Translation That Stays True (Why Form Matters)

Posted on: 
March 17, 2023

Translators are not authors, free to write whatever they want in the way they want. They must translate the existing text with integrity.

With form and meaning in constant tension, what helps translators stay faithful to the form of the original text? These four points correspond to the points about communication and meaning in the previous blog post, "Translation that Communicates (Why Meaning Matters)".

Translation is intended to communicate, but how clearly? Not everything in the Bible needs to be clear at the first reading. What isn’t immediately obvious can be revealed as people pray, study, and discuss what God meant.

Translation must convey the meaning, but how explicitly? Many things contribute to our understanding of Bible passages: teaching received at home or at church, footnotes in our Bibles, and dictionaries that explain Bible-time customs. The translated Bible text cannot provide all this information; translators also need to teach and provide study resources.

Translation involves interpretation, but how much? Translators convey God’s message, not their own. Not what they think God means, and not necessarily what readers can easily understand, but simply what God said.

Form matters.
Should the Bible sound like it happened in our time?

Clarence Jordan said, “We need the good news to come to us not only in our own tongue but in our own time. We want to be participants, not merely spectators.” Before agreeing with him, consider an English passage Jordan produced. Is this true translation?

Now a messenger of the Lord said to Phil, "Get ready and go south along the road that goes from Atlanta to LaGrange." (It's open country through there.) So he got ready and went. At the same time there was a high-up official of Tuskegee—the treasurer, in fact—who had gone to a convention in Atlanta. He was going home and sitting on the bus reading from Isaiah. So the spirit said to Phil, "Flag that bus!" So he flagged it and got on and saw the man reading from Isaiah. Phil asked him, "Does what you're reading make sense?" The man replied "How can I make heads or tails of it when there's no one to explain it to me?"
—Acts 8:26-31, The Cotton Patch Gospel

Translation means changing the form, but which aspects? Languages aren’t the same. Sentences probably fit together differently. Figures of speech might make no sense and have to be changed.

So how do translators avoid straying too far from the form of the original text? The questions above, easy to forget in the pressure to communicate meaning, serve as reminders that help translators stay true.

  • “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:17
  • “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witness of these things.” Luke 24:47, 48
  • “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew 28:19
  • “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:3
  • “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the Gospel.” Ephesians 3:6
  • “That they all may be one; as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us; that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:21
  • “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?” Mark 11:17
  • “Ask of me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance.” Psalm 2:8
  • “Behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes.” Revelation 7:9
  • “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified.” 2 Thessalonians 3:1
  • “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16
  • “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105
  • “As cold water to a weary soul, so is good news from a far country.” Proverbs 25:25
  • “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” Psalm 19:10
  • “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You.” Psalm 22:27
  • “Truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.” Numbers 14:21
  • “Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.” Psalm 96:3, 4
  • “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14
  • “That all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.” 1 Kings 8:60
  • “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations.” Malachi 1:11
  • “All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name.” Psalm 86:9
  • “For as the earth brings forth its bud, as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” Isaiah 61:11
  • "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!" Psalm 46:10
  • "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." 1 Timothy 2:3, 4
  • "You are worthy. . .; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God." Revelation 5:9, 10