Are Bible Translators Traitors?

A famous Italian proverb declares “traduttore, traditore,” which means, “translator, traitor.” Those who assume this is true are unaware [of] how difficult it is to produce a translation. Every translator at some point invariably discards the meaning of the original text.

A committee of scholars assembled to produce a translation typically adopts an overarching philosophy of translation. In simplest terms, there are two. The first is called “formal equivalence,” which seeks to account for virtually every word in the original text by producing its English counterpart in translation. This is “word-for-word” or “literal” translation. The second is called “dynamic equivalence.” This approach seeks to capture the thought of the original verse in context, and then re-create that thought using whatever English words are most precise. This is “thought-for-thought” translation. But adopting an approach does not mean that all the translators will apply it equally. There is also a matter of interpretation. When the biblical text allows more than one translation due to ambiguity in the context, grammar, or word usage, a translator needs to make his or her own decision—which can lead to controversy.

First Corinthians 7:1 is illustrative of the potential hazard.

ESV

“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”

NASB

“It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”

NIV

“It is good for a man not to marry.”

NLT

“It is good to live a celibate life.”

The most “word-for-word” of these translations is that of the NASB, which captures the literal reading of the Greek words in the verse, particularly the verb “touch” (ἅπτοιαι, haptomai). Other translations move away from the ambiguous “touch” to “have sexual relations with” (ESV).

The most controversial renderings are the NIV (“It is good for a man not to marry”) and the NLT (“It is good to live a celibate life”). How is it that the translators could go from a Greek word that means “touch” to these options?

The answer is that the translators factored in what was presumed to be the wider context of the chapter and, ultimately, the writer. In 1 Corinthians 7:7–8, Paul describes himself as single. His advice to the Corinthians in several places is that it would be wiser for those who are not married to remain unmarried (1 Cor 7:7–8, 26–27) because of an undefined “present distress” (7:26). This context is presumed in 7:1 by the NIV and NLT.

These translations are certainly plausible but still problematic. While Paul notes a “present distress” in 7:27, can we be certain that Paul was thinking of that distress in 7:1? Might Paul have been thinking about sexual morality instead? The verses that immediately follow 7:1 speak frankly of sexual temptation (7:2–4). If morality was on Paul’s mind, then the ESV is more on target. The point would then be an admonition to avoid sexual contact outside of marriage, not to avoid marriage itself.

Translation isn’t just a matter of matching words of one language to words of another. Rather than consider Bible translators as traitors, we need to be sympathetic to their burden. Reading multiple translations can reveal the complexities of the process.

***

why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Comments

  1. The transliteration “(ἅπτοιαι, haptomai)” doesn’t match… Not accusing you of being a traitor(!)–just one of those difficulties that sneaks in. Thanks for the illuminating post!

  2. Richard DeRuiter says:

    The 1984 NIV translates as above, but not the 2011 NIV which translates it: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”

    The 2013 NLT translates it this way: “Yes, it is good to abstain from sexual relations.” Then there is a footnote: “Or to live a celibate life; Greek reads It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” (An older, print version of the NLT I have does have it as you quote above.)

    Apparently both the NIV and the NLT translators have reconsidered their translations, probably reinforcing your point about the interpretation of this passage in context.

  3. Alan Good says:

    Bible Translators – I teach that all translators and editors of Bibles and Biblical resources are affected by their presuppositions and Theological agenda. They are sincere and mostly believe their translation furthers an understanding of the Revelation of God. The example above shows one of many struggles from the Greek language to English. Verbs are often tricky and the most influential shaping of context are the translated prepositions. Words and their structural formation create mental pictures that provide a framework of understanding within the individual and prepositions play a major part in that pictured framework. Also, the individual “hears” (reads) based on their own presuppositions and experience. To the “average” believer/seeker I encourage reading different versions, trusting that our Lord will Reveal Himself. I certainly appreciate the Lexham English Bible (LEB).