NIV. KJV. NASB. ESV. NLT. Do these sound familiar to you? Many of you know that these are different translations of the Bible – and you’re likely familiar with one or more of them. But did you know that these five translations are just a few among hundreds? The Bible has been translated into English over 400 different ways!

Sure, a few of these 400 translations came about from people wanting to twist Scripture to support their own views, but most did not; most came from faithful people who wanted to have the best translation possible.

One reason for the plethora of versions of the Bible in English is the long-standing argument among English speakers regarding the value of “literal” versus “idiomatic” translations. “Literal” translations seek to mirror the words and structure (grammar) of the original text as closely as possible. Meanwhile, “idiomatic” translations attempt to preserve the pictures and thoughts communicated in the original, but in a more readable and understandable style.

However – as Emanate students recently learned in their Semantics and Translation course with Dave Brunn – not all languages can even have this debate. Because English and Greek come from the same Indo-European family of languages, they share a close relationship in how they communicate meaning. Therefore, in English we can either produce a fairly understandable translation that sticks close to the original structure and wording or change the grammatical structure to make it more readable and natural (while retaining the meaning). In English we have that choice, but many languages do not.

Most of the languages that do not yet have their own Bible are not even remotely related to New Testament Greek. If you attempted to do a “word-for-word” translation, you would end up with gibberish. Many words would not even exist in the target language. Besides that, whole sentences would be unintelligible.

For example, the Lamogai language of Papua New Guinea does not have abstract nouns, so “love” can only be a verb. If you attempted to translate a phrase such as “God is love” (1 John 4:8) literally, it would come out something like, “God is his insides going toward” (Brunn p.145) – which makes no sense in Lamogai or English!

In languages like Lamogai, there’s no debate. Which would be a more faithful translation; one that corresponds word-for-word to the original but is completely unreadable, or one that uses native phrases to communicate the original meaning in an understandable way?

Second Timothy 3:16 says that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (ESV) but how can that Scripture be profitable if it is incoherent to the people reading it?

Nevertheless, creating a clear and accurate translation involves an extensive process, as students are learning. The Bible translator has to…

  • Have a deep understanding of how the native people communicate
  • Dissect and study each Bible passage thoroughly, aided by verse-by-verse translation helps
  • Translate clearly and accurately
  • Check each word and sentence meticulously with the help of teammates, native language helpers, and a translation consultant.

Translators carry an immense responsibility on their shoulders, as they seek to ensure that the meaning of the Word of God is preserved and rendered clearly into the target language. They take that task very seriously. By the work of the Spirit and with diligence, we aim to help people from every language be able to access a Bible that is profitable for their life, just like Paul talked about in 2nd Timothy.

If you’d like to learn more about the challenges involved in translating the Bible into a non Indo-European language, check out Dave Brunn’s book One Bible, Many Versions, which is quoted above.