Southern Seminary hosts Greek scholar Bill Mounce for a panel discussion about the importance of Bible translation.

Communications Staff — November 2, 2017

On its 500th anniversary, the Reformation serves as a reminder that Bible translation is embedded in the history of Christianity and the heritage of Protestantism. Hosted by the 1892 Club, Bill Mounce, Greek scholar and president and founder of BiblicalTraining.org, along with panel members, Brian J. Vickers, Jonathan T. Pennington, and Peter J. Gentry discussed the hard work of Bible translation with students, faculty, and staff at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky on October 24.

“Christianity regularly and beautifully regulates itself, not in the qualification of its truth, but in its cultural adaptation,” said Pennington, the associate professor of New Testament interpretation and the director of research doctoral studies at Southern Seminary. “It truly is a religion for all nations and reaches people in their own cultural situations. Bible translation is a huge part of that. We believe, and Christians have always believed, that the Bible should be translated into the language of the people to whom the gospel is going forth.”

Translation is not a simple process that fits into a foolproof formula, said Vickers, professor of New Testament interpretation and biblical theology and the assistant editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. It is not a one-to-one matching game with the Greek and English languages. “I think, sometimes, we have far too simplified a view of the work of a translator, because we just reduce translation down to an issue,” he explained. “If you just figure that issue out, and you figure it out the right way, then you will have a good translation. That might make it possible to have a great translation on that one issue, but it doesn’t mean it is superior everywhere. There are lots of layers.”

The process of translation often works like the German enigma machine through which encrypted messages were sent out, and using a particular code, the message could be read, Gentry, Donald L. Williams professor of Old Testament Interpretation, said. But this code did not transfer from language to language, nor did it translate from day to day. Every 24 hours, codes reset and the encryption process began again. The grammatical and structural rules of translation do not apply to every language. This creates a continuum. Translators can seek to follow as closely as possible the code of the source language, or they could try to follow the code of the target language.

“All translations compromise. There is no pure translation. The question is what you are going to compromise on,” said Mounce, who currently serves on the Committee for Bible Translation which is responsible for the development of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible. Previously, he was the New Testament chair for the English Standard Version (ESV) for ten years and wrote the bestselling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek.

“Translators walk down the edge of a knife. Basically, you follow the English word order as much as you can, but there will come a point where you can’t, and you come to that point in every single verse of the Bible,” Mounce said. “In every single verse, you are not following word order, and in every single verse you are being interpretive…Are you are going to fall off on the side of words or on the side of meaning? I think that is the fundamental decision all translation committees have to make.”

While all translations are imperfect, the panel speakers encouraged listeners to understand that there is no cause for concern that your preferred translation cannot be trusted.

“Both ends of the translation continuum are motivated by a concern for faithfulness,” Gentry said. Both staying true to the source language and prioritizing readability in the target language are justified and honorable, he said.

It is indefensible to say that one translation has a higher level of inspiration than another, Mounce added. Translation requires kindness and graciousness. Mounce urged listeners to understand that as future ministers of the Word, picking a Bible is an important decision and making such a choice should evoke immense thankfulness for the work translation committees have done. Pastors will have to decide whether they desire a Bible that aligns more closely with the source language or English..

“Our commitment here is that we really value Bible translation. It is beautiful, good, and important to our work as ministers, missionaries, and scholars as well. We are blessed, in English, to have such a variety of translations to choose from. Most places in the world are lucky to have one translation,” Pennington said. “Our desire is getting the Word of God into languages where more people can understand it. This kind of discussion informs that kind of work.”

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