Speaking is Painting: Why No Translation Can Be “Perfect”

Many of us are frustrated by why no one seems to be able to come up with one perfect English Bible translation. Why are there so many versions? Why can’t we just have one final, best English translation?

paintingA major reason is because of one aspect of language that most of us don’t appreciate. When you speak, you “paint,” in a sense. You choose from a list of words in your language that have hues and overtones you’re looking for, and you blend them into sentences to express what you mean.

Each language has a palette with a finite amount of colors, which have evolved from the cultural memories and common experience of its users. When you try to “paint” a scene in a different language, the same words can have different shades of meaning, so the result is never exactly the same.

This is especially true between Hebrew and English (and less so with Greek). Hebrew is full of desert browns and burnt umbers of a nomadic, earthy people who trekked through parched deserts and slung stones at their enemies. Overall its palette only contains a small set of colors – about 4000 words, in comparison to the 100,000 or more of English. Because of its small vocabulary, each word has a broader possible meaning.*

 

Brush_stroke_painting sml 2

 

The Hebrew of the Bible paints reality like the picture above. It expresses truth by splashing on rich colors with a thick brush, like Van Gogh. Notice how even though the details are quite rough, you mentally fill them in, inferring them from the context. Your mind is used to doing this – figuring out meaning from context. Even when you communicate in English, you rely on common experience to fill in the gaps. You sketch out a scene with a few word-strokes, and let people figure out the rest. Hebrew simply relies on this much more than we do. (A lot of languages do this, actually – this isn’t unique to Hebrew.)

Now, imagine yourself as a Bible translator who is “repainting” the image above in English. If you’re trying to translate word-for-word, you can only use one stroke of your brush to portray each stroke in the original. But you have to trade your wide Hebrew “brush” for a fine-tip English “brush,” and you have a different palette of colors. Each of your strokes is slimmer, more refined, and can pick up only one specific shade of the original swath of color.

What will you do?

Most likely, the result of your efforts will show people the overall scene, but it won’t quite capture the atmosphere of the original. If another translator does it, they’ll bring out different nuances. Certainly some renderings will be better than others, and it’s possible to do a very bad job. But it simply isn’t possible to perfectly reproduce this painting with a different palette and different brushes.

This is why, when people ask me which translation is best, I tell them that the best thing to do is not to rely on one translation. It’s actually better read from more than one and then compare them. Read a few major translations that try to be more word-for-word (ESV, NASB, KJV, NIV) and then look at some that are less so. Then, start learning more about the original words in Hebrew and Greek, so that you can figure out why Bibles differ. When you see how different artists paint the same words, you start to actually get a sense of the colorful hues of the original.

 

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Forest 4

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Forest3_Deep-Forest

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forest 2

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* I’ve written about this often – about how Hebrew uses the same word for “hear” as for “obey,” and how they use the same word for “fear” as they do “awe” and “reverence.” To explore this in depth, see my new ebook, 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know.

Also of interest is my article: Translation Debates: A Jewish View and my earlier book, Listening to the Language of the Bible. See also One Bible, Many Versions by Dave Brunn.(Intervarsity Press, 2013). The author is a bible translator in Papua New Guinea. He compares several popular Bibles that advertise themselves as “literal” but actually are not in many places. He shares much wisdom about issues in translation.

Comments

29 Responses to “Speaking is Painting: Why No Translation Can Be “Perfect””

  1. 1
    Diane Olsen|February 14, 2014

    Lois,

    I LOVE this article. You have written about the nuances, mysteries, and difficulties of translation in a beautiful way with beautiful images. The creative part of all of us can “see” the truth of what you say. Well done and much appreciated. I am sharing this on Facebook today.

  2. 2
    Lois Tverberg|February 14, 2014

    Diane, thanks so much! I’m honored, coming from a professional artist. I have some of your paintings in my house. I should have chatted with you as I was writing this. (Everyone else, check out Diane’s work here.)

  3. 3
    Ted M. Gossard|February 14, 2014

    Great post. I love the analogy of paintings to translating scripture. And that book by Dave Brunn was my favorite read of 2013. Helped me get back to my dominant thinking on translating (and certainly contributed more to that), especially by his chapter on translating into languages in which “literal” does not work at all. Great book.

