SCRIPTURE TRANSLATION PRINCIPLES
SCRIPTURE translation principles are a matter of great importance to us all, for only as sound principles of translation are followed can an accurate translation be made. Most believers, however, give little attention to such matters. Few seem to realize that various translations of the Bible, for all their similarities, differ in many particulars, often in matters of great consequence. Most would relegate such important considerations to “recognized authorities,” to whom they defer in judgment.
It is true that authorities, experts in their field, concur in many points. Yet it is just as true that, especially in issues of theological significance, authorities differ widely among themselves. Men of great learning, of high intellect and prodigious ability, are still flesh; they are still fallible, mortal sinners even as ourselves. Besides, however learned, such ones can still be proud, stubborn, or simply unenlightened as to certain vital issues. It is foolish, then, uncritically to accept as true what certain authorities may say, especially when we have not carefully considered the views of other differing experts, both recognized authorities and those of less renown who are nonetheless skilled and knowledgeable in the biblical text and languages.
It is not that each one of us must become expert in one or more broad fields of learning within theology, philosophy, or linguistics before we can hope to judge any certain matter correctly. Nor is it that we must canvas the entire field of opinion, throughout all history, before we can decide even the simplest questions. Instead, we need only discern what is truly at issue, and then accept whatever position can actually be proved. While such judgments, indeed, require competency, God, in His own time, is able to make us competent, that we might, by His grace, not only hold correct positions, but objectively know that we do so.
Accordingly, God has appointed certain ones within the ecclesia who serve with a view “toward the adjusting of the saints for the work of dispensing, for the upbuilding of the body of Christ, unto the end that we should all attain to the unity of the faith and of the realization of the son of God, to a mature man . . . that we may by no means still be minors . . . .” (Eph.4:11-14).
Beyond those specifically so named in Scripture, it is vain to speculate concerning the identity of such servants. But it is the part of wisdom to believe that God does give such ones to us. In His own time–whether at present or in the coming eon–those who are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, will succeed in the work which, under Christ, God has appointed unto them (cp Rom.10:15; 14:4; Col.1:6,7).
GRACE FOR DISCERNMENT
It is most unwise to find assurance in the consensus of popular opinion. Indeed, in an era of apostasy such as today (cf 2 Tim.4:3,4), it is especially foolish to assent to what the majority of authorities may say, for, at least in controverted matters, the majority are far more likely to be wrong than right. In the discernment of truth, as in all just judging, we must make our decisions “apart from prejudice, doing nothing from bias” (cf 1 Tim.5:21b).
Let us not merely assent to the opinions of others, but recognize and heed our own obligation to correctly cut the word of truth (cf 2 Tim.2:15). May we humble ourselves by admitting our ignorance, while at the same time accepting the duty of faithfulness. It is true that such an ongoing endeavor will involve much self-effort; but it does not rise out of the self. We rejoice to know that God by His grace is able to work in us the very willing and working which is essential to our progress (Phil.2:13).
We would look to Him as our Saviour in this sphere even as in all others. Indeed, we would do so, for otherwise our cause is hopeless. Otherwise, even if we should find much gratification in our course, we can only take our place among the deceived. Dedication, zeal, and sincerity, are surely commendable. Success, health, and happiness, are certainly desirable. No such attributes or experiences, however, are any indication of faithfulness. For the discernment of truth, there simply is no substitute for a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the realization of God, that the eyes of our heart might be enlightened (Eph.1:15-19).
The fact that scholars disagree among themselves does not change the fact of our own accountability to God. Conversely, we must realize that understanding is ultimately the gift of God (cp Prov.25:2; Col.2:3; 1 Cor.3:5-9). If understanding is not granted to certain scholars, that does not mean that neither will it be granted to us. Let us earnestly seek the truth, endeavoring by God’s grace to become competent workers in His Word. Faithfulness is developed through our own efforts; yet it is achieved solely by and in God’s grace (1 Cor.4:7; 15:10; cf John 3:27).
TRANSLATION VERSUS INTERPRETATION
To “translate,” is to express in another language. To the degree that, in our version, we have conveyed or reflected the vocabulary terms and grammatical forms of the original writing within the corresponding document in the receptor language, we have made a translation. To the degree that we have done so accurately, we have made an accurate translation. Because of differences in idiom between languages, a strictly literal translation is impractical if not impossible. What is needed, then, is a version that is translated in such a way so as to be true to the original yet readable in itself as a literary work.
Such a work must, first of all, be faithful to the original. For this it must be practically “literal,” even where, to preserve good diction and afford readability, it cannot be actually literal. In most cases, however, substantially literal renderings can be both understandable and true to the sense of the original. Where idiom demands, synonymical variants in vocabulary and alternative means of grammatical reflection can still preserve substantial accuracy while permitting necessary latitude in expression. The translators of the Concordant Version have endeavored to translate according to these principles, thus seeking to provide a uniform and accurate, substantially literal work.
