The Word Translated

Have you ever bumped into the same topic over and over again?  I keep on running into the topic of Biblical translation. I read How the Bible Works; An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism by Brian Malley with one book group. And I am reading Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson with another group.  Then last Friday,I read my friend’s blog about versions of the Bible. 

8-book-pilesThis may mean nothing more than I need to expand the kind of books and blogs I read. ( So today at the library I checked out four novels and Team of Rivals). Nevertheless, I have spent some time thinking about why we Christians have so many translations of the Bible and what that might mean.

The multiplicity of translations is a relatively recent event.  As you will recall, one of the reformers’ daring ideas was that people should be able to read Scripture in their own languages.  And the translating has been nonstop ever since.

I want to consider two aspects of translation today. The first is our habit of translating the Bible into a variety of different languages.  There are groups dedicated to translating the Bible into every language. The Wycliffe Bible Translators may be one of the best known groups. Why Christians do this is, I think, fairly simple.  We are called to spread the Good News. Jesus tells the disciples to go out into the world- to the ends of the earth in  Matthew 28 .   And in Acts  2 each person hears the gospel in their own language rather than miraculously being able to understand Greek (or whatever language  the disciples were speaking). It seems a logical step, once there are Christian writings, to translate them into other languages.

The second aspect of translation concerns the multitude of English language translations. My friend suggests in his 800px-alte_buecherblog that this has more to do with the variety of theological viewpoints held by the groups doing the translation than significant translation issues. I suspect he is right. Translation always involves interpretation.  Words can have more than one meaning and knowing which one was originally intended can be open to interpretation.

But there is, as always, a theological concern here as well. Christians believe the Bible is the word of God. Having a variety of translations that are not exactly the same  seems to suggest a certain fluidity about what the word of God actually is. How can several versions of the Bible each be the word of God?

Some folks might answer that question by saying that they can’t. We must have one version that is The Bible and the remaining texts are close but in the end not adequate. Or one could say that the differences between the various texts are minor and don’t affect the overall message of the Bible.

But those answers beg the question.  What is the word of God and how do we recognize it? It seems to me, when we say the Bible is the word of God we are not saying the Bible is the words of God. Inspired text is not dictated text. In fact we don’t have the original copies of any of the books in the Bible.  So there is necessarily a certain level of trust involved.

We need to be able to trust the translators, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

The one whom we trust is God. We trust that God through the Holy Spirit is present and active in the reading and the translating and the living. We trust that even though fallible humans are involved in the writing and translating and interpretation of the text, the Spirit is present in that process.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes- that any attempt at translation, any interpretation is “fixed” somehow by the Holy Spirit. We need to be careful and thoughtful.  And we need to take proper advantage of the various translations.

The word of God to us is sometimes simple but often complex. Sometimes the varieties of translations can help us comprehend the subtleties of the original language. We can glimpse a richer, more complex interpretation. God’s word comes to us through words. Words require interpretation by  humans. And the Word requires interpretation by a person.

Perhaps that’s why my tradition talks about the Bible as the written word which points to the living Word, Jesus Christ. The Word of God is not a book, it’s a person.

I’d like to know, what do you think?

If you are interested in the closely related topic of authority and Biblical authority, I would recommend N.T. Wright’s book The Last Word.  You can get a taste of his ideas from this article, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritiative” found at the N.T. Wright page.

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One Response to “The Word Translated”

  1. Solveig Says:

    This is the kind of stuff that rattles around in my mind. I think you’re on the right track with focusing on the Word of God rather than the words of God–and trusting God to make the Word alive. Jesus is the Word–the expression of God that communicates to us. It’s his story and life that gives life to everything.

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