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Damaging Trust In English Translations

I am currently reading Slave by John MacArthur. I am appreciative of his dedication to verse by verse study and exposition of the scriptures. However, I am disappointed by his assertions and insinuations made in the first chapter of his book, Slave. MacArthur accurately makes the point that the Greek word doulos most literally means, “slave.” Yet the majority translations read “servant” or “bondservant” when translating this word. MacArthur then states,

“The reason for this is as simple as it is shocking: the Greek word for slave has been covered up by being mistranslated in almost every English version” going back to both the King James Version and the Geneva Bible that predated it. Though the word slave (doulos in Greek) appears 124 times in the original text, it is correctly translated only once in the King James. Most of our modern translations do only slightly better. It almost seems like a conspiracy.” (page 16)

Great care has to be given when words like “covered up” and “conspiracy” are thrown around regarding translations. While not explicitly stating such, these words give off the idea that translators are intentionally not translating words in the Bible correctly. I used to speak similarly when I came across renderings of various translations that I thought were poor. The problem is that we communicate to the weaker Christians and to the unbelievers that the English translation they are holding in their hands is not accurate. There are only a few versions I would be willing to make such a bold claim of inaccuracy or mistranslation (like the New World Translation and The Message). We can so easily shatter the confidence we should have in our English translations when statements are made like MacArthur makes that “almost every English translation” has “covered up” this word by being “mistranslated.” We do not want people to stop reading the scriptures because we have given them the idea that it cannot be trusted or, worse, the translators are choosing to cover up a meaning of a passage or word.

Further, to paint the motives of the translators of a particular version as evil or with the intention to deceive is to assume we know their hearts. We must recognize that the scholars who go about the task of translation have far more knowledge and experience in Greek and Hebrew, as well as more skill in translation, than we do. Is it possible that translators made mistakes? Of course. But to think because I looked up a word in a lexicon that I am a “scholar” who can then tell others how the translators “mistranslated” a word is at best foolish and at worst the height of arrogance. Do we think the translators did not have the same tools we are using to bring forth that translation? Rather than condemning a translation as false or inaccurate, we must ask the question, “Why did the translation go with that particular rendering?” Undoubtedly there is a reason why the translation chose the rendering in question. We must do the heavy lifting to figure out why.

Interestingly, MacArthur explains the primary reason for rendering doulos as slave. MacArthur states, “Translators have understandably wanted to avoid any association between biblical teaching and the slave trade of the British Empire and the American Colonial era.” (page 17) This was my first thought as well as I read his book. The meaning of slave in the Greco-Roman society is not the same as what the word “slave” conjures in American minds today. If English translations did what MacArthur seems to be advocating” consistently translating doulos as slave” then the translators would actually be MISTRANSLATING the word because it would communicate to the reader the WRONG image. Now if someone would like to say that he does not like the reasoning behind a particular translation, then he has the right to that opinion. But do not suggest a cover up, mistranslation, or other kind of deception in the hearts of the translators. We may not like the reason, but let’s not suggest evil motives. The reason behind the KJV and other English translations using the translation “servant” for doulos has good reasoning and logic. Sometimes a literal translation can actually miscommunicate the meaning of a given word. I learned this quickly in my third year of high school Spanish. You cannot take an English-Spanish dictionary, literally translate each word, and think you have accurately translated. Believe me, I tried repeatedly to failing grades. How much more with an ancient language!

One of the blessings of having multiple English translations today is the ability to see a number of different ways a verse can be translated properly without knowing any Greek or Hebrew. What a benefit for us today! When airing our disappointment or disagreement with a particular rendering in a translation, let’s keep our statement to, “I like how this translation rendering this verse instead of this other translation.” Don’t say that there has been a mistranslation or coverup. Don’t charge the translators with evil motives or distortion of God’s holy word. Translation is not as simple as using a lexicon. Don’t forget that we never want to suggest to people that our translations are not trustworthy. They are very accurate as they communicate faithfully the meaning of God’s word.