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It's All Greek to Me

Updated: Jan 13

Translation is the science and the art of taking the ideas, the concepts, and the meanings trapped in the words of one language and rendering them in the words of another language so that the speakers of that other language can accurately comprehend those ideas, concepts and meanings. Anyone who has ever formally studied a foreign language with the intent of mastering its use understands that translation is a daunting task. This is because meaning is trapped in more than just individual words, but also in cultural references, syntax, technical language, poetic constructions, metaphors, similes, and in the weird oddities of untranslatable idioms that make us feel like a fish out of water, losing our marbles, as our bible study goes down in flames while we’re trying to discern the meaning of a verse! The Bible that you read in English had to be translated from its original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And those ancient languages far removed from us by time are like any other language in that they have their own peculiar constructions. 

Just as important is that all languages change and evolve over time so that a translation produced 412 years ago may not render the original meanings it was effectively and accurately able to capture then into language that is effectively and accurately understood today. For instance, the King James Version renders Ephesians 4:22  as “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;”  A modern reader will be utterly confused by that verse using that rendering. Nevermind the strange and clunky syntax – just consider a single word – What “conversation” is Paul talking about?  A 17th century Englishman would have had no confusion.  Then, the word “conversation” in that context did not mean the verbal or written exchange of thoughts between people, but instead meant one’s consistent behavior, or the way in which a person lives out his life. Paul is not telling his readers that they have to remember an earlier discussion about offending or killing an old man, or that their last exchange was marked by lewd sensuality.  He is reminding them that if they are true followers of Christ, then the way they live their life today should be qualitatively different from how they lived it before they knew Christ. 

So how does one pick a translation?  First, understand that no translation is perfect. The only perfect rendering is in the original documents, which no longer exist. However, the ancient manuscript copies that do exist and that all acceptable English translations are in some way based upon, are overwhelmingly consistent both internally and externally. After you understand that no single translation is perfect, don’t be afraid to use multiple critically produced translations – but choose one that works best for you and stick to it so that you develop memory and understanding. What is a critically produced translation? It is one that involved multiple translators who honestly wrestled with providing a linguistically accurate but understandable rendering. Any translation from a single translator should probably be rejected. All of the popular translations today, from the KJV, to the NIV, to the ESV, to the NLT had scores of translators. The translation process must also have had a mechanism that weeded out any sectarian biases. It is best to avoid any translation produced by a single denomination or sect, like the NWT.  A little honest research, and a discussion with a credible pastor can help you through the choosing process.

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