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The Beauty of a Good Translation
February 04, 2008
I love language and the English language in particular. While I have always enjoyed using words and studying language, I found that my love of English was forged during the time I spent studying 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 it benefits anyone to learn from his example. The same is true of Dickens or any other number of authors. What I learned is that words are important. Who would want to read a modern translation of Shakespeare? We would be left with nothing but a second-rate story. And an author’s words are important. That may come as no great surprise and may even seem obvious, but the translators of dynamic equivalent translations would have to disagree, at least somewhat, as their translation philosophy proves that they feel ideas are more important than words.
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 as it is translated in the English Standard Version, my translation of choice. While I do not know how to read Hebrew, I often hear people speak of the poetic nature of the language which leads even the prose to have poetic qualities. It seems to me that the ESV does an admirable job of capturing that. The same 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 am thankful to have access to a translation (and to several translations, really) that accurately renders the metaphors and phrases used by the original authors. Let me provide you with a few examples. 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 for my devotional and study work.
Let’s begin with 1 Kings 2:2 where King David gives his final wishes to his son Solomon. The ESV renders 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 as the NASB, KJV and NKJV are all very similar. There are two constructs here that I feel are essential to the text. “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 surely one that is worth 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.
Another example comes only one verse later. 1 Kings 2:3 continues David’s instruction to his son. David exhorts Solomon to follow God and “walk in His ways.” The ESV translates the verse as “…and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.” Let’s see how other translations render “walking in his ways.”
- “…and observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go,” (NIV)
- “Observe the requirements of the LORD your God and follow all his ways. Keep each of the laws, commands, regulations, and stipulations written in the law of Moses so that you will be successful in all you do and wherever you go.” (NLT)
- “Do what the LORD your God commands and follow his teachings. Obey everything written in the Law of Moses. Then you will be a success, no matter what you do or where you go.” (CEV)
- “Do what GOD tells you. Walk in the paths he shows you: Follow the life-map absolutely, keep an eye out for the signposts, his course for life set out in the revelation to Moses; then you’ll get on well in whatever you do and wherever you go.” (Message)
The term “Walking in his ways” is a wonderful metaphor for living a life that honors God. We seek to emulate Him by following carefully in the footsteps of God. I am reminded of a song by the Smalltown Poets, “Call me Christian,” where they sing, “As a boy I’d put my steps / In my brother’s bigger tracks / To match his stride / And just like that I follow Jesus / Jesus is my guide.” That type of imagery is absent from the New Living Translation as well as the CEV. The Message is quite close and the NIV is, once again, accurate.
Moving along we come to 1 Kings 2:9. David asks Solomon to exact revenge against Shimei, a man who had cursed David. “Now therefore do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man. You will know what you ought to do to him, and you shall bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” The metaphorical phrase here is “bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” Again, this is a wonderfully descriptive phrase that has more meaning than simply “kill.” Yet several translations provide only this meaning.
- “But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.” (NIV)
- “But that oath does not make him innocent. You are a wise man, and you will know how to arrange a bloody death for him.” (NLT)
- “Now you must punish him. He’s an old man, but you’re wise enough to know that you must have him killed. (CEV)
- “But neither should you treat him as if nothing ever happened. You’re wise, you know how to handle these things. You’ll know what to do to make him pay before he dies.” (Message)
The NIV does a good job, only changing Sheol to grave. The NLT writes about a bloody death. This seems to miss the point for the verse is not primarily concerned with the mode of death, but with the reason for the death. The Message misses the mark altogether. Neither the NLT, the CEV or the Message see fit to render the word “grey” or “hoary” (as the King James renders it). Is that not a word God placed in the text? Is it not an important word? I do not understand why they would knowingly remove a word God saw fit to include.
One of the most beautiful and oft-repeated phrases in the Old Testament is found in 1 Kings 2:10. “Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.” Several essentially literal translations render “slept” as “rested” but the meaning remains the same. The Bible Knowledge Commentary says of this verse, “The picturesque phrase rested with his fathers beautifully describes David’s death and suggests that his activity did not cease forever. Indeed, the bodies of all believers who die simply ‘rest’ until they are resurrected to live with God and serve Him eternally.” David entered a temporary rest as he, along with the rest of Creation, awaits the final consummation. Here is how other translations render that verse:
- “Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David.” (NIV)
- “Then David died and was buried in the City of David.” (NLT)
- “David was king of Israel forty years. He ruled seven years from Hebron and thirty-three years from Jerusalem. Then he died and was buried in Jerusalem.” (CEV - combines verses 10-11)
- “Then David joined his ancestors. He was buried in the City of David.” (Message)
The NIV remains consistent with the text. The NLT and CEV say simply that David died. The Message extends the verse by saying that David joined his ancestors, something that is a bit of a stretch but at least somewhat true to the meaning of the verse. The NLT and CEV do not allow their readers to see the beauty of “resting with his fathers.” Instead, David simply died. What a tragic loss! Readers of these translations will not see any hope beyond the grave. They will not know that David has gone to be with his fathers and that he is merely resting. Once more, are these not words that God deliberately placed in the text? Should readers not have access to them?
In 1 Kings 2:12 Solomon has assumed his father’s throne. In fact, according to an essentially literal translation, “Solomon sat on the throne of David his father, and his kingdom was firmly established.” While the meaning of the phrase “sat on the throne of David his father” is clear, meaning that Solomon succeeded his father as ruler, there is an interesting sense of continuity in the original words. Doing more than simply replacing his father, Solomon actually assumed his throne. This may seem a small distinction, but I feel it is important nevertheless. It is similar to verse 3 (above) where David exhorted Solomon to walk in God’s ways. Now Solomon is sitting on his father’s throne. Let’s see how other translations have rendered this verse:
- “So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David, and his rule was firmly established.” (NIV)
- “Solomon succeeded him as king, replacing his father, David, and he was firmly established on the throne.” (NLT)
- “His son Solomon became king and took control of David’s kingdom.” (CEV)
- “Solomon took over on the throne of his father David; he had a firm grip on the kingdom.” (Message)
Once more the translations are varied with the NIV being most literal and the CEV straying furthest from the text. The NLT, CEV and Message see fit to explain the verse while the NIV, along with the essentially literal translations, leave the words as they are. Through reading a literal translation we can picture Solomon ascending his father’s throne and taking over his responsibilities. This imagery is foreign to the dynamic equivalent translations.
Examples multiply as I read the Bible. I love these little literary constructs and love to think about them. They offer more than meets the eye and there is reward in doing the work of understanding them. I’ve also found that they provide wonderful “teachable moments” where I can ask my children what they might mean. They require thought and meditation.
I am grateful that I have access to such a solid translation of Scripture. While I do not know Hebrew, I still have access to an accurate translation of the author’s original words, complete with the phrases, words and metaphors that set one author apart from another. I have access to the full meaning, or as close as I can come without access to the original language, of what was written so long ago. I simply can’t understand how anyone would be satisfied with anything less.