By Riley Manning
Any time a piece of literature is translated into another language or medium, certain nuances are inevitably lost in the conversion. Usually, the resulting discrepancies are merely niceties, and do little to compromise the effect of the piece overall.
But when it comes to the holy scripture, differences in translations can turn up profound implications.
In the English language alone, there are around 20 separate translations in use, each touting its own style, pros, and cons.
The Rev. Nick Phillips, pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Biggersville, said translations differ according to the goal of the one translating the text.
“Some versions translate passages word for word, and try to keep the original order of the words. This is called ‘verbal equivalence,’” he said. “Some versions try to convey the functional meaning of a passage, rearranging the syntax to make it clearer. This is called ‘dynamic equivalence.’ Still other translations use paraphrasing, and sacrifice word-for-word equivalence to express a passage’s meaning in current language.”
The New Revised Standard Version, composed in 1990, is the preferred interpretation of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Like the New International Version and the Common English Version, the NRSV is a mix of dynamic and verbal equivalence.
Interesting to note, Phillips said, is the fact that the more a translation focuses on verbal equivalence, the more difficult it is to read. As versions get closer on the spectrum to paraphrasing, the more reader-friendly they become.
“For instance, the King James Version uses language from the 1600s, the same elevated language Shakespeare used,” Phillips said. “While, say, The Message translation, from the ‘90s is much more simple. But people criticize paraphrasing because they say it removes the literary-ness, the poetry from scripture. Also, most people grew up on the King James version, so there’s that element of nostalgia.”
The King James ranks at a 12th-grade reading level, while The Message comes in at a 6th grade level.
On the other hand, Phillips said, we have a perception of revisions as moving further and further from the original. This may hold true with fiction, like a book made into a movie then remade two decades later, but translating historical documents works in the opposite direction.
“As techniques and advancing scholarship develop, translators have more tools and knowledge at their disposal, allowing them to make more informed choices in their interpretations,” Phillips said.
The Rev. Stanford Adams, curate at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo, said not only are the original languages of the Bible vastly different from English, but English itself is constantly changing as years go by.
“Our ideas of what certain words and concepts mean weren’t nearly the same or even around 300 years ago,” he said. “Sometimes it’s so small it doesn’t matter, but sometimes it matters a whole lot.”
First, Adams said, the Bible is not an ‘original’ work, in the way we think of an original. The New Testament alone is compiled from over 1,500 Greek manuscripts, some of which were written decades or generations after the actual events. Before it was written down in Hebrew, the Old Testament was maintained through oral tradition.
“Because all these sources are collected in one spot, it’s easy to forget that the translation from Greek or Hebrew to English is the last link in a long chain of events,” he said. “And some passes cross genres to include, poetry and hymns in addition to the narrative. It’s important to at least have an awareness of translation because we wouldn’t take song lyrics and literalize them the same as a history textbook.”
As such, Adams said, there is no definitive, infallible, perfect translation.
“The deeper question is, ‘What is the Bible?’ It’s a tool,” he said. “A tool that points us to God. The more we understand about the tool, the more we get out of it.”