Can the Bible Ever Be Translated Perfectly into English?

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EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 160 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

First, there is no perfect translation into any language at present. Second, literal translations are going to get you closest to what God said (ASV1901, UASV2021, NASB1995), so you the reader can determine what God meant by the Words that His authors used. Third, there are semi-literal translations that are still very good (ESV2001, LEB2012, CSB2017, but they do not remain faithful to the literal translation philosophy as often as they should. Now, before you object, we understand that you cannot be literal every time. But these translations abandon the literal approach many times when it is unnecessary.

Today the churchgoer who reads the English Bible has many modern translations from which to choose. Some of these translations have become very popular by reason of their making it easier to read, trying for a smoother flow of language, and seeking many turns of speech that stands out in some particular way, or well-chosen expressions. However, as seen from other articles on this blog, these are likely to have errors and even contradict each other by taking too many liberties, or because of misinterpreting the original language terms, or due to theological bias. Clearly, few would disagree that accuracy and dependability are the most important requirements of a great Bible translation. Therefore, it would seem logically and reasonably that a literal translation is to be preferred. This is especially true if you are claiming that you believe that the Bible is the inspired, fully inerrant Word of God. Which translation do you think is the most accurate and dependable?

There are a few things that get in the way of a perfect translation. This is what we will consider below.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

TEXTUAL BARRIERS

  1. We do not have the original manuscripts (Hebrew/Aramaic for the OT and Greek for the NT) that were penned by the original authors. We have original language manuscripts that are copies.
  2. And then, there are 1,400 years of corruption, where some copyists (scribes) took liberties with the text at times by adding material. Then, there were far more occurrences of the accidental changes as well.
  3. Nevertheless, the era of corruption was followed by 500+ years of restoration. Think of it this way. You are at a farmhouse and you find a 1967 Camaro junked. You buy it, take it home and for years you spend thousands restoring it to mint condition. Now, while it is in mint condition, it is not the original. And it can never be the original, only the original can be the original. Note that we have 5,898 original language manuscripts of the Greek NT and many dates within decades or a century of the originals.
  4. Even if we found an original Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, we would still have to take decades to establish that it was the original.
  5. We do not need the original manuscript, we only need the original wording, and we have that between the 1881 Wescott and Hort (WH) Greek New Testament text and the 2012 Nestle-Aland (NA) Greek New Testament text. In fact, 1881 WH and the NA texts are 99.5% exactly the same because the monumental dozens of papyri New Testament manuscripts, many dating within decades of the originals, that were discovered in the 20th century did not change anything, they only affirmed what we already had.
The P52 PROJECT THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS 4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS

LANGUAGE BARRIER

  1. Our understanding of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek is vastly improved since 1881. However, it is still not perfect.
  2. When we render an original language word into modern language, it needs to be understood that we lose some sense of the meaning that would have been conveyed to the original audience in their language and we gain some extra baggage with the modern-day words as well. This is not really as significant as some make it out to be.
  3. However, the English language has more words than any other language and while we can cover any Greek word, it is up to the reader to look at Greek-English dictionaries to discover the full meaning of what the original audience would have known just by looking at the Greek word in that verse. And most good translations will provide footnotes on important original language words, to expound on what the mean, the full sense of what was meant. There are interpretive translations that try to do this (CEV, NLT, TEV, etc.), but they are to not be fully trusted.
9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

EXAMPLE VERSE FROM PROVERBS

Proverbs 6:34 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
34 For jealousy enrages a man,
and he will not spare in the day of vengeance.

For jealousy enrages a man: Here jealousy (Heb. קִנְאָה qinah) is not the jealousy that one might think it to be. This Hebrew word is referring to righteous jealousy, an appropriate desire for what one has the right to, like the husband of the wife, who has been committing adultery with another man, such as the one from 6:25-33. Here in this context man (Heb. גֶּבֶר geber) is not being used as any man or all men but rather in the sense of maleness or manliness of those who are rightly enraged and have a case of righteous jealousy over having to lose the affection of their wife to another man. Enrage is a word rendered for a Hebrew word (Heb. חֵמָה chemah) that literally means venom, snake poison, but also carries the meaning of furry, a feeling of intense anger, wrath, and rage. This is a very strong feeling of displeasure, hostility, resentment, and bitterness for being wronged. This is an extension of the burning feeling, the heat that one feels when they are worked up over a great injustice, which has put them in emotional strife and turmoil.

