McKnight on translation tribalism

Scot McKnight has started a series of posts on “Translation Tribalism”: 1 and 2 (so far).

From the second post:

the authority is the original text, not the translation. The original texts are in Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). The authoritative text is not in English, regardless of how accurate the translation. No matter which translation you prefer, it is not the authoritative text for determining which translation is best.

unless you can read the original languages, you should avoid making public pronouncements about which translation is best. Instead, here’s my suggestion: if you don’t know the languages and can’t read them well enough to translate accurately on your own but you want to tell your congregation or your listeners which translate is best, you need to admit it by saying something like this: “On the basis of people I trust to make this decision, the ESV or the TNIV or the NRSV or the NLT is a reliable translation.” [Emphasis McKnight’s]

As an example, he mentions the translation of the Greek word adelphos in James 3:1, which is variously translated “brothers” and “brothers and sisters”.  Says McKnight:

which one best represents the intent of the original Greek, which has the Greek word adelphos? Unless you know what adelphos means in Greek, in the broad swath of the New Testament’s use of adelphos and how it is used in the Greek-speaking (not to mention Hebrew-reading world) and about how James uses the word adelphos, any judgment is rooted in theology or theory but not in evidence. If you don’t know the Greek, avoid standing in judgment. I’m not trying to be a hard-guy or an elitist, but let’s be honest: only those who know Latin should be talking about which is the “best” translation of Virgil or only those who know Middle High German should be weighing in on the “best” translation of The Nibelungenlied. This isn’t elitist; it’s common sense.

Well said and a good reminder, particularly his argument that any opinion of a translation not based on an understanding of the original languages is based on an alreadygiven theology which requires a particular translation.

3 thoughts on “McKnight on translation tribalism

  1. Toni

    It is a slightly elitist view, since by obvious derivation it also says that you can’t possibly be certain of your theology unless you can read the original text (as chiseled by Moses? Now that’s a thought!) in the original language. But I largely agree if we’re going to say “MY favourite translation is the BESTEST”.

  2. Marc

    I think the “my translation is better than your translation” mentality to which McKnight is responding, particularly viz. the ESV vs. NIV vs. TNIV division in recent years.

  3. Marc

    Having said that, I think it’s true that we need to have a high degree of humility in our theology, whether we know the original languages or not–but *especially* if we don’t. What McKnight says is not just for translations in general, but for our readings of them as well. Thus when I consult a number of translations for a particular passage of scripture, I can’t say with any certainty that, “Translation X gets it right”–at least not without filtering it through a previously established theology or theory.

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