  4. 4
    Helen Hooker|February 16, 2014

    Love this post, Lois! The paintings you use here are extraordinary and beautiful, too. Who is (are) the artist(s)?

  5. 5
    Lois Tverberg|February 16, 2014

    Helen — all of them I found online. The red/orange “Hebrew” one is a mystery – I’m still looking for the name. The forest ones were actually “painted” with a computer program that imitates the style of famous human painters. I particularly like the top one, with its broad strokes. It’s imitating the style of Leonid Afremov, who has a gorgeous style of painting with wide, multicolored brushstrokes. An example is below. (Afremov is Israeli – could you guess?) Leonid Afremov - Autumn Park

  6. 6
    Bronwyn Lea|February 16, 2014

    Wow, Lois! this is masterfully done 🙂 I come from a multi-lingual country, where people have perhaps a little more patience with bible translations since they are accustomed to the difficulties and nuances of translation (.even if it is conversationally, we have all had that awkward moment of literally translating an idiom from our mother tongue and then realizing the limits of translation when met with blank stares). Moving to the US, where most people are English speaking, it has been much harder to try and explain. Your painting metaphor is brilliant and oh-so-helpful. THANK YOU!

  7. 7
    Lois Tverberg|February 16, 2014

    Thanks, Bronwyn. (We monolingual Americans can be a little clueless sometimes.)

  8. 8
    Dave Brunn|February 17, 2014

    Lois,

    Thank you for your rich, colorful explanation of the complexities of Bible translation. Thanks also for your gracious words about my recent book, One Bible, Many Versions. I trust that God will use this book to clear away some of the fog surrounding the topic of translation.

  9. 9
    Lois Tverberg|February 17, 2014

    Dave, Thanks for stopping by and weighing in. I enjoyed your book a lot. I particularly liked the amount of “raw data” you included – chart after chart of comparisons between translations.

    I was intrigued by your thought that one reason that so many Bible readers expect word-for-word literalism is because so many pastors are monolingual English speakers who studied Greek in seminary. Because it’s relatively easy to translate Greek into English, the expectation is that all languages should be that way. Can you comment?

  10. 10
    chaya1957|February 17, 2014

    Lois, thank you for this wonderful analogy. I often find it difficult to explain to people how their bible written in English (in their chosen version) did not just drop down from the sky nicely wrapped in a pretty package. But that narrative is probably comforting and a source of security.

    May I reblog this on my blog, Endtime Chaverim? I didn’t see a reblog button, although this looks like a WordPress blog.

  11. 11
    Lois Tverberg|February 17, 2014

    I’m not sure what reblogging is, but you’re very welcome to share a quote and then give people the link to read more. (I’d rather you didn’t copy/paste the whole thing onto your website though.)

  12. 12
    chaya1957|February 17, 2014

    Reblogging is just an easy way to share an article of someone else that you want your readers to see. Usually, the blogger posts their own intro/thoughts, and the reblog system automatically posts the first paragraph with a link to read the rest. Okay, I will do it your way 🙂 The auto method just makes it easier.

  13. 13
    Sandra Heska King|February 18, 2014

    Lois, you’ve painted this beautifully. I’m sharing it in the “recommended reading” sidebar on my blog.

  14. 14
    Dave Brunn|February 18, 2014

    Lois,

    Yes, I would be glad to comment further. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. The reason I included so much “raw data” is that I wanted to let the REAL evidence speak for itself rather than arguing “philosophical ideals.” When the discussion about Bible versions focuses too much on “philosophical ideals,” it usually just comes down to a difference of opinion. Any English-speaking Bible reader who carefully considers the REAL evidence will likely find that their view of translation will be challenged or even transformed.

    As you mentioned, translating from New Testament Greek into English is relatively easy — that’s because English and Greek are both Indo-European languages. When I translated the New Testament into a radically dissimilar language (in Papua New Guinea) I faced challenges that the translators who translate into English would never even imagine. If we base our understanding of New Testament translation entirely on English, the tendency will be to oversimplify issues that are extremely complex.