And he will not spare in the day of vengeance: The expression will not spare means that the husband of the adulteress wife will not restrain his vengeful heart. The day of vengeance (Heb. נָקָם naqam) is coming for the man who stole his wife. The husband is going to punish, inflict retribution on this man, that is, he is going to be justified in his repaying back the harm that he himself has had to suffer. The husband is going to harm this man for the emotional injury that he has caused him, he will show him no mercy.

INVESTIGATING JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES REVIEWING 2013 New World Translation INVESTIGATING JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES

No modern language exactly reflects the original language vocabulary and grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Therefore, at times, a literal translation of the Bible can be ambiguous or not fully convey the intended meaning of the original author. When we render an original language word into a modern language, it needs to be understood that we lose some sense of the meaning that would have been conveyed to the original audience in their language.

The same Hebrew or Greek word can have widely different meanings in different contexts. For example, the Hebrew word zaqen and the Greek word presbuteros can be translated “older man,” or “elder,” and both are sometimes used to refer to persons that are advanced in age (Gen. 18:11; Deut. 28:50; 1 Sam. 2:22; 1 Tim 5:1-2)  or to the older of two persons (older son, Lu 15:25). However, it can also apply to those holding a position of authority and responsibility in the Christian congregation (elders, 1 Tim. 5:17), in the community or a nation. It is also used in reference to the ancestors of Israel (men of old, Heb. 11:2), as well as members of the Jewish Sanhedrin (elders, Matt. 16:21), and of the twenty-four elders (heavenly beings) seated on the twenty-four thrones around the throne of God (Rev. 4:4) Clearly, the context will determine what the author meant in his usage of these terms. The translator should always seek to reflect the literal rendering of the original language in every passage, but there will be some rare exception to this rule. Here are a few of those exceptions.

Jesus’ half-brother, James writes,

James 3:6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

And the tongue is a fire, the world of unrighteousness; the tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the course of life, and is set on fire by Gehenna.

 6 καὶalso the γλῶσσαtongue πῦρ,fire, the κόσμοςworld τῆςof the ἀδικίαςunrighteousness   the γλῶσσαtongue καθίσταταιto set, to place, appointed ἐνin τοῖςthe μέλεσινmembers ἡμῶν,of us, the (one) σπιλοῦσαspotting up ὅλονwhole τὸthe σῶμαbody καὶand φλογίζουσαsetting aflame τὸνthe τροχὸνwheel τῆςof the γενέσεωςbirth καὶand φλογιζομένηbeing set aflame ὑπὸby τῆςthe γεέννης.Gehenna. 

We have several great examples of translation decisions within this one verse.

In rendering, “the world of unrighteousness,” older translations and the 1995 NASB use the outdated term iniquity, which means “grossly immoral behavior.” From the verb from which the participle James uses, “staining the whole body” we literally have spotting the whole body, somewhat ambiguous, so we should adopt the lexical rendering “stained,” “defiled,” or “corrupted.” Then we have, “the course of life,” which is literally the wheel of birth (existence, origin).  Finally, translators of the Bible should avoid rendering the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades and Gehenna by the word hell. By simply transliterating these words it will force the reader to dig deeper for the intended meaning of the author.

When dated terms are used (iniquity), they should be replaced with a corresponding English word (unrighteousness) of the original biblical text. The Bible translators can use such literal wording as (stain, defile, corrupt) in place of such ambiguous expressions as “spotting the whole body,” which helps the modern reader avoid confusion. When the literal rendering comes across as making no sense (the wheel of birth), it is best to provide the sense of the original word(s).  A translation of the Greek geenna is best transliterated as Gehenna. An explanation of what the translator is doing in the text should be placed in a footnote, giving the reader access to all of the information. Again, these are rare exceptions to the rule that the translator should always seek to reflect the literal rendering of the original language in every passage.

