The most common question I hear from those beginning to read the Bible for the first time is the following: which Bible translation should I read? It’s seems like an innocent enough question, but in reality, it is a can of worms, unleashing one of the most pervasive and controversial topics in contemporary Christianity.
Entire churches and denominations have drawn party lines and established a unique identity solely on the premise of which Bible translation they read from. The most vocal of these groups, are those who attest that the 1611 King James Version of the Bible (KJV) is the only 100% accurate Bible, and thus should solely be used by Christians. But is this claim based in any truth?
Over the course of three articles, we will discover that not only is the KJV an imperfect translation of the Bible, but that all English translations are flawed, and that it is actually a non-issue for the Christian.
To begin with, we need to discuss the role of language and the actual process of translation, if we want to determine which translation is the most accurate. Unfortunately, many who ascribe to the perfection of the KJV’s perfection, do not fully comprehend the complexity of language. Many mistakenly believe that translation is simply taking one foreign word, finding its English equivalent, and repeating this pattern until one has enough words together to string a sentence. If only the process were so simple.
Languages and the words they are comprised of are incredibly complex. Every single word in a lexicon is influenced by the historical, cultural, economic, political, and social sphere it is used within, and thus can posses a variety of intricate meanings, which also change depending on one’s grammar and syntax in the structure of a sentence. This is referred to as a ‘semantic domain’, the fact that one word can have a domain of meanings and uses based on the context it is used in.
How does this concept apply practically to language and translation? Let’s use the Bahasa Indonesia language, in which the cultural, agricultural, economic and domestic factors of Indonesian society, influence their words for rice. Bahasa Indonesia contains three unique words to describe rice, each describing a different part of the process of production. Padi refers to rice being grown in the field, beras refers to uncooked rice found in a store or market, and nasi refers to cooked rice. Now, if a translator were to translate padi into English, it would simply be translated as: rice. But in so doing, the entire Indonesian cultural context and the various stages of rice is lost in translation. The translation is imperfect.
A similar problem occurs when attempting to translate English words into Bahasa Indonesia, as English has a much wider and varied lexicon. To describe something which is not small, we might use: big, enormous, gigantic, huge, massive, large, giant, immense, gigantic, whopping or great. Though generally indicating the same concept, a native speaker would use each of these in a slightly different context, with unique intricacies (in other words, they each have a semantic domain). However, Indonesian only has one adjective to describe objects which are not small: besar. But in translating each of these English words into Indonesian, the entire semantic domain of each is inherently lost. The translation is imperfect.
As a language student in Bahasa Indonesia, Greek and Hebrew, it is common place to discover words in which there is no English equivalent. The semantic domain is so different from any English word, that one word cannot simply be used in its place. For this reason, entire lexicons are written, in which a single word is explained in its historical and cultural context, in order to properly understand the semantic domain of the word. Yet after all of that study, though the word can now be understood (such as understanding the varying stages of rice), no English equivalent can be discovered, that accurately captures the minutia of its meaning. The translation is imperfect.
THE BIBLICAL TEXT
So, how do lexical ranges and semantic domains practically influence the translation of the Bible? Well, the manuscripts used by English translators, were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin.
Much like Bahasa Indonesia, Hebrew has much fewer words than English. While Hebrew has a meager 4000, English currently uses 171,476 words in its language. This may appear to be a simple solution, as there are fewer words to translate, but one stumbles across the same problem with the word besar. Is big, enormous, or large a correct translation? Each translator will reach a different conclusion as to which English word should be used, when in reality there is no fully equivalent word. The translation is imperfect.
Regarding the Greek language, with its current 5 million words, it makes the English lexicon seem miniscule. Thus, we have the padi problem, in which Greek has several words to describe a variety of concepts, whereas English only has one, and the intricacies of the varied meanings are lost.
One common example in the Biblical text, are the various words for love. Eros refers to sexual passion, storge refers to tenderness towards family members, philia refers to affection in friendship, and agape refers to an unconditional love to be demonstrated to all people. But how does the English Bible translate these intensely unique words with different connotations? Love. This one word not only fails to capture the semantic domain of the original Greek, but even in the English language ‘love’ is a loosely defined word. The translation is imperfect.
As a final example, examine the table below comparing how various Bibles translate the same Greek word sarx, and notice how little agreement there is in merely five examples, on a word which appears 145 times in the New Testament. Which translation is 100% correct? None of them, because the translation is inevitably imperfect.
|Matthew 16:17||Flesh||Flesh||Man||Human Being|
|Romans 8:6||Carnally||Flesh||Sinful man||Sinful nature|
|1 Corinthians 3:3||Carnal||Fleshly||Worldly||Sinful desires|
As a final point of consideration, it is important to recognise that languages constantly develop and change. For example, the English language currently has 47,156 obsolete words, which in effect have lost their meaning. Not because a dictionary definition cannot be attached to each of these words, but because the public consciousness cannot define its meaning. It is meaningless word with no relevance. This of course does not bode well for a translation composed in 1611. Beyond the Shakespearean ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ the KJV has numerous other words which most people would not be able to properly understand today (e.g. cockatrice, espy, lowring, and sundry [Isa. 11:8; Jos. 14:7; Matt. 16:3; Heb. 1:1).
Similarly, words are constantly developing in their meaning. Nice once meant ‘silly, foolish, simple’ but now refers to ‘giving pleasure or satisfaction’.
Finally, new words are continually entering into the lexicon, and the very means of communication in societies changes as a result. Just last year, the Merriem Webster Dictionary added the words: glamping, bingeable, welp, cryptocurrency, and dumpster fire. Globalisation has also affected language, as countries adopt certain words from neighboring countries. For example, the original Bahasa Indonesia had no equivalent words for television, table tennis, computer, and car, and thus out of necessity, the words telivisi, tenis, komputer, and mobil were created.
Languages are constantly developing and changing, with certain words becoming obsolete, and others being created out of necessity. Consequently, when trying to create an accurate translation of the Bible, the English words of relevancy and meaning will constantly change. The translation will always be imperfect as language constantly develops and changes.
So, is the KJV superior to other Bible translations? Allow me to explain with two words: traddutore and traditore. In Italian, these words are so similar that they make a pun. Translated in English, they mean ‘translator’ and ‘traitor’, which of course, now translated has lost its pun. But ironically, it makes another joke instead: that no translation will ever be perfect, and is impossible to achieve. That translation in essence is treason, and therefore, no Bible translation can ever be perfect.
But, here is the good news, God does not demand the we read a perfect word for word translation. So, don’t worry about taking a Greek 101 class unless you have lots of spare time. In the next article, we will analyse why on a theological basis, the claim of the KJV Bible being perfect is not only false, but indefensible.
By Christopher Petersen