Lost in Translation

The general population has not always had direct access to the Bible like we do today.  The Scriptures were originally read and recited exclusively by priests and rabbis.  It wasn’t until 1539 that “the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the bequest of King Henry VIII, hired a publisher to publish the ‘Great Bible’. It became the first English Bible authorized for public use, as it was distributed to every church, chained to the pulpit, and a reader was even provided so that the illiterate could hear the Word of God in plain English.” (1)  Now, there are literally hundreds of versions of the Bible written in English.  Each version has its own translation philosophy.  Each translation is subject to contradictions and omissions.

Many churches view the King James Version, originally published in 1611, as the only accurate or true interpretation of the Scriptures.  Others feel that the KJV is too difficult to read and is therefore misunderstood and/or simply unappealing to the average reader.  This opinion, as well as widespread literacy, has led to many new translations over the years.  Where the various translations seem to vary the most is in regard to the passages dealing with sexuality.  The word ‘homosexual’ did not appear in any Bible until 1946.   Sexual orientation is a modern concept that translators are impressing upon ancient Scriptures more and more.   Are translators deviating from, or moving towards the original ‘God-breathed’ meaning and intention of these passages?   I’d like to offer a few notes on the translation philosophies of four modern versions of the Bible, followed by a comparison of how each version interprets three select verses.

New International Version:

The NIV Bible has met with major opposition from its inception in the 1970’s.  The 2011 version controversially declared itself ‘gender neutral’ or gender inclusive, but also rewrote many verses on homosexuality.  This version made its denunciation more clear. (2)

The NIV was one of the earliest to create a more modern English Bible by removing the Old English thou, thee, thy, etc.  Thanks to this it would eventually outsell the King James Version.  The NIV Bible is the most widely utilized translation today.  On their website, they point out that “other Bible translations (emphasis mine) focus on the meaning of Scripture, helping you grasp the message of the Bible in your own words. The challenge with this approach is that if you stray too far from the form of the text, you might miss some of the subtle nuances—literary devices, wordplays, etc.—found in the original. Even the best literal translation can’t follow the original form all the time. And even the best meaning-based translation can’t capture every detail of meaning found in the original (emphasis mine).” (3)  The philosophy behind the NIV translation is an attempt to balance literal with thought for thought.

New Living Translation:

First published in 1996, their website says that while they are ‘reluctant to clarify the meaning of the text, they are open to doing so when absolutely necessary.’  They go on to say that an individual translator (rather than a committee of scholars) may also clarify and/or paraphrase to ‘catch the attention of readers in a fresh way, seeking to jolt and surprise them into understanding (emphasis mine)’.  A second edition was published in 2004, with the purpose of increasing its precision without sacrificing its easy-to understand quality. (4)  This translation is a mix of formal and dynamic equivalence, similar to that of the NIV.  The NLT Bible seeks to be moderately literal without over simplifying.

International Standard Version:

First published in 2011, it states on their website “when the text can be understood in different ways, an attempt is made either to provide a rendering in which the same ambiguity appears in English, or to decide the more likely sense and translate accordingly. In the latter case, a footnote indicates the alternative understanding of the text. In general, the ISV attempts to preserve the relative ambiguity of the text rather than to make positive statements that depend on the translators’ judgment (emphasis mine) or that might reflect theological bias.” (5)  This translation is also a mix of both formal & dynamic equivalence.

God’s Word Translation:

The translation theory behind this Bible is the ‘closest natural equivalent’.  CNE “provides readers with a meaning in the target language that is equivalent to that of the source language.” (6)

The preface of this 1995 Bible states “God’s Word is intended to be read by those who are well-versed in Scripture as well as first-time Bible readers, Christians as well as non-Christians, adults as well as children.  And so, as in the case of the GNB [Good News Bible], an attempt is made to promote the use of the version by all kinds of readers. But it is obvious that the translation is designed more for the first-time readers and children (emphasis mine). The style is informal. Sentences are broken up so as to make them shorter and less complicated.” (7)

“Translation can never be completely objective. It involves subjective judgments. Even when operating under the guidelines of closest natural equivalence, translators cannot produce a perfect translation. Translators use cautious judgment and maintain a keen awareness of all the factors needed for a full understanding of the source text. Among other things, translators need to understand the original language’s grammar and syntax, appreciate and understand literary devices used by the original authors, understand what kind of audience the original author had in mind when writing, and understand the modern target audience and its language (emphasis mine).” (8)

