A good translation needs to be many things.
It needs to be accurate—it must correctly render the original meaning in the target language.
It needs to be complete—you can’t leave stuff out, but you also can’t add things in.
It needs to be acceptable—if the language used is somehow offensive in a community, or the process of translation is thought to be improper, then a translation won’t be used. (This is definitely not the goal.)
It should be beautiful—if the language is clunky and unpleasant to read, people won’t read it. (Also not the goal.)
Translations also need to be clear or intelligible—the words used need to be understood by the audience.
If there’s too many words that are too hard to understand the effort to read will be too much, and most people will just give up. Again, this is not the goal. Lots of the differences we see in English Bible versions are balancing these various aims.
Romans 3:25, for example, says Jesus was put forward by God, for us, as a “sacrifice of atonement” (NIV). The ESV translators put “propitiation” here, because they thought that the RSV’s “expiation” was an inaccurate rendering of the original word.
But the New Living Translation committee apparently decided that both “expiation” and “propitiation” are words that are unclear or unintelligible to most readers of English, so they describe Jesus in this verse as “the sacrifice for sin”.
One way to check if translations are clear is to do what’s known as a community check.
This is where people who are not involved in the translation process read it or listen to it, and we check that they understood everything.
This can pick up older words that slip into a translation that are not readily understood, especially by younger generations. An example of this process was up in Darwin last year, as we were working on a new translation of Luke 2:6–12 in Iwaidja, a Northern Territory language.
The way the translators had written “angel” was something like “a man with eagle wings”. Even before getting to the question of whether this was an accurate term, or one that imported some other information in, the word for “eagle” started getting discussed.
One of the translators had her teenage granddaughter with her, and this word didn’t mean anything to her at all. She’d never heard of it, as it was an archaic term that younger people didn’t use anymore.
They ended up changing the translation of “angel” to something like “a man sent with a message”, which is both more accurate and clearer.
Sam Freney is translation consultant with Bible Society Australia. Sam works with heart language translators across Australia with the collective goal to translate the Bible in the most accurate, clear and natural way possible.
Join as we look at all things clarity, accuracy, acceptability, and more in a general series of Bible translation tidbits from around our region.