  15. 15
    Lois Tverberg|February 18, 2014

    I so understand your desire to keep the discussion in terms of “raw data.” My degree is in biology, and when I used to have a disagreement with my professor, we would always get out our lab notebooks and make sure we kept the data in view. I often see people forgetting this when studying the Bible. They tend to choose camps and stop looking at the Text itself.

    Fascinating point about Greek. Our point of view is influenced by our narrow experience wth languages. Interesting!

  16. 16
    Kathy Alford|February 21, 2014

    What a wonderful way to explain the differences in languages. I love your analogy and the perspective this gives me of Bible language.

  17. 17
    Deborah|February 24, 2014

    Lois, Thank you for such a brilliant Ilustration, a break through, for those of us, grappling with the complexities of biblical translations. Beautifully done.

  18. 18
    Sandra King|February 24, 2014

    Even God used the written scriptures to paint a picture of His redemption of mankind through His Son from Genesis to Revelation. God is the Master Painter. We have to keep looking and searching until the colors and words are enlightened so we can see Jesus. As we keep looking, God’s picture gets brighter and brighter.

    Thank you, Lois, for helping our eyes to see Jesus.

  19. 19
    Morgan Quist|March 7, 2014

    Dr. Tverberg,

    I am a painter myself, and I love the metaphor of painting you used. I know how hard it is to replicate another painting exactly, and with a smaller brush and different color palette, it is nearly impossible. I now understand the difficulty with translating the Bible – you’re working with completely different sets of words! There is no way to get a “perfect” translation! That’s why there’s so much value in reading different translations of the Bible and learning the original words that the English translations came from. In my Discipleship class with RVL, we frequently look at the Hebrew words from the original text. They give additional meaning to what the English translation says. It is frustrating that there will never be a perfect English translation, but when I weigh the fact that the translators are working with several different sets of words, it is very understandable.

  20. 20
    Rachel|March 7, 2014

    This was very helpful for me to read. I realized that actually, whenever you’re translating from language to language, it is difficult to create the same feelings and setting that was in the original language that you’re translating from. (Spanish class for example). I like the idea of the painting when thinking about how to read the Bible. Because Hebrew is a language that is more limited in how many words they have, their words have more meanings that have to be considered. I liked how this can be compared to a painting palette that has different colors on it. It can sometimes be hard to understand certain passages because I don’t understand what was really going on or what the story really meant in the time that it took place. Thinking about the stories as paintings that are being painted with different color palettes in the different languages helps it become not as frustrating when I don’t understand what is going on right away. I also like the idea about reading a passage from multiple different translations to get a better picture of what might’ve been going on and will probably start doing this more when I read the Bible.

  21. 21
    Hope Leppink|March 7, 2014

    This was a very interesting article. I have never really thought of how they get the different Biblical translations. Growing up, I have only read the NIV study bible. Other translations are just too foreign for me. After reading this article, you have showed me a new light. I love how you brought in all these beautiful images to illustrate all the different types of translations. I love the idea of “seeing” instead of just assuming that other translations are wrong just because they aren’t the word-for-word English we were expecting. Talking about brush stroke and switching from the large Hebrew brush stroke to the thin brush stroke of English was brilliant especially when you said that the slimmer stroke can only “pick up one specific shade of the original swath of colors.” Overall, I just loved your analogy!

  22. 22
    Evan Leppink|March 7, 2014

    The metaphor of the painting to explain and help us understand the difficulties and inconsistencies of Bible translations is really interesting. Personally, I think going back into the oldest writings (Dead Sea Scrolls) and seeing the translation for specific words can give the most insight to complicated phrases or analogies used during that time period, such as the “fear God” example you mentioned. To expand the painting analogy, I think it is important to consider both the artist and the workshop of the artist, if that makes sense. Who painted the paintings, the time period, and the location of where they were painting can further help explain the painting itself. Many of the metaphors used in the Bible can only be understood by learning what the metaphor was used for during that time period or by connecting it to another part of the Bible. Even though the painting, Scripture, is God-breathed, the painter’s ability still is a part of the painting itself, and therefore by explain discrepancies, specifically with the Gospels.

