Friday, February 11, 2011

Bible Basics, Day 9: Translations and Paraphrases

Translations and Paraphrases

     As we discussed in the lessons on the Old Testament and the New Testament, the texts of the Bible were originally written in a variety of languages.   This lesson will discuss the different ways in which the difficult task of translating Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin texts into English is tackled.   

I.  Two Approaches to Translation

     Broadly speaking, there are two basic approaches to translating the Scriptures (or actually any text from one language into another):
        1.  Complete (or formal) equivalency or correspondencea literal translation, even going so far as to preserve the original wording or word order.

      An extreme example of such a translation is the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The ancient translators, revering the Sacred Text as the Word of God, took a very literal approach. "Sometimes their Greek is so close to the Hebrew original that it must have been almost unintelligible to a pagan." (The Hebrew Christ, Claude Tresmontant).   The translators often just kept the original Hebrew word order, which was verb-first in the sentence and unlike the Greek subject-first order.  So, the translation would sound much as this might sound to our ears:  "He learned, Jacob, that there was grain in Egypt, and he said, Jacob, to his sons...."  This did not sound any more normal to Greek ears than it does to ours! 

Sts. Peter and Paul, El Greco
Later, the Apostles would use this same kind of formal equivalency approach to translate the words of Jesus, resulting in a very literal translation of His words.  In fact, in some cases,  Hebrew words, phrases, and ideas were not even translated, but simply transferred into Greek.  So, for example, in our English bibles we have our Lord using the phrase, "Amen, Amen, I say to you...", where "Amen" is a Hebrew word meaning roughly, "It is certainly true."  The translators could not come up with an equivalent Greek term, so they just stuck with the original Hebrew!  Another word that is directly taken from Hebrew is "woe".  There was no Greek word that expressed this idea, so the Hebrew word was brought into the Greek language and with it the entire Hebrew understanding of "woe".

So, many of the ancient translators used a very strict standard.  They  translated the Biblical text with the express idea of keeping the actual words as close to the original as possible.  Whether the translation was understandable in the new language was not of such great concern to them.  

You want to use a more literal translation when you are undertaking word studies and serious Bible study.

 Neither the King James Version (KJV) nor the Douay-Rheims translation were based directly on the original languages.  Both are translations of St. Jerome's very literal Latin Vulgate.

        2)  Dynamic equivalence:  a type of translation that attempts to preserve the meaning of the text, as opposed to the original grammar, word order, or phrasing.  

     So, a translator using a dynamic equivalent approach, is going to be sure that the text (as he or she understands it) 
is clearly understandable in the new language.  Using the quote above, such a  translator might render it something like:  "Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, and he said to his sons...."  In this case, there is little change in meaning, but that is not always the situation.    In fact, since the basic idea behind this technique is to capture the meaning of the text, the translation can be heavily influenced by the theological outlook of the translator himself.  Not only can the original meaning be obscured, but the text is often so loosely and inconsistently translated that word studies become extremely difficult to do.

A more dynamic translation can be a good choice if you just want to read through the Bible and get an overview of the text.  

Q, of the Continuum!
II.  The Continuum

     All modern Bible translations fall on a continuum which extends from very literal (formal equivalency) translations all the way to extremely loose (dynamic equivalency) translations.  (Hey, you try to find images for this post...just sayin'!)

From most literal to most dynamic:
       Very literal
                  King James Version
                  New King James Version
                  New American Standard

         Fairly literal
                  Confraternity Version
                  Revised Standard Version

         Fairly dynamic
                  New International Version
                  New American

         Very dynamic
                 New Jerusalem Bible
                 New English Bible
                 Revised English Bible
                 Contemporary English Version
                 Good News Bible (A.K.A. Today's English Version)

Inclusive language is a term that expresses a current trend to change  gender-based terms to gender-inclusive terms.  Inclusive language can, on the one hand, simply clarify meaning.  Thus, it is an approved use of inclusive language to say "brothers and sisters" in place of  "brethren", as the traditional meaning of "brethren" included both men and women.  On the other hand, the use of phrases such as "one" to replace "man" or "personkind" to replace "mankind" actually affects understanding by undermining the theological and philisophical  ideas that Adam (literally, man) was create in God's image, that woman was created from man, and that we are all of one type of being which is "man".   The use of such terms for mankind also obscures the whole idea behind OT texts that refer to Christ as "the man" and that link Him to Adam ("man").  Finally, God has presented Himself as a Father and the Church honors His will in this case.  While God is neither male nor female, and while there are some Scriptures that describe God in feminine terms, the Church intends to respect God's own revealed self-description and uses "Father", "He", "Son", and so on to refer to God.  Use of inclusive language in this last instance is not allowed by the Church.  EWTN provides a more extensive discussion. 

III.  Paraphrases

     In addition to translations, there are also paraphrases.  A paraphrase is not based on the original languages of the Bible, but on a re-wording of an English translation.  So, if I took the first verse of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God...", I could paraphrase it myself by writing something like,  "The Word, Who was God, existed in the very beginning....".  I just put the English translation into my own words, and, voila! a paraphrase.  The most familiar paraphrase today is probably the Living Bible.

IV.  Choosing a Bible

      For an in-depth examination of several available Catholic bibles, you may want to read over this article at EWTN. 

No Homework!  It was all included in Day 8's lesson!

Main Idea:  Bible translations range from very literal to very loose.  The more literal the translation, the better the Bible will be for in-depth study.   

Next lesson:  Bible Study Aids


  1. Hello Caroline,
    I really appreciate all the hard work you've put into this series of posts! Just skimming through it, I can tell you've put a great deal of effort into this. I'm not in a position to follow the Bible Study right now, but would love to link to it later, when I have more time and ability to study this. Will you be leaving these posts up, perhaps with a link, for latecomers?
    May God bless you and guide you in this grace-filled endeavor,

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thank you for your kind remarks, servant. Yes, I plan to leave these posts up indefinitely. You should be able to link to them at any time by clicking on the "bible basics" link on the left-hand side of the blog (under labels) . Each series will have a different label (see my post next Tuesday for my ideas for future series).
    One of the hardest parts of preparing these posts is streamlining the massive amount of information I have so that the lesson is short and straightforward. This series is intended to just give everyone the very essentials. If you ever want more information on any topic I post, please just ask!