Francis R. Steele
This excellent article by Dr. Steele was first carried in the September 26, 1960, issue of the magazine Christianity Today. The confusion caused by the general acceptance and wide circulation of the loose translations and the paraphrases in our day is much greater than ever. We are delighted to have Dr. Steele’s permission to reprint this most instructive item. It states clearly the position which evangelical Bible-believing scholars almost without exception have resolutely affirmed for the past 1900 years and more. It stems from an undeviating belief in the verbal plenary inspiration of the Scriptures as given in the original languages.
Dr. Francis Rue Steele is the Home Secretary of the North Africa Mission. He has held this responsible position for many years. He was Assistant Professor of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania from 1947-53, and was also Assistant Curator of the Babylonian Section of the University Museum. Twice he has been annual professor of the Bagdad School of American Schools of Oriental Research. He holds the
M. A. and Ph. D. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.
—N. A. Woychuk
Translation or Paraphrase
The past half century, and especially the past 20 years, has produced a spate of new “translations” of the Bible. We are told that Elizabethan English is no longer intelligible to the majority of younger Christians, and especially the unchurched multitude; also, that newer manuscript evidence requires elimination of hundreds (if not thousands) of presumed errors in the Authorized Version. There is some truth in these allegations, but not nearly so much as advertisements for the new volumes suggest. Moreover, it is doubtful if all the new translations provide the correctives they profess. Not infrequently they simply substitute their own confusion for that which they claim to have dispelled. This is especially true in their claim to the title “Translation.” Few recent works have any right whatever to that title. And this is the very core of the problem: What is a translation?
What is a Translation?
The liberties taken by many so-called translators is seen in their violation of the limits of true translation in distinction from paraphrase. Any technical definition of “translation” must emphasize the meticulous accuracy with which such limits must be observed, especially by scholars who profess to believe in scriptural revelation.
A brief dictionary definition of “translate” is “carry over into one’s own or another language.” This is sufficiently broad to admit of almost any license, and might even be thought to justify loose practices among present-day “translators.” Therefore, allow me to substitute a definition learned by experience in translating Babylonian and Sumerian documents, in which I valued highly the training received from one of America’s outstanding scholars in the field of Assyriology. The discipline taught me the inviolable principles embodied in my concept of a legitimate translation. This is it: A translation should convey as much of the original text in as few words as possible, yet preserve the original atmosphere and emphasis. The translator should strive for the nearest approximation in words, concepts, and cadence. He should scrupulously avoid adding words or ideas not demanded by the text. His job is not to expand or to explain, but to translate and preserve the spirit and force of the original—even, if need be, at the expense of modern colloquialisms—so long as the resultant translation is intelligible.
Some linguists may object that the above definition is unduly rigid, and may seek greater latitude in the interest of more literary or colloquial translation. They might point to liberties necessarily taken in the translation of a Chinese or Sanscrit poem into English. However, there is a vast difference between translating a Sanskrit poem and the Bible into English. In the former case we are dealing primarily with ideas, cast in an alien mold, which may best be conveyed in English by a rather free translation. In the latter case we are dealing with a document whose language and vocabulary were specially chosen by the Holy Spirit for the communication of particular truths. No translator—least of all an evangelical Christian who holds to the inspiration of the Scriptures—dare ignore that fact. Not just ideas, but words are important; so also is the emphasis indicated by word order in the sentence.
It should be noted first that when translating the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text into English, we are not faced with serious problems of cultural extremes. The physical and social background of the ancient Near East is much closer to our general European society and economy than to either a tropical culture of Central Africa or the arctic culture of the Esquimaux. This eliminates many knotty problems of cultural transference in translation. By and large, the pastoral or urban society of Bible times can be transferred directly and in its own terms into intelligible English. Moreover, the past four centuries of acquaintance with the Bible have introduced into our common speech many words and ideas originating in the society of Bible lands (such as “crucifixion,” animal sacrifices, and so on) which, though initially strange to the European scene, are now quite familiar. This makes the task of translating the Bible into English simpler than into the language of a people with an opposite or primitive culture. It is therefore easier to achieve a nearly word for word transfer which the nature of the inspired text deserves.
