Translation Theology

No, this is not an attack on any Bible translation. But it is a serious question — how do our translations of the Bible  influence the forming of our Christian worldview? We believe that God intended his Word to be translated into every language. Yet as we make the transition from Greek or Hebrew text to English or some other language, meaning is modified, often in subtle ways and without intention. The trust that Bible translators carry is immense, to say the least.

Does it make a difference whether we call John "the baptizer" or "the immerser" (Mark 1:4)? After all, the term "baptize" is a transliteration of the Greek, not a translation. And what has been the effect of using "Christ" (Mark 1:1) to render the Greek word for Messiah, i.e. anointed one? Or what image is created in our minds when we read the Jesus "preached the word"  (Mark 2:2)to the crowds gathered at his house in Capernaum? Was it a three pointer? Topical or expository? Or one wonders why the New International Version (NIV) translates euaggelion as "gospel" in Mark 1:1 and then "good news" in Mark 1:14-15, and then reverts to "gospel" in all the other occurrences in Mark until Mark 16:15 when suddenly it is "good news" again. What contextual factors would lead to such variance? Does this kind of alternation affect how we understand God’s Word and influence the theology that we formulate?

In Mark 2:15-17 the word hamartoloi is translated "sinners". It is placed in quotation marks in verses 15-16, but not in verse 17. In the Markan text "sinners" is differentiated from tax-collectors in 2:15-16. But when we hear the word, our grid tends to be formed by the Pauline understanding, i.e. "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." But obviously this is not the kind of "sinner" that the Greek text of Mark 2:15-16 is  describing. But then in 2:17 we suddenly find the word "sinner" used in Jesus’ response, but without any quotation marks around it.  Presumably the contrast in his words between "righteous" and "sinner" changes the nuance of the term in the mind of the translator, from describing a social category, to describing a spiritual category.  When we come to the story of Jesus’ betrayal in Mark 14:41, Jesus says that "the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners." The NIV does not place any quotation marks around the word "sinners" in this context. But what did Jesus mean by using this term in 14:41? Is he placing his betrayers in the social category defined by the scribes in Mark 2:15-16 or is he defining them as "sinners", i.e. sinful human beings?

Examples could be multiplied and while the NIV is used as an example here, all translations struggle with this problem. But these instances beg the question about the way these renderings, read by millions of people and liturgically intoned countless times in the hearing of the faithful, shape or perhaps mis-shape the theology of the average believer.

I do not raise this question to create doubt about the trustworthiness of good Bible translations. Rather, I draw attention to this reality — our theology does get shaped by how we read these translations, whether we like it or not. Frequent reference to the Greek or Hebrew text becomes more important, not less, as the number, type and quality of English Bible translations continues to multiply. Preachers and teachers have a significant responsibility to make sure they "divide the Word of God rightly." Perhaps competence in New Testament Greek or biblical Hebrew is becoming more important, not less, so that ministry leaders guide and form God’s people as diligently as possible. If we take short cuts here, what might be the unintended consequences?

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3 thoughts on “Translation Theology

  1. Mr. Mark Naylor

    Hi Paul,
    I appreciate your response and your concerns. In response to the last paragraph, I would suggest two things:
    1) You are already “dancing” by your ability to interact with commentaries, the demands of culture, the concerns of your congregation, personal understanding of Scripture, different Bible versions, personal history and priorities etc. The dance is unavoidable, the question is how to dance well.
    2) The expertise provided by those Bible versions and biblical scholars whose focus is the original languages, far outstrips the ability of any pastor in providing accuracy in translation. In fact, any translation (personal or through the rigorous process of engaging 60 to 100 scholars) is dependent upon and constantly referring to other scholarship (such as archeology) in order to ensure correct interpretation. This, too, is an ongoing “dance.”

  2. paultruman

    I might disagree with that post, only in that the people who are preaching and teaching in a church ought to be responsible for the translation and its implications. While the thought of teachers networking with others who have a stronger language background sounds good enough, I find the reality of the lives of these men most often leaves them making translation decisions very quickly and with many mistakes. The people in my church most often take the translation work I do without question and I feel compelled to do translation work each week I preach. It seems as thought studying the scriptures has been replaced in today’s church with preparing a sermon, is that true?
    To respond to how you see Northwest, as a student of the school I am looking to be given the education so I can be competent in translation and interpretation of the scriptures. I don’t find there is even a way for me to ‘dance’ with the competencies of others, perhaps because I live in a more remote area.

  3. Mr. Mark Naylor

    Good comments. All translation is interpretation and thus plays a fundamental role in the shaping of the Christian community’s theology because the translation is, in itself, a theological expression (hopefully reflecting the message of the original).

    We do need people competent in the original languages and cultures in order to assist in the exegesis and appropriate application and I don’t want my following comments to be read as disagreeing with your article. At the same time I would hesitate to suggest that all pastors, even preaching pastors, need to make it a priority to be competent in the original languages. Rather, I would encourage more intentional networking and dialogue allowing people to serve according to their gifts and inclinations. In order to teach accurately, they need to have access to such competence, but perhaps this does not need to be their personal competence.

    This is similar to my approach in Bible translation. I have studied both Greek and Hebrew but do not imagine myself to be a scholar of the original languages. Rather my knowledge of the original languages allows me to comprehend the arguments of the scholars. They are, figuratively speaking, on my translation team. I depend on them to clarify the particular nuance of “sinner” when in the mouth of Christ or the Pharisees. This, I think, is a realistic approach for the average pastor and teacher.

    At the same time this is only part of the theological “dance” that includes the in and out movement from the details of the text (words such as “sinner”) to the broader message and intent of the passage. It includes the dialectical relationship between culture and revelation. It includes the personal interaction that people have with the text and it includes the working of the Spirit.

    We do need people competent in the original languages, but perhaps even more, we need the humility to engage in the broader dance with others rather than seek for personal competencies in too many areas. To me, the value of institutions like Northwest is they teach people how to “dance.” That is, a fundamental purpose is providing the tools so that people can benefit from others’ competencies, something even more important than developing personal competencies.


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