Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Which is "the best" English Bible translation?

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.
• 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 NLT 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".
If people say that The Message is the best translation I would say:
• 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.
• 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.
Want to share any thoughts about this with me? What did you think of my graph? Which translation do you like best and why?

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Donna. That's a really helpful summary. I like the graph a lot. I think, though, the question of which type of meaning is more important is not purely subjective. While affective meaning is terribly important for Christian discipleship, I think it's not the main task of Bible translation to bring this out (perhaps that's what preaching should do). So although I quite like The Message, I think it is actually unhelpful insofar as it purports to be an actual Bible, rather than, say, a very readable devotional commentary.

Donna said...

Yes, I agree that it isn't purely subjective, and I think the ideational meaning is the most important in most situations (and for all Christians). Though isn't there a place for paraphrases being used as the primary bible for example in evangelism? Your average Aussie Jo(e), who isn't familiar with anything Christian, might be more likely to read The Message, because it speaks to their emotions. And since emotions motivate, they might be drawn to Christianity in a way that they might not be by reading other versions?

Strictly speaking The Message *is* a translation, at least for the NT, since Peterson worked from Greek to write it. I wouldn't call it a commentary because it doesn't reflect on the bible as commentaries do. But Peterson's translation priority was not ideational accuracy, but affectual accuracy (in his words - he wanted people to "be impacted" as the original audience was). His target audience was also not the traditional audience for translation, but people who felt themselves to be distanced from the Bible's message (either because it was new and unfamiliar, or felt old and boring).

So I wouldn't go so far as to argue that The Message isn't a Bible, but I'd keep in mind the type of accuracy that Peterson was going for in translating it.

Megan said...

Donna, have you read the book by Fee and Stuart on this? You have quite similar things to say - and I agree about working out what you want the translation for!

Stuart Heath said...

I have had a little bit of professional training (and a little practical experience) in translation from French to English. All of this is, of course, looking for dynamic equivalence. So when I became Christian and started looking at Bible translations, my bias was skewed in this direction.

In terms of the translation task, one difference with the Bible (from, say, a French driver's licence or stat dec) is that images and allusions are carried by certain words across sentences and chapters and books. (So the translation of Dan 7:13 as "there came one like a human being" seems a rather bizarre error to me.)

So yes, for some forms of study, I love the clunky verbatim transliterations from the original languages (since most of us are never going to have the time or ability to gain adequate fluency in the original languages).

For this task, I prefer the NASB. Additions tend to be italicized, so you can see how the translators have filled in the gaps for you.

The ESV simply doesn't do what it says it's going to do on the box: it doesn't consistently use the same root word in English where the same root word is used in the original language, and the translators' gap-filling isn't visible.

(To take a few random examples, dikaioma in Rom 1:32 and 8:4, which I think are probably related; the misleading insertions in Rom 7:21; overriding participial constructions as in Heb 12:1; omission of connectors as in Heb 12:3. Of course, now that I check these in the NASB, it's no better :P)

Matthew Moffitt said...

Great post!

Rome, Italy?

Anthony Douglas said...

I'll take the easy money. It's Mark 1.

byron smith said...

Anthony - wise move. Eight points.
Moffitt - incorrect.

Matthew Moffitt said...

I meant Vatican City, Vatican City.

byron smith said...

That's better. Fifteen points and a huge hint for someone towards the twelve.

byron smith said...

Congrats - that's six hundred!

psychodougie said...

cheers for the post.
umberto ecco 'are translators traitors?' was good as well for thinking thru this.
a wise lecturer said we should read the good news version and learn greek. a good shut down to lots of people insisting on one over the other.
as regards subjectivity, i will often feel frustrated with particular versions, mainly when things that are clear in the original are overly skewed in the translation. i've found the NIV on 1Peter doing it quite a bit.
so i appreciate when people have a particular 'translation project' (like the NLT or the Message), but particularly with the ISV (a free, online version, open to submissions) - trying to pursue the elusive 'middle path'. i also like it in that i'm able to change it for my own purposes - the hagiography of a particular sentence construction by a particular translation is done away with.
apart from the ISV, the TNIV and Holman are also not bad. I also like the Luther bible for giving clarity where English does not allow!

so what version does a bible translator read?

Matthew Moffitt said...

Is there a reason why base our Old Testament translations of the Masoretic Text rather than the LXX?

byron smith said...

Matt - the short answer is that we don't, or rather, that there is no single agreed approach (which accounts for some of the differences between e.g. NRSV and ESV in 1/2 Samuel especially (which is where some of the differences between LXX and MT are most pronounced)). The long answer is very long indeed. Ask Mr Wells about it (gotta keep calling him Mr Wells while you still can!), since he will probably be the expert on it while he still remembers his OT2 exam study (or maybe it is OT3 and he will get it at the start of next yr...).

Anonymous said...

When I'm working with the Greek, I like to "check my answers" against Young's Literal Translation (1868/1896). It's a horrible read, but helps make some things more obvious - and therefore harder to overlook - than any of the other translations. Participles, for example, become MUCH easier to work with using YLT.

Stuart Heath said...

The last two weeks on The Philosopher's Zone (http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/) have been interesting discussions on the business of reading philosophy in translation, and hence of the philosophy of translation.

I'm sure many of the same principles apply to translating the Bible, but those who think of it as a kind of 'magic book' will doubtless disagree.

Donna said...

Psychodougie - I've only just now seen your question (after coming back from an internet-free holiday).

Bible translators generally read at least one literal and one free translation, and the original Greek if we can. Most will use more than this though.

A few translators have recommended the CEV to me as a good free translation, because of the style of language and the fact it has lots of good footnotes.

Of course, many translators these days are from minority language communities and unable to understand English, so they will read any translation that they are able to understand - hopefully it will be a good one.

byron smith said...

Deliberate mistranslation in the NIV. A long list of dozens of instances where the NIV harmonises (historically or theologically or canonically) difficult verses without textual justification.