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A Brief Overview of Bible Translation

Updated: Jan 28


Translation is the process of expressing in one language (the “target” language) what was said or written in a different language (the “original” language). For us, it is expressing the original text of the Bible (which was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek) in English. Many such translations have been made through the years. There are two factors to consider in assessing their quality.

The Greek Text

A significant issue in the case of New Testament translation is identifying the correct Greek text. As I discussed briefly in my presentation, there are three choices of Greek text:

  1. Τhe Textus Receptus (based on Byzantine manuscripts and relatively close to the Majority Text)

  2. Τhe Majority Text

  3. Τhe corrupt Nestle-Aland/United Bible Societies (NU) Text (the latest version of the Westcott-Hort text)

The KJV and the NKJV both use the Textus Receptus, the English Majority Text Version (EMTV) uses the Majority Text, and all other translations (NASB, NIV, ESV, RSV, NRSV, etc.) use the NU text.

(FYI, this is only a NT issue, as all translations base their OT on the same Hebrew text.)

Translation Philosophy

When we consider translations, however, the choice of Greek text is only one issue. The other major issue is the approach to translation (translation philosophy). Is the translator trying to translate the text as precisely as possible, or is he more concerned with getting the “big ideas” across in what he considers to be an understandable fashion?

There are three different approaches that are used in Bible translation:

FORMAL EQUIVALENCE: The translator, as far as possible, translates word-for-word, finding the closest English equivalent to each Greek word, and maintains the syntactical structure of the original as much as possible.
DYNAMIC EQUIVALENCE (a.k.a. FUNCTIONAL EQUIVALENCE): The translator’s main concern is not word-for-word translation, but thought-for-thought. He wants to convey the meaning of the text using modern English in such a way that the reader will view the text the same way the original readers did. Maintaining word-for-word and structural equivalence are of secondary importance. The degree of deviation from the original may vary from one Dynamic Equivalent translation to another.
PARAPHRASE: The concern here is only on meaning. The translator expresses the meaning of the original text (as he understands it) in his own words.

We can summarize this as:

FORMAL EQUIVALENCE: Saying what God said the way He said it.
DYNAMIC EQUIVALENCE: Saying what God said the way we think He would have said it were He writing the NT in today’s English.
PARAPHRASE: Saying what God said the way we think He should have said it.

Inasmuch as Scripture is “God-breathed” (1 Timothy 3:16), written by God, by means of chosen human authors, the way He wanted it, and that we should have all of it, as “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8:3, quoted by Jesus in Matthew 4:4b), it seems axiomatic that formal equivalence is the best choice, and the further a translation deviates from that, the poorer it is.

Now, we see that there are two factors involved in the quality of a NT translation: the choice of Greek text (Good = Majority/Byzantine Text; Bad = NU Text), and the philosophy of translation (Good = Formal Equivalence; Bad = Dynamic Equivalence, paraphrase). This allows for four possibilities:


Obviously, I would recommend using Good Text/Good Translation. But it should be noted that the translations listed in each category are not of equivalent quality. The RSV, for example, is better than the NIV in my opinion, but the NRSV is worse than both. The Living Bible/NLT, GNB, and NCV are paraphrases.

It should also be noted that some translations include deliberate mistranslations for doctrinal or political purposes. The Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation (NWT) is the supreme example of this, but the NRSV and the TNIV also do this sort of thing.

A Word about the KJV-Only Position

There are some people who hold that only the KJV should be used. They usually will claim that this is a divinely inspired translation, and God’s only translation for English-speaking people.

Now, the divinely inspired text of the Bible was “God-breathed” in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, so any Bible in another language is a translation of the “God-breathed” text; it is not divinely inspired itself. Translations may be good or bad, but they are just translations. Of course, one may choose to believe by faith that the KJV is divinely inspired; however, this is not something the Bible itself teaches. We should believe by faith all that God says in His word. To believe by faith something extraneous to God’s word is to put our faith in the traditions of men, and not in the Word of God. Therefore, I cannot endorse the KJV-only position.

