Question: What makes a translation accurate?
Imagine this. I’m teaching about 50 students in the first legal Bible school in a country whose alphabet I cannot descipher. I won’t tell you the name of the place to protect the innocent. Anyway, the students are excited to have brand new translations of the New Testament in their hands. I’m excited, too, because the man responsible for the translation is my interpreter for the class. He’s a Westerner who married into the nation. Well into the hour, I ask a student to read aloud from a passage in Romans, a short passage. It’s only one line in my Greek text. She pauses to take a breath, but then reads more and more. Convinced that she must be reading the wrong verse, I look over her shoulder. The numbers are right, but the verse is over half a page long. So I look up at my interpreter and say, “That’s a lot more than the Greek says.” But he shrugs his shoulders and replies with a wink, “Well, sometimes you have to do a lot of explaining to get the point across.” I just stand there, not knowing what to say.
That’s the problem with accuracy in translation. Translators are pulled in two directions. We want “to get the point across,” but we also don’t want to say “a lot more than the Hebrew or Greek says.” Some translators define accuracy more in terms of their anticipated readers and ask, ”Will my translation enable my readers to understand?” Other translators define accuracy more in terms of the biblical authors and ask, “Will my translation reflect what the authors actually wrote?”
Happily, we can find some guidance from the Bible itself. New Testament authors always translated the Old Testament when they referred to it. Like the various translators of the Septuagint, sometimes they were so concerned with getting the point across that they gave their readers highly interpreted translations, what most of us would call paraphrases. At other times, they were so interested in not saying a lot more than the Hebrew text said that they gave their readers rather wooden renderings, what most of us would call literal translations. If divinely inspired authors went in both directions as they translated Scripture, then surely it is not only permissible but also wise for us to do the same.
I approach this issue for myself with this adage in mind: “All responsible translation is interpretation, and all responsible interpretation is translation—so long as we know what’s coming.” Translation and interpretation go hand in hand, but we have choices to make. Will a translation project tend to clarify, explain, or interpret the biblical text for our readers/audiences? Will a translation project tend to leave obscure, unexplained, or uninterpreted what biblical authors left in that condition for their readers/audiences? Or will we aim for some middle ground? The full spectrum serves us well, “so long as we know what’s coming.” That is to say, the accuracy of a translation is measured by how well we communicate and meet our goals.
Richard L. Pratt Jr. is the president of Third Millennium Ministries. He chaired the Old Testament department and taught at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and Orlando, Florida, for 21 years.