  23. 23
    Luke|March 7, 2014

    I love the analogy between different painting styles and the meaning of words in different languages. As someone who is very interested in art, this article really brings home the difficult process of articulating the original meaning of a word in one language into the context of another. I can can remember a time in a college drawing course where our professor had us copy a conte sketch by Seurat with charcoal pencils. These two mediums are similar, but there are subtle differences between the two, so there was a visible contrast between the two. Awesome article!

  24. 24
    Sarah Strikwerda|March 8, 2014

    Thank-you so much for this thought! As I read my Bible, I often wonder which version is best, and why we can’t just settle on one version. However, you explanation made a lot of sense. It is clear and concise. I love the analogy of translating being like painting. It really helped me to understand what you were saying. It inspired me to branch out and read more versions as I am usually pretty stuck to NIV. If everyone understood the concept you wrote about, it would solve many conflicts about which version is best. I also found the paintings that you used in this article to be beautiful.

  25. 25
    Betsy VerHage|March 8, 2014

    What you said here was so helpful for me to read because I have always been skeptical of why all the translations of the Bible are different. I love that you compared it to painting because I think it’s a perfect analogy. The Hebrew language wasn’t as specific as our English today, and the words were more broad, so it makes sense that we would have unique translations. What you said about inferring and figuring out from the context is a very good explanation as well because it makes sense that someone would have to do that with a language as broad as Hebrew. I loved your analogy of the thick and thin paintbrushes here as well because, again, it makes a lot of sense to me. I can see the Hebrew writer’s paintbrush filling in the rich, primary colors and getting the main idea. Then I see the thin English paintbrush coming to fill in the gaps. I also really connected with what you said about each translator, like each painter, being unique. Not every translator will choose exactly the same words because they all have a different vocabulary, just as not every painter will use the exact same colors and shades. However, each work of art is beautiful and brings out different ideas and nuances. You also give great advice when you say that no single translation is best, but it is good to read more than one and compare them. I love that because I really agree with you that it does bring a reader closer to understanding the original.

  26. 26
    Lois Tverberg|March 9, 2014

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

  27. 27
    Elijah Nykamp|March 9, 2014

    Hello, thank you so much for your insight on this topic! I have actually wondered about this on multiple occasions, especially how we get The Message out of the King James, and so on, etc. Since I have been confused about that many of times, I just never understood how we can actually believe both texts and still call it the word of God. What blows my mind is that I am still thinking about how it changes so much in the English language, and not even about the difference from Hebrew into the translation in English. So thank you so much for making it clear to me that it is so difficult to translate the Bible, just like how difficult it is to replicate a painting. It is basically impossible. But, like you said, it doesn’t mean that one translation or edition is less valuable than another! It is useful to read ALL translations! However, the original text comes from Hebrew, and it is so helpful to try and use those meanings in order to understand the context or even a connection to another part of the Bible. It truly is amazing and frustrating at the same time.

  28. 28
    Alan Wojtkowiak|June 8, 2014

    Lois – Well done – Kee Tov! Just to say that I’ve finished “Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus”. Wunderbar! As to translating- Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, German, Polish, Italian, Whatever— There are always problems with language. The first comes with “painting” word pictures for people who speak our own tongue. Then comes their own ability to perceive it. When I attempt to repaint in yet another tongue, there are so many extra problems for “my art” to overcome. Take Psalm 119 – the Alphabetical Psalm. How could I possibly “paint” the “color” of Hebrew poetry that reuses the same letter again & again at the beginning of each line within a strophe. Then again, to try to “repaint” a given turn of words which may be funny or satirical or insulting, yet the translation can never carry the same power or emotion to the translation’s reader. I agree, reading in different translations is a worthwhile thing, along with reading in different languages, along with the Hebrew or Greek.

  29. 29
    Kathleen Coveny|September 20, 2014

    Hi Lois,
    I really appreciated this article. I never thought of this comparison and from the little Hebrew I have learned it amazes me and will continue to amaze me as the Biblical narrative unfolds to me. Thank you to Elijah Nykamp. I appreciate your comment.

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