1. The Accuracy of the Starting Texts. The Old Testament was written mainly in Hebrew (and a small part in Aramaic); the New Testament was written in Greek. We do not possess any of the original manuscripts, but only copies -- of which we have tens of thousands, but which are an unknown number of generations removed from the originals. Added to some 5,800 Greek sources for the New Testament, for example, are ten thousand or more manuscripts and fragments of the NT translated very early into another language, such as Latin. Although we thus have many, many more such fragments (and in some cases, complete books) to work from than is the case with any other ancient document, and although there is agreement (consensus) as to practically 90% of its text, there are still many variant readings as to which scholars differ. Most of those are trivial or minor, but some are major, such as in the case of John 7:53-8:11, which does not appear in several manuscripts. Moreover, the discovery of older fragments, such as those found at Qumran, continually reshapes our views of what particular reading in any given case would be closest to the "original." So the first problem in Bible translation is to decide on the starting text (and avoid the trap of "garbage in, garbage out").
2. The Meaning and Context of the Words in those Starting Texts. Language dictionaries are only a very recent phenomenon. The Hebrew words of the Old Testament in many cases remain the same today, but their meanings have changed; the same is true of the Koine dialect of Greek in which much of the New Testament was written. In many cases, the recovery of lost meanings is pure guesswork, as in quite a few instances, particular words may occur only once or twice in the entire NT (or OT). And even when we have a pretty good idea of how a word was used in the first century (or earlier), we have to put it into the context intended by its author, which was aimed for the most part at hearers or readers who were alive at that time. We have to beware of anachronistic interpretations.
3. The Meaning and Context of Words in the Target Language. As just noted in the last paragraph, language is not static, but changes continuously with time. To put the Bible into the English of 1611 was a wholly different task from putting it into the English of today (and whose English -- British, American, Australian, Canadian, Scottish, or Irish?). The process of translation thus presents a continually moving target. While the meaning and context of the original words may have been fixed at the time they were written, the same is not at all true of any given target language into which they may be translated. And no translation can at the same time be one that is word-for-word and is also suitable for reading aloud to a congregation. A balance must be struck, and in each case it is different, depending on the goals of the translators.
It comes rather as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the publisher of the respected English Standard Version of the Bible has decided, in conjunction with its Translation Oversight Committee, to make just a further 52 changes in its official text, and then no more, forever and ever, amen. It will thus join the King James version (last changed in 1769) as a fossilized text: those in the far future who wish to use it will first have to master the vocabulary of English as it stood in 2016, and not as it may have further evolved in their own day. [UPDATE 09/29/2016: persuaded by the instant and numerous reactions to its decision, the publisher Crossway has announced it made a mistake. It will continue to revise the ESV, chiefly for the reasons I identified above.]
The decision has been strongly criticized, and with good reason. I shall not add to the general criticism here, but I do want to take issue with some of what the Oversight Committee thinks are necessary and advisable changes to make before the text becomes "permanent." For in my view, the changes they have adopted to the ESV's translation of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 are going in the wrong direction -- please have a look:
|Permanent Text Verses||Previous Text Verses|
|Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.||Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.|
|Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.||Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.|
Changing these expressions from "for" to "contrary to" in each instance is not just a subtle shift in meaning, but introduces (in my view) a whole new social context that is foreign to our traditional reading of these verses. To see this, let's focus on Gen. 3:16 more closely.
As is well explained in this post, there are two differing exegeses of what God is saying to Eve in verse 3:16. The first is that God's statement is a prescription, both for her own future and for that of all women who come after her -- it lays down a principle of what her nature will cause her to do.
The second is that God's statement is simply descriptive of what the fallen world after Eden will be like for women.
So in the first case, the ESV translators are in effect saying that God has willed it that men and women should be always at odds with each other. And in the second case, well, He may not have willed it so, but it will always be so.
Either way, the ESV choice simply underwrites current feminist theology without any warrant in the Hebrew text for doing so, since "to go against" is not one of the normal or usual senses of 'el in the Hebrew Bible. And drawing on Genesis 4:7 for support of that context is, as Sam Powell says in the post I cited to explain the use of that preposition, "pretty sketchy exegesis." (I have always believed that the Devil was not content merely to act contrary to us; he would far rather entrap us. So saying that his desire is "contrary to" man is like saying that a policeman just wants to act differently from a thief: it may superficially be true, but it by no means tells the whole story of their respective roles.)
Both Sam Powell and Scot McKnight, in the posts cited above, point to the use of 'el in the Song of Solomon, verse 7:10, to derive the proper understanding of its use in Gen. 3:16. The ESV translates that verse as follows: "I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me" (my bold emphasis). No sense of "contrary to" there -- and yet it is love's desire that is being described in each case. So why does it have to be one sense for Eve, and another one for the Song of Solomon?
And moreover, why does it have to now be permanently so? (Actually, I note that although the changes have been incorporated into the online ESV version, they provide the alternative translation of "toward" in a footnote reference to verses 3:16 and 4:7.)
The move to make the change fixed forever in stone bespeaks a pride or even arrogance that does not become a "Translation Oversight Committee", no matter what is their underlying theology. Pastor Powell has added to his exegesis of Gen. 3:16 cited above some further remarks on the topic of men versus women and women versus men in this post, entitled "Headship is not Hierarchy." I commend it to your careful attention.
Husbands, love your wives. Wives, love your husbands.