Five More Myths about Bible Translations and the Transmission of the Text

There’s an old Italian proverb that warns translators about jumping in to the task: “Traduttori? Traditori!” Translation: “Translators? Traitors!” The English proverb, “Something’s always lost in the translation,” is clearly illustrated in this instance. In Italian the two words are virtually identical, both in spelling and pronunciation. They thus involve a play on words. But when translated into other languages, the word-play vanishes. The meaning, on one level, is the same, but on another level it is quite different. Precisely because it is no longer a word-play, the translation doesn’t linger in the mind as much as it does in Italian. There’s always something lost in translation. It’s like saying in French, “don’t eat the fish; it’s poison.” The word ‘fish’ in French is poisson, while the word ‘poison’ is, well, poison. There’s always something lost in translation.

But how much is lost? Here I want to explore five more myths about Bible translation.

Myth 1: The Bible has been translated so many times we can’t possibly get back to the original.

This myth involves a naïve understanding of what Bible translators actually did. It’s as if once they translated the text, they destroyed their exemplar! Sometimes folks think that translators who were following a tradition (such as the KJV and its descendants, the RV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NKJB, NRSV, and ESV) really did not translate at all but just tweaked the English. Or that somehow the manuscripts that the translators used are now lost entirely.

The reality is that we have almost no record of Christians destroying biblical manuscripts throughout the entire history of the Church. And those who translated in a tradition both examined the English and the original tongues. Decent scholars improved on the text as they compared notes and manuscripts. Finally, we still have almost all of the manuscripts that earlier English translators used. And we have many, many more as well. The KJV New Testament, for example, was essentially based on seven Greek manuscripts, dating no earlier than the eleventh century. Today we have about 5800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, including those that the KJV translators used. And they date as early as the second century. So, as time goes on, we are actually getting closer to the originals, not farther away.

Myth 2: Words in red indicate the exact words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.

Scholars have for a long time recognized that the Gospel writers shape their narratives, including the sayings of Jesus. A comparison of the Synoptics reveals this on almost every page. Matthew quotes Jesus differently than Mark does who quotes Jesus differently than Luke does. And John’s Jesus speaks significantly differentyly than the Synoptic Jesus does. Just consider the key theme of Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptics: ‘the kingdom of God’ (or, in Matthew’s rendering, often ‘the kingdom of heaven’). Yet this phrase occurs only twice in John, being replaced usually by ‘eternal life.’ (“Kingdom of Continue reading “Five More Myths about Bible Translations and the Transmission of the Text”

Further Reading on Bible Translations

For further reading:

Bruce Metzger, The Bible in Translation: The Ancient and English Versions
Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth
Ron Rhodes, The Complete Guide to Bible Translations
F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English
Donald Brake, Visual History of the King James Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of the
World’s Bestselling Book
Donald Brake and Shelly Beach, Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic
Story of the World’s Best-Known Translation

And for some decent translations to consider:
NIV 2011
The Essential Evangelical Parallel Bible