The Concordant Version, in conjunction with its Greek-English Keyword Concordance, together with the companion volume, the CONCORDANT GREEK TEXT, reflects many facts inherent in the original texts. Much of this information is presented in the translation itself, through the use of boldface type for words in the original and lightface type for words or parts of words added for readability, besides through the implementation of superior, abbreviation characters and grammatical symbols. Through various features of the Concordance even as of the Greek Text’s English sublinear, much additional invaluable information is provided as well.
Faithful translation requires the establishing of standard equivalents between the vocabulary and grammar of the original writing and that of the translated work. When possible, these standards must be used in translation; where this is impracticable, a faithful translation must provide a consistent vocabulary which is as concordant as idiom will allow. There must be a correspondency, as uniformly expressed as possible, between the translated words and the original words. Where variants in translation are necessary, so long as the members of any certain synonymical group are used solely to represent a single word in the original, practical correspondency may still be preserved. But, wherever possible, what must be avoided is the use of any certain word in translation as the representative of two or more words in the original.
Contrary to popular opinion, faithful translation is not a matter of employing whatever word “seems to make the most sense, according to the context.” First of all, what “seems to make sense” may not be the true sense at all, but sensible only according to our own erroneous presuppositions. Yet even where one’s suppositions and conclusions are substantially correct, the idea conceived to be that of the author, may be a connotative one in the original, perhaps expressed as a figure of speech, not as a literal declaration. In such a case, though we may have grasped the author’s thought, we will fail to translate his words unless we render his words by words which, in essential meaning, correspond to his.1
Translation is not interpretation. An interpretation, even if correct, is still not a faithful translation. Interpretation is the province of the exegete; it is the realm of the expositor, not that of the translator. We cannot judge the sense of what is said until we know what is said; yet we cannot express what is said in the original unless we possess an essentially equivalent expression thereof in translated form. We cannot determine the correct sense of a word apart from a valid basis upon which to form such a conclusion. Translation must come first; only then may interpretation follow.
DEFINITIVE USAGE AND ESSENTIAL MEANING
In consideration of the subject of word meaning, a word needs to be said first of all concerning both etymology and the meaning of word elements. “Etymology,” or the study of a word’s origin, is not central but strictly peripheral in determining word meaning. Even the meaning of a word’s elements is not determinative of a word’s own meaning. Considerations of etymology may be helpful; but they can also be misleading. A knowledge of the meaning of a word’s elements is nearly always helpful, with a view toward one’s general understanding of a certain word. Nonetheless, such information simply is not decisive in determining the actual meaning of a word itself.
Definitive context alone determines meaning. We have a definitive context when, with respect to the meaning of a word in question, a certain idea alone truly satisfies such a context. We have the evidence of a word’s true meaning–and therefore of the meaning that truly satisfies such a definitive context–when that same meaning also fits all the occurrences in which the word appears. Due to considerations of idiom, such a meaning may or may not fit smoothly in all its occurrences. But if a certain meaning is cognizable in all of a word’s occurrences, while being singularly capable of satisfying those of its contexts which seem definitive, we may be certain (1) that such a meaning is indeed the word’s true meaning, and (2) that those contexts which we have deemed definitive, are, in fact, definitive.
Many passages simply are not definitive, even if they are otherwise very important passages. It is impossible for a word actually to have two or more meanings, however varied its usages may be. Communication would be impossible were we consistently to adapt the policy that words may have more than one meaning, or, to say the same thing, that they may have primary meaning, secondary meaning, tertiary meaning, and so forth. Meaning, that is, essence, is a singular concept. The existence of a plurality of lexical definitions, even as of homonymical forms, does not change this fact.
Through the passage of time, in the case of any certain word, many specialized usages may well develop, whether figurative or literal. These are the definitions of usage found in our dictionaries, commonly referred to as a word’s “meanings.” Of course most may not realize that these usages, both literal and figurative ones, all stem from a common, basic meaning. We have called some of these “faded figures,” since, through the passage of time, the original essential meaning of such terms may no longer be widely recognized.
The reader is not to base the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words in the original upon the ordinary dictionary definitions for the words which appear in any version, including the Concordant Version. Instead, where necessary, the English words in the Version are to be attuned by the reader in such a way that they are brought into accord with the original. The essential idea or meaning inherent to a word will usually be found, even if not identified as such, among the definitions of usage of a word appearing in our dictionaries. Yet the essential definition is not always the first definition or the most common definition; and certainly, it is not always the idea that most readily comes to mind for the ordinary reader. Instead, the English standards for the Concordant Version are the words which, in their essence, were found most closely to correspond to the essence of the Hebrew and Greek words which they represent.
