The Message, Bible Translations

By | November 27, 2010

It is my understanding that there are many people who have issues with “The Message” translation of the bible. On one end, some people feel a need to always preface it by explaining “it’s a paraphrase” (in other words, not a “real” translation). On the other end of the spectrum, people feel it is a dangerous misrepresentation, leading people astray because of its perceived lack of accuracy. The Message does have its quirks, however I don’t have a problem calling a translation for several reasons.

First of all, in discussing translations, it is imperative to understand that there is no such thing as an exact word-for-word translation. Studying at least one language beyond one’s own primary language is beneficial for learning much about language itself. While concrete objects (table, house) may have more or less exact word-for-word equivalents in different languages, often more abstract concepts (love, hope) do not. For example, there are approximately four words in Greek for all the ways which we use the single word love. And Greek has a plural form of “you”, whereas English does not. These things are part of the challenge of translation. The lack of an exact word-for-word translation is a primary reason that there isn’t a single, “correct” English translation of the bible.

Technically, language has no inherent meaning in and of itself—it is simply a code. Knowing a language means that a person has learned to associate common meanings with the code of the language. Accurate communication only occurs when both the sender and receiver are using more or less the same meanings for the code. Translation from one language to another requires moving through these meanings. In order to create a translation, a translator must read the original language, translate that language into meaning in his or her head, and then translate that meaning back into the new language. Whether the translator is attempting a more word-for-word or broader “thought-for-thought” translation, the basic process is the same. This is important enough to restate: no matter the level of strictness or accuracy of a translation, the basic process is the same.

Beyond this, messages usually are bigger than what can be captured in a single word. Or in other words, communication through language is an attempt to convey more than a list of individual words. Words are organized into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, etc. These all work together to communicate a larger meaning. Different languages not only have different words, but they are also structured differently. So even if a word-for-word translation was possible, it still might not make sense—or at least be awkward to read—in the new language.

In modernity, since the enlightenment and scientific age, we have become much more concerned with precision and accuracy in details. We are so accustom to thinking this way that it hard to understand that there is any other way of looking at things. Because of this, we have approached the bible in the same way. It seems that more often than not, we dissect the bible down to the individual word, pulling sentences and words apart and trying to find the meaning in the details. Looking at it this way, it’s no wonder that we’ve felt that best translation is one which is as close to word-for-word accuracy as we can manage.

Examining the details of stories, writings, and thoughts in this way, however, is not the norm for many cultures in history. In many cases, the overall meaning of the message is what is important. Exact accuracy in the details is not important, and people used to this way of thinking would not be bothered to know that some of the details were not precisely true as stated. Again, what is important is the overall message and the truth thereof. I believe that the bible was written in this context. In other words, I believe what was important to most if not all of the authors of the bible was the overall message and not the precision of the details. To give an example, I believe the point of the first two chapters of Genesis was to show God as the creator, not to give a scientifically accurate account of the means of creation. (I’m not specifically stating here that it isn’t scientifically accurate—that’s a different discussion—I am merely pointing out that this wasn’t the main point.)

Now to put this all together. First, I’ve argued that any translation goes through the same process of being translated from one language into meaning and then back into another language from that meaning. I have also argued that what is important is the meaning, not the individual words. The Message is a translation which attempts to convey the overall meaning of bigger sections of scripture than do other translations.

Now the argument can be made that there is more room for misunderstanding and misrepresentation when a “looser” translation is made (that is, one which attempts to convey the meaning of larger passages rather than words). This may be true to an extent, however a “stricter” translation goes through the same translation process and is still susceptible to misrepresentation. The idea in creating a stricter translation may be to translate the language as accurately as possible, and allow the reader to determine the meaning for themselves. This sounds good, however the meaning present in the original text can be lost or simply obscured when using this approach.

If the message is what is most important anyway, then is a translation which specifically aims to communicate the meaning a lesser translation than one which attempts to be more precise to the language? I argue that the one which communicates the meaning may actually be a better translation.

As mentioned, The Message is a translation of the bible which attempts to communicate the meaning of the text. The word “paraphrase” means to restate a text using different words in the same language, or in common usage, to explain a text in one’s own words. The Message, however, was translated from the original Hebrew and Greek language and was verified by a team of scholars. It was not created by someone simply reading through his English bible and rewording it however he felt like. For this reason alone, it seems more technically accurate to call The Message a translation rather than a paraphrase. When you combine this with the rest of the reasons I’ve given, I conclude that The Message is a very beneficial translation overall.

I have personally found that The Message has helped me to understand books of the bible whose meanings had been obscured by the language of other translations. However I do believe in the benefits of using multiple translations due to the fact that there isn’t one perfect or best translation. A passage can become even clearer by reading it in several differing translations.

photo credit: Wonderlane via photopin cc

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