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On Translation Theory and Choosing a Bible

January 19, 2011

With the recent hullabaloo surrounding the 2011 updates to the New International Version, our church body, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, is taking another look at which English Bible translation to use in our synod’s publications.

Behind the investigation of any translation (Bible or otherwise) lurk some pre-conceived ideas about what a “translation” ought to be – and behind those ideas lurks an even deeper theory of what the act of “translation” actually is. What does it mean to “translate” a text from one language to another? What can one reasonably expect from a “translation” of something written in a different language for different people of a different culture (who lived in a different place and time)?

A recent essay written by Professor Kenneth A. Cherney, Jr., World Mission Professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, addresses some of the latest issues in modern translation theory and how they apply to the oft-repeated question, “Which Bible translation should I use?”

I commend Prof. Cherney’s essay to all of those – Lutheran or otherwise – who are interested in Bible translation and how it applies to them as “consumers” of the “products” of English Bible translation work. We would all do well to put a little more thought into which Bible translation we choose – and a lot more thought into why we chose that particular translation.

One key point that Prof. Cherney makes is to destroy the “false antithesis” between the two types of Bible translations on the market today: the so-called “formal correspondence” translations and the so-called “functional equivalence” ones.

He writes, “[This choice] presents a false antithesis… it tries to view in two dimensions a problem that is actually multi-dimensional…” Then he says that the question we really need to be asking is this:

We need the translation that does the best job of communicating what God said through the prophets, evangelists, and apostles to our target readers in our target situation.  This will be that translation that meets a believing reader’s expectations for a direct rather than an indirect quotation of a divinely-inspired source text. This will also be that translation that maximally enriches the reader’s understanding of what God said without making greater demands, in terms of processing effort, than our reader can meet. Which translation is this?

Read this essay and be enriched in your understanding and appreciation for the awesome gift God has given you in his Word, translated faithfully in so many ways into the language of your heart.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Michael Riley permalink
    March 3, 2011 11:53 am

    Thanks for sharing this article, Chris. It is very good. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize it earlier, but only when I saw Ken Cherney’s name at the end did I realize that this was the same Ken Cherney who was a year or two ahead of me at NWC/WLS.

    You’re right that he doesn’t make any recommendations on whether we should do our own translation, but as I read it, I certainly became more convinced that we should.

    At any rate, thanks for reminding me of this article so I could go back and read it.

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