Impossible bible translation

The linguistic challenge is only one aspect of the difficulties inherent in bible translation. There are other aspects that would make anyone dizzy trying to understand why bible translation is not so simple, or black and white. All we can hope for, in any translation, is something that comes closest to the originally intended meaning. The fact is, there is not one language that can be perfectly translated into another language because each language is limited by its own vocabulary, grammar, and cultural-linguistic uniqueness (…and thank God for the richness in our diversity!) For example, if one were to translate English into Swahili, the Swahili language may not even have an equivalent word in existence to fully and perfectly express the particular idea that one wants expressed in English. Each language has its own unique and particular nuance that cannot be fully expressed in another language. For instance, Greek has 4 different words to express the 4 types of “love”, whereas, English only uses the one word: “love” to express all the various types of love. To get around this difficulty, translators must apply dynamic equivalence, but we would lose out on some of its formal equivalence. Furthermore, words in the original language may be completely out-of-date and can no longer be understood by today’s translators. The meaning in words are in constant and dynamic change; therefore, all translations should stay current in their use of various terminologies and phraseologies.

Most translations are excellent and reliable for use in the pulpit, in bible study, personal study, and public reading. It’s really just a matter of personal preference. The various translations available range from formal equivalence (word-for-word translation from the Greek & Hebrew) to dynamic equivalence (idea-for-idea translation). Each translation philosophy is valid in its approach to achieve the originally intended meaning of the biblical writers. Some people may claim that formal equivalence (word-for-word translation from the Greek & Hebrew) is the most accurate but these claims are invalid. And some people also claim that dynamic equivalence (idea-for-idea translation) is the most accurate, but these claims are also invalid. If we go for formal equivalence, we may lose some accuracy in the writers’ intended ideas. Vice versa, if we go for dynamic equivalence, we may lose some precision in the writers’ intended “technical definition”. There are pros and cons that go with each translation philosophy so we must allow for some “give-and-take” if we choose to go with one particular translation that is predominantly governed by one philosophy. Words and/or ideas expressed in the original language can never be 100% perfectly expressed in another language because that second language may not even have an equivalent word available. This is true for all modern languages in the world today. Even if we were to learn the original biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew, we would still not know for certain their originally intended meaning. Those who know how to speak 2 or 3 languages fluently will know what I am talking about. If you only know English, try asking someone who knows several languages and you may be enlightened and surprised. The more I learned about the difficulties involved in bible translation, the less I became certain that 100% accuracy was possible.

We have to commend bible translators for trying their best to give us good reliable translations in the English language. Imagine the difficulties for bible translators who are translating the bible into the hundreds of languages in the world today. There are thousands of other languages still left untouched. These translators are doing God’s work to further the kingdom of God on earth today. They work quietly in the background and need our prayers and support. Often, we forget about the people working in the world of bible translation and we often take for granted our English bibles that are so easily accessible to us in this part of the world. We don’t know the difficulties and challenges inherent in this sort of work. We may make claims regarding our exclusive and personal preferences about why we prefer one translation over another. However, we should not criticize the various translations or make over-confident claims that one translation is “the one, and only, true word of God”. I hope I have not caused anyone to doubt the reliability or the authority of God’s holy and inspired word. I just hope that the average person become informed about these real-life difficulties that are inherent in bible translation. We can hold sure that God’s written word, together with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, will faithfully guide all peoples into the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ–today and tomorrow. (Note: Wycliffe Translators is just one of many organizations around the world doing bible translation).

3 thoughts on “Impossible bible translation

  1. Hey, I need your help over at — how to describe with greek roots the idea of prejudice against a person because they are unmarried.


  2. We want to ensure that our praise, our submission, our adoration, our worship, etc. is given to the God of the Bible and not to the physical book itself.

    Thanks Michael for your input. I whole-heartedly agree with that. I also believe that the “word of God” is, first and foremost, Jesus Christ. Often, we Christians, myself included, say that the “word of God” is the bible. I do believe, however, that though the word of God is written on paper, it is still imperfect because we humans can misinterpret God’s spoken word. Thus, I believe that the “true” word of God undefiled is Jesus Christ himself. And it is him whom we worship.


  3. Kevin,

    This is an honest, valid, and important point to discuss regarding Bible translation. Our translation is pretty close (last I read we have between 95-98% accuracy) and from my understanding -and struggles with the original translations- we are pretty accurate with the overall ideas.

    The important thing that we must remember is that we should not make an idol of the book itself. What I mean by this is that the actual book should not be worshipped. I am not referring to the ideas, concepts, and words within (for these are the things, along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which convey the message God holds for us), but the binding, the paper, the ink, the specific translation, etc. We want to ensure that our praise, our submission, our adoration, our worship, etc. is given to the God of the Bible and not to the physical book itself.

    Thank you for this insightful and thoughtful post.



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