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Bible Gateway and The Gospel Coalition have teamed up to host a discussion of English Bible translation. We have convened a team of world-class scholars representing different versions of the English Bible who will address specific passages from the Old and New Testaments and answer questions about the translation process.

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What Makes a Translation Accurate? T. David Gordon

Posted in Translation Philosophy by T. David Gordon on November 5th, 2010

Question: What makes a translation accurate?

Others have written so many good things that I just wish to add a brief observation. Perhaps we should ask, “What makes a responsible (not just accurate) translation?” The KJV was always responsible. When it had to make educated guesses, they appeared in italics. If there were an ellipsis in the original (e.g. Rom. 9:32 has no verb), the KJV took an educated guess, then put that guess in italics, so at least the readers knew that it was an educated guess. The contemporary translations rarely do this. Since I’m writing on Galatians now, consider this one from Gal 3:10 (KJV)—“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” KJV is literal here; and, in my judgment, correct.

Other translations add “rely on” to the text out of thin air: “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” There is no justification for the addition of the English “rely on” here in the ESV (or RSV/NRSV). Each of the translations that gratuitously adds “rely on” here does not translate the parallel in the previous verse (οἱ ἐκ πίστεως) “those who rely on faith.” The translation “rely on works of the Law” is therefore both inconsistent with 3:9 and gratuitous (not needed). If ἐκ needed “rely on” to make a sensible translation, then it would have needed it in both substantives, in both verse 9 and verse 10. Further, if Paul had wanted to say something like “rely on,” he would have used the language he chose to use in Romans 2:17, where he does say “rely/rest on the Law” by saying ἐπαναπαύῃ νόμῳ. “Rely on” does not come from Paul or from his Greek; it is nothing more nor less than an intrusion of the pre-Sanders prejudice about first-century Judaism into the translation. If such a gratuitous addition is made, at a minimum the addition should be in italics, so the readers know when the translators are doing so. I prefer that unnecessary guesses just not be made; but if the translators feel some necessity to do so, I believe it would be more responsible if they did what the KJV used to do, and put the guesses in italics.

T. David Gordon is professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He previously taught New Testament for 13 years at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

This entry was posted by T. David Gordon and is filed under Translation Philosophy.