This article is the twelfth in the series called “The Theology of the Text,” designed to cover the topic of the text in short, accessible articles.
The Theology of the Text: What is Biblical Translation Methodology?
This is arguably the most practical question to ask and answer as it pertains to the Bible that Christians read. Unfortunately, it is the least considered topic. Typically, the conversation over “Which Bible” centers around the underlying text and the ease of readability. The most important factor in translation, however, is whether or not the translators have accurately set forth the original languages into various common languages. It is unfaithful to pick a translation that uses easier words, if those easier words are simply not accurate. A common problem in modern translation methodology is that translators often include their interpretation of a word in the translation. That means that in a certain sense, the translation committee has done exegesis for the reader, and is forcing the reader to take their interpretation of what the word means rather than the plain meaning of the word.
A great example of this is Galatians 5:12, though there are countless examples in modern versions. The passage reads this way in the ESV and KJV:
“I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! “ (ESV)
“I would they were even cut off which trouble you.” (KJV)
The word in question is αποκοψονται (apokopsontai), which is a form of a word which simply means “To cut off” or to “cut away.” There are two ways to take Paul’s meaning. The first, is that he’s expressing that these people would castrate themselves, and the second is that he is expressing that these people would excommunicate themselves from the church at Galatia. It is also possible that he is using this language to communicate both in one sentence. The point is that a translation should set forth the original, and the reader should then be responsible for understanding the meaning based on the plan translation of the original word. The problem is that, when interpretation is done in the translation, the reader doesn’t have the opportunity to do proper exegesis without consulting the original languages, and thus setting forth the requirement that every average Bible reader be at least a little capable in the original languages. This interpretive translation methodology is one of the leading causes for people to distrust their translations, and rightfully so. In photography terms, this kind of translation methodology is like a forced perspective, where a person sees a photo from the perspective that the photographer wants them to see.
If you watch the videos of the ESV translation committee making translational decisions, they discuss the theology of the words more than what the word actually means. This should concern everybody involved, because it means that such a translation will have built into it the theological interpretations of the translation committee in the translation itself. This is not a Biblical approach to translation. The Scriptures were immediately inspired in the original autographs and preserved in the apographs by God’s providence. It should be the objective of translators to set forth accurately into every vulgar tongue what those languages said, without adding interpretation into the translation. Even if the translation committee gets the interpretation correct, they still have not set forth the original, and thus have obscured the text.
There are many valid arguments in support of formal equivalence (“Word for word”) and dynamic equivalence (“Thought for thought”) in translation. The reality is, no translation is entirely formal, or entirely dynamic. In order to set forth one language into another, both are necessary and should be used to communicate smoothly what the original languages are saying. In most cases, formal equivalence is more appropriate, and in some cases, dynamic equivalence is more appropriate. In both styles of translation, the goal should be translation, however, not interpretation. This interpretive translation methodology is also the cause of the gender inclusive language in the modern Bibles. Many have attributed this shift, rightly, to the increasing amount of liberalism in evangelicalism, but the problem is ultimately with the translation methodology, not the translators.
The translation methodology can, and should, constrain the translation committees from their editorialism in translation, and thus prevent translations from carrying the theology of the translator in it. Conservatives engage in the same style of interpretive translation methodology, they are just conservative, so their interpretive translations are often received better in evangelical circles. It is not the job of a translator to add his or her theological spin in the translation itself, it is the job of the exegete to pull the meaning out of the text. This interpretive translation methodology has been practically harmful to the church, because it has caused the average Bible reader to believe that they have to “Go back to the Greek” to rightly understand the text. The problem is, you cannot adequately understand a language by simply having a lexicon, and Christians who go back to the Greek almost always butcher the text by doing so. The fruit of such translation methodology is exegetical chaos.