Our Embarrassment of Translational Riches

by Mar 24, 2015ChurchLife, Linguistics, Piety2 comments

We have an embarrassment of riches in our English Bible translations.

Today I was texting a particular man whom my church’s outreach ministries have had a lot of contact with over the last few years. The last time I spoke with him he was in a very bad situation, and it fell to me to encourage him to repent from the sins that got him there. He didn’t take it well, and I haven’t seen him since. I decided to contact him again while clearing out old texts.

He has a sort of churchy background, and he’s bright, but to be frank, his reading skills are not stellar. I’m not sure he made it out of high school. I wanted to quote Scripture to him to explain my good will toward him, even though our last conversation wasn’t wholly pleasant. Immediately, the KJV came to my mind: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”

But I’ve developed a skill (or maybe a phobia?) over the last fifteen years in my outreach work that makes a little alarm go off in my head whenever I’m about to quote a verse my listener won’t understand.

I have no idea what he’d get out of the KJV; I can’t even guess. I can’t put myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t get that wording. But I know those shoes are out there.

I could translate the verse myself, but that’s unnecessary given our embarrassment of riches. So I called up BibleWorks and scanned the options. I knew before looking that I was likely to go for the NIV or NIrV, because I knew they would feel free to alter the central genitival construction. Instead of “the wounds of a friend,” I’d get something a bit more clear in contemporary English. I hoped I would not get a flat rendering, one without the metaphor, like “A friend who tells you the hard truths you don’t want to hear is a faithful friend.” That would indeed be dumbing down the Bible, in my opinion. Poor readers aren’t tone deaf—they use metaphor in spoken language all the time, just like skilled readers. It’s essential to language. “Wounds” is rich, because it could mean verbal wounds or even physical ones. If your friend has to hit you to get you to stop your foolishness, this verse applies.

I was not disappointed by the options I got:

  • ESV: Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
  • KJV: Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.
  • NASB: Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.
  • NIV: Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.
  • NET: Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are excessive.
  • CSB: The wounds of a friend are trustworthy, but the kisses of an enemy are excessive.
  • NIRV: Wounds from a friend can be trusted. But an enemy kisses you many times.

I like the ESV, but for my purposes I didn’t want the kind of literal translation that said “the wounds of a friend”—I sensed it would be too hard for my friend to read. The KJV is actually easier to read than the ESV in the second half of the verse (“profuse” is difficult for struggling readers). I like the NASB, too, in the second half of the verse.

I was hoping the NIV would come through for me, and it did. “Wounds from a friend” is simply more perspicuous than “the wounds of a friend.” The more literal translations preserve an ambiguity—the phrase could mean “wounds from a friend” or “wounds on a friend,” but why preserve that ambiguity when the context clearly points to the former option?

This whole reasoning process took about 45 seconds, and this is what I sent:

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 9.25.24 AM

The point is not that I want to twist the Bible to say what I want it to say, or what this gentleman wants it to say. I want to deliver the Bible’s message faithfully to a particular audience. And that is one of the primary values of having different translations along a continuum:

bottomInstead of fighting and tribalizing over the good translations we have, we should learn to simply use them.

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  1. Claudia Anderson

    One of the things you become aware of as your translational skills mature is that you must never be so wedded to the language and syntax of the original that you lose sight of the best way to make it understandable in the target language. So, it can reasonably be said that translation is as much an art as it is a skill. Thankfully, we have, in these modern renderings of Scripture, a rich resource in the many minds that have wrestled with these issues. We can, and should, benefit from their insights in the way that you describe.

  2. Mark Ward