If two translations of a text differ, does that make one of them wrong?
Sometimes it certainly does. It is absolutely vital, however, to remember that differences are not always the same as contradictions. Let's take a look. We'll start with a non-Biblical example, then move on to the Scriptures.
Let's pretend I'm a German businessman, who doesn't speak English. I've come to negotiate a merger with you, an American businessman (or woman) who doesn't speak German. Obviously, we'll need an interpreter (interesting how they're often called "interpreters"). In the course of our discussion, I find out it's your birthday, so I let out a hearty, "Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Gerburtstag!" The interpreter here could have an issue. Does she translate this literally, or does she interpret it to inject appropriate meaning? Let's look at a literal word-for-word translation.
Herz means "heart" and, also, "spirit" and "emotion." Adding "-lichen" to the word makes it an adjective, however. So there are now several literal translations available, and the interpreter could pick either of them and still be "accurate." She could say, "heart-feelingly," or "spiritfully," or "emotionally."
Glück means "luck, fortune." Wunsch can be a noun: "desire, wish, request" or a verb "to wish, to want, to ask." In this case - and the translator would know this since she understands the original language, Glückwunsch is a noun. So once more, literally, she could translate, "luck-desire," "luck-wish," "luck-request," "fortune-desire," etc.
Zum is a preposition meaning "to that," or "towards that."
Geburtstag is, literally, "birthday."
So, a literal, word-for-word translation with little to no interpretation would read one of the following:
"Heart-feelingly luck-wish towards that birthday."
"Spiritually fortune-desire towards that birthday."
Heart-feelingly luck-request to that birthday."
And so on and so forth. She has free reign, at this point, because she can pick any of them and still be accurate, even though they do not say the same words. Why? Because translations are always open to interpretation. Different interpretations, however, do not neccessarily make them wrong; all of these are different, but accurate. However, they aren't good English.
Notice the lack of pronouns. "I," "me," and "you" are all missing. More alarmingly there is also a lack of verbs. While "wish" can certainly be a verb, in this German phrase, the word is a noun. When you remove subjects and verbs from a sentence in English, that sentence degrades into almost unintelligable nonsense (as seen above). So the interpreter must add words to the sentence to make it proper English. This is an act of interpretation.
What do I, the German businessman want to emphasize? "I wish you a spiritually fortunate birthday." "May you have luck and fortune on your birthday." She has to figure out if I am emphasizing my wish, or the recepient of that wish.
She could also smooth over some of those adjectives in order to make it flow better in English: "I wish you a heartfelt (Herzlichen), fortunate birthday." Is this a literal translation? Not anymore. Does it mean the same thing? Yes.
Of course, all of this is a moot point if she takes the phrase out of its German cultural context and places into a purely American context: "Happy birthday." Not even remotely close to what I actually said, but the meaning is more appropriate, and, perhaps, more accurate.
So what does this mean when we read the Scriptures? What happens when two different translations differ in what they say? Well, as mentioned in an earlier blog, one thing to keep in mind is that we should always read Scriptures in their context. A recent example of possible contradictions was posted several weeks back, in regards to Titus 3:10. The King James and Wycliffe translations all read: "heretic," while the NIV, NLT, and ESV all read "divisive person." Hmmm . . . this could most definitely be a problem, for while a heretic is certainly divisive, are all people who are divisive necessarily heretics? Of course not. That means these translations could contradict each other.
But do they? Remember the rule: put the verse in context. Paul tells Titus to teach the people sound doctrine (2:1-10), reminding him that they were once "foolish, disobedient, deceived, and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures" (3:3), but that they have been redeemed by their "great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness" (2:13-14).
I know this is getting long, but stick with me, please. Paul is saying, "Titus, teach the sound doctrine of salvation and Godly living." Why would he say that? He explains in 1:10-12:
"For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining the whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach - and that for the sake of dishonest gain." In other words, they are not speaking the truth, and they are causing problems. They are heretics, and they are dividing the church through false teachings. Therefore, Paul tells Titus, teach sound doctrine and "avoid foolish controversies . . . and quarrels about the law, because they are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him" (3:9-10). These divisive people, when placed in context, are defined for us: rebellious, deceiving, ruinous, and dishonest false teachers. They are heretics that are dividing the church.
What we discover is that, though the translations may differ, the meaning remains the same. Differences are not always the same as contradictions. We must always be careful, when finding "flaws" in the Scriptures, to be mindful that while translations are open to interpretation, two different interpretations do not always mean inaccuracy, and a little Bible study and thought can help you determine the difference between the two.