Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Monday, April 6, 2009

Are translations really based on the Greek and Hebrew?

I received an interesting question the other day from a Filipino brother. He had learned Greek and was starting to notice certain tendencies in his native translations. Here are the relevant potions of his email.

“As I try to further learn the Greek language, it inspired me to probe on the Tagalog (my countries native tongue) translation of the Bible. I discovered that we had two versions: Ang Biblia (1905) brought by the Evangelical Union Missionaries and the newer ones , Ang Magandang Balita (1970) translated by our very own Philippine Bible Society. Now both translations, as stated in their prefaces, claimed to have based their translation work from the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts but as I work my way through the translation, I began to notice that our Tagalog translation of the Bible may have based it's work not on the Hebrew and Greek themselves but actually on the English Bibles (KJV and NIV)…. English grammar is VERY VERY different from the Tagalog language. Just for verbs alone, we don't have tenses but only aspects (just like the Greek). We also don't follow strict word order because we have verb focus, a declension of the verbs that helps determine the main subject of the sentence, object, etc. This is the reason why I noticed the similarity of the English Bible with our own Tagalog translation. It seems to follow the same rules of the English grammar while it should have been following the Greek or Hebrew. Do most translations of the Bibles in other languages really came straight from the Hebrew/Greek text or are they mediated from the English Bible?”

There is more to this question than at first meet the eye. First of all, isn’t the idea of a “focus” declension a great idea? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to indicate, especially in a longer sentence, what the main point is? If Greek had this, it would make exegesis much easier?

Also, it is a good example of how aspect is primary over tense in many languages, perhaps most languages. For English speakers learning Greek, this is often a hurdle because it feels so strange, but perhaps the strangeness of the aspect system in Greek (and Hebrew) is due more to the strangeness of English.

But what normally is the relationship among native translations, English, and Greek/Hebrew? Not knowing Tagalong or the translators, there is no way for me to actually answer the question, but I can tell you of certain tendencies.First, Bible Societies are generally good organizations. If they explicitly say that their work is based on the Greek and Hebrew, I would think they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Second, translators are always looking at other translations, and it may be that the Tagalog translators relied somewhat on English to help them understand the Greek. If you are making a new translation, and if you have two or three English translations that all agree on a specific translation, that consistency can have a strong influence on how you translate. It isn’t that you are copying; you are wanting to be careful and right, and there is a perceived safety in numbers.

As far as English translations are concerned, most tend to be a bit conservative (the NLT and NET being notable exceptions). There is a stream of translation in English, and to move out of that stream requires some strong convictions. People are used to hearing verses a certain way, especially their favorite verses, and to introduce totally new translation can be perceived as dangerous. It is one thing to capitalize many of the occurrences of “spirit” as the TNIV did; it is another thing to break out of the mold and, for example actually translate the imperatives of the Lord’s Pray as imperatives (e.g., “May your kingdom come” in the NLT).

This is not all bad. I preached yesterday on the fourth Servant passage in Isaiah, relying heavily on the specific words used by the ESV. But most of the people in this church use the NIV and I knew the words were translated differently, which made it harder for them to follow the sermon. When there is some consistency among translations, as long as it is faithful to the Greek and Hebrew and consistent with their translation philosophy, this can be a good thing.