Chris Thayer is the Director of Discipleship at Good Shepherd Church in Charlotte, NC where he oversees adult life groups and Biblical education. On Thursdays I share his weekly “Thayer’s Thoughts” for small group leaders, which are based on the previous Sunday’s sermon. Click HERE to watch or listen to the accompanying sermon.
Translation is a difficult task. As anybody can tell you who has wrestled with how to convey something from one language into another – you wrestle with how much of the original wording to keep as it was written and how much to use the intended meaning as it was conveyed.
For instance, Sammy Gonzalez, our Pastor of the Latino Ministry here at Good Shepherd, had some difficulty translating the name of our sermon series, “Old School,” into Spanish. Old School does not simply mean an antiquated building that children receive education in. It has taken on the meaning of something that used to be popular and (usually) retains some of its nostalgic swagger. So translating these two words into Spanish without writing a paragraph yet still retaining its catchiness took some time to think about and wrestle with. This is especially true in translating the Bible.
Language is not static, it’s dynamic. It’s like a living organism, constantly growing and changing. Words go out of use, come into use, and morph their meanings. This is one of the main reasons why it’s more helpful for us to read a current translation of the Bible than an older one. Not only that, but sometimes translators recognize that a way that they worded something in a translation didn’t quite capture the significance of what the author was intending, so they have to go back and correct it.
This is true of one of the verses from today’s passages of Scripture: Psalm 8:2. In two NIV translations it reads:
From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. (1984 Version of the NIV)
Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. (2011 Version of the NIV)
You’ll notice two changes. First, what is translated ‘lips’ in the 1984 version is changed to ‘praise’ in the 2011 NIV. Second, what the 1984 version renders as “…you have ordained praise…” they changed in 2011 to read “…you have established a stronghold…”
Sometimes changes like this might make us nervous (are people changing the Bible?!) or at the very least make us scratch our head. So let me start by saying that good translations (of which the NIV is definitely one) have teams of scholars who work to faithfully represent the text. They aren’t intentionally deceiving people by making the Bible say things it doesn’t. They’re doing the opposite of that: trying to faithfully represent to native English speakers what an ancient text from thousands of years ago and written in different languages means. Both of the changes in Psalm 8:2 have strong linguistic and interpretive decisions behind them.
The first change most likely is a reflection of the NIV’s desire to be a readable translation. Some phrases are naturally hard to understand. So to make it easier on the reader, they probably made the switch to “praise” to define what is meant by “out of the mouth (or lips) of infants and children.” They likely made an interpretative decision for the reader in order to make it easier to understand.
The second comes from what was probably a mistranslation in the 1984 version. Just as certain English words can have multiple meanings even though they’re spelled the same, called homonyms (i.e. a date – is a fruit, a social engagement, and a time), Hebrew does as well. One of these words can mean “praise” or “strength.” The context of this passage dictates that the meaning should probably be strength rather than praise. So, they changed the wording.
Neither one of these translations is malicious or even poor scholarship. It’s actually a good thing for us to see that translations are willing to make corrections or changes as they learn more about the language and texts and as their audience’s language naturally morphs. That way we understand better what was originally intended when books of the Bible, such as Psalms, were written.