None of the above is the correct answer. Each of them pales in comparison to the original. In the following, I suggest why, exemplifying with KJV Psalm 26:1-3. In translation, Psalm 26:1-3 is a forceful prayer. In Hebrew, it is more forceful still.
Every translation of the Bible, measured against the standard of its source, has strengths and weaknesses. Unless you learn Hebrew and learn it well, so that you read Hebrew without resorting to a dictionary and a grammar, you are not in a position to know what those strengths and weaknesses might be.
The translation strategies of the major English Bible translations are open to criticism. A review of KJV Psalm 26:1-3 will illustrate. Though I will not demonstrate them in this post, I believe three points are incontestable. (1) All extant translations of the Bible fall short of the glory of the original. (2) In the case of both “literal” and “free” translations, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. (3) It remains possible to produce better Bible translations than those that currently exist.
Where and how can existing Bible translations be improved? That is the million-dollar question.
Here is Psalm 26:1-3 in Hebrew:
שָׁפְטֵנִי יְהוָה כִּי־אֲנִי בְּתֻמִּי הָלַכְתִּי
וּבַיהוָה בָּטַחְתִּי לֹא אֶמְעָד׃
בְּחָנֵנִי יְהוָה וְנַסֵּנִי צָרְפָה כִלְיוֹתַי וְלִבִּי׃
כִּי־חַסְדְּךָ לְנֶגֶד עֵינָי וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי בַּאֲמִתֶּךָ׃
Here is KJV. I format it according to its punctuation, which reflects the poetic structure of the Hebrew.
Judge me, O Lord,
for I have walked in mine integrity:
I have trusted also in the Lord;
therefore I shall not slide.
Examine me, O Lord, and prove me;
Try my reins and my heart.
For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes:
And I have walked in thy truth.
KJV is a relatively literal translation. It tends to hew closely to the diction and syntactic structure of the Hebrew. It also exhibits a strong commitment to the principle of translating a given Hebrew word with the same word in English wherever possible. The effort is also made to translate all words of given Hebrew root by words of a common stem in English. This explains the translation of שפטני by judge me. The translation does not quite work in English today. To “judge a person” in today’s English has a negative connotation. The connotation in the source text is neutral. NJB’s “be my judge” captures the sense better than other widely-used translations.
It is not easy to reproduce the sense of syntactic operators like כי and ו in translation. Or the absence of a syntactic operator. In one instance above, KJV renders an absence by therefore. That does a disservice to the poetry. The poetry is important, because that is how one prays in the Bible, with terse, highly charged language in which every word counts, and not one word is superfluous. It is easy to lose touch with one's mother tongue - a read through almost any modern translation of the Bible proves the point abundantly. It is natural to question the use of awkward syntactic operators like “therefore” in imploring direct address to a God of wonder and might. It may be King James English, but is it, was it ever, good English?
I shall not slide is not a successful translation. Ideally, a single translation, or a set of tightly related translations, will be chosen to translate a verb like מעד since it occurs in a narrow range of semantic contexts. “Slide” does not come up to this bar.
מעד is best translated as “falter” with a person (Ps 26:1 [here]); Job 12:5), a person’s “steps” (Ps 37:31), and a person’s “leg” (Prov 25:19; cf. Job 12:5) as subject; “turn” when a person’s “ankles” are subject (2 Sam 22:37 = Ps 18:37), and “go wobbly” perhaps, when a person’s “thighs” are subject (Ps 69:24). In contrast to the proposal just made, available translations simply do not keep translation equivalents of this verb within semantic striking distance of each other. Equivalents like “slide,” “trip,” and “slip” are vaguely accurate only. I reach this conclusion on the basis of a pair of principles: (1) with respect to a lexeme’s occurrences within a narrow range of semantic contexts, the lexeme’s core meaning in the range is, all other things being equal, to be situated at the semantic intersection of the aggregate of occurrences; (2) excluding a few rare words, the identified core meaning of an ancient Hebrew lexeme ought to be well-represented in the earliest translations, the ancient Greek versions in particular.
