By Dr. Abner Chou, John F. MacArthur Endowed Fellow
Both the mandate and the model for Bible translation are contained in Scripture itself.
God has promised His Son a bride from every people, nation, and language (Dan 7:14). The gospel must therefore go to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That is the Son’s reward (Ps 22:27), the extent of His rule (Ps 72:8), and the glory of His redemption (Isa 49:6). Since people from every tongue will ultimately confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil 2:11), they must be able to hear in their own language that He is Lord.
Scripture also contains numerous examples where God’s Word is recast in other languages to go to the ends of the earth. These constitute a model for translators to follow. For example, the Old Testament uses Aramaic words to address the nations in a language they can hear (Ps 2:12). The New Testament translates the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek so the Gentiles can understand. Thus, Scripture itself leads the way in translation because this is a necessary aspect of the Father’s eternal, cosmic plan for honoring His Son.
What Should a Translation Be?
This raises some questions: What should a translation be? What should it do? What should take priority in the mind of the translator? Some might respond that translations need to be readable, accessible, and convey biblical truth in a way each culture will understand and be drawn to. We resonate with all of that. Of course we want to understand the Bible. Yes, a translation should make the message clear to the reader. And obviously, the product should be something we want to read. Otherwise, what value would it have?
But notice that all those goals begin and end with the reader. That is a wish list for what we want the Bible to be for us.
Furthermore, culture is constantly in flux. If the translator’s first concern is to keep up—to stay abreast of trends, to chase “relevance,” to accommodate cultural norms, or to appeal to popular sensitivities—the resulting translation would have to be as fluid as popular culture. No translation could last more than a few years without needing revisions to accommodate the shifting winds of present-day vernacular and public opinion. This is the precise pressure that Bible translation is under currently.
On the other hand, what translation should be is an entirely different question than what we want it to be. To answer that question, we must go back to the Scripture.
God’s Word itself uses the term “translate” (Matt 1:23; John 1:38; Heb 7:2), employing a Greek word with the same root as the English term hermeneutics (the discipline of how we study and interpret the Bible). In a real sense, translation is interpretation. Just as biblical interpretation is not about the reader’s fancy but the Author’s intent, so translation must be as well. After all, Scripture is God’s Word (1 Thess 2:13), and God holds people accountable to declare what He revealed and nothing else (Deut 18:18-20; 2 Pet 3:16). Bible study should not be a quest to please and accommodate the reader; the true goal should be to understand and submit to what God has declared (Ps 119:33-35). Thus, the goal of the translator must be not to coddle readers, but to carry them to the Author. Therefore, translation should focus on the Author and His intent first of all.
Translation as a Window
In that way, a translation is a window. Windows typically have one purpose: to allow us to see through to the other side. We don’t look at a window; we look through it. We want to see what is behind the glass. Translation works the same way. Its wording and features are designed to bring you behind the glass—to help you understand what God originally wrote in Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek. Thoughtful readers should always be aware that behind what we are reading in our own language are words, idioms, and grammatical constructions in the original languages with important nuances that won’t necessarily be instantly obvious in the translation.
We live in a media-rich, soundbite-driven society where technology has made communication seem remarkably simple, and the resulting information overload has fooled us into thinking we know more than we do. People today want to be able to glance at a translation and get the impression that its meaning is easy and obvious. Readers don’t want to spend time and effort wrestling with the text. Consequently, translators are under pressure to reduce and flatten the features of a text for the sake of simplicity and readability. The result is no longer a clear window; it is stained glass. It artificially colors what we see. It obscures important details. It gives us a view that is hazy and opaque rather than clear and complete.
Excuses are given to justify this approach. We’re told we must simplify, paraphrase, and even revise, or else readers won’t be able to understand. Of course, Scripture contains things that are hard to understand (2 Pet 3:16). Sometimes we need help to grasp the meaning of a biblical text (Acts 8:31). The Bible itself acknowledges this; it’s why Christ gave the church pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11-13). But, the role of a translator is not the same as the role of a pastor or a teacher. Translators render what God said. Pastors and teachers explain what God meant by what He said (Eph 4:11-12; 2 Tim 4:1-2; Jas 1:22-23). Pastors and teachers disclose what God taught. Translators disclose what God wrote.
Some have argued that trying to achieve a transparent translation of Scripture is a futile pursuit because no language perfectly matches the vocabulary and syntax of the biblical languages. Indeed, the various languages do not overlap perfectly. A rigid, mechanical word-for-word translation from one language to another can render a sentence unintelligible. Nevertheless, one can still successfully endeavor to have tight correspondence between a translation and the features of the original text. The closer the translator stays to a verbatim rendering of the original text, the clearer that windowpane will be.
