I have always loved language, and the English language in particular. In fact, part of the reason I love to read is not to learn new things, but to learn how other people use words. When I read an author like Malcolm Gladwell, a very gifted writer, I learn more about language than about the topic of his book.
While I have always enjoyed using words and studying language, my love of English grew during my college years when I studied other languages, primarily those from which English is derived—Latin, Greek, and to some extent, French. I also studied linguistics and, of course, the English language itself. I came to love understanding how people use words to craft ideas. There is a good reason that people continue to study Shakespeare in high school despite increasingly antiquated language. Shakespeare was a master of the language, a master word crafter, and we can all benefit by reading what he wrote. The same is true of Dickens or any other number of authors.
Let me jump from Shakespeare to Bible translation. Whenever I take the time to read the Bible slowly and meditatively—and this is particularly true of reading the Old Testament—I am struck by the beauty of the language. While I do not know Hebrew, I often hear people speak of the poetic nature of the language which leads even the prose to have poetic qualities. And I see this reflected in the English. At least, I see it reflected in the English when I read it in certain translations.
For day-to-day reading I tend to rely on the English Standard Version. Now, I’ve heard it said that to be one of today’s New Calvinists you pretty much need to use the ESV. Let me say that I am not ESV fanboy. However, I do find that it is a superior translation and one that does a wonderful job of seeking to capture the beauty of the language. This cannot be said of all Bible translations. I have come to love the little literary devices, the metaphors and phrases used by the ancient writers and find that they add so much to the reading of the text. Without a translation that accurately rendered these sayings we would lose so much of the flow and meaning of the text.
There is so much beauty in the prose of the Old Testament and I love that I can have access to a translation (and to several translations, really) that carefully and accurately renders the metaphors and phrases used by the original authors. Let me provide you with a few examples from Kings. I am going to use the ESV as my standard essentially-literal translation. I do this not necessary to indicate that it is superior to the others within the category, but simply because it is the translation I use the most.
I’ll begin with 1 Kings 2:2 where King David gives his final wishes to his son Solomon. The ESV renders David’s words like this: “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man.” The other essentially literal translations agree with this translation and the NASB, KJV and NKJV are all very similar. There are two constructs here that I love: “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” and “show yourself a man.” Let’s see how several other common translations render this particular verse:
- “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, show yourself a man.” (NIV)
- “I am going where everyone on earth must someday go. Take courage and be a man.” (NLT)
- “My son, I will soon die, as everyone must. But I want you to be strong and brave.” (CEV)
- “I’m about to go the way of all the earth, but you—be strong; show what you’re made of!” (Message)
As we see, the NIV renders the verse in a way that is consistent with the original text. The NLT deviates a little bit, expanding the meaning of “the way of all the earth” to “where everyone on earth must someday go.” It also says, “be a man” rather than “show yourself a man.” The CEV further interprets the verse, removing any sort of literary device in both parts. The Message does a little better, maintaining the first half of the verse but removing the “show yourself a man.”
What is lost in the NLT and the CEV is the metaphor “the way of all the earth.” It is an important term, beautifully poetic, and one that is worthy of some time in meditation. There is a depth of meaning to that phrase that is clearly missing in words like “I will soon die, as everyone must.” Readers of the NLT and CEV have no access to this phrase and miss out on the wonderful opportunity to meditate upon it and learn from it.