If the ultimate Author, the Holy Spirit, employed a certain language as the medium of communication of divine truth, we must assume that He also deliberately employed the particular words of that language in a particular manner to achieve His purpose. Anyone familiar with word studies in the original languages can testify to the amazing consistency of employment of particular terms throughout the Bible and also the wealth of truth conveyed by deliberate use of similar or contrasting terms in particular circumstances. When a certain word is used several times in one passage, or even in different books, to convey a particular idea, a good translator will follow this pattern wherever possible. In this respect many helpful corrections have been applied to the Authorized Version by recent translations. But men violate a basic principle of translation when they choose to substitute for individual words or short phrases long “homiletic” passages of private interpretation.
Look at a few illustrative examples. To translate the simple Greek sentence “does this cause you to stumble?” (John 6:61, three words in Greek) as “does this cause you to disapprove of me and hinder you from acknowledging my authority?” is inexcusable on any grounds. Even the RSV rendering “does this cause you to take offense?” is debatable, since it unnecessarily changes the tone of the question and adds a personal element absent in the original. Note the liberties taken by Weymouth (“does this seem incredible to you?”) and Lloyd (“doth this lead you astray?”). The question in the original Greek is terse and laconic, “does this cause you to stumble?” There is nothing profound or difficult about this and the concept is one which is quite familiar to English-speaking people. There is no hint of any personal animus or disloyalty on the part of the disciples; suggestions of this nature are speculations by the translators. Adding the ideas of “incredible,” “misleading,” “authority,” and “disapproval” is unjustified in a translation though, perhaps, admissible in a commentary.
Even to alter the emphasis from negative to positive while stating the same basic idea is unjustified. For example, for the KJV “Let love be without dissimulation” (Rom. 12:19), the RSV has “Let love be genuine.” Both are essentially the same, to be sure, but oriented differently. The Greek word anupokritos means literally “unfeigned” (cf. 1 Pet. 1:22, where KJV has “unfeigned” but RSV has “sincere”). If the Author had intended either “genuine” or “sincere,” He would have said so. There are perfectly good Greek words for these ideas. Can it be that the word “unfeigned” is unknown to literate Americans?
Frequently the full weight of meaning conveyed by repetition of the same Greek root word is lost in translation, since different English words are used where one word consistently used could have preserved the original force intact. For example, in speaking of qualifications for the Christian ministry in the light of its grave responsibility, Paul writes “who is sufficient for these things’?” (2 Cor. 2:16) and adds “not that we are sufficient of ourselves … but our sufficiency is of God who has also made us sufficient ministers” (2 Cor. 3:5, 6). For the last of these four words (all forms of hikanos in Greek), KJV has “made us able,” and RSV has “qualified us.” Both obscure a deliberate and significant pattern. But Phillips reworks the passage so that it is well-nigh impossible to establish any equivalence between the Greek words and his rendering. “Who could think himself adequate for a responsibility like this? . . . We dare to say such things because of the confidence we have in God through Christ, and not because we are confident of our own powers. It is God Who makes us competent . . . . “ For four similar words in Greek derived from one root, he uses three different words (adequate, confidence, confident, and competent) and adds several words for which there is no textual evidence. This is certainly not a translation. It is almost a homily; useful in its place but misleading to one who seeks the words of the Author.
The Limits of Translation
I realize that it is impossible to make a perfect transfer from one language to another in any translation. I realize also that the translator must make choice of those words in the second language which he thinks best convey the thought of the original. But frequently the translator appears to forget that the original words were chosen purposefully, and tends deliberately to cast the sentences into new molds which convey the idea in a significantly different spirit or emphasis. He thus unnecessarily robs the text of at least some of its original import. This practice may be justified in some fields of literature, but it is inadmissible when one is dealing with the inspired Word of God.
Certainly many words and even passages in an acceptable translation of the Bible will benefit from a more extended treatment. But such treatment belongs in a commentary, not in a translation. We expect in a translation the closest approximation to the original text of the Word of God that linguistic and philological science can produce. We want to know what God said—not what Doctor So-and-so thinks God meant by what He said. There is a great difference between the two, and we intrude on holy ground when we ignore the distinction.