What Makes a Good Bible Translation?
Updated: Apr 1
There are so many things that go into translating the Bible into another language - from the translation team, to those praying for the work, the education and training necessary, and the community receiving the translation.
Translation consultants are just one part of that process. While a consultant's role includes teaching translation teams best practices for exegesis and translation, they're probably most well known for completing a consultant check of the translation draft.
During a consultant check, the translation team meets with a consultant to go through the draft verse by verse. The consultant asks the team questions about their draft, such as why they translated as they did, and can also make suggestions for difficult passages based on their own experience with other teams. These checks are an essential part of the translation process and are often regarded as the accountability checkpoint for a "good" translation.
But what exactly is a translation consultant checking for, anyway? Four qualities are necessary for a translation draft to be approved by a consultant: Accuracy, Clarity, Naturalness, and Acceptability.
Accuracy is the first and arguably most important quality that a Bible translation needs - and this is true for the translation of any text! Translation, after all, is the transfer of meaning from one language to another. If that original meaning from the source text is not faithfully communicated into the target language, the translation has failed.
There are actually a few different ways that a translation can be inaccurate.
The translation communicates a different meaning from the source text. Source: "I love lemons." Translation: I love lemurs." (Fail.)
The translation communicates an additional meaning (one that was not present or implied in the source text.) Source: "I love lemons." Translation: "I love fruit." (Includes the original meaning "lemons" but with the additions of bananas, apples, and kumquats.)
The translation omits part of the meaning from the source text. Source: "I love lemons." Translation: "Someone loves lemons." (Who? Mystery lemon-lover at large.)
Accuracy in translation means that from source text to target language, the meaning communicated is exactly the same. When the resulting translation is being presented to a church community as the Word of God, this is absolutely crucial (and somewhat terrifying from the perspective of the translation consultant who must sign off on it!)
Most of us have probably had the unsettling experience of reading or hearing something in our native language that was just not clear. Perhaps you had to read the same sentence six times before being able to grasp what the author was trying to communicate, or someone used a word or phrase in conversation you'd never heard before.
Accuracy deals with the correct meaning being transferred from source to target language. Clarity is how well that transfer is made - the communication aspect of the translation.
In the context of Bible translation, there are many key biblical terms that require cultural or historical background knowledge in order to be clearly understood - words like "synagogue," "baptism," "faith," and even proper names. Sometimes this means that the translators need to add explanatory footnotes or make implicit information explicit for the new target audience. (Explicating meaning that was implied in the source text is not the same as adding additional meaning. A good translation will bring the target audience to understand the same meaning as the original audience did, and sometimes additional information is necessary to accomplish this.)
A translation that is unclear might sound like:
Source: "I love lemons." Translation: "The loving of yellow citrus fruit is a thing which I habitually take part in." (What.)
Naturalness is difficult for a translation consultant to check without the help of fluent speakers of the target language. For a translation to be natural, it needs to sound 'normal' when read aloud or, for audio versions, spoken. After all, the biblical texts themselves were meant to be read aloud and in some cases performed by congregations.
The easiest way for consultants to check for naturalness is to have members of the team (or other native speakers who haven't worked on the draft and are unfamiliar with the source text) read the translation aloud. Any portions of the text that the reader stumbles over or pauses to re-read are signals that there may be a problem with naturalness. A consultant will usually ask if there is a more natural way to phrase the sentence. What would make this easier to read or say? How would your friend say this to you?
One of the most common naturalness errors in translation is when translators follow the source text's grammar or syntax exactly. Most of the time, the target language would use a different grammatical structure than biblical Hebrew or Greek does. This often comes across as verb forms being switched from active to passive, misplaced emphasis, or trouble following the participants of a story.
Back to our lemon example:
Source: "I love lemons." Translation: "Lemons I love." (An accurate translation, but if it sounds like Yoda, it's not natural English!)
A Bible translation could be accurate, clear, and natural, but still fail to pass muster as a good translation because the target audience simply doesn't use it. A translated Bible that sits on a shelf untouched is almost worse than one that was never translated at all - an unused translation represents time, money, resources, and teamwork that was all for naught.
Because the goal of Bible translation is impacting lives, a translation that is not accepted by its target community is not a good translation.
What makes a translation unacceptable? That is largely determined by the community itself. It might be that the local church disagrees with how the translation renders key biblical terms. Think about how your own church would react if your pew Bibles were suddenly replaced with texts that used "Isa" instead of "Jesus" (both perfectly valid translations of the source text's Hebrew name.) People might think it's strange or try to get used to it, but ultimately would be more comfortable with the old translation where Jesus' name matches their hymnbooks, liturgies, and prayers.
Other aspects could make a translation unacceptable such as the final printing format making it unreadable, the presence or absence of religious register (gold-gilded pages, leather binding, fancy ribbon bookmarks, calligraphy), lack of church or denominational endorsement, or even presenting a text when an audio version would be better received.
The question of a translation's acceptability lies in the local church and community, which is why a translation committee comprised of local leaders and laypeople is so important to the translation's success. Every Bible translation project begins with a translation brief, outlining the committee's decisions for what will make the future translation acceptable to them and their community.
It's difficult for me to come up with an example of an unacceptable translation of "I love lemons," so I'm passing that one to you: what would make a text unacceptable to you or your church? (If you really need ideas, check out the internet-fueled LOLcat Bible translation, my favorite unacceptable translation of all time.)
In the end, every Bible translation team is striving toward a text that is accurate, clear, natural, and acceptable, and translation consultants help them get there. Consultant checks of translation drafts examine every translated verse for these four qualities.