Question: "How does the translation process impact the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of the Bible?"
Answer: This question deals with three very important issues: inspiration, preservation, and translation.
The doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible teaches that scripture is “God-breathed”; that is, God personally superintended the writing process, guiding the human authors so that His complete message was recorded for us. The Bible is truly God’s Word. During the writing process, the personality and writing style of each author was allowed expression; however, God so directed the writers that the 66 books they produced were free of error and were exactly what God wanted us to have. See 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21.
Of course, when we speak of “inspiration,” we are referring only to the process by which the original documents were composed. After that, the doctrine of the preservation of the Bible takes over. If God went to such great lengths to give us His Word, surely He would also take steps to preserve that Word unchanged. What we see in history is that God did exactly that.
The Old Testament Hebrew scriptures were painstakingly copied by Jewish scribes. Groups such as the Sopherim, the Zugoth, the Tannaim, and the Masoretes had a deep reverence for the texts they were copying. Their reverence was coupled with strict rules governing their work: the type of parchment used, the size of the columns, the kind of ink, and the spacing of words were all prescribed. Writing anything from memory was expressly forbidden, and the lines, words, and even the individual letters were methodically counted as a means of double-checking accuracy. The result of all this was that the words written by Isaiah’s pen are still available today. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls clearly confirms the precision of the Hebrew text.
The same is true for the New Testament Greek text. Thousands of Greek texts, some dating back to nearly A.D. 117, are available. The slight variations among the texts—not one of which affects an article of faith—are easily reconciled. Scholars have concluded that the New Testament we have at present is virtually unchanged from the original writings. Textual scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon said about the Bible, “It is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved. . . . This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.”
This brings us to the translation of the Bible. Translation is an interpretative process, to some extent. When translating from one language to another, choices must be made. Should it be the more exact word, even if the meaning of that word is unclear to the modern reader? Or should it be a corresponding thought, at the expense of a more literal reading?
As an example, in Colossians 3:12, Paul says we are to put on “bowels of mercies” (KJV). The Greek word for “bowels,” which is literally “intestines,” comes from a root word meaning “spleen.” The KJV translators chose a literal translation of the word. The translators of the NASB chose “heart of compassion”—the “heart” being what today’s reader thinks of as the seat of emotions. The Amplified Bible has it as “tenderhearted pity and mercy.” The NIV simply puts “compassion.”
So, the KJV is the most literal in the above example, but the other translations certainly do justice to the verse. The core meaning of the command is to have compassionate feelings.
Most translations of the Bible are done by committee. This helps to guarantee that no individual prejudice or theology will affect the decisions of word choice, etc. Of course, the committee itself may have a particular agenda or bias (such as those producing the current “gender-neutral” mistranslations). But there is still plenty of good scholarship being done, and many good translations are available.
Having a good, honest translation of the Bible is important. A good translating team will have done its homework and will let the Bible speak for itself.
As a general rule, the more literal translations, such as the KJV, NKJV, ASB and NASB, have less “interpretative” work. The “freer” translations, such as the NIV, NLT, and CEV, by necessity do more “interpretation” of the text, but are generally more readable. Then there are the paraphrases, such as The Message and The Living Bible, which are not really translations at all but one person’s retelling of the Bible.
So, with all that in view, are translations of the Bible inspired and inerrant? The answer is no, they are not. God nowhere extends the promise of inspiration to translations of His Word. While many of the translations available today are superb in quality, they are not inspired by God, and are not perfect. Does this mean we cannot trust a translation? Again, the answer is no. Through careful study of Scripture, with the Holy Spirit's guidance, we can properly understand, interpret, and apply Scripture. Again, due to the faithful efforts of dedicated Christian translators (and of course the oversight of the Holy Spirit), the translations available today are superb and trustworthy. The fact that we cannot ascribe inerrancy to a translation should motivate us towards even closer study, and away from blind devotion towards any particular translation.