Prove me is a successful context-sensitive translation of נסני, but is not without drawbacks. Verb and syntax are the same as that found in Gen 22:1. The translation equivalent, ideally, would be the same both there and here. How else is the reader to catch the coinherence of the two passages? God tests and proves Avraham; the psalmist, a person who trusts God greatly, invites God to test him and prove him. “Prove” is nice because it stands a chance of provoking thought about the connection between “proving” and “approving,” a connection that is fundamental to both Gen 22 and Ps 26. But “prove” doesn’t quite work as a workhorse translation of נסה.
Free-style translations avoid using a workhorse equivalent across a series of occurrences. They prefer employing a whole stall full of shining ponies. But workhorse equivalents help preserve concordance across what are, objectively speaking, concordant passages. There is something to be said for that.
Try my reins and my heart. “Reins” is archaic language for “kidneys.” I wonder how this came across in the 17th century. Robert Alter succeeds better than most in capturing the concrete ferocity of the Hebrew turn of phrase. He has “Burn pure my conscience and my heart.” It is one of the first attempts in English to capture the specific sense of Ps 26:2 צרף. צרף conjures up images of fire and intense heat burning away impurities. NJB 26:2: "Test my mind and my heart in the fire." צרף also occurs with the washed-out sense of “separate” (Judg 7:4). But that is not the case here, as a comparison of Ps 26:1-3 with Ps 66:8-12 demonstrates.
KJV’s try in the context of today’s English amounts to a colorless and generalizing equivalent. But it wasn’t so back in the days, when one could speak of “trying” silver. Nevertheless, later translators have given themselves permission to retain “try” as a translation though the word no longer has anything like the set of connotations it once did. No such permission should be granted.
Hebrew “kidneys” poses a challenge to English translators. “Reins / “kidneys” is unintelligible in context to all but the most learned of readers. English is poor in internal body parts freightable with metaphorical weight. It’s not surprising that translations swap out the concrete reference and replace it with a supposedly equivalent abstract substitute, based on pseudo-analysis according to which “kidneys” are the seat of the conscience or the will. Said translation strategy yields “conscience,” “motives,” whatever. But if we take our cue from the fact thatחלב כליות חטה ‘the fat of kidneys of wheat’ (Deut 32:14) = ‘the richness of kernel of wheat,’ “core” as a translation presents itself. A metaphor-for-metaphor translation might go like this: “With fire refine my heart and core.” For the sake of intelligibility, I switch the order of “core” and “heart” and forge the pair into a hendiadys.
For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes. “Lovingkindness” beautifully translates חסד, an important term in ancient Hebrew literature. Despite its adoption by KJV, “lovingkindness” hasn’t caught on in the vernacular. That ends up being a negative. The term is widely used in ancient Hebrew literature in the context of interpersonal relationships. חסד has a depth dimension “lovingkindness” has never acquired in English. Though thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes is somewhat cryptic, it is limpid in the original. “Your kindness is in my eyes’ line of sight” is the admittedly awkward, but somewhat clearer equivalent that comes to mind. A freer translation may be necessary here, something like: “My eyes take in your kindness, I walk in reliance on your faithfulness.”
And I have walked in thy truth. The problem with this translation is that “truth” is a noetic concept in English, whereas the corresponding term in Hebrew, אמת, is, in context, an interpersonal concept. Furthermore, as is well-known, חסד ואמת ‘steadfast kindness’ (Gen 24:27, etc.) form a single concept: KJV’s mercy and truth for the syntagm is winsome, but misleading.
Now that I’ve thoroughly discredited KJV, I might go on to do the same with the three other translations mentioned in the title of the post. And I will, but my purpose has already been acheived: to show you that you have no chance of understanding the fine grain of the biblical text unless you know the original languages, and know them well.
Psalm 26 series