What Does It Mean to Say a Bible Translation Is Faithful?

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by E. Ray Clendenen

Although not as versatile as some words (such as run), the word faithful can mean different things in different contexts. It can refer to “loyalty,” the quality of always acting in the best interests of someone else. It can also refer to “consistency” or “predictability,” always acting according to certain principles or in a certain manner (like the Yellowstone geyser, Old Faithful). Or it can refer to “strength,” “stability,” and “reliability,” as exemplified by a foundation, a bridge, or a person like “Stonewall” Jackson. 

Sometimes faithful can refer to “obedience,” the quality of a servant who follows the instructions of his master. Or it can refer to “truthfulness” or “accuracy,” the quality of being in accord with reality, the facts, or an original. For example, a movie can be measured on being “faithful to the book,” or a witness in court can be measured on whether his testimony is “faithful to the facts.”

Any of these meanings can be said to apply to something that is trustworthy. But it is the last usage described above that applies most naturally to Bible translations. According to Proverbs 12:17, “The faithful (Heb. ʾemunah) witness tells what is right, but a false witness speaks deceit” (see also v. 22; 14:5). And Proverbs 13:17 warns, “An unreliable messenger falls into trouble, but a faithful envoy brings healing.” A faithful messenger fulfills his responsibility to the master to represent him appropriately and to convey accurately the message entrusted to him. As such, the master can trust him, but so also can his audience. What they hear from the faithful messenger is the message intended by the master, as if the master had delivered the message in person. 

The apostle Paul has in mind such messengers when he instructs Timothy, “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful (pistos) men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). In a similar vein, the Jews, Paul said, had been “entrusted (pisteuo) with the very words of God,” being expected to guard and transmit them faithfully (Rom 3:2). 

In the case of a Bible translation, of course, the messenger must convey the master’s message in another language. This prohibits the use of the same words and requires that the focus be on the same message, bridging different linguistic realities. Certainly, faithfulness in Bible translation demands that the words used in the translation be as close as possible in meaning to the words used in the original language text. 

Translation is never “word-for-word,” however popular that phrase might be. Simply put: the problem is grammar. Although English, Hebrew, and Greek all have nouns, verbs, prepositions, and other grammatical features, they behave differently in the various languages and are found in different order in a clause. Translators must work hard at determining what syntactical forms in English most accurately reflect what was intended to be conveyed by the Hebrew or Greek syntax. 

One final issue of translation faithfulness that must be considered is the tension between faithfulness and tradition. For example, when the King James Version was done, the Hebrew word nephesh was understood to mean “soul” in almost every case (it occurs there 443 times). However, for the last several decades, Old Testament scholars have recognized that nephesh rarely means “soul.” The NIV (2011) renders it “soul” only 72 times, and the HCSB uses “soul” only 33 times. In Genesis 2:7, for example, the KJV “man became a living soul” is rendered by most contemporary translations as “man became a living being.” 

On the other hand, in some passages the KJV tradition is considered so familiar that many translations succumb to the temptation to continue the traditional translation even though it is difficult to make sense of it. Such is sometimes the case with Psalm 1:1—“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful” (KJV). What does a contemporary English speaker make of “walk in the counsel of the wicked,” or “stand in the way of sinners,” or “sit in the seat of scoffers” (see ESV, NASB). 

Finally, the phrase “I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever” in Psalm 23:6 (KJV) is literally “I will dwell in [or “return to”] the house of the LORD to length of days.” The phrase “length of days” occurs 21 times in the Hebrew Bible and clearly refers to the length of a person’s life in almost every case (the exceptions are Psalms 21:4 and 93:5). So, the HCSB translates this phrase as “I will dwell in the house of the LORD as long as I live” (see also NET, NRSV).

One would expect a faithful Bible translation to convey the message of the original texts even when it differs from the message that readers have come to expect. All of this is part of what it means to be a faithful Bible translation.

Dr. Ray Clendenen serves as Senior Editor of Bible and Reference Publishing at B&H Publishing Group in Nashville, Tennessee.

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