Thomas C. Miersma is pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
In this article it is my intention to depart from the line of thought we have been following to take the time to respond to the correspondence of one of our readers, Mr. Harv Nyhof. The issues raised by his letter are important and worthy of an extended reply, as they deal with the question of what constitutes a meaningful translation. The letter addresses itself to some remarks in my column in the December 15 issue of the Standard Bearer. To see these remarks in their proper setting and to simplify the discussion for the reader I will quote the paragraphs dealing with this subject in full. I wrote,
The place to begin our answer to this question is first of all to look at our Bibles for a moment and say something about the many Bible translations available. Many of these modern translations slide over difficulties in the text or attempt to simplify them. They are so often not so much translations as paraphrases, in which the translator, so-called, attempts to put into his own words what he thinks or feels the text means rather than translating what it actually says. There is no good reason for this, and it makes Bible study in English more difficult, not easier.
To use but one example drawn from the current and popular New International Version. The opening words of
in that version read: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, . . . ” while our Ring James translation reads, “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, . . . ” Notice two differences here. First, our King James Version uses such historic Reformed doctrinal terminology as “elect.” The KJV has itself helped to shape our theological vocabulary in English and this is one of the advantages of using it in Bible study. But secondly, notice the difference between “bowels of mercies” and “compassion. ” The text says “bowels of mercies” in the original. If the text of Scripture is verbally inspired, as we maintain it is, then in our study we want to know as much as is possible what the Holy Spirit actually said and how He said it. Bowels draws a vivid picture before our minds which the mere word compassion does not, though that may be the meaning of the figure here. Fundamentally such paraphrasing is a departure from the Reformed doctrine of verbal inspiration.
It is in this connection that Mr. Nyhof responds,
I am tempted to say, “Come on, Pastor Miersma, you can’t be serious.” If the spoken or written word is not understood, be it ever so beautiful or descriptive, it has no value. To me the KJV is a beautiful translation with majestic language. Most younger English-speaking people, however, will receive no enlightenment from the phrase “bowels of mercy.” They will easily understand the word “compassion.” I too believe in careful and accurate translation. Is it not the aim of accurate translation to reproduce in meaningful language for the reader what has been written in a tongue foreign to him? To read in
that men are “settled in their lees” will not be comprehensible to the majority of English speaking people. To read that men are “complacent” can be easily grasped.
Reply to Mr. Nyhof
Thank you for your response and the comments in your letter. In the first place I would point out the context of the remarks which I made as it is rather important. The subject under consideration was that of Bible study. While some of your observations have some merit, it is nevertheless true that for serious or faithful Bible study the simplified translations, “compassion” for “bowels of mercy” and “complacent” for “settled on their lees” are a hindrance and not a help. They are a hindrance because one must first go behind the word “compassion” to the expression “bowels of mercies” to know what the Holy Spirit actually said, and to understand exactly what the Word of God was in the passage. This must be done before any actual study of the Word of God can begin.
The fact is that in both the examples you cite neither of the alternate renderings are proper translations of the text. They are simplifications or paraphrases. The Holy Spirit did not simply say “compassion.” The word mercies, meaning basically pity or mercy, can be and sometimes is translated by the word compassion, though there are other words as well which are translated compassion. Whether we translate it mercies or compassion however, in theNIV a word of the inspired Scriptures, “bowels,” is completely eliminated and dropped by the translation “compassion,” and not because it could not be translated into English. While compassion may be an accurate statement of what is the idea of this expression or part of the idea, it is not the Word God gave us, but an interpretation of it, a condensed commentary.
The opposite occurs in the passage you cite fromZephaniah 1:12. The NIV actually inserts the word “complacent” into the text, although it is not found in the original. It does so as a commentary and only then adds its actual rendering of the text, “who are like wine left on its dregs.” Unless one is familiar with the wine-making process, neither of the actual translations is easily understood. The King James version has the advantage of being more accurate. Moreover, while inserting words is sometimes necessary for the sake of translation, our KJV prints these insertions in italics and thereby tells us it is doing so. The NIV does this without indicating that it is doing so and does it not merely for translation, but as commentary on the text. This is adding to the Word of God what God has not said.
Moreover, to use one other example, the NIV in addition to adding to and subtracting from the Word of God also paraphrases and changes the meaning of the text. This is done for example in I Corinthians 2:9where the word “heart” of the original is replaced by the word “mind.” Moreover, these changes are made arbitrarily, as is evident from the fact that in other places the word “heart” is used in the NIV in contexts similar to that of I Corinthians 2:9. The fact is that the Holy Spirit said “heart,” and the text should be translated “heart” and not “mind.” The NIV is paraphrasing the text, using what are called dynamic equivalents and giving us what is perceived by someone on a translating committee as the meaning of the text and not what the text says. It belongs in a commentary.
The difference between a commentary and a translation is crucial. A translation renders into another language as carefully and faithfully as possible what was written and what was said. Commentaries upon the Word of God are the result of a study of the meaning of the text, and while commentaries are useful they are not the text itself. Calvin’s Commentaries, for example, are extremely valuable, but they are not the Bible. We must keep in mind that such condensing, commenting, and paraphrasing are after all nothing more than a shorthand form of writing a commentary. They may be useful tools in Bible study but they cannot replace the text itself nor our own study. If such paraphrases would present themselves for what they are, commentaries, and not translations or versions of the Bible, I would have no complaint with them as such. If for example the New International Version were entitled The New International Simplified Whole Bible Commentary and Paraphrase, and if it were used as such instead of replacing the Bible in the pew and in Bible study, I would, have less trouble with it. This is the same problem with the popular Arminian paraphrase written by K. Taylor called The Living Bible (Paraphrased) which was and may still be in vogue in many churches and which was also substituted for real translations of the Word of God in many churches.
As there are a number of other matters which were raised and which deserve further consideration, I will return to this subject, D.V. and continue my response in the next article.