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Truth that Translates

by Dallas Theological Seminary on July 7, 2006 in Articles

Years ago The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported that a translation machine was instructed to provide the Russian equivalent of the Bible verse, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41, NASB). The machine responded with a Russian sentence, “The whiskey is agreeable, but the meat has gone bad.”

This botched literal translation demonstrates what happens when language, which is complex by nature, is treated like a code to be broken. Although translation technology has come a long way since that early machine, translation is not a mechanical process.

In Bible translation the stakes are especially high because accuracy is essential to the integrity of the message. In fact some have argued that Scripture should never be translated because it might lose some of its original meaning. But Dr. Daniel Wallace (ThM, 1979; PhD, 1995), professor of New Testament Studies, disagrees. “Such an elitist stance betrays the whole purpose of Scripture—to bring the Word of God to people.” According to Dr. Wallace the Bible itself makes an argument for translation. “When New Testament authors quoted from the Old Testament they did not always retain the original Hebrew. They frequently quoted from the Greek translation [the Septuagint].”

To communicate God’s truth the translation of Scripture is essential, and trained scholars are vital. Throughout the history of the church people have created translations to put the meaning of the Bible into languages that people understand.

The first translation of Scripture, known as the Septuagint, took place over two hundred years before the birth of Christ when a group of Jewish scholars translated the Old Testament into Greek. This gave the Old Testament to the many Jewish people who were living in places where Greek was the everyday language. Not long after the New Testament was complete, the entire Bible was translated into Latin, Coptic, Arabic, and Syriac. Now, less than two thousand years later, portions of the Bible exist in 2,287 languages, and complete translations are available in nearly three hundred languages.

The first English Bible, called the Wycliffe Bible, was translated from Latin in a.d. 1382. Readers today would barely be able to decipher its meaning because of archaic spelling, script, and terminology. Contemporary translations are more readable, and they are also more accurate and precise than those of the past.

According to scholars the ongoing discovery of ancient manuscripts allows more exact renderings of the original text than have ever existed before. Dr. Wallace emphasized that our modern English Bible translations are actually closer and more consistent with each other than any of the Greek manuscript versions, which had an average of at least six differences per chapter.

What was lost in previous translations has in many ways been regained through careful scholarship, which is modeled at Dallas Seminary. The school’s professors and graduates continue to play a vital role in protecting and communicating the message of Scripture through the translation process, as they have for much of the past century. “Many major modern English translations that you pick up have been worked on at some point by someone from Dallas Seminary,” said Dr. Darrell L. Bock (ThM, 1979), research professor of New Testament Studies.

“Many of the DTS faculty have such a range of expertise in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic that it makes this place a natural for Bible translation work,” according to Dr. Hall Harris, professor of New Testament Studies and director of the NET Bible project.

In its eighty-year history Dallas Seminary’s Bible scholarship has impacted Christian ministry throughout the world in English and countless other languages. Our professors and alumni have been involved in numerous English Bible versions including the New International Version (NIV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the New Living Translation (NLT), The Message (TM), the New American Standard Bible update (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV), the International Children’s Version (ICV), the New Century Version (NCV), the Holman Christian Study Bible (HCSB), and the NET Bible.  (For a list of faculty members and the translations they have worked on, click here.)

In answer to the question, Why are there so many versions of the Bible in the same language? Dr. Bock explains, “It is important to appreciate the different purposes for each. Some are more exact in regard to the language patterns of the original languages. They leave figures of speech ambiguous. Others explain the meaning of the figures of speech, bringing out their full force.”

But regardless of these emphases, translators throughout history have struggled with the intricacies and challenges of communicating God’s Word accurately in a new language. According to Dr. Wallace understanding the meaning of the original language and translating it are not the same thing. “There are often idioms or cultural values in the original text that don’t transfer well to modern language,” he said. “Every aspect of translation has an interpretive element.”

Translation has never been an exact science; the process requires Bible scholars to employ the tools of both science and art in handling the Word of God. These scholars are scientists as they research and study the intricacies of the word structure, and they are artists as they craft equivalent structures that retain the meaning and power of the original wording.

Another challenge facing translators is the constantly changing face of language. For this reason, Dr. Harris asserts, a new translation is necessary every twenty-five years or so. “The English language is changing now faster than ever in its history,” he said. “Phrases and expressions that were common in English twenty to thirty years ago are now no longer in use. And sometimes they acquire negative meanings or connotations that you don’t want to have associated with your translation.”

Dr. Harris gave an example from 2 Corinthians 11:25, which in the NIV (translated twenty-five years ago) reads, “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea.” Because “stoned” now commonly means “high on drugs,” the NET Bible translators chose to rephrase it to read “received a stoning.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary each of the five hundred most commonly used words in the English language has an average of twenty-three separate meanings, which have developed over time. The word “round,” for instance, has seventy distinctly different uses. For this reason Dr. Robert Chisholm (ThD, 1983), professor of Old Testament Studies, calls Bible translation “an inherently interpretive task.”

Dr. Chisholm considers the market for English Bible translations “somewhat oversaturated” at this point. “We probably don’t need any more English translations for the next fifteen to twenty years,” he said. “By then idioms will have changed enough that current translations will need to be revised.”

Dallas Seminary professors agree, however, that the NET Bible brought something to the table that other versions had not, which is why so many of them have participated in the project.

“I got involved in the NET primarily because I saw the concept of explaining the translation as unique. In other words the annotation system was novel and helpful,” Dr. Chisholm said.

Despite the challenges faced by translators, God’s revelation itself is unchanging. In the words of the psalmist, “Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Ps. 119:89). As our languages change and word meanings shift, high-caliber scholars stand ready to put the Scripture’s changeless meaning into today’s terminology. But it is not their expertise alone that makes the difference. As Dr. Wallace affirms, the Holy Spirit has so superintended the translation process that a person can come to trust in Christ as Savior by reading any version.

Dallas Seminary scholars press on to communicate God’s message as accurately and readably as possible. But it is the God of the Scriptures who changes hearts with His enduring truth.

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