A standard that most of us who are involved in Bible translation hold to is that a translation must strive to be clear, accurate and natural. That is the ideal, though sometimes a trade-off is involved. These are the three criteria for a good Bible translation. Sometimes acceptability is added as a fourth criterion.
I want to examine the relationship between clarity and accuracy. When there have to be trade-offs in how to translate the scriptures, I believe most people would say that accuracy is the highest goal. It is possible for a translation to be clear and accurate but not natural. It is possible for a translation to be clear, accurate and natural but not acceptable (perhaps because the audience expects and wants a translation that resembles another one that they perceive as trustworthy). But I want to challenge the idea that a translation can be accurate but not clear.
I see accuracy and clarity as two sides of the same coin. Clarity always has to be with respect to someone, as in “It wasn’t clear to me.” A text, such as a Bible translation, cannot be objectively clear. The clarity always has to be with respect to a certain audience. A Bible translation might be clear, for example, with respect to an audience of Biblical scholars, but not with respect to an audience of construction workers. So to say that a translation is clear, you have to state what kind of audience it is clear to.
Communication is a two-way street, and Bible translation is a type of communication. If the intended meaning is not understood, then the communication fails. That is why we firmly believe that a translation must be tested, to ensure that the intended meaning is communicated. And to be worthwhile, the testing process requires the further step of refining the translation to the point where the intended meaning gets across.
If a translation is not understood properly by the target audience, then can it be acccurate? I would say no, because in this case the meaning that the audience gets from the translation is not accurate and complete. (Someone could say, I suppose, that a certain translation is accurate to the extent that I understand it.) When you analyze how people use the term “accuracy,” you realize that it is used to denote that what is considered the proper meaning is clear to those who are qualified to judge the validity of a translation. “Clarity” is used to denote that that proper meaning is accessible to the target audience.
So, really, both accuracy and clarity have to do with the proper meaning being accessible in the text, but accuracy focuses on the meaning that people on the production end see in the translation (including translators and consultants and third-party critics who consider themselves competent to judge a translation), while clarity has to do with the meaning that people on the receiving end see in it. A successful translation is one where the translators’ intended meaning and the audience’s perceived meaning are in agreement, where all parties are on the same page, literally, seeing the same thing in the text.
It would be good to avoid saying of certain translations that they are accurate but not clear. If they are not clear, that means that the translation has not accomplished its purpose in getting the audience to understand the translation the way the translators intended, and that is not good. It means that the communicative purposes have not been realized. The translation then is accurate only for the translators, and not accurate for the audience.
Similarly, it is certainly problematic to say that a translation is clear but not accurate. Something in the text may be clear, but if it is not the meaning that the translators were trying to convey, then communication has broken down, and the translators and audience are seeing two different things in the text.
So accuracy and clarity are the same thing viewed from different perspectives. Let’s avoid saying that certain translations are accurate but not clear. What that really means is that the translators are confident about what the translation they produced means, but other important partners in the translation process, namely the target audience, don’t grasp the intended meaning. Maybe the audience could get the meaning of an unclear translation if it is explained to them, but then in that case you can’t say that the translation itself that is clear and accurate with respect to the target audience, but rather it is something outside the translation, such as footnotes and teaching, that fill in the communicative gaps left by the translation.