Question: What makes a translation accurate?
Its ability to preserve the way that later biblical authors evoke earlier Scripture. The Bible was written by at least 40 authors from Moses in the 1400s BC to John around AD 90. Everyone who followed Moses learned from his work, and the later authors made heavy use of what the earlier authors had written.
When we consider “accuracy” in a translation, one factor that should receive more attention is the question of whether the influence of earlier Scripture on later Scripture has been preserved. The biblical authors are not always engaging earlier passages in ways that are obvious. The authors of biblical narrative do more “showing” than “telling,” and the authors of biblical poetry and prophecy have very subtle ways of evoking the promises and curses, patterns and portrayals from the narratives.
There is, of course, a spectrum of opinion about how best to translate. Those who present a dynamic equivalent may “accurately” communicate the meaning of a particular passage in the language into which the Bible is being translated. But what if the translator did not see a subtle connection the biblical author made to an earlier passage of Scripture? This could result from the fact that while the translator may be an expert in the Psalms, he may not have spent as much time as he would like in Deuteronomy or Genesis. Or, what if the translator did see the re-use of words or even whole phrases from an earlier passage (or passages) but thought it was of no significance and so did not preserve it in his dynamic equivalent? Yet a third possibility is that the translator saw the connections, thought they were significant, but thought that clarity in the translation was more important than the preservation of intertextuality. If the translator does not present a formal equivalent, will readers of the translation have the opportunity to evaluate the significance of subtle connections to earlier Scripture?
The more dynamic a translation is, the more often one is faced with these questions. Consider, for instance, the possibility that there are connections at word and phrase levels between Genesis 12, Genesis 15, 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 72, Luke 1, and Galatians 3. Will these connections be evident if one scholar presents a dynamic equivalent rendering of the relevant statements in Genesis 12 and 15, then another scholar does the same for 2 Samuel 7, perhaps without concern for or knowledge of how Genesis 12 and 15 have been rendered? What if this process is continued by a third scholar working on Psalms, a fourth on Luke, and a fifth on Galatians? Then the dynamic equivalents of the various scholars are forwarded to a final committee. Will the committee be in position to bring all these dynamic equivalents together “accurately” to represent connections between these texts and the myriads of others whose influence is operative?
This issue is ultimately a great motivation to learn the biblical languages! Most people will not have that opportunity. Will they have the opportunity to see more or less of the Bible’s inter-connectedness? Won’t more of the Bible’s inter-connectedness be preserved if the translation is presenting formal equivalence instead of dynamic equivalence? Because the influence of earlier Scripture is so often determinative for the meaning of later Scripture, I prefer more literal translations.
James M. Hamilton Jr. is associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He also serves as preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church.