It should be noted that the KJV is an excellent translation. Furthermore, it is one of the very few based on Byzantine manuscripts. From the point of view of literary quality, it is unmatched. And it has one major advantage vis-à-vis all other English translations, in that it retains the old distinction between second-person singular and plural, which English subsequently lost. We distinguish between first-person singular (I, me) and plural (we, us) and between third-person singular (he/she/it, him/her/it) and plural (they, them), but second-person singular and plural are both (“you”). When the KJV was written, they still distinguished between singular (thou, thee) and plural (ye, you).

The major drawback of the KJV, on the other hand, is its archaic vocabulary. There are many words with which the average person is unacquainted. Worse, there are words that have changed meanings, and if the new meaning fits into a given context, the reader will not have any reason even to ask whether the meaning has changed. For example, “prevent” means “to stop from doing,” so if we read “The Lord prevents me” in the KJV, we will take it to mean “The Lord stops me from doing …” and will not realize that in King James’ time, “prevent” meant “to go before,” and this sentence actually meant, “The Lord goes before me …”

Of course, these are not insurmountable problems. If one wishes to use the KJV, there are lists and entire books on the vocabulary that he may use to deal with this matter.

Finally, it should be noted that, contrary to the claims of the KJV-only people, the KJV is not a perfect translation. No translation is perfect, and the KJV does have its share of errors. The following are a few examples:

James 3:2a KJV: “For in many things we offend all.” NKJV: “For we all stumble in many things.”
  • The word “all” (ἅπαντες in the Greek) is in the nominative case, so the NKJV translation is the correct one. Furthermore, it is clear that we do not offend “all.”

1 Corinthians 4:4a KJV: “For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified …” NKJV: “For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this …”
  • The word “myself” (ἐμαυτῷ in the Greek) clearly seems to be a dative of disadvantage (as in Matthew 23:31 and Mark 6:19). In the passage, Paul says that his conscience is clear, but that doesn’t guarantee that he is not doing something wrong. The KJV rendering makes no sense.

Acts 5:30b KJV: “… Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.” NKJV: “… Jesus, whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.”
  • The KJV rendering gives the erroneous impression that Jesus killed first and then crucified.

Another systemic problem of the KJV is that the translators translated the Hebrew she’ol, and the Greek ᾁδης (haides), γἐενα (gehenna), and tartarus all as “hell,” failing to distinguish between the abode of the dead of the righteous and the unrighteous.

A Word about the NIV

The NIV is a dynamically equivalent translation based on an inferior Greek text, so, in my opinion, is not suitable for serious Bible study. I think it is very much to be regretted that this version has become so popular among Evangelicals.

It seems to me that it is a very careless translation. There is a book on the quality of the NIV translation, Accuracy of Translation and the New International Version by Robert Martin (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), which outlines some of the problems of the NIV. Here are a few more examples of mistranslations.

Matthew 24:24b NKJV: “ … to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” NIV: “ … to deceive even the elect – if that were possible.”

The Greek εἰ δυνατόν (ei dunatov) means exactly “if possible,” and to translate it as “if that were possible” is an undeniable error. It is significant because the illegitimate change to a subjunctive makes the passage say that it is not, in fact, possible to deceive the elect, and thus this error will put Christians off their guard.

John 8:11b NKJV: “’… go and sin no more.’” NIV: “’… go … and leave your life of sin.’”

The Greek is πορεύου καὶ ἀπο του νυν μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε (poreuou kai apo tou nun meketi amartane), which is, literally, “go, and from the now, no longer sin.” The NKJV translates this accurately, but the NIV adds in “leave” “your” “life” “of”, none of which are in the Greek, and changes the verb “to sin” into a noun. Aside from the fact that they are changing what God said, the requirements to the woman are downgraded, from no more sin to simply not a lifestyle of sin.

John 8:11b NKJV: “’Neither do I condemn you …’” NIV: “’Then neither do I condemn you …’”

The word “then” is not in the Greek, and by adding it the NIV has made Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman a result of the fact that the others forgave her, which is completely wrong.