Both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament render the original language words as “sleep” and “fall asleep,” which refer to a sleeping body and a dead body. Below, we can see from the context of Matthew 28:13 that this is physical sleep.

is-the-quran-the-word-of-god UNDERSTANDING ISLAM AND TERRORISM THE GUIDE TO ANSWERING ISLAM.png

Matthew 28:13 (UASV)

  • κοιμωμένων koimōmenōn
  • Lexical: sleep; fall asleep
  • Literal Translation: asleep
  • Sense: to be or become asleep

Matthew 28:13 Updated American Standard Version

13 and said, “Say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’

However, in the verses below the context is to be asleep in death; the figurative extension of the physical sleep in the sense of being at rest and peace; the person in the sleep of death exists in God’s memory as they sleep in death; it is only temporary for those who are physically asleep so it will be true for those who are asleep in death.

Acts 7:60 (UASV)

  • ἐκοιμήθη ekoimēthē
  • Lexical: sleep; fall asleep
  • Literal Translation: asleep

Sense: to be asleep in death; the figurative extension of the physical sleep in the sense of being at rest and at peace; the person in the sleep of death exists in God’s memory as they sleep in death; it is only temporary for those who are physically asleep so it will be true of those who are asleep in death.

Acts 7:60 Updated American Standard Version

60 Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep in death.

1 Corinthians 7:39 (UASV)

  • κοιμηθῇ koimēthē
  • Lexical: sleep; fall asleep
  • Literal Translation: asleep

Sense: to be asleep in death; the figurative extension of the physical sleep in the sense of being at rest and at peace; the person in the sleep of death exists in God’s memory as they sleep in death; it is only temporary for those who are physically asleep so it will be true of those who are asleep in death.

1 Corinthians 7:39 Updated American Standard Version

39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband falls asleep in death, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

1 Thessalonians 4:13 (UASV)

  • κοιμωμένων koimaōmenōn
  • Lexical: sleep; fall asleep
  • Literal Translation: asleep

Sense: to be asleep in death; the figurative extension of the physical sleep in the sense of being at rest and at peace; the person in the sleep of death exists in God’s memory as they sleep in death; it is only temporary for those who are physically asleep so it will be true of those who are asleep in death.

1 Thessalonians 4:13 Updated American Standard Version

13 But we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who are sleeping in death, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.

Here Paul is addressing the issue of those “who are sleeping” in death (koimaōmenōn). Koimaō is a common word for sleep that can be used as “to sleep,” “sleep,” or “fall asleep.” However, it is also used in Greek, Jewish, Christian writings, and the apostle Paul’s letters as a figurative extension of the physical sleep in the sense of being asleep in death. Paul is not using the common sense of the word here but rather he is using it to refer to the condition of the dead between death and the resurrection.

Psalm 13:3 (UASV)

  •  פֶּן־אִישַׁ֥ן הַמָּֽוֶת׃ pen-išān
  • Lexical: lest I sleep the death
  • Literal Translation: lest I sleep in death

Sense: to be asleep in death; the figurative extension of the physical sleep in the sense of being at rest and at peace; the person in the sleep of death exists in God’s memory as they sleep in death; it is only temporary for those who are physically asleep so it will be true of those who are asleep in death.

Psalm 13:3 Updated American Standard Version

Consider and answer me, Jehovah my God;
give light to my eyes
lest I sleep in death,

1 Kings 2:10 (UASV)

  • שְׁכַּ֥ב šāḵǎḇ
  • Lexical: lie down; rest; sleep
  • Literal Translation: slept

Sense: to be asleep in death; the figurative extension of the physical sleep in the sense of being at rest and at peace; the person in the sleep of death exists in God’s memory as they sleep in death; it is only temporary for those who are physically asleep so it will be true of those who are asleep in death.

1 Kings 2:10 Updated American Standard Version

10 Then David slept in death with his forefathers and was buried in the city of David.

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

Some have argued that the dynamic equivalent thought-for-thought translations (Then David died and was buried, NLT) are conveying the idea in a more clear and immediate way, but is this really the case? Retaining the literal rendering, the metaphorical use of the word sleep is best because of the similarities that exist between physical sleep and the sleep of death. Without the literal rendering, this would be lost on the reader. Retaining the literal rendering, “slept,” and adding the phrase “in death” completes the sense in the English text.

