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Translations, Translations

November 18, 2017

I’ve recently been asked again about “the best” translation of the Greek NT.  The answer isn’t simple.  All translations of all texts involve multiple factors and decisions to be made.  There is the aim of conveying the source text in a different language, and a different culture.

Do you translate “woodenly”, repeating the sentence structure of the source text, which may sound strange to the target readers?  Or do you adjust the syntax to reflect the way that sentences are constructed in the target language?  Greek word-order, for example operates on different rules from English.  Because Greek is a more “inflected” language, word-order can serve for emphasis, whereas in English word-order often conveys the syntax of the sentence, and so meaning.

Do you translate literally the idioms and figures of speech of the source text, or try to give equivalents in the target language?  Here’s a vivid example:  In several OT texts, the Hebrew refers to “every one who pisses against a wall” (1 Sam 25:22, 24; 1 Kings 14:10; 16:11; 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8).  The King James translators boldly rendered this expression woodenly in all these texts.  But most more recent translations have chosen to render the expression as “every male” or something such (which, of course, is what the Hebrew expression means).

Or take the question of how to handle the NT references to “brothers,” e.g., in various epistles where the entire church is addressed.  The NRSV translators chose to render the term in these instances as “brothers and sisters”.  On the one hand, that’s not a “literal” translation.  On the other hand, in the Greek texts in question, the “brothers” addressed included many females as well as males.  In very recent English, we’ve begun to try to avoid the “androcentric” terminology of referring to the human race as “all men.”  The Greek NT reflects the androcentric linguistic practice of Koine Greek.  So, if we translate adelphoi “literally” as “brothers”, the erroneous impression might be taken by modern readers/hearers that the early churches were made up exclusively by males, or that only males were addressed.

I recall a “lay” person expressing dismay that a particular translation had rendered the reference to Jesus’ “precious blood” in 1 Peter 1:19 as Jesus’ “costly sacrifice.”  But, of course, in speaking of Jesus’ “precious blood,” the author didn’t mean the liquid coursing through Jesus’ veins, but his death.  So, “costly sacrifice” wasn’t an altogether bad translation.

I could give other examples, but these will serve to illustrate the main point.  Translation is never simple, and is all the more complex and demanding when translating a text from a very different time and culture.  And there are particular difficulties in translating a text that has been in translation for a long time and is familiar to at least some of the target readership.  Do you echo the traditional wording with which, e.g., regular church-goers will be familiar but may be a bit dated in terms of current language usage, or do you adjust the wording to reflect current idiomatic usage?

But, to give a brief answer to the question about particular Bible translations, overall, the NRSV is pretty good.  But there are some others that are also “pretty good.”   None of them completely without criticism, but none of them seriously misleading.

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  1. Jacobus Kotze permalink

    Hi Dr Hurtado

    Would you consider the ESV and the Christian Standard Bible as “pretty good”?

    Kind regards
    Jacobus Kotze

    • I haven’t systematically surveyed these or many other translations. As I said earlier, I simply use one for reference purposes, but do my exegesis out of the Greek or Hebrew.

  2. Juan permalink

    Hello and greetings from Bolivia (a country in South America), I hope you have some time for this two questions, Do you think that exists translations with no theological bias? and What do you think is the best method for reduce it? Thank you so much 🙂

    • The more widely respected Bible translations have been the product of a committee composed of a broad diversity of scholars. This helps prevent any one theological or ecclesiastical point of view from dominating. And that’s about all you can hope for. Everyone (even atheists) has a theological point of view. A “bias” in my definition is a viewpoint that hasn’t been examined by the person holding it. Not the same thing as simply holding a point of view.

  3. Dr.Hurtado,

    What is your view of the Revised English Bible, successor to the New English Bible of the 1960s? It seems to be a translation of high scholarly standards but I’ve rarely seen it used or recommended by scholars.

    • The REB is another good translation. Neither it nor its predecessor, the New English Bible, caught on much, however. The Revised STandard Version and its successor the New Revised STandard Version seem to have dominated the market.

  4. Brennan Woell permalink

    Do you have any go-to passages (other than 1 Pt. 1:19) to check on a certain translation? In other words, are there any verses you use to see the translator’s preferences as to “wooden” or “loose,” and perhaps theological leanings as well? Thanks!

    • I haven’t systematically assessed translations. I’ve other work to do, and tend to rely on the Greek for serious NT exegesis.

  5. Well, if you assume there is absolutely no Eucharistic or Passover or sacrificial reference in 1 Peter 1:19, I guess you can smooth out all the imagery.

    But since Scripture usually shows its interconnectedness through its imagery, and since Passover and sacrificial and Eucharistic images are just a tad bit important to Jews and Christians… it seems more like destroying meaning than translating it over.

    • “Suburbanbanshee” (again, we use real names on this site, so next time…): 1 Peter 1:19 doesn’t refer to Eucharist or Passover, but to Jesus’ redemptive death as the price paid to liberate his followers. Your concern in this case is misplaced.

  6. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Did you really mean to say there are no seriously misleading Bible translations, as in none?

  7. Thank you for the considered reply to my request. I understand the challenges better now.

  8. Shouldn’t the question, “what is the best translation?” always require the counter-question “best for what?”

  9. bryantiii permalink


    This post reminds of the problems when translating, “traduttore, traditore.”

  10. apoloniolatariii permalink

    Hello Dr. Hurtado,

    Have you read David Hart’s new translation of the NT? What do you think?

  11. John permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    I’m curious your thoughts on the translation of the last word in Acts 13:29 (in all bibles as far as I can tell): “…they took him down from the tree and laid him in a TOMB.” Could this word be just as easily translated as “grave” (as in a grave dug into the ground)? See for example Lk 11:44: “Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves [mnēmeion], and people walk over them without realizing it.” See too Jn 5:28: “…the hour is coming when all who are in their graves [mnēmeion] will hear his voice…” (which would seem to include all types of burials, rock-hewn tombs and those in the ground). Of course the translation “tomb” matches up with Luke’s rock-hewn tomb story, but from a strictly translation standpoint, could Paul (who is being quoted by Luke) have only been referring to an unmarked grave in the ground?

    • The word “mnemeion” simply means a burial place. The nature of the place isn’t determined by the word. All our evidence is that earliest believers knew where Jesus was buried. Not “an unmarked grave”.

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