There are more and more Bible translations in English, and every one is “accurate” and “faithful” to the source. Even those translations that are the most free or paraphrastic still claim to be faithful to the original languages. I have yet to find a translation which describes itself as inaccurate or less than faithful.
It appears that accuracy is highly valued but also more and more elusive. With so many different ways to accurately translate the Bible, how are we to understand the differences we find?
After carefully studying this topic for some time, I have concluded that there are several distinct views of what accuracy is in Bible translation. It’s essential for you to understand these distinct perspectives in order to better understand what different translators mean and what they value.
1. Accuracy is Essential
The traditional view of accuracy is that it is at the heart of translation. A translation must be accurate, faithful, and, to use a more technical term, equivalent. When I read a translation, I expect to read a text in English that is equivalent or identical to the source text.
“…I have never wrested nor altered so much as one word for the maintenance of any manner of sect: but have with a clear conscience purely and faithfully translated this out of five sundry interpreters, having only the manifest truth of the scripture before mine eyes, trusting in the goodness of God, that it shall be unto his worship…”
Coverdale attempted to translate accurately without bias, consulting five translations in the process and trusting God to help him produce a work that would lead people to worship God.
The Forum of Bible Agencies International states as their first principle in translation the following commitment:
“To translate the Scriptures accurately, without loss, change, distortion or embellishment of the meaning of the original text. Accuracy in Bible translation is the faithful communication, as exactly as possible, of that meaning, determined according to sound principles of exegesis.”
These international Bible organizations are not the only ones who value accuracy in translation. In the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, it states that accuracy is essential for a translation to claim to be the Word of God in a particular language: “We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original”.
With such importance placed on accuracy, it is not surprising that every translation describes itself as accurate or at least faithful. It is even more striking to see the variety of ways a given verse may be translated, all purported to be “faithful”.
For the purpose of illustration, I will briefly discuss the translation of John 1:1-2 in different English translations. Here are the verses as traditionally translated: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2 ESV).
2. Accuracy is Important
A prominent view today considers accuracy to be very important but one of three important qualities in a translation. The best translation is not only accurate but also clear and natural.
The idea of being clear refers to clarity or comprehensibility. In short, readers should be able to understand what they are reading. Being natural refers to sounding like natural or normal English, not like another language with its words swopped out with English ones.
In his book Bible Translating, Eugene Nida referred to these three qualities as the basic requirements for a translation (p. 13). Nida first touched on this topic in his 1947 book, but over the decades, this view has become the standard among Bible translators.
Furthermore, most Bible translators today, especially those working in a missionary context, present these three qualities of accuracy, clarity, and naturalness as working in harmony to produce a faithful translation. For example, translators might say they first produce a translation of a verse in the Bible that is accurate and then adjust it to be more comprehensible and finally adjust it a little more to be more natural in the target language. In short, the three work together harmoniously to produce the best translation.
In reality, though, translators have to find the right balance between these often competing demands. Even Nida eventually decided that although these are important, comprehension or understandability is more important, as we will see in the next section.
3. Accuracy is Secondary to Comprehension
Translators realize that it is not always possible to be as accurate to the source text as they would like and still be as intelligible and as natural as they would prefer. One quality in the translation may have to give way for another.
Many translators today affirm the importance of accuracy while giving priority to comprehension in many contexts. This view has its origins with Nida who argued that a translation that can not be understood and leads the readers to an inaccurate understanding is no longer, in a sense, accurate.
The importance of comprehension, even at the expense of accuracy, can be seen in how John 1:1-2 is translated in several translations produced by Nida and the American Bible Society:
“In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God, and the Word was God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. (John 1:1-2 Good News Translation)
“In the beginning was the one who is called the Word. The Word was with God and was truly God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. (John 1:1-2 Contemporary English Version)
Note that these translations consider the first statement about the Word to be potentially difficult to understand, but in different ways. The Good News Translation uses “already existed” to make it more clear that the Word existed before creation. The Contemporary English Version inserts “the one who is called” to address possible confusion about the identity of the Word. Both works insert “very” in the second verse to bring out more clearly the idea that the Word existed before creation.
