Every now and then I’m in a conversation with someone who hasn’t learned Greek/Hebrew (or, has forgotten them) and I get a question along the lines of “How important are the languages, really, since we have so many English translations?” This is actually a very difficult question to answer well, for several reasons.
First of all, far be it from me to undermine someone’s confidence in their English Bible. Most translations available offer a clear and faithful representation of what the Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic) parent text communicates. It is important to read through the preface of a given translation in order to understand its operating principles, why it makes the kinds of translation decisions it does, etc. But in general one can trust that a given English translation is not going to baldly miss the mark (or deliberately deceive the reader) in any given passage.
Second, many people who learn the languages do not learn them well and do not use them (or don’t use them much) beyond seminary. This reinforces the notion some people have that the languages really aren’t all that important in the first place. This is in no small part because they are often poorly taught, as part of a curriculum that minimizes their importance. But that is a topic for another day…
Third, many people do not know their own language well, let alone have experience learning other languages. It can be difficult to get across to such people that you do not have a one-to-one correspondence on the lexical, morphological, or syntactical level between English and Greek when they have no prior experience with this.
Lastly, it usually takes me longer to get over the “are you serious?!” reaction than the conversation lasts. Hopefully that reaction stays inside my head and doesn’t show on my face.
When that initial reaction doesn’t overwhelm me, I often use the analogy of a joke. If someone has to explain a joke to you, generally you can reach a point where you understand why people would laugh at the punch line, but the moment has passed. It isn’t funny any more. But what if you understand it the first time?
The Bible is full of all manner of humor, as well as many other things that stand out in the original languages but are difficult to capture in English translation. For instance, there is a persistent wordplay in 1 Samuel 3 on the Hebrew word כבד. This is used to describe God’s “glory” but is also used to describe Eli as “heavy”.
Sometimes there is a certain richness that is lost in translation. This usually is because a Hebrew or Greek word has no corresponding English word with a similar range of meaning. For instance, in John 1:5, the verb John uses that is often translated “overcome” also means “comprehend”. Think about that in relation to the continued misunderstandings of Jesus all throughout John!
What sparked this post, though, is an example from Psalm 23. In the middle of v. 4 is a three-word Hebrew phrase: לא־אירא רע. Most students who have finished a first year of Hebrew would translate that phrase something like “I will not fear evil.” That isn’t wrong, per se, but that seriously mutes the power of the phrase. The reason is that the Hebrew word רע encompasses moral evil (i.e., bad people doing bad things) and calamity, misfortune, natural disasters, and the like (what some people call surd evil—bad things that happen without a malicious agent behind them).
I submit for your consideration that English as it is presently spoken and understood cannot capture this in a phrase. We could paraphrase, expand, explain…but then it is like the joke that you don’t get the first time around. See, what the psalmist says is absolutely extraordinary. Because Yahweh is present to him, even though he should walk through the most threateningly dark valley, he is not afraid of any harmful thing that could happen to him, whether evil deeds done by malicious people or awful events that are the result of misfortune or disaster. And that is communicated clearly in the Hebrew text in three words, not a paragraph.