Contrast & Compare:

I.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he describes who will and who most certainly will not be allowed to enter into heaven.  1 Corinthians 6:9 reads:

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind” (KJV)

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men” (NIV)

“… Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality” (NLT)

“… Stop deceiving yourselves! Sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals” (ISV)

Part one of the verse is fluid between these versions; wrongdoers, wicked people, and the unrighteous are all synonyms.  Part two however, is translated very differently by comparison.  The original Greek word is ‘arsenokoitai’.  Its exact meaning is debatable and thus it is up to the translators to interpret.   Men who have sex with men is not the definition of homosexuality.  The act is not the orientation.  In ancient times, there were male temple prostitutes and men who engaged with them.  This behavior did not mean either man was necessarily homosexual.  There was also the practice of pedastery.  Furthermore the language excludes women, which makes the term ‘homosexual’ an even less accurate translation.  Modern churches who detest homosexuality do not excuse lesbianism.  It is possible that Paul is saying that sexually active gay men cannot enter the kingdom, but celibate gay men could.  However, this theory is doubted by most as the idea of sexual orientation did not exist in Biblical times.  The modern insertion of the word ‘homosexual’ in this verse seems to be an inaccurate inference.

II.

Similarly, in the Old Testament, male cult prostitution has been retranslated to ‘homosexuality’.              1 Kings 14:24 says:

“And there were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the LORD cast out before the children of Israel.” (KJV)

There were even male shrine prostitutes in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.”  (NIV)

“There were even male and female shrine prostitutes throughout the land. The people imitated the detestable practices of the pagan nations the LORD had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites.” (NLT)

“There were even male prostitutes in the temples of idols throughout the land. The people of Judah did all the disgusting practices done by the nations that the LORD had forced out of the Israelites’ way.” (GWT)

The term sodomites has been said to imply ‘homosexuals’.  And yet the same original word or phrase has also been translated as male prostitutes and even female and male prostitutes together!  In the examined versions, there is no version where the word ‘homosexual’ is used.  Why then has it begun to be used in other passages?

III.

One final example of how varied English translations of the Bible can be is Jude 1:7.  The sins of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are expressed here.

“Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” (KJV)

“And don’t forget Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring towns, which were filled with immorality and every kind of sexual perversion. Those cities were destroyed by fire and serve as a warning of the eternal fire of God’s judgment.” (NLT)

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities near them, which like them committed sexual sins and pursued homosexual activities, serve as an example of the punishment of eternal fire.” (ISV)

“What happened to Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities near them is an example for us of the punishment of eternal fire. The people of these cities suffered the same fate that God’s people and the angels did, because they committed sexual sins and engaged in homosexual activities”. (GWT)

Strange flesh, angels, homosexuality, and/or sexual sins in general, are wildly varying interpretations of the same original text.  The other interesting observation here is that the notion of Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed because of homosexuality is disproven after examination of this verse.  The three modern translations also mention other sexual sins, meaning that God destroyed the city because an array of sexual sins were being committed, not exclusively gay male sex, as many churches falsely believe and teach.

Conclusion:

Each new version of the Bible may vary subtly or greatly from its predecessors, and indeed from the original sources.  Your Bible may say things that mine does not.  The opposite is true as well.  Believers, therefore must understand this and read with an open heart and a critical mind.  All humans are fallible.  We must demand accuracy in translation, not justification for preexisting bias.   Obviously, translation is not an exact science.  What this leads to is inexact religion.

References:

  1. http://www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history/
  2. http://www.christianpost.com/news/latest-niv-bible-translation-clearer-on-homosexual-sins-says-theologian-66393/#3fCPIIPJ1bJ5LPX1.99
  3. http://www.thenivbible.com/about-the-niv/niv-translation-philosophy/
  4. http://www.newlivingtranslation.com/05discoverthenlt/philosophy.asp#sthash.AIy36Q3M.dpuf
  5. https://www.isv.org/bible/translation-principles/ 
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God%27s_Word_Translation
  7. http://www.bible-researcher.com/godsword.html
  8. http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/bibles/translation-philosophy

Further Reading:

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