These translations focus on comprehension or understandability. The translators of the Contemporary English Version, for instance, prioritized being “understood by all” and are confident that their work is characterized by “accuracy, integrity and trustworthiness.”
It is key to realize that translators have different definitions of accuracy and different priorities as it relates to comprehension.
It took me years to finally understand that when some translators say their work is accurate, and it is clearly not what I would consider accurate, it is because they mean their work helps the reader have an accurate understanding of what the original audience would have understood.
So, for many translators, adding “very” to John 1:2 is not only making the verse more clear or comprehensible but also making it more accurate in the sense that the reader has a greater chance of arriving an an accurate understanding of what was originally understood. They would never accept that they are making the verse less accurate by their addition of the word.
4. Accuracy is Secondary to Impact
There are an increasing number of Bible translators who have a specific purpose in mind for their work and a special audience that they hope to benefit. Their translations are not concerned with the source text as much as with producing an impact on the readers of their work.
Now these works still describe themselves as translations which are accurate or faithful. Yet they also emphasize their benefit to a specific group of readers. Two examples of this approach are The First Nation Version and The Passion Translation.
Let’s consider how these works handle John 1:1-2.
“Long ago, in the time before all days, before the creation of all things, the one who is known as the Word was there face to face with the Great Spirit. This Word fully represents Creator and shows us who he is and what he is like. He has always been there from the beginning, for the Word and Creator are one and the same.” (John 1:1-2 First Nation Version)
The First Nation Version describes itself as being “faithful to the original language of the New Testament“. However “faithful” they claim to be, it is clear that this translation is very free and adds more explanatory information than previous dynamic or functional equivalent translations such as seen above. For instance, “in the beginning” is expressed three different ways in the lengthy phrase “Long ago, in the time before all days, before the creation of all things”.
Here is The Passion Translation:
“In the beginning the Living Expression was already there. And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God. They were together—face-to-face, in the very beginning.” (John 1:1-2 The Passion Translation)
The Passion Translation is also “faithful to the original biblical languages” while it brings out the essential meaning in the source in a “fresh” and “fiery” translation. This work is not as expansive as the First Nation Version, but it is also free and adds information such as “face-to-face” and “they were together” in John 1:2 in place of “he was with God”.
Note that these works and others like them claim to be dynamic equivalent translations which are faithful to the original. But they are better described as free translations or even adaptations.
5. Accuracy Is Fiction
In his book Exploring Translation Theories, Anthony Pym describes equivalence as a “fiction, a lie, a belief-structure necessary for the workings of economies and the survival of societies…” (p. 37).
It is not surprising that secular scholars who reject objective truth, not to mention faith in Jesus Christ, would arrive at the conclusion that there is no such thing as equivalence and, consequently, accuracy.
Yet, instead of abandoning translation, they engage in it all the more. If there is no accuracy, faithfulness, or equivalence in translation, that does not remove the value of the endeavor but rather frees the translator to experiment and produce works that move further and further from the source.
In his book The Word: How We Translate the Bible―and Why It Matters, John Barton, an Oxford professor emeritus and Anglican priest, proposes that the concept of accuracy is not as important as purpose and audience.
Following the functionalist approach to translation, he claims that translators are to determine the purpose and audience for their Bible translation. Then their translations should be evaluated according to the adequacy of the work. No need for disagreements about accuracy or debates about how to best translate a verse (p. 282-83).
For many years, I thought everyone valued accuracy and understood it in essentially the same way. However, it was my study of Muslim Idiom Translations and similar works that forced me to realize that not every claim to accuracy had the same merit.
The concept of accuracy in Bible translation has significantly changed over the last century. Translations continue to be described as accurate or faithful, but few explain on what grounds they are accurate.
The inevitable conclusion of a careful study of many English translations is that there are many inaccurate and unfaithful renderings of the source. Many new works, especially the free or paraphrastic works like those discussed above, have little to offer the reader.
Not every translation can be accuracy and faithful. Fewer still have any value to offer modern readers. It is essential to have a clear understanding of accuracy and not just accept every claim to that end.