You order that piece of furniture online or pick it up at a large retailer. And it comes with “some assembly required” (more “some” than you expected). The do-it-yourself instructions prove to be challenging—it becomes obvious that those instructions weren’t written first in English. Does this sound familiar? To a native English reader, the unusual word order and unfamiliar word choices of the translation can be comical at best, unintelligible at worst. It gets lost in translation.
Translating the Book of Books
The Bible, of course, wasn’t written in English—its original writers used Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Besides the fact that these are ancient languages, much of what we have of this ancient document is manuscript fragments or copies of the original. So translators have the challenge of determining what exactly to translate, before they even begin the work of translation itself. And new archeological discoveries provide further manuscript evidence to consider. Fortunately, there are biblical scholars who have invested their careers to give us the best possible edition of the original languages from which to translate into English.
English is changing, too. If you’re over the age of thirty, you can probably think of English usage that is acceptable today that runs completely contrary to what your fourth grade teacher taught you was correct. And older words like “sheweth” just don’t communicate to English readers in the twenty-first century.
Translating Words vs. Translating Thoughts
Translating the Bible (all 1,189 chapters of it!) into English is a huge endeavor, with multiple data points and translation philosophies. Some Bible translations are more word-for-word; they prioritize “literalness” to the original languages, but that can result in difficult word order and unfamiliar words (like our example of the instructions above). Other Bible translations are more thought-for-thought; they prioritize readability, focusing more on communicating the meaning of the passage clearly in English, but they may leave behind some of the nuance of the original. And some translations balance these two approaches. Research shows the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) that I work with as a Bible publisher is both highly literal to the original languages and highly readable, and it achieves an optimal balance of the two.
Choosing a Translation for Yourself
A variety of factors come into play to create bookstore shelves filled with multiple Bible translations. And this is good! Rest assured that all of the top-selling Bible translations are ones that agree on the biblical narrative and the gospel message. As you’re reading and studying the Bible, the use of two or three can enrich your personal study. A more literal translation will give you more transparency to the original text, and a more readable translation will help you think about the meaning of the passage in new ways.
According to recent research by Barna Group, 88 percent of Americans own a Bible but only 37 percent read it regularly. After time constraints, frustration with understanding the Bible was listed as the most common reason people don’t read it.
As a pastor, I want my church to have a Bible text that clearly communicates both the form and the meaning of the original languages as faithfully as possible. But if the CSB translation team provided a highly literal text that didn’t communicate to today’s reader, we would have done only half of our job. A good translation must also be clearly understood—this is true of any book or document (or set of assembly instructions!) translated from one language to another, of course, but it must be especially true of a translation of God’s Word.
Sharing With Others
I believe that the Bible is meant to be shared. Using a translation that is both accurate to the original text and clear for today’s readers opens the door for each of us to share the Bible with someone who has read it for a lifetime or with someone who has never before encountered its life-changing message.
“Then he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” – Mark 16:15
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20
Let’s remember that sharing the good news of the gospel isn’t simply a suggestion. It’s a command Jesus set out for us: to be the catalyst for eternal heart change in our neighbors and throughout the world as we share God’s Word with others.
Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ.” We most clearly hear the message about Christ in Scripture, and so we know that evangelism and discipleship do not occur apart from the Word.
When we share scripture, in an accurate and understandable translation, unbelievers can step into the story of Jesus bringing those far from him into fellowship with him. I love that God gives us a promise, that when we obey and share the gospel, his Spirit will do the rest. We can rest in knowing that God’s Word will not return empty, but it will accomplish what God pleases (Isaiah 55:11).
God could have found many conduits to deliver his message, but he chooses to allow us to join him in the work. It is an honor to be able to share the story of God’s grace and mercy that has been revealed to us in the Bible. May we love God’s Word so much that we cannot keep the good news to ourselves: this is one message we can share that never grows stale.
“The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever.” – Isaiah 40:8