Translation Errors

For 27 years I’ve been memorizing from the NIV 1984. On occasion someone will say something like, “That’s the one with errors in it.” When I ask what those errors are, very few can back up their position. Yes, I’ve read the critiques and debates over various translations.

When I went to seminary 2006-2011, I learned more about the translation process that put my mind at ease. The ONLY accurate translations are the Greek and the Hebrew. English language grammar does not match up perfectly to either Greek or Hebrew. In English we normally have subject + verb + object. Neither Greek nor Hebrew are obligated to use this format so sometimes a translation adds extra words, not in the original text, in order to clarify the meaning for an English reader.

There’s no such thing as a word-for-word English translation.

Here’s an example that I used recently in my teaching on Psalm 62. Verse 1 in the Hebrew reads, “In God silence my soul.” There is NO VERB. That doesn’t work in English—we want a verb.

Translators for NIV 1984 chose: “My soul finds rest in God alone.”

ESV translators chose “For God alone my soul waits in silence.”

Neither one is a word-for-word translation. Both added their choice of verbs to make it a cohesive sentence, giving each a slightly nuanced meaning. Chinese, Japanese and Korean all use pictorial characters, so does that mean their versions are all incorrect?

We hear through the grapevine that ESV is the accurate translation, but did you know that the ESV translation committee made 29 new changes in 2016? Why? What was wrong with their original work? The committee then announced that there would be no further changes, and 3 weeks later they reversed their decision and said to expect future changes through the years.

This is a normal practice for Bible translations. Even New American Standard (NASB) makes changes every few years. Because the English language changes, we want our Bibles to reflect those changes. We do not speak in King James English with thees & thous. Word meanings and their usage can also change. For example, translations from a generation ago read, “The Lord is pitiful.” We would not say that today because the word pitiful now has additional meaning (contemptuous pity as through ineptitude or inadequacy). Instead we would say, “The Lord is compassionate.”

Both Hebrew and Greek contain idioms, word images, and figures of speech, some of which make no sense in English, so translators help us by using words that we can understand. This adds perspective to the debate over which translation is the most accurate.

Have you heard about the newest English translation? It’s called the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) and it’s highly acclaimed by biblical scholars. I just bought one. It claims to “stay as literal as possible to the Bible’s original meaning without sacrificing clarity.” Curious about how they translated Psalm 62:1, I looked it up.

“I am at rest in God alone:” Hmm, it chose the same verb as the NIV 1984. Interesting.

So here’s my conclusion: When studying the Bible it is a good practice to check different translations including the Greek and Hebrew (Bible software makes this possible). When memorizing, choose the translation that you enjoy, because you’ll be more motivated if you like the words it uses.

And one more thing, let’s be careful when critiquing the translations people choose to read and memorize.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

10 comments to Translation Errors

  • Maureen

    Very helpful and inspiring post, Janet
    Thank you and God’s blessings upon you

  • Diana Binford

    This is so comforting to hear. It disturbs me to hear such criticism of Bible language and I too chose NIV 1984 years ago. Nevertheless, I love the poetic translation of the KJV which I used for many of the psalms when I first started this process. I do like comparing versions to ponder the different “angles.” May God be glorified in whatever translation we use as we learn the language of the King. Thank you for your inspiration and encouragement along the way.
    Diana from Indiana

  • Carmen Cole

    I totally agree. That’s why we compare different versions, so we can find the one that makes most sense to us. Thank you for this valuable information.

  • Thanks, Janet! This is helpful.

    I, too, have memorized using the NIV 1984. What is your opinion of the gender-clarifying adjustments?

    • great question. The translators have been very careful in deciding whether a specific verse is gender specific or not. For example, Psalm 1:1 “Blessed is the one who …” This verse is not intended to be MALE only. The intention is PERSON so I tend to agree that it can easily be changed. There are other verses intended to be gender specific and they have kept those, for example Proverbs 2:12-15 is about men, and Proverbs 2:16-19 is about women. Personally I don’t have a problem with gender neutral verses. Bible translators are Bible scholars and linguists of the highest degree, not just random people. They agonize over every verse and attempt to give us the original intent of the passage.

      • One more thought here. There are some rogue translations that make God gender-neutral. That is not acceptable because the Bible does describe God using the male gender. All legitimate translations make public the names and credentials of their translation committees. These can be found online for any translation.

  • Barbara Hahn

    Thanks Janet. I have been memorizing NIV1984 because the structure of the sentences is closer to the way I talk, but have always been somewhat apologetic. No more!

    • Hi Barbara, your reasoning for NIV 1984 is the same as mine. However, that’s not the concern of everyone which is why we have options. There are essentially three approaches that translation teams use.
      1) formal equivalence – preserve each word and sentence structure when possible, e.g. New American Standard.
      2) dynamic equivalence – seeks the message expressed by the original authors, seeking the same impact as the original, e.g. NIV.
      3) optimal equivalence – a combination of 1 & 2.
      All of these approaches are legitimate while different. Often you will find a PREFACE or INTRODUCTION at the beginning of your Bible which comes from the translation committee. Usually we overlook these pages so we can get to the text. However, its very insightful to read. They explain their philosophy and how they have chosen to clarify unclear passages. I highly recommend reading these pages. You will definitely learn some things you didn’t know before.

  • Chérie

    Janet Pope! Once again you are my hero.
    May I say (yell?) that I am so, So, SO tired of defending my beloved NIV84.
    This post is my new best friend.
    I am going to copy and paste it to my special notes that I like to keep handy.
    Dang, girlfriend…. I just might memorize it.
    Thank you for being true to your calling and in doing so blessing countless lives.
    Get outta my way people…..
    I am a happy, vindicated Mega-Memorizing Missy today!

    • Whoa girl! I didn’t know I was writing this blog for you, and so many other people. I’m happy to pass along some helpful info I’ve learned in my 62 years, many of which were wasted.