Saturday, January 14, 2012

Squeamish Translating - Introduction

My Choice in Scripture Translations

I was raised on the King James Version. Growing up, my father always preached from the KJV. As a child, it was the KJV that we memorized in Sunday School class.

I was never taught that the KJV was the only valid translation; my father correctly believed and taught that Scriptural authority is to be found in the original language texts rather than a translation into a modern language by fallible men. Consequently, he regular read and considered the renderings of other translations as they became available.

I myself have embraced the New American Standard Bible (NASB) as my translation of choice. Like the KJV, it is intentionally translated to maintain a word-for-word alignment with the original Greek or Hebrew texts. This means that for most words I read in the English text, I can trace them back to the specific Greek or Hebrew word from which it was translated. This ability is very important to me in my effort to be a student of the Scriptures.

My Approach to Biblical Study

I use the close connection to the Greek or Hebrew text as a springboard from which to dive into the original language words used for any passage that I’m studying. Using the amazing electronic tools available to us today, I can find the Greek/Hebrew word wherever it is used in the entire bible and use that to discern what the original term means ( is a great online resource).

Often enough, the meaning of an original language term is slightly different than how we understand the English word used to translate it. When that is the case, we must lay aside any implications derived from the English which are not found in the Greek or Hebrew. Furthermore, we must expand our understanding to include any implications found in the original languages which did not survive the translation into English.

If you are brutally honest about doing this, it can be very disruptive to your current understanding of the Scriptures. You might find that things you’ve always believed aren’t really scriptural at all. Or things you never would have found in the English are implied in the original texts… and that also will have a profound impact on how you understand God’s Word.

Of course, this reality is unavoidable; it is simply the result of having to translate God’s Word into the languages that people speak. We have to recognize it, study through it to the best of our ability (not actually knowing the original language), and allow what we learn to inform our Scriptural interpretations and beliefs.

The Challenge of Translating

I so appreciate the herculean efforts of those who have studied for years to gain the knowledge it took to translate the Bible into modern languages! Where would we all be if they had not done so?

An Authoritative
Statement on Translating

The Forum for Bible Agencies International has produced a document stating their Basic Principles and Procedures for Bible Translation (available here).

All of the principles they present are excellent, but some of the principles that are especially worth noting for the purposes of this series of articles (emphasis mine):

1. To translate the Scriptures accurately, without loss, change, distortion or embellishment of the meaning of the original text. Accuracy in Bible translation is the faithful communication, as exactly as possible, of that meaning, determined according to sound principles of exegesis.

4. To represent faithfully the original historical and cultural context.
Historical facts and events should be expressed without distortion. Due to differences of situation and culture, in some passages the receptor audience may need access to additional background information in order to adequately understand the message that the original author was seeking to communicate to the original audience.

5. To make every effort to ensure that no political, ideological, social, cultural, or theological agenda is allowed to distort the translation

“Squeamish Translating,” as I have defined it in this Introduction, is a violation of these principles, particularly those specific statements that I have underlined above.

But translating is never an exact science. The effort has surely been made to translate the original text as accurately as possible, but it is literally impossible to completely rid oneself of every pre-understanding or cultural perspective in order to get it right. The translators are human after all.

Consequently, we should not be surprised if—from time to time—we can discern a bias in the English translation that inadvertently hides a meaning that should be there in the English text or introduces a meaning that was not there in the source text. To acknowledge this possibility is not to disrespect the translators. To suggest that it has happened is not to discount all the high-quality work that has been done elsewhere in the text.

Squeamish Translating

I already mentioned that I left the KJV behind when I transitioned to the NASB as my study version of preference. However, I still compare multiple versions—including the KJV—when I’m digging into something.

Rather unexpectedly, I found my appreciation for the KJV deepened when I began studying the issue of nakedness in the Bible. The reason for this is that by comparing the KJV, NASB, NIV and other translations to the original language texts, I found that the KJV was the most likely to “tell it like it is” whenever nakedness was mentioned or implied. In the KJV, if the word was “naked,” in the Greek, it was “naked” in English. By contrast, the NASB and NIV seemed to shy away from using the “N-word.”

This tendency is one I call “Squeamish Translating”… and no, I’ve never heard anyone else describe it that way. Let me define it this way:

  • Squeamish Translating of the Scriptures is the phenomenon where Scripture passages which mention or imply nudity are:
    • reworded to soften the words describing the nudity
    • given additional words that slightly change the meaning which obscures the idea that nakedness may be possible or implied.
    • translated word for word, but only when the nakedness is cast in a negative light.

I do not doubt the purity of motives of those who translated the Scriptures in a squeamish manner, but I am suggesting that there exists in our culture today a bias against nudity. It is perceived as wrong and sinful in any but a marital or medical context. I believe that bias has made its way into the modern translations.

The KJV translators, however, did not display that sort of squeamishness! For this reason, my appreciation of their work has grown.

I Will Show You What I Mean…

In the posts that follow, I will show you where I have found evidence of this squeamishness in the NASB and the NIV. At the same time, I’ll show you how the KJV translates the Greek text more literally. In all cases, the comparison will be made to the words in the source text, for every translation stands or falls based on its fidelity to the original language meaning. For the sake of keeping the series of articles manageable in quantity, I have limited my examples to New Testament passages.

None of the passages I review here will, by themselves, prove that there is any sort of bias against nudity. In each case, the translations provided are not without justification. But collectively, they betray a subtle prejudice against any nudity that is not presented in a negative way. In each case, the translation is such that we may not have to create any sort of mental image that someone may literally be naked… and we don’t have to read the N-word, even if that’s the word used in the Greek or Hebrew.

I will first present the Scripture text in Greek, KJV, NASB, and NIV, then offer some observations or comments. The texts will not be altered in any way except to highlight the words of interest in a contrasting color. There will be no dispute about the textual data. My comments, on the other hand, will likely meet with some objection. I ask my readers to hear me out… and see if you discern a bias as well. And bear in mind… the bias you discern may be your own.

— Matthew Neal


Squeamish Translating

Part 1 – Naked Disciples
Part 2 – An Unclothed Savior
Part 3 – Writing Scripture Naked
part 4 – Unclothed Servants
Part 5 – Speaking of Genitals

Squeamish Translating (PDF of the entire series)

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