The Downside of Interpretive Translation

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The Bible originally was written primarily in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Without efforts at translation of the Bible into contemporary languages, such as English, French etc. Christians would not be able to read the Bible in their own languages. Every Christian owes a debt of gratitude to those who have and who continue to devote tremendous effort and ability towards translation of the Bible into different languages.

Attempts at translation of the Bible can be divided into two kinds — interpretive translations and literal translations. A literal translation makes no attempt to interpret the original text, merely transcribes words originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek into say English. An interpretive translation imposes its understanding of the target language — English — on interpretation of the original text. This imposition of understanding of the target language typically is academic. In contexts within which the original language or intent of the original language is ambiguous, however, an understanding of the target language also can manifest as spiritual understanding of intent of a passage in the Bible.

With exception of Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) of the Bible, all other translations are interpretive translations. This implies popular translations, such as the King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), Revised Standard Version (RSV), New International Version (NIV) all are interpretive translations of the Bible.

It is straightforward to understand why we have only one literal translation, but gazillions of interpretive translations. Once a literal translation is proferred and considered accurate (credible), there is no more room for another literal translation. Any other literal translation must read exactly as the credible one already proferred, credibility that can be attested to by teams of experts in the original and target languages. Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible passes the test of credibility of a literal translation of the Bible.

With interpretive translations, as a language evolves over time, an old interpretive translation can become either less accurate in its language and vocabulary, or become less easy to understand for new generations. Within this rubric, both the NKJV and the RSV are improvements on the KJV, while the NIV is considered an improvement on either of the NKJV or the RSV. It is easy to see that the NIV uses more contemporaneous phraseology than either of the NKJV or RSV. All of these interpretive translations were necessitated by improvements in the English language, improvements accompanied by a discarding of some words from common usage. While the KJV uses the word longsuffering for instance, improvements in English language, which considered longsuffering an entirely passive state, a state not representative of meaning of the original text, has necessitated substitution of words such as patience, endurance, or perseverance, words that are not entirely passive, for longsuffering. In this regard, while the word longsuffering or its multiple word version, long suffering is found 17 times in the NKJV, it is found once only in either of the RSV or NIV. In that one context, the word is applied to God not to a believer in God. Even in this one occurrence, the word patience or its active form patient would be more appropriate than long suffering.

In order for interpretive translations of the Bible to cater to their demographics, translators bring their academic understanding of the target language to bear on translations of the original text. This imposition of academic understanding of a language on interpretive translation sometimes and without any intent on the part of translators induces a watering down of the original meaning of a text. Differences in interpretation tend to be more pronounced in the Old Testament, which is written in Hebrew or Aramaic, languages more difficult to translate into English than Greek.

Let me Illustrate using the text in Hosea 10:12, which states in the literal translation of the YLT:

The NKJV and NIV are representative of interpretive translations of Hosea 10:12, both of which interpret as follows:

Careful comparison of the literal and interpretive translations reveals some loss of deep meaning of the original text in the interpretive translations.

Sow in Righteousness vis-a-vis Sow Righteousness

First, sow in righteousness is not quite the same thing as sow righteousness. Sow in righteousness means “undertake your actions in Jesus Christ.” Sow righteousness means “do things that are right.” Since it is possible to do things that are right while not in Jesus Christ, that is while not a believer in Jesus Christ, sow in righteousness has different meaning from sow righteousness.

In this regard, Jesus declares in John 15:5,

Since bearing of fruit implies sowing, Jesus alludes to sowing in righteousness — sowing while remaining in Him — in John 15:5.

Tillage of Knowledge vis-a-vis Just Tilling

Second, Till for yourselves tillage of knowledge, To seek Jehovah is not quite the same thing as Break up your fallow ground, For it is time to seek the Lord, or break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the LORD. In the interpretive translations, the breaking up of the fallow or unplowed ground is no longer linked with knowledge. In the original text, the believer breaks up or plows the ground with knowledge, with purpose of seeking Jehovah. There is no timing for this seeking of Jehovah, the believer tills the ground with knowledge always with purpose of seeking Jehovah. This meaning is lost in the interpretive translations. In the original text, the believer who truly seeks Jehovah demonstrates sincerity of his or her desire in application of what he or she already knows in daily living. This meaning is lost in the interpretive translations.

Is there any back up for this elsewhere in Scripture? In John 14:21, Jesus declares as follows (YLT, NIV):

In Jesus’ words, the literal translation of Hosea 10:12 does a better job of conveying the original text than the interpretive translation.

Since the Greek is easier to translate, both the YLT and NIV render exactly the same translation of Jesus’ words.

Experiential vis-a-vis Passive Righteousness

Jesus’ words in John 14:21 address the third and final difference between the literal and interpretive translations. In the literal translation, tillage in knowledge continues till he come and shew righteousness to you. In the interpretive translations, till he come and shew righteousness to you is interpreted as Till He comes and rains righteousness on you or until he comes and showers righteousness on you. Clearly to show (manifest in John 14:21) righteousness is not the same thing as to rain or shower righteousness. Showing of righteousness results in new knowledge, meaning a believer in name of Jesus Christ sows what he or she already knows so he or she can receive new revelations or manifestations — new knowledge — of Jehovah and Jesus Christ. In the interpretive translations, Jesus rains righteousness on a believer, with the believer totally passive and non-participative. A manifestation or showing cannot be successful, however, if the target of the manifestation or showing does not see or comprehend. In the original text and in John 14:21 then, the believer participates. In the interpretive translations, the believer passively takes in righteousness rained down by Jehovah, the believer is non-participative.

In 2Peter 3:18, Apostle Peter links righteousness and knowledge as follows (YLT, NIV):

In 2Corinthians 6:8, Paul lists knowledge as one of the attributes by which a believer in Jesus Christ commends himself or herself to God as a diligent believer. He goes on to associate the Holy Spirit who brings to believers revelations of Jesus Christ with acquisition of knowledge.

Grace incorporates the righteousness of God. Knowledge is what we know of Jehovah and Jesus Christ. A believer in name of Jesus Christ is expected to grow in both righteousness (grace or how much the Holy Spirit the believer has gained access to) and knowledge. There is no passive receipt of grace. There is only active receipt of grace and new knowledge. The believer is participating in an experiential relationship, not involved in a relationship totally external to himself or herself.

We owe a debt of gratitude to translators who have made possible every credible interpretive translation of the Bible. In the attempt to impose academic rigor on their translations, however, sometimes there is a watering down of meaning of the original text. I have found the Young's Literal Translation of the original text to provide several such instances of unintentional watering down of the original text in attempt at imposition of academic rigor on interpretation. The problem of course is academic rigor of interpretation can at times water down the deep spiritual meaning of the original text.

Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible is not easy to read, particularly in its literal rendition of the Old Testament. For those willing to try, however, and in so far as the New Testament is concerned, it can provide some deeper meaning to some texts whose deep spiritual meaning has been watered down in course of arrival at a precise interpretive translation.

In the rich diversity of credible interpretive translations, there is opportunity for new generations to understand the Bible in language and vocabulary most relevant to their secular endeavors. In the availability of a credible literal translation, we can measure the extent to which new interpretive translations adhere to meaning of original texts in original languages.

In availability of a credible literal text and attempts at conveying of the Bible in vocabulary most relevant to a generation we have both safety and opportunity.

Written by

Educator and Researcher, Believer in Spirituality, Life is serious business, but we all are pilgrims so I write about important stuff with empathy and ethos

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