Whenever I hear someone say that they "take the Bible literally word for word," it's a dead give-a-way that the person doesn't speak any foreign languages. That's because if you speak a foreign language (and take time to think about it), you'll quickly realize that not all ideas, phrases or words can be translated into another language. Languages are linked to particular world-views (and form them). Languages have different sensibilities completely. Humor and drama can all be very different based on the language.
During the Egyptian Revolution, it was pointed out that Hosni Mubarak in his last speeches was using a bizarre form of Arabic and phrasing that a lot of Middle Eastern tyrants fall into when speaking to the lower masses. This was not at all evident to those of us watching the subtitled version or hearing the translation on CNN.
In Chinese, the way they articulate and write numbers is what gives them an advantage in fast calculation and math (it's not because Asians are inherently smarter than Africans or American).
In Spanish, there are certain phrases and songs which are hilarious that when translated into English totally lose their humor. "He falls on me like a rock" is much funnier in Spanish than in English. The song:
"The Cayman is leaving
The Cayman is leaving
The Cayman is leaving for Baranquilla
An old man and an old woman went to play football
The old man looks at a girl
the old woman scores a goal"
...is much funnier in Spanish.
Now consider that the Bible is in Hebrew (quite a unique language with tons of layered meanings), Aramaic, and old Greek (another highly expressive language). These languages are very distant from Spanish, English, and Chinese. The worldviews are radically different as well. The grammar, the syntax, the humor, the poetry---it's all different. How do we truly understand Genesis, or Song of Songs, or Hebrews? And then consider that English actually has an easier time getting an "accurate" Bible translation than many other global languages.
At this very moment, somewhere in the world, some Bible translator is translating the Bible into a new language and is stuck having to figure out how to write/translate the concept of sand or snow to a remote tribe that may not know what that is. And that would be an easy concept. There are much harder examples.
Dave Brunn who translated the Bible for tribes in Papua New Guinea explains in a recent interview in Christianity Today.
CT: Why do English-speaking evangelicals face so much tension around this issue?
DB: Part of the tension is due to a limited, incomplete view of translation. I don't question anyone's motives. They are all driven by a desire to protect the faithfulness and accuracy of God's Word as it is translated into English or another language.
But it is a little bit dangerous to raise discussion of Bible translation to the level of doctrine. Obviously, there are key doctrines, such as the Virgin Birth and the deity of Christ, that we must protect very carefully. But the Bible does not give instructions on how to translate a message from one language into another.
CT: How has your experience in Papua New Guinea shaped how you see the current debates about English translations?
DB: When I first went to Papua New Guinea, I was committed to translating God's Word as faithfully and as accurately as possible. I thought I had a good idea of what that meant, but I quickly realized that I had oversimplified the actual task of Bible translation. I heard people articulate proposed standards for faithfulness and accuracy. But I found that many of those standards are based on English grammatical features that do not exist in Lamogai or many other languages. So, if those standards are really God's universal standards, then Lamogai would automatically be disqualified from having a faithful and accurate translation.
A lot of people don't realize that since English and Koine Greek are both Indo-European languages, the degree of accuracy that we have in our English New Testaments is largely due to the fact that the translators were working with languages that are part of the same family, albeit as distant cousins. Translation into English is not easy, but there are many more difficulties faced by those translating into unrelated languages—difficulties that those translating into English would never imagine.
Does this mean that it is hopeless to find accurate meaning in the Bible? Not at all. Now one can appreciate some of the repetitive parts of the Bible (like the 4 Gospels) making the essentials of the Faith very clear. But what it does mean, is that we should have a lot more humility when claiming that we fully understand the Word of God. The written Scriptures, unlike in Islam, is NOT meant to be the ultimate authority and deified;. even though that's what a lot of Evangelical Christians now proclaim. We do not worship the Bible text, we worship Jesus Christ and everything in the Bible points toward him. The Bible is not meant to stand alone. It is surrounded by the guidance and presence of the Holy Spirit, Christian tradition, and Jesus Christ himself.
These matters are confusing so coming up at the Three Worlds Diary we are going to be starting a new series entitled: "Reading the Bible in the 21st Century" taking a look at two books that help to flesh out these complicated ideas. The first is "The Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today" by N.T. Wright. The second book is "The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible." by Scot McKnight. I tried to choose two very respected, middle-of-the-road scholars that have written clearly no the issue and would be listened to by the majority of people reading--but it's never easy to find a name everyone agrees on. I think you can do no better than these 2 men if you are looking for clarity. Gordon Fee's "How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth," is also a good one. But we shall focus on these two relatively recent releases by two excellent writers.
Between these two books, we hope to illuminate some of these issues that can get so controversial and divisive. Enjoy it. It will be interesting. I hope you'll join us by regularly checking in at: http://three-worlds.com/diary/