Thursday, May 8, 2008

Literal Translations

Isaiah 7:14 (NKJV) Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.

Last night we had an interesting discussion concerning Bible translations. My main point was to illustrate that the primary motive of translating a passage a certain way is the theory of translation. A literal translation tends towards accuracy and a literary translation tends towards readability. In either case there must be some paraphrase, some insertion of words to help with meaning, and some idioms that are interpreted rather than translated.

Some people believe that the primary motive in a translation is ones theological bias. While I agree that bias cannot be easily avoided as we move towards paraphrase, I do not think that in a literal rendition the primary motive for word choice in most modern translations is due to a theological bias.

One example we looked at was with the New Revised Standard Version.

Isaiah 7:14 (NRSV) Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

The NRSV translates the Hebrew word “alma” with “young woman” instead of virgin. While I agree that this is not the best rendition of the word and that it should be translated virgin, I do not think the primary motive for translating “alma” here with “young woman” was because the translators wanted to deny the virgin birth.

Had the NRSV translators wanted to deny the virgin birth, then they would not have translated the quotation of this passage in Matthew as virgin.

Matthew 1:23 (NRSV) “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

I will grant that the liberal bias of the translation committee for the NRSV perhaps allowed the broader rendering in Isaiah to stand. However, the literal translation philosophy of the NRSV caused them to render this Isaiah quotation in Matthew as “virgin” without regard to their liberal bias.

Thus this example bolsters my point that translation committees are driven more by translation theory than by theological bias. Theological bias is more evident in translations that are less literal. So choose a literal translation for a study Bible if your want to increase accuracy and avoid theological bias.

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