Nevertheless, there are times when the literal translation can be misunderstood or misinterpreted. James 5:1 is translated, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under judgment.” The Greek is literally, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let yours is to be yes, yes, and no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.” This would make little sense. Romans 12:1 is translated, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” The Greek is literally, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be in the spirit boiling, serving the Lord.” This would certainly cause confusion.

A literal translation is certainly more than a word-for-word rendering of the original language of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The corresponding English words need to be brought over according to English grammar and syntax but the translation at the same time must be faithful to the original word or as much as possible for the author may have use word order to emphasize or convey some meaning. In most cases, the translator is simply rendering the original-language word with the same corresponding English term each time it occurs. The translator has used his good judgment in order to select words in the English translation from the lexicon within the context of the original-language text. The translator remains faithful to this literal translation philosophy unless it has been determined that the rendering will be misunderstood or misinterpreted. The translator is not tasked with making the text easy to read but rather to make it as accurately faithful to the original as possible. The translator’s primary purpose is to give the Bible readers what God said by way of his human authors, not what a translator thinks God meant in its place. The translator’s primary goal is to be accurate and faithful to the original text. The meaning of a word is the responsibility of the interpreter (i.e., reader), not the translator. Nevertheless, extremes in the literal translation of the text just for the sake of being literal must be avoided.

Many modern-day English translations have taken the unjustifiable liberty in their choice of omitting the Father’s personal name, Jehovah, from modern translations of the Old Testament even though that name is found in ancient Bible manuscripts. Many translations replace the personal name with a title, such as “LORD.” The personal name of the Father is found thousands of times in the 1901 American Standard Version and will be retained here in the Updated American Standard Version.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

TRANSLATION BARRIER

  1. You have a human imperfection that will affect the translation.
  2. Theological bias is one area where human imperfection comes into play.
  3. The literal translation is lexical or linguistic interpretation, meaning it comes over from the original language (OL) into the receptor language (RL) word for word. For example, it does not matter whether you say Jesus went out into the wilderness or the desert, both are in the lexicon as an option and fit the context. Sadly, there are some literal translations that forsake their translation principles and go beyond what was said into the meaning of what the author meant by those words, namely, interpretation.
  4. The dynamic equivalent interpretations are nothing more than mini-commentaries and the translator is giving his interpretation of what the text means not what it says.
  5. In order to have a perfect translation, you would have to have a translator or a translation committee that are not impacted by their human imperfection, who then choose the perfect rendering or better yet have a perfect rendering to choose every single time, hundreds of thousands of times.
Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

WHAT WE HAVE IN ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS

  1. The American Standard Version (ASV) is a very good translation but is still plagued by archaic words and some poor translation choices. which is why Christian Publishing House is working on the UPDATED AMERICAN STANDARD VERSION (UASV) See below.
  2. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) is a very good translation.
  3. The English Standard Version (ESV) is a great translation but fails many times to stay with its translation philosophy. Crossway Bible actually hired Bill Mounce to be the chief translator and he prefers dynamic equivalent translation principles, and he overrules the committee many times. The ESV dodges its accountability by calling itself an ESSENTIALLY LITERAL TRANSLATION. My question is, do you want essentially the Word of God or do you want the Word of God.
  4. The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) is also a great translation but is even worse than the ESV in its abandonment of their literal translation philosophy. CSB says of itself, “Developed by 100 scholars from 17 denominations, the Christian Standard Bible faithfully and accurately captures the Bible’s original meaning without compromising readability.” Imagine the theological biased conversations with 100 Bible translators from 17 denominations. The CSB calls itself the Optimal Equivalence. Equivalence is ambiguous at best. “The terms currently in fashion have the pernicious effect of privileging dynamic equivalence over the rival theory of translation. Consider the formula verbal equivalence. This would be innocuous and even helpful if it meant ‘finding the equivalent English word for the word in the original.’ The problem is that the word equivalent has already been co-opted by dynamic equivalent advocates. It carries the connotation of being a substitute for rather than corresponding to the words of the original biblical text.”—Ryken, Leland. Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach (Kindle Locations 221-225). Crossway.
  5. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is a very good translation but it has the drawback of trying to be all things to all people by keeping the corruptions from the King James Version. It seems that The Lockman Foundation desires the retaining of King James Version Only readers more than what God’s Word said. Sadly, the NASB2020 edition has decided to dip its toes into the interpretive translation philosophy and now is trying to rationalize such a move. While one cannot know for certain what motivated such a turn of events, it seems the goal is to garner a bigger share of the market that the ESV and the CSB hold. The NASB has never tried to market and advertise to this market (semi-literal) translation readers in order to convince them to come over to the literal side. So, I guess they decided it was better to join them.
  6. Every translator has biases, as does this one who is authoring this post. However, bias is only bad if you act on it. Just because one is biased, this does not mean he is wrong. It is evidence that demonstrates his biases as being bad. For example, is a grammar rule in the Gospel of John 20 times and the translator(s) render it according to the rule 19 times but on a particular verse, they violate the grammar rule because it would alter their preferred rendering that supports their doctrinal position.
DEFENDING OLD TESTAMENT AUTHORSHIP Agabus Cover BIBLICAL CRITICISM

