectual meaning because the English used is the least natural, and therefore affects our emotions the least.
In summary, meaning based translations (like the NLT) convey the ideational meaning the best. Literal, or word for word translations (like ESV) convey the textual meaning the best. And paraphrases (like The Message) convey the affectual meaning the best.
So when people say that the ESV is the best translation I would say:
• Yes it is! If you're studying the original text and want help understanding the Greek, or if you want to know what the original language says, but can't study the original language.If people say that the NLT is the best translation I would say:
• But no it's not! If you want to read the bible in natural English, nor if you want your heart, as well as your head, to easily understand what you're reading.
If people say that The Message is the best translation I would say:
• Yes! Because it is written in very nice English, which speaks to my heart well, and it also clearly shows the meaning. I especially like reading the Old Testament prophets in the NLT because I find I need it written in natural English to really understand what's happening since their situation and culture and also the genre is very removed from what I'm used to.
• And No! Because it isn't so easy to see how one passage relates to others, and also some of the ambiguities in the original language are lost. For example 1 Timothy 2:15 where the NLT has "women" the Greek word would be more accurately translated "he" or "she".
• Yes! Because it speaks to my heart well and applies the message to my own culture, which gives me encouragement very directly, and means that I am affected strongly by each encouragement and each rebuke.Want to share any thoughts about this with me? What did you think of my graph? Which translation do you like best and why?
• But also No! In some ways The Message changes the meaning a little too much, and I'm never quite sure when biblical author's writings end and the interpretation of the translator begins. The Message is really more like good preaching. It is powerful and it hits home. But the message of The Message must also be tested against a translation which sticks more closely to the original text.
As a post scipt I should also say that not all these positives and negatives have the same weight for me, and so there is a translation that I prefer above the others. Other people will have different priorities and different background and will therefore will prefer a different translation to me.
I acknowledge Kirk Patston who first told me about the three types of meaning though under different names in a very interesting Old Testament lecture. The idea has been adapted from the linguist Michael Halliday.
Eight points for giving the correct chapter reference for the first image, twelve for giving the proper name of the volume in which it is found and fifteen for the location (country and city) in which it can be found.