Troublesome Topic: Is There Such a Thing as the Most Accurate Translation?

Short answer: No!

Long answer:

Some translations are closer to the original language than other; some are closer to the way we speak every day; some are more wordy than others; some are more concise than others, but I don’t think we can make the claim that one translation of the Bible is more accurate than others.

If you do an internet search about various translations of the Bible, one of the optional topics that will come up is, “Which is the most accurate translation of the Bible?” Obviously, the writer of that article is striving to make the case that whichever Bible can win the title of “most accurate” should be considered the best Bible version, right? Unfortunately, things are not that simple.

Just like everything in life, everything comes at a price – there is a cost that must be paid for every gain or improvement. The price I am talking about is only sometimes paid with money. Think about some engineers discussing the design of a new car. They may want it to be the best at everything, but good engineers already know that such a dream is impossible because some things pull against each other. If they want it to have the most power of any production car then it will have poor fuel economy. If they want it to be able to do lots of heavy towing, it will be strong but slow to pick up speed because of how it uses the power it has. A sports car can pick up speed fast; but it is no good for towing heavy loads. If they want it to have all the latest technology and creature comforts, then it be will expensive and only some people will be able to afford it. They may be able to achieve more positives than negatives, but every gain will cost something in some way.

I was born and raised in Honduras where my parents were missionaries. When I was a teen a new missionary family arrived and I heard the father telling some of the missionary men about the truck he had brought with him. Rather than flying down and buying a vehicle in country, he had driven it through Mexico and Guatemala because he was sure he had the perfect missionary vehicle for a country like Honduras which has many rough, dirt roads. Not gravel roads, roads that are dirt, dust, mud and rocks. His truck was a 4×4, high off the ground, extra long cab so it could carry more people, 8 foot bed, and to top it all off, it had the engine and transmission of a larger truck in it. This thing had 16 gears forward and 4 gears backward. He was sure it be just right for Honduras. None of the other missionaries said much; we all just waited. Well, that big truck, that perfect missionary vehicle, was soon parked without getting used. Yes, it was high off the ground, but it was so long that it would get hung up in the center on those bad roads. What’s more, it could not make some of the corners on those tiny mountain roads because it turned like a battleship. In the city it was even worse. Downtown Tegucigalpa was built in the 1750s when all they had was ox carts; all the streets are narrow, and everything is tight. And one more thing, the way it consumed fuel you would think it was the Saturn V rocket, and fuel was more than twice as expensive as in the US. The well-intentioned owner had focused on the truck’s advantages, but he failed to consider what was sacrificed to get those advantages.

Translating the Bible is like that in many ways. If a translation is closer to modern English, it will be further from the original language; if it is closer to the original language it will likely be harder to understand in English. If it is concise and to the point, it will lose some of the richness of the original wording. But if the translators try to share all the richness available in the original languages, the English wording becomes complex and convoluted.

I think by “accurate” people mean most faithfully communicating the intent of the original. That is well and good, but often the exact intent of the original wording is debated; it is not something we can be 100% sure of. The issue of accuracy is actually one among several. Yes, we want it to reflect the intent of the original, but we also want it to be understandable to modern readers.

Rather than asking “Which is the most accurate translation?” we should ask, “Which is the most helpful translation?” The answer is a bit different for each person. What is very helpful to one may not be as helpful for another.            

We cannot totally ignore the accuracy question or we will get poor translations. But let’s be wise in the questions we ask and the answers we cling to. I believe most of the Bible translators up to this time have been honorable people doing the best they could do for the audience they had targeted. Therefore, let’s give each other the freedom to settle on something different as long as it is helpful for them.

The next lesson is Here’s What an Exclusively Word-for-Word Translation Looks Like