UPDATED AMERICAN STANDARD VERSION (UASV)

OUR PURPOSE

Our primary purpose is to give the Bible readers what God said by way of his human authors, not what a translator thinks God meant in its place.—Truth Matters!

OUR GOAL

Our primary goal is to be accurate and faithful to the original text. The meaning of a word is the responsibility of the interpreter (i.e., reader), not the translator.—Translating Truth!

Why UASV?

The translation of God’s Word from the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek is a task unlike any other and should never be taken lightly. It carries with it the heaviest responsibility: the translator renders God’s thoughts into a modern language. The Updated American Standard Version (UASV) is a literal translation. What does that mean?

Removing the Outdated:

  • Passages with the Old English “thee’s” and “thou’s” etc. have been replaced to modern English.
  • Many words and phrases that were extremely ambiguous or easily misunderstood since the 1901 ASV have been updated according to the best lexicons.
  • Verses with difficult word order or vocabulary have been translated into correct English grammar and syntax, for easier reading. However, if the word order of the original conveyed meaning, it was kept.

More Accurate:

  • The last 110+ years has seen the discovering of far more manuscripts, especially the papyri, with many manuscripts dating within 100 years of the originals.
  • While making more accurate translation choices, we have stayed true to the literal translation philosophy of the ASV, while other literal translations abandon the philosophy far too often.
  • The translator seeks to render the Scriptures accurately, without losing what the Bible author penned by changing what the author wrote, by distorting or embellishing through imposing what the translator believes the author meant into the original text.
  • Accuracy in Bible translation is being faithful to what the original author wrote (the words that he used), as opposed to going beyond into the meaning, trying to determine what the author meant by his words. The latter is the reader’s job.
  • The translator uses the most reliable, accurate critical texts (e.g., WH, NA, UBS, BHS, as well as the original language texts, versions, and other sources that will help him to determine the original reading.
BIBLE DIFFICULTIES

Why the Need For Updated Translations

  • New manuscript discoveries
  • Changes in the language
  • A better understanding of the original languages
  • Improved insight into Bible translation
  • Among other things

SOURCES: Updated American Standard Version

How to Count Textual Variants

Basics of Translation Philosophy

Translating Things that Get in the Way of Understanding

Translating the Unknown

Idioms in Bible Translation

Bible Translation Philosophy

MEANING VS. FORM: Does It Matter How We Say Something?

The Making of a Worthy Translation

Different Kinds of Bible Translations

Gender-Inclusive Language in Bible Translation

The Bible Translation Debate

Function Vs. Form – a False Dichotomy

Defining (And Redefining) [Bible Translation] Terminology

Why the Bible Is Different From Other Great Books

The Basics of the Bible Translation Process

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3 thoughts on “Can the Bible Ever Be Translated Perfectly into English?

Add yours

    1. Randall, three things: (1) The UASV is an UPDATED version of the American Standard Version. (2) The American Standard Version has “Jehovah” 5,000 times. (3) Jehovah” (Heb., יהוה), God’s personal name was in the Hebrew Old Testament 6,973 times. We are not seeking to please people with our translation. We do not leave something out that God had put in for the sake of not sinking a version. You are either working for truth or are you are seeking to please people and you cannot please everyone. We seek to please God.

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