Can Greek be translated into English?
My post on “Can we trust our Bibles?” looks at how the Bible came to us. It found that our Bibles are very close to the original because early manuscripts have been preserved, scholars have reconstructed the original text and languages have been translated accurately. So we can trust our Bibles.
But some don’t agree with this statement. For example, I have received the following response which claims that the meaning of the Greek text of the New Testament is unable to be translated accurately into the English language. If this is true, English translations of the Bible are deficient.
The thing that is most overlooked though in regards to translating the bible, is the English language itself. We have a lot to be grateful for to have all this overwhelming textual support, however the English language is still insufficient to fully translate the original languages. Take Greek for example the largest language in the world at 5 million words. Against English, which only maybe could reach 1 million words, Greek can explain things with so much more precision and description. Take the English word for love. We use it for EVERYTHING. Greek has at least 4 different ways to use love. So even though we can trust the sources where we get English translations from, English versions, ANY English version of the bible still has misinterpretation issues, some at costly misconceptions we doctrinize and hence why we have such divisions in churches. Not really because the word is wrong but because men interpret it wrongly.
This reply is based on comments from Dr Theron Young of the Australian College of Christian Studies.
You say, “We have a lot to be grateful for to have all this overwhelming textual support, however the English language is still insufficient to fully translate the original languages”. The English language is as good or as poor as most any other language to translate the Bible. Something is always gained and lost in the translation process. However, we should not despair that important doctrines are lost in translation. The core message of the Bible is recorded in multiple versions and we can compare Scripture with Scripture to get a good representation of God’s Word in ANY language used for translation.
You say, “Take Greek for example the largest language in the world at 5 million words. Against English, which only maybe could reach 1 million words, Greek can explain things with so much more precision and description”. I would like to know where these statistics come from. The 2nd Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989, contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as sub-entries. That is a far cry from the figure of 1 million. In 1990, the Guinness Book of Records ranked the Greek language as the richest in the world with 5 million words. But I am suspicious of that figure. Even if it is true, it might not be relevant. The Strong’s numbers for the Bible give about 8,000 words for Hebrew-Aramaic and 8,000 for Greek. So, theoretically, you would need only 15-20 thousand words in English to translate the Bible into English, or any other language. How does one prove that Greek words are more precise than English words? That is a completely different question that has nothing to do with the number of words existing in a language.
You say, “Take the English word for love. We use it for EVERYTHING. Greek has at least 4 different ways to use love.” Look in a thesaurus for the word “love” and you will note that it has dozens of synonyms – words meaning “love”. So what is the point of mentioning that Greek has four words meaning love? I suspect that Greek has more than four words for “love.” Note that the Greek word “eros” does not appear in the New Testament. So we need to translate only 3 or 2 Greek words. But also, there are figures of speech with that meaning. Translation very frequently does not involve an equation of ONE Greek word for ONE English word.
You also say, “So even though we can trust the sources where we get English translations from, English versions, ANY English version of the bible still has misinterpretation issues, some are costly misconceptions we doctrinize and hence why we have such divisions in churches. Not really because the word is wrong but because men interpret it wrongly.” Mistranslation or misinterpretation, ultimately, is not the cause of most divisions in the churches. We should note that the Corinthian believers had the teachings in the same language as that of the apostolic writers. And still they had divisions and needed Paul’s rebuke for that. I believe that even if we all could read the original languages of the Bible and interpret them correctly, we would still see divisions among the churches. We need to recognize that we can agree to disagree on non-essential issues and that even in disagreement, we are commanded to love one another.
We certainly can trust our Bible translations – for the most part. There are hardly any Bible translations that actively promote heresy. The main one that comes to mind is not really a translation – the Jehovah’s Witness New World “Translation”. This version of the Bible has been edited and revised to agree with a group’s doctrine. When they realized that their beliefs contradicted Scripture, rather than conforming their beliefs to Scripture, they altered Scripture to agree with their beliefs. Also, The Passion Translation isn’t reliable as it often adds to the text and changes the meaning. It’s more like a paraphrase (such as The Message) than a translation!
But for other versions, though we might challenge some renderings here and there, for the most part they do a reasonable job of interpretation and translation. After all, God created the different languages as punishment for the pride of humanity (Gen. 11:9). At this time, humanity was divided into different language groups (Gen. 11:5, 20, 31). And God expected the message of the Bible to be translated into the languages of all nations (Mt. 28:19; Acts 1:8).
English translations of the Bible are not deficient because the meaning of the original text can be translated into any language. So Greek can be translated into English.
Acknowledgement: The reply in this blogpost is based on comments from Dr Theron Young of the Australian College of Christian Studies.
Written, October 2019
Also see: Can we trust our Bibles?