Is it wrong to “remove” words from the text of Scripture? Is this incompatible with a high view of Scripture? If we adhere to the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture and contend that it is inerrant in the original text, have we violated our profession if we fail to represent every word when we translate? If it is invalid to move a musical notation to a different location on the page (yet still retain it clearly in the translation) as does the NIV11 with Selah, what are we to think of translations that outright omit multiple instances of words that are incontrovertibly part of the original text? Translations which contain no note, no explanation at all—which just omit them altogether. If we were consistent in our argumentation at this point, then I think that we would be forced to conclude that any such translation must be judged to have violated the ICBI Chicago Statement because they have not faithfully presented the text of Scripture as it has come down to us.
Now to be perfectly clear so that I am not pilloried for what I do not believe, let me be very clear up front in saying that I adhere to the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture and contend that it is inerrant in the original text. In no way am I questioning that theological position. I am also concerned that we are careful in how we translate. Translation, however, is a complex task and not one to be represented simplistically. Let’s take two translations and examine how they handle some common situations in both OT and NT. I’ll refer to them as A and B. Since I’m a “NT guy,” I’ll begin with an example from (surprise, surprise! 🙂 ) Mark’s gospel. For sake of time and space, I’ll use just the first chapter of Mark, but surely if there are problems in one chapter, then the number of problems would only increase if the entire book or the entire NT were considered.
One of the characteristics of Mark’s idiolect is that he usually begins his sentences with καί. Doing something similar in English is considered very poor style, but in Mark’s case, it likely reflects his Semitic mother tongue Aramaic which, like its Hebrew cousin, normally begins sentences with waw. In any case, there is a specific Greek word involved which rarely has a textual problem connected with it. In Mark 1 there are 30 instances of sentences beginning with καί. If I counted right, there are 35 sentences in the chapter (i.e., which end with a period in UBS/NA text). So the textual data seems pretty secure and perhaps even “culturally significant” since it likely tells us something about Mark’s mother tongue.
So how do my two translations fare when evaluated in terms of their accurately reflecting every word of the Scriptural text? Translation A clearly omits any equivalent of καί four times. No note. No explicit translation. It’s just gone. If we argue that we must translate every word in order to be faithful to a high view of Scripture, then we have a problem. Four times in only one chapter Translation A has been unfaithful and omitted words from the text. That is surely grounds for suspicion. Translation A has failed to present the text faithfully. We should surely, then, not encourage the use of any such translation that is so careless and should seek a more reliable guide. Perhaps Translation B will prove more faithful. Unfortunately when B is examined, the problem is far, far worse. Translation B omits καί 23 times! In one chapter. No note. No explicit translation. It’s just gone. Surely we have now moved into dangerous territory. If Translation A evidences an unfaithful attitude toward the inspiration of every word of Scripture in the original text, then surely Translation B is obviously the product of biased, liberal scholarship which denies the inspiration of Scripture and emasculates its meaning. There must surely be some sinister plot afoot here; Translation B is certainly accommodating an evil social agenda of some sort.
Perhaps there are some mitigating factors. If we study the 30 instances of καί-initial statements in Mark 1 we would discover that there may be issues of idiom involved. There are two distinctive expressions in Mark’s gospel, καὶ εὐθύς and καὶ ἐγένετο. So let’s be generous and subtract these idioms from the data, allowing that they may require some special treatment in English to render them intelligible. (I’m trying to be very generous here, since I do not think that this is the case at all; a strictly formal equivalent translation, while perhaps a bit clumsy, is still intelligible. But I want to give every benefit of the doubt to these two translations, so I’ll go with a hypothetical argument.) Thankfully this reduces the problem somewhat. Unfortunately, it does not eliminate the problem for either translation. Omitting the two expressions that I’ve noted results in figures of 2 and 15 respectively for Translations A and B. Two is certainly better than four, but it remains a stubborn fact that Translation A has twice—in one chapter—omitted words that are clearly in the text of Scripture. Of course 15 instances in Translation B is still enough of earn our scorn for such a careless handling of the text.
So much for the NT. Let’s turn to the OT and see if these two translations fare any better. (I’m using the SBL “general purpose style” of transliteration below for simplicity sake on a blog.)
Let’s take the example of the word na’ in Gen 19. (My only reason for selecting this chapter is that it has the most instances of na’ in any OT chapter.) HALOT tells us that this is an “emphatic particle”—so if emphatic, then one would expect that a faithful translation would pay particular attention to reflecting it in the English. In Gen 19 na’ occurs once with an imperative, twice with a cohortative, 4 times with hinneh, and twice with ’al. As one example of how this emphatic word may be translated, with an imperative it often adds the idea of “please.” E.g. in Gen 19:2b we could translate the imperative, suru na’, as “please turn aside” rather than just “turn aside.”
What do we find with Translations A and B? Of the 9 instances of na’ in this chapter, Translation A only translates the word 3 times (possibly 5?). Six times (or 4 if I give them the benefit of the doubt) the translation has omitted a significant word from the text. As with the example from Mark, this would surely cast doubt on the reliability of this translation. What about Translation B? Interestingly, the figures are the same (though the specific verses are different!): 3 times this word has been omitted from the text. I’m afraid that we must conclude that both translations have not faithfully presented the text of Scripture as it has come down to us.
While we’re in Gen 19, what about hinneh? Since it’s a “deictic and interrupting interjection” (per HALOT), it ought to be significant (though of course if we insist that a view of verbal plenary inspiration requires us to include every word in the translation, then it wouldn’t matter if it was a particularly significant word or not!). There are only 6 instances of hinneh in Gen 19, but that’s adequate as a test passage. Of our two translations under scrutiny, Translation A does fairly well with 5 of the 6 instances retained in the translation—but that does mean that in one instance it has omitted a word from the text. This is not a word of ambiguous meaning as is Selah, but one that is well known and widely used. It would appear that we’d have to be a bit suspicious of Translation A since as with our previous two examples there is a noticeable tendency at times to omit words from the text. It has not been totally faithful to the text of Scripture—and surely we want a translation that is totally faithful don’t we? What about Translation B? The news is not good: fully half of the occurrences of hinneh have been omitted, so B is less faithful than A in this regard.
The examples could be multiplied. If we want to argue that translations must include every word of the original in order to be judged a faithful translation, then we must be consistent in our judgments. If NIV11 is flawed due to the way it has handled Selah (retaining the word in the translation, but printing it apart from the main text column, presumably to avoid a misreading of the text), then Translations A and B are far worse in that they outright omit many words. Not obscure words, but words well documented and clear in their meaning and usage. Even emphatic words. One cannot depend on such unreliable translations for they have been unfaithful to the text of Scripture. Even though Translation A might be more reliable than B, that is still a relative term since even A frequently omits words from the text. We should surely look elsewhere for a faithful translation of Scripture.
Now that my argument/illustration is finished, let me say clearly that I do not consider either Translation A or B to be seriously flawed. Both are faithful translations of Scripture. They both take different approaches to some difficult translation problems. Every translation must do just that. There is no one perfect translation. Every translation must deliberately choose to omit some information and to add other information. It is not possible to translate any text exactly into any other language. Something is always lost and something is always added. It is inevitable. Translation A is closer to the formal equivalent end of the spectrum and B is closer to the middle. That is the point of my illustration.
Oh yes, you wanted to know what translations they were? I figured as much. Hopefully I haven’t discouraged you from trusting either the ESV (Translation A) or the HCSB (Translation B)! 🙂