Something that approaches “pet peeve” status for me is the way some people put down certain editions of the Bible. “Oh, that’s just a paraphrase, not a real translation,” people often say about the The Message or some such thing. So for the sake of my own sanity, and the education of the six people in the world who’ll probably ever read this, here’s a quick run-down of some key terms that people constantly abuse.
Translation – This is the process (or product) of taking something in one language and putting it into another. Unless you’re reading the Bible in ancient paleo-Hebrew or Koine Greek , you’re reading a translation of it. There are are three major categories of translation: a gloss, paraphrase, and imitation.
Gloss – A gloss is very basic: you start with the original word, replace it with the best-fit translation word (as best as you can figure out), and then go on to the next. You might switch around the word order a little bit and toss in some punctuation so it’s somewhat readable in the new language, but otherwise it’s very limited. I’m not sure any Bible translation out there completely falls into this category. Luke 2:1 would read “It happened and in days those went out a decree from Caesar Augustus to register all the inhabitants.”
Paraphrase – Virtually every Bible you will ever see in your life is a paraphrase. Rather than working word by word, this translation method goes phrase by phrase. Not only is it seeking to re-order the words so that readers of the target language can understand it well, but the way individual words are translated are also worked out in context of those phrases. If you just look at the Hebrew word nephesh on its own, you’ll probably translate it as wind. But when you see the phrase nephesh elohim, you’ll probably come up with God’s spirit instead of God’s wind. Thus, all paraphrases require some degree of interpretation.
Imitation – This is taking a text in one language and rewriting it as if the original author was living in the current day speaking the current language. Most English Bibles don’t fall into this category, but there are many Bible translation projects out there for the overseas mission field that draw upon this method. Why would someone do this? The reasons can be quite simple: what do you do with a culture that doesn’t know what a sheep is? Do you translate the Lamb of God into some other animal that they’ll recognize? What if the language doesn’t have a word for “love” or for “righteousness”? Imitations also include media changes, like for example the famous Jesus film fits in this category.
What’s the deal with Interpretations? As I said in the paraphrase section, every translation involves interpretation. The reason for this is simple: no two languages are the same. The more similar they are, the more direct the translation works, and the more different they are, the more interpretation is required in order to translate. Remember: interpretation is not about changing the meaning, but delivering the meaning. For the most part, “interpret” and “translate” mean the same thing. Yes, interpretations (like translations) can be done poorly or incorrectly, but they are not inherently bad.
So when we talk about the different types of Bible translations in English, we should first remember that they are all technically paraphrases. With that in mind, we can then narrow in to the more specific question of leaning more towards “word-for-word” gloss or more towards the “thought-for-thought” imitation. And again, I can’t emphasize enough, one is not necessarily better than the other. Take for example Psalm 103 verse 8…
Hebrew: rachum v’channu Yehwah arech aphim v’rab-chased
Gloss: merciful and gracious [is] I AM, long-nose and great steadfast-love
word-for-word Paraphrase: “Yahweh is merciful and gracious, is long-nosed, and has greatl steadfast-love!”
thought-for-thought Paraphrase: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Imitation: “God is merciful and even freely gives gifts. He’s not easily angered, but is rich in love and faithful to his promises.”
Is it remotely meaningful to any English-speaker to say that God has a long nose? Not at all! It’s an expression in the ancient Hebrew language to refer to the virtue of patience. A word-for-word translation would only confuse us; the thought-for-thought translation is far more beneficial.
Sometimes, though, it’s good to wrestle with the some of the technical terms in the Bible. That’s when the word-for-word approach comes in handy. Ultimately we need the wide range of translation approaches to give us the best possible understanding of the original language of Scripture. It’s okay to have a favorite, but it’s better to have two favorites – one on either end of the spectrum.
Personally, I enjoy the RSV and ESV at the word-based end of the spectrum, and the NLT at the thought-based end. Though there’s really nothing wrong with the NASB, NIV, KVJ, Message, NET, and so forth, understood in their proper categories.