1 Peter 3:15b NKJV: “ … always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” NIV: “… always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

In this passage, μετά πραΰτητος καί φόβου (“with meekness and fear”) is an adverbial phrase. What does it modify? It could modify “give an answer” or it could modify “asks you.” In other words, it could be saying that we are give our answer with meekness and fear, or it could be saying that we should give an answer to those who ask with meekness and fear. Either is possible, although the construction of the sentence suggests that it should probably be the latter i.e the “meekness and fear” are to shown by those asking, and we are not obligated to answer those who are not asking from a sincere motive (cf. Matthew 7:6). Nor should we be giving an answer with fear, but with boldness (e.g. Acts 18:28).

Now, since both of these are possible, the NKJV has translated the Greek exactly as it appears, so that the English reader can see the same two possibilities that the Greek reader would see, and make up his mind which he thinks is the correct understanding. The NIV translators, on the other hand, as they do often, made that interpretive decision and then altered the text, breaking it into two sentences and adding the “But do this” imperative that is not in the Greek, so that only their interpretive choice will be presented to the English reader, and he will never know that there was actually another possibility here.

These are only a few of many examples I have. There are also systemic problems in the NIV. Where the KJV goes overboard with “hell,” the NIV goes “underboard.” The Hebrew she’ol is always translated as “grave” (the Hebrew word for grave is qeber, not sheol), which leads me to wonder whether the translators actually thought the ancient Israelites might not have known of an afterlife! It plays havoc with the important messianic prophecy in Psalm 16:10, quoted by Peter in Acts 2:31.

Furthermore, the LORD’s personal favourite title for Himself in the OT seems to be “The LORD of Hosts” (YHWH tsva’ot), which appears to 285 times. Not in the NIV, however, where it does not appear even once. The NIV translators, apparently thinking this title is too difficult for modern readers, chose to strip God of His favourite title, by translating YHWH tsva’ot as “the LORD Almighty.” It is not for us to change God’s self-title (and, by the way, there is a way to say “the LORD Almighty” in Hebrew – el elyon – which does appear in the Bible).

A Word about the EMTV

The EMTV is one of only two translations of the New Testament based on the Majority Text (the Hodges-Farstad collation). It is translated by one person; however, I have compared extensive sections of it to the NKJV, and it is usually very similar. Where it does differ, the EMTV is usually better (more literal). It is not perfect, of course, and I did see some passages that I would translate differently. But it does seem very solid, and quite consistent with the NKJV, which was the work of 130 scholars (not all working on the NT, though).

Sometimes a multiplicity of translators can actually occasion problems. When the KJV was translated, different sections were assigned to different teams, and each team had his own choice of wording, which sometimes created inconsistencies, e.g. Οὐ φονεύσεις (“Do not murder”) was translated as “Thou shalt do no murder” in Matthew 19:18 (KJV), but as “Thou shalt not kill” in Romans 13:9 (KJV), which is not the same thing.

A Word about The Message

Recently, a “translation” by Eugene Peterson called The Message has been published and, incredibly has become popular among Evangelicals. The Message is not properly a translation at all, but a rewrite. The technique is paraphrastic, but often the meaning of the original is not expressed at all. Consider, for example, the three key passages on homosexuality in the NT:

For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. (Romans 1:26-27, NKJV)
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
… knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites … (1 Timothy 1:9-10a)

Now consider how The Message “translates” these:

Worse followed. Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either – women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men – all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it – emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches. (Romans 1, ca. 26-27, The Message)
Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. (1 Corinthians 6, ca. 9-10, The Message)
It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the law code isn’t primarily for people who live responsibly, but for the irresponsible, who defy all authority, riding roughshod over God, life, sex, truth, whatever! (1 Timothy 1, ca. 9-10a, The Message).

It should be obvious that, in addition to removing the clear injunctions against homosexuality, Peterson has paid no attention to what the text actually says, but has rewritten it as he saw fit. This is a “Bible” that should be utterly rejected, and the fact that so many Evangelicals have embraced this is indeed troubling and bespeaks the tragic loss of respect for the Word of God among professing Evangelicals.

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