Having written that several good translations are essential tools for Bible study, it got me thinking about widely-held myths about our English Bibles. By “myth”, I mean widely-held beliefs we have about our English bibles that we may not even be aware of.
Myth #1: Translation is a matter of transposing the text from Greek or Hebrew to English.
Frequently we have the idea in the back of our minds that translators look at the original Greek or Hebrew word and substitute for it the one and only corresponding English word, resulting in a literal translation that has not been interpreted and the translator has added nothing to the process.
Truth: All translations involve interpretation. All interpreters must first understand the meaning of the text, then translate the meaning into English. The process of understanding meaning is interpretation. There is no 1-to-1 substitution between languages.
Myth #2: The meaning of the original language is always clear and unambiguous.
The mistaken belief here is that the original language presents no problems of its own which leads to the wrong conclusions that 1) if we have different English translations one is accurate and one is not because some translator did not get it right and 2) any interpretative question can be settled by looking at the original text.
Truth: Biblical Greek and Hebrew have just has many ambiguities and nuances as English. No writer of any language can avoid all ambiguities. Looking at the original text may and often does help but it will not necessarily settle a debate.
Myth #3: I can argue any point of doctrine or theology based on the use of a particular English word in the text of Scripture.
Perhaps because we Americans tend to know only one language, we tend to believe that English can capture every nuance and say everything necessary. Especially since most of us are unfamiliar with the biblical Greek and Hebrew, we tend to form our opinions on the basis of the English translation only.
Truth: Different languages employ very different types of logic, style, expressions and nuances. Some ideas do not translate well into other languages. By studying the original language we can grasp the meaning but the idea may be difficult or impossible to translate into English. We must recognize that our English texts are several steps removed from the original and not make arguments based only on what we see in a particular English version.
Myth #4: The best translator is the one who knows the most grammar.
While grammar, and syntax and experience with the original languages are always helpful, it’s not necessarily true that the person who knows the most rules is the best translator. For example, I may be competent English speaker but lack the background necessary to understand poetry.
Truth: In addition to language skills, translators need a thorough understanding of the author’s worldview, culture, history and geography.
Myth #5: There is one and only one way to convey the original author’s intended meaning.
Describe one of your friends to a stranger. If we all pick the same friend, we could all give accurate descriptions that would allow the stranger to correctly identify our friend in a crowded room — and the descriptions need not be the same verbatim. In the same way, “inspiration” means the ideas were inspired; not necessarily the particular words. Don’t misunderstand; I believe every word of Scripture is inspired in that their meaning is accurate and true and complete. But I also believe the authors had more than one way to say it. God can speak in any number and variety of ways.
This myth becomes a problem when we take a single word in a verse and milk that word for detailed doctrinal and theological significance. Rather than a word, we want to “milk” the meaning, ideas and concepts contained in the whole verse or paragraph or chapter. Authors wrote in paragraphs and ideas and concepts, not individual words and syntax. The words, grammar and syntax are pointers to the more important ideas.