Because in certain passages a particular idea may seem more plausible to us than that which the definitive evidence appearing elsewhere reveals a word’s true meaning to be, we must not imagine that such a word actually has an entirely different meaning in one passage than in another. This is true at all times, whether we are simply reading in our own language or are making a translation from one language to another. “False” never means “true”; “good” never means “bad”; “happy” never means “sad”; “black” never means “white,” and so forth.
It is vital to distinguish between word meaning and word usage; that is, between denotation and connotation, or essential meaning and referential meaning. It is true that the same word is sometimes used to convey a different idea in one text than in another. It does so, however, not by inherent signification but by contextual application, or usage. In such cases, a common word has in view one thought in a certain passage, and another thought in another certain passage. That is to say, in one text the same word speaks of or refers to a particular idea that it does not speak of or refer to in a different text. Properly speaking, then, such a word has a plurality of references, according to its varied usages. It does not, however, have a plurality of intrinsic significations or essential meanings.
A word’s essential meaning is also its universal meaning. Even if not primarily in view, a word’s essential meaning is present in all of its occurrences, wherever it is used. If this were not so, we could never determine how a word was presently used, for we would have no idea in mind to serve as a basis for our deliberations. Indeed, if a word’s essential meaning were not present in all its occurrences, since the majority of a word’s usages are nearly always indefinitive, in all such cases, it would be impossible to know what was to be understood by a word in question.
Speaking loosely, we may say that a word has two or more “meanings” in that in one place it is used to refer to one idea and in another place is used to refer to a different idea. But this is simply to say that in one instance a certain idea is in view and in another instance another idea is in view. Such a concept, however, speaks of referential meaning, not essential meaning. We should always seek to grasp an author’s thought. But we cannot know what he is saying at all, much less what he has in view, unless we already know, or the context makes evident, the essential meaning of the words he employs.
The consideration that a word may have a plurality of usages, gives no warrant to a translator to represent what are in fact merely his own interpretations as if they were actual translations of the original. In order to avoid confounding essential meaning with referential meaning, a translator must be careful to convey and maintain essential meaning in translation. Otherwise, a translator becomes an exegete; he is no longer a convertor of words and phrases from one language into their equivalent in another. He has become an interpreter of sense, instead of a conveyor of essence. He is supposed to tell us what is said, but insists instead on telling us what he thinks is meant. From these considerations, then, it becomes evident that it is vital to distinguish between translation of what is said, from one language to another, and interpretation of the sense of what is said, under the guise, or simply confusion of mind, of translation, falsely so-called.
Due to idiomatic differences between the original and the receptor language (especially scope of usage or idiomatic range), in translation it is often necessary to use a number of synonyms or other variants to translate a single word in the original. These variants may be quite different from each other in certain obvious respects. Even so, they often share a common central idea among themselves, and, in any case, always correspond to the essential idea of the original expression. It is their idiomatic correspondency which allows them to serve well in the translation of a single, original word. This is true even in rare cases where an original word covering a wide range of thought, requires antonyms in translation for certain of its usages (e.g., “obligate” and “borrow” represent the same Hebrew word in Deuteronomy 28:12). The fact, however, that in a translation good diction often requires the use of idiomatic variants, is certainly no proof that any particular word in the original text has a plurality of meanings.
In certain indefinitive passages, a term in question in the original may seem to be more correctly represented in English by some other expression than that which appears in the Concordant Version, even by a word that is of a radically different significance. This, however, does not make such suggested renderings correct, regardless of the zeal and persuasiveness of those advocating such renderings. Such suggestions can only be correct if they accord with the evidence found elsewhere in definitive passages.
GOD IS ABLE
Rather than assuming that principles of Scripture translation and interpretation are wholly beyond our reach and it is ours either to hold no opinion at all or to blindly submit to some human authority, may we instead recognize our own duty to be faithful to the Word of God. While it is indeed impossible for us, of ourselves, to know what the Scripture truly declares, God is able to enlighten us and make our faith grow up. Accordingly, then, we rely on the living God (1 Tim.4:10).
If we enjoy only a little light at present, we would rejoice in it, finding assurance in the recognition that our Saviour, God, wills all mankind to be saved and come into a realization of the truth (1 Tim.2:4). Now with men, indeed, this is impossible; yet with God all is possible (cp Matt.19:26). It is with confidence in God, then, not in ourselves, that we exultantly declare: “Now to Him Who is able to do superexcessively above all that we are requesting or apprehending, according to the power that is operating in us, to Him be the glory in the ecclesia and in Christ Jesus, for all the generations of the eon of the eons! Amen!” (Eph.3:20,21).
1. We may, for example, be correct in judging that a writer’s thought when saying the equivalent of “turn off the light,” is actually “turn off the lamp.” But even if so, if we would translate, not interpret, our rendering must be, “turn off the light.“
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