Having written that several good translations are essential tools for Bible study, it got me thinking about popular myths about our English Bibles. By “myth”, I mean widely held, untrue 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 think the translator has added nothing to the process. We picture translators looking at the original Greek or Hebrew word and substituting in the only corresponding English word to produce a literal translation that has not been interpreted.
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 one-to-one substitution between languages.
Myth #2: The meaning of the original language is clear and unambiguous.
The mistaken belief here is that the original language presents no problems of its own. This mistake can lead to other wrong conclusions:
- one translation must be accurate and one must be wrong, because the translations differ; and
- looking at the original text can settle any interpretative question.
Neither is true.
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 often helps, but it doesn’t always 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 most Americans know only one language, we believe English can capture every nuance and say everything necessary. We sometimes form our opinions from only the English translation.
Truth: Different languages employ 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 meanings which may be difficult or impossible to translate into English. Our English texts are several steps removed from the original. It is unwise to 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 knowledge of grammar/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 a 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 identify our friend in a crowded room—and the descriptions need not be the same. For example, I could say the “redhead” and you could say “the one with glasses.” Both could allow the stranger to identify our friend.
In the same way, “inspiration” means God inspired the concepts, not particular words. Don’t misunderstand; I believe every word of Scripture is inspired in that its meaning is accurate, true and complete. But I also believe the authors had more than one way to convey their message. God can speak in any number and variety of ways.
This myth becomes a problem when we take a single word 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, paragraph or chapter. Authors wrote in paragraphs, scenes and concepts, not individual words and syntax. The words, grammar and syntax are pointers to the more important ideas.