Bags of Bran

Bibles for Casual, Disinterested Readers
August 10, 2016, 11:57 am
Filed under: Biography

Bill Mounce, author of THE Greek grammar that I didn’t use (and which omits principal parts of irregular verbs), wants to set the record straight about accuracy in Bible translation. When translating Greek into English, or when discussing translation, he argues, the accuracy of the translation has to do with the meaning, not the form of the words. It’s quite complicated.

Question: How is meaning conveyed to the reader? Through something other than the forms of the words?

I won’t slog through Dr. Mounce’s entire apologetic for freer, more paraphrastic translations (for such it is), except to say that he’s really arguing for something like this: “accuracy of a translation has to do with the capability of the reader.” An accurate translation, he would say, is the one that people (a plurality? a majority?) understand. It is the one that places the slenderest demands on the reader

What he misses here, and I think badly, is the matter of the will. Yes, readers in their natural state may be somewhat illiterate, and perhaps poorly motivated to become better readers, or to look up unfamiliar words like ‘propitiation.’ But we don’t read the Bible in isolation, either from reference materials or from other people. Neither do we train people to read the Bible isolation: we teach them that help is available FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT HELP. Qualified people, living and dead, are standing in ranks to assist the reader in his understanding.

This is why his complaint about “propitiation” is such a poor example. Yes, it’s a technical term; insider language even, but that is far from ‘meaningless,’ as he calls it. Sure, a first-time reader will not have encountered this word unless he reads old things; but then, the Bible is an insider book. “Propitiation” is our word. Translating ἱλασμός as “propitiation” may need some explanation to first-time readers, but that is one of the several fringe benefits of “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.”

The Bible is not written for the most casual, disinterested reader, but for people who intend to hide it in their hearts that they might not sin against God. It is written for people who intend to be doers of the word and not hearers only. People like that are generally willing to look words up. One wonders if Dr. Mounce objects to the way that some of the NT authors wrote: even if you get rid of the specialized vocabulary, you would be hard pressed to tame all of the big ideas in the New Testament. If Paul intended to be understood by casual, disinterested readers, his letters would look very different. How would the author of Hebrews present his argument concerning the priesthood of Melchizedek to casual, disinterested readers?

I can appreciate Dr. Mounce’s concern that the Bible be as transparent as possible, but removing or smoothing rough pieces simply because they are difficult is not a solution. The Bible is not for casual, disinterested readers looking for light maxims to pad their saddles for the bumpy trail of life. It was written for people who are committed enough to become literate, learn new vocabulary, puzzle through poetry, detect allusions to other Scriptures, and think through difficult doctrinal conundrums. The Bible, in other words, is for disciples.


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[…] Should Bible translations aim to be easily understood by the broadest possible group of people? Seems like an easy question, but this author provides a compelling case otherwise. […]


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