Thoughts about Bible Translations: 1. Accuracy

I spent just over 5 years, from March of 2004 to March of 2009, working nearly every day, to translate the entire Latin Vulgate Bible into English. The result of this work is my translation of the Bible: the Catholic Public Domain Version. I’ve placed the translation in the public domain, so that it can be freely used online and in print, without any royalties or permission. The CPDV is available online at: SacredBible.org

Through this work, I learned a great deal about the process of Bible translation and editing, the types of decisions that translators and editors make, and the effect that any particular approach to translation and editing has on the text of Sacred Scripture. So I thought I would share my thoughts on this topic in a series of posts.

Unfortunately, one of my insights is that most modern Bible translators and editors take appalling liberties with the text of Scripture. Although each one claims that their translation is accurate, what this usually means is that the translators and editors believe that their translation accurately represent their own understanding of what the text means. But what the text means is not the same as what it says. The former is an interpretation of the text; the latter is a reading of the text. Now all translation involves some interpretation. We must read the source text and understand what it means in order to render it in another language. The difference is found in whether the interpretation becomes incorporated into the translation text in such a way that the translation gives new meaning to the words. Calling such an approach accurate is disingenuous. An accurate translation must represent what the source text says, leaving the interpretation to the reader.

In some cases, modern Bible translations go so far as to use the process of translation and editing to change the text of the Bible, essentially to what the translators or editors think that the Bible should have said (and now does say, courtesy of their very loose translation). The excuse that is used is to say that the loose translation is what the text really means, if properly understood. That this claim is disingenuous is easily seen in that the opposite approach, translating very literally, is used when it suits the same purpose (to subtract, add, or change the meaning of the Bible). For example, the word meaning ‘brothers’ is translated as ‘brothers and sisters’, and the expression which plainly says ‘the sons of Israel’ is translated as ‘the Israelite community’. These types of translation are by no means accurate. They in fact purposely obscure the meaning of the text, apparently in the interest of political correctness.

But these same Bible translations will not hesitate to translate a text very literally, in other cases. For example, many modern Bible translations have removed the word ‘Hell’ from many different Bible verses. Instead of translating a word that clearly means ‘Hell’, especially given the context of the verse, with the word ‘Hell’, they use the Hebrew or Greek word untranslated (Sheol, Hades, Gehenna). Now the Hebrew word (Sheol) has a more general meaning; so in some cases it refers only to death, or the afterlife in general. But certainly some Old Testament verses, given the context, justify a translation of Hell.

This excision of Hell from the Bible is a result of a liberal trend in theology: to shy away from Hell, not to talk about eternal damnation, to consider that perhaps everyone or nearly everyone is saved, to represent Hell as being not a place of torture, but a self-isolation from God, to claim that we all judge ourselves, as if God were not our Judge, etc. This theological trend shows up in Bible translations in the use of other words for Hell, so that the reference to Hell as a final destination, as a place of eternal punishment is deliberately obscured.

So, in the one case, a loose translation changes the meaning of the text. But it is claimed to be accurate because that is what the text supposedly really means. But in the other case, a very literal translation (more of a transliteration) is used to obscure the meaning of the text. And this is claims to be accurate based on the fact that it is what the text actually literally says. That is not accuracy.

My translation is fairly literal: what the text says, not what I think it means. I used the Challoner Bible text as a guide, to prevent my one-person translation from going astray from the text. Challoner’s text is fairly literal, about as literal as mine (though this varies from one verse to another).

However, there are other considerations on the question of accuracy (next post, hopefully).

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