To illustrate: no one looking into a store window thinks, “I shouldn’t buy that product behind the glass because I’m not seeing the product perfectly.” Instead, they go behind the glass to examine it further. At that point, the window has accomplished its mission despite its imperfections. Translations are the same way. People might not understand everything the first time they read a passage. But, there are plenty of study tools to help any serious-minded Bible student go behind the window and get a clearer look at the meaning of the text. However, for that to even happen, people need a transparent translation, one through which they can see as much as of the original text as possible.
Thus, the proper concern for translators is not how much we can reduce and simplify a translation, but how much detail we can bring out from what is included in the inspired text as originally written. We must bear in mind, it’s not merely the ideas of Scripture that are God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16), but the very words (Josh 23:15; Matt 4:4)—right down to every “jot and tittle” (Matt 5:18)—and there is no error in any of it (John 17:17).
If God has written His Word with such precision, upholds it to that degree (2 Cor 1:20), and holds the believer accountable to all of it (Deut 18:19; Heb 2:1-3; 6:1-3; Jas 1:23-25), should not the translator abide by the same standard as closely as possible? Just as inspiration demands the preacher to proclaim every word of Scripture, so it demands the translator to account for every word of Scripture.
The Precedent of the New Testament
The precedent for being as transparent as possible when translating Scripture is set by the New Testament itself. Overall, the New Testament renders the Old Testament in a close word-for-word manner. We can point out numerous examples where the apostles represent each word of an Old Testament passage in their translations (Matt 4:4; cf. Deut 8:3; Rom 4:22; cf. Gen 15:6; Heb 10:38; cf. Hab 2:4). They even use Greek words consistently to correspond with certain Hebrew terms. They sometimes follow Hebrew syntax even if it means this will defy the normal conventions of Greek grammar (Acts 28:16; cf. Isa 6:9). For them, readability was not the issue. They wanted their translations to correspond faithfully to what was written. The expression “as it is written” not only governed their doctrine; it also shaped their approach to translation.
Why? Because the apostles believed the Old Testament was verbally inspired (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20-21)—meaning every word was vital. Their translations reflected that conviction. Their goal was to make a window showing as clearly as possible what was really there, not a screen that might filter out some of the light or obscure some of the details.
There are places where—under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration—a New Testament author tightens, summarizes, or adjusts the wording of an Old Testament passage in order to bring out an emphasis or make a point he wants to stress. These examples stand out precisely because they are departures from the consistent practice of meticulous verbatim translation. If the New Testament authors always translated the Old Testament loosely, we wouldn’t notice the irregularities. These supposed exceptions therefore prove the rule. In fact, these kinds of renderings serve as a reminder that all Scripture is inspired, because the only way to understand the significance of what is being fine-tuned for emphasis is to compare the New Testament translation with the exact verbiage of the Old Testament. The underlying assumption is that every detail of both the original and the translation is vital.
To sum up: the New Testament normally translates the Old Testament with intense fidelity, and the occasional times when the New Testament writers, under inspiration, want to draw out a nuance of the Old Testament only highlight—and even depend on—that jot-and-tittle accuracy. The underlying reality is that every word of Scripture is true and pure (Prov 30:5), and this conviction fuels our translation philosophy. We want to retain in the English text as many features of the original text as possible, with the kind of verbatim accuracy modeled by the New Testament writers.
Translation as a Task for All
Both the nobility of translation and the very nature of the work are laid out in Scripture. It is the duty and the privilege of the translator to render the very words of the divine Author. The job is not to simplify or adjust the message for the sake of the reader. Rather, it is to lift the reader up to hear the message God has given us.
This raises the bar for all of us as readers. God wrote His Word perfectly, employing human authors as instruments, but ensuring the accuracy of every truth, every word, every jot, and every tittle. He holds us accountable to every word of it as well. The Bible is therefore not something for us to peruse casually, but something for us to pursue diligently. We must study it, delight in it, and care about it as much as He does. Those who understand that duty will see the value of a precise translation.
This raises the bar for churches, too. The responsibility of the church is not self-help, chasing fads, staying abreast of fashion, or placating popular opinion. The church has the unique and glorious purpose of exalting Christ (Eph 3:20-21) through the equipping of the saints (Eph 4:11-12). The church should be the greatest resource to train and disciple her own to learn and to live out the deep truths of Scripture (Col 1:28; Titus 2:1-15). Churches must reclaim their role as the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). A precise translation is essential for that.
Above all, this raises the bar for translators. Translators shouldn’t have a low view of their readers, assuming people simply can’t understand the depths of God’s Word. Rather, they are to have the highest aspirations for readers and for the church. Their aim should be to bring forth every feature of God’s inspired Word with the hope that believers by the Spirit and through the church will labor to grasp every detail to the glory of God. After all, God holds His people accountable to every word that is written (Deut 18:19; Acts 3:23; Heb 12:25). Knowing those things should motivate the translator to be as precise as possible.
May we endeavor to champion this task until every nation and tribe and tongue and people declare that Jesus Christ is Lord.