Poor Translations Vs. Poorly Translated Verses

Perhaps instead of talking about poor translations, we should talk about poorly translated verses. When we criticize a translation we don’t criticize the whole thing but rather a bunch of verses that we don’t like. So why don’t we talk like that?

The ESV is a bad translation because…

The NLT is a bad translation because…

No. There are poorly translated verses in the ESV. There are poorly translated verses in the NLT (sorry Keith). All translations have them, but we tend toward mass judgments against a whole book rather than a single verse. Textual critics look at units of variation one by one, users of translations should too. No textual critic makes a judgment on a manuscript based on a single error.

Until you’ve gone verse by verse through an entire translation, don’t call it “bad” or “poor.”

11 thoughts on “Poor Translations Vs. Poorly Translated Verses

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  1. I’m just going to ignore that NLT comment, since I think it has become clear to everyone by now that the NLT is essentially perfect. If not, I have more work to do. 🙂

    That aside, I agree with you. I’d also add that most of the time, any evaluation of a specific translation (or even a verse) as “bad” or “good” is more personal and subjective than it is objective and transferable. All of the major translations were created by committees of good scholars who were attempting to create a faithful, accurate translation. Yet, I’d be willing to bet that no individual scholar on any of those committees is 100% happy with every verse in that translation (even if the members of every committee might not be willing to admit this). This is one reason why we have been careful not to disparage any other translations as we promote the NLT.

    Also, a translation that is “good” in one context could be “bad” in another. A single text admits myriad possible translations, and I would certainly translate a passage differently in different contexts. If I were writing a journal article for specialists, my translation would likely be quite different from the one I would provide of the same passage in a blog post, an article in Christianity Today, or a children’s Sunday School lesson plan.

  2. Keith: I think that sums up my thoughts pretty well. In Mounce’s book, Greek for the Rest of Us he states plainly what you just said, that no individual scholar is 100% happy with every verse.

  3. I would add that going verse by verse through an entire translation isn’t sufficient, because you could be evaluating it by very high standards with respect to an issue where it happens to do less well but evaluating it and other translations by much weaker standards on another, equally important, issue where it happens to do well and its competitors that are strong on other kinds of issues happen to do very poorly.

  4. But it’s so much more fun to generalize from one verse and say: look how this translation rocks; or: look how this translation stinks.

    I look forward, Mike, to more from you on this. I expect you will have much to add to the discussion.

  5. I’m sorry, but I strongly disagree. There are poorly translated discourse units, sentences and phrases. But if a translator translates verses, and not discourse units, they are likely ALL to be poorly translated. Translators should never translate verses separately. They should understand the sense of an entire passage and translate that, and then (but optionally – not done in The Message, originally, J.B. Phillips and TNIV The Books of the Bible) divide it up into verses to provide a convenient reference system.

  6. Peter, do you really believe that I think so simplistically about translation? In light of everything else I’ve written about translation, the benefit of the doubt would be nice.

  7. Mike, I didn’t really think you thought so simplistically. But the language you used, with the focus on verses, could easily mislead others into thinking in that way, or confirm the unfortunate prejudices they have picked up by reading Bibles divided up into verses.

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