April 20, 2012

Bible Translation for Beginners


I have about 5 or 6 dream jobs, none of which you share with me (I promise). One of them is to be a Biblical Studies professor who teaches maybe one class and spends the rest of my time in my office researching and writing books and academic papers. I doubt such a job exists. I’d also like to write curriculum for Bible studies and small groups. Another is to be a church planter in the Middle East. And one of my top ones is to be a Bible translator for Wycliffe.

I have a few years of Koine Greek under my belt, though I’m not really where I should be, and I would love the opportunity to take Biblical Hebrew later. When I began learning of the translation process, and the complex art that it truly is, I was hooked. (Side note: a great read if you’re interested in getting a taste of translation is The Challenge of Bible Translation. Highly, highly recommend it. It’s a collection of articles from lots of experts on various aspects of translation. It was fascinating.)

I think the thing that hooked me was that I’d had so many misconceptions of how I got my copy of the Bible, and I’ve found that this is pretty common. So let’s talk about that today, because we hear a lot of things about translations and it can be hard to know which one to pick (sometimes because of the politics behind the translation or those endorsing other translations). Since I’m more familiar with Greek, I will mostly talk about the New Testament.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and some Aramaic (a dialect of Hebrew), and the New Testament was written in Koine (or “common”) Greek. We don’t have any of the original manuscripts that were written, but don’t let that be a source of doubt or dismay for you. We don’t have the originals for the Iliad or the Odyssey or a huge number of ancient works. But we have more complete and partial copies of the New Testament (by far!) than any other work of the ancient world.

Textual Criticism is the area of study that goes into the details of these manuscripts to reconstruct the original text (and is another one of my dream jobs), but that is beyond the scope of this blog post. What you need to know is that we have a bazillion manuscripts from which we can come amazingly close to what the original authors wrote. It is being revised all the time, but none of these little revisions would make huge theological waves. Most of them are minor spelling or grammatical variants. Currently, the text usually used to translate the New Testament is called the Nestle-Aland 27th Edition.

One reason there are so many English translations is that translators find different aspects important. No two languages are alike enough to translate word for word, so you have to decide whether it is more important to stick to the phrasing and word order of the original language, or if it is more important to convey the idea clearly in the receptor language. For instance, “Como te llama?” is Spanish for “What is your name?” Literally, though, it says, “How you are called?”

Imagine a spectrum. On one end is the camp of dynamic equivalence, and at the other is formal equivalence. Dynamic equivalence is a translation theory that seeks to clearly convey the meaning of the original message in the receptor language. These people would translate the above phrase as “What is your name?” because that is what English speakers understand in their culture. Formal equivalence tries to stay as faithful to the word order and phrasing of the original language as possible, so they would translate the phrase as, “How are you called?” Neither camp achieves their goals absolutely. Each has to give and take, depending on what the phrase to be translated is, in order to make sense in the receptor language. And since languages are ever-changing, new translations must come out in order to reflect common English.

So, which translation of the Bible is best? Well, it depends. Let’s take a look at the most common English translations out there. I’ll give my opinion on each one, but know that I am no Biblical scholar. My knowledge is limited to my bachelor’s degree and my one Greek Master’s-level course. I know there are a bajillion other English translations out there that I don’t cover, but in my experience, most people are carrying one of these:

  1. The KJV (King James Version). It’s only appropriate to begin here, since it is the KJV’s 400th birthday. The KJV has an astounding and fascinating history, which I have no room nor the expertise to recount here. It is staunchly guarded by many as THE Word of God, whereas new translations are abhorrent and flawed. Well…no. The KJV is also a translation of the Word of God, just a very old translation. It is not the original. The manuscripts used to translate it were together called the Textus Receptus (rather than the Nestle-Aland 27th). Since its translation centuries ago, discoveries of older and more accurate manuscripts have been found, so the Textus Receptus is in many ways an inferior starting text. Now, when I say “inferior,” I don’t mean that the KJV has heresy in it.

    The flaws are so minor – many of them grammatical – in nature that either holding to the KJV only or refusing it outright would still bring you the same Gospel, the same Christianity. The issue I have with using the KJV is that the wording is so difficult to understand! It is not modern English, it is 1611 English. Some words have changed drastically over time. It sounds beautiful with the Thee’s and Thou’s, but I can’t untangle the sentences and ancient words. If you can…more power to you! But I would read another translation behind it every once in a while to make sure some of those words still mean what you think they mean.
  2. ESV (English Standard Version). This one is fairly new and the best-marketed. They finally figured out that people want cool-looking Bibles, and every other translation is jumping on the bandwagon. But that’s irrelevant. The ESV translators and publishers claim that it is the most accurate. But that depends on your view of accurate. Basically, the translators tried to keep the ESV as close to the original text as possible, so they fall on the formal equivalence end of the spectrum. However, its rigid adherence to the wording of the text (which is compromised quite a bit, actually, for the sake of making sense in English) makes for what Mark Strauss calls “Biblish,” a cross between Bible speak and English. My opinion of the ESV is that it makes a great Bible for personal study if you’ve been a believer or around Church culture for a long time.

    The ESV Study Bible has great notes, some of the best I’ve seen in a study Bible, though they do have Calvinist leanings. The ESV is really awkward for congregational use, particularly narratives. I used the ESV primarily for a while, and it was easy to use when trying to check my Greek translation homework. I stopped using it as my personal Bible when I started reading the OT again. It isn’t great English. The article I linked on Strauss’ name is a paper he presented at the Evangelical Theological Society a few years ago, which I had the opportunity to hear in person. It was hilarious, well-studied and extremely informative, and it was pretty comical to see Wayne Grudem (a theologian and a translator of the ESV) get so fired up. He couldn’t sit still through any of it . . . it was like a translator throw-down. The ASB (American Standard Bible) is an older, still somewhat popular translation that is very similar to the ESV. It was like the pre-ESV with lame covers. It was updated some time ago into the New American Standard Bible, which is slightly easier to read. I find that its strengths and weaknesses are similar, so I’m just going to throw it in with the ESV.
  3. TNIV (Today’s New International Version). This came out about a decade ago, and immediately caught a maelstrom of controversy. The charge was that it was catering to the feminist agenda. The translators argued that they were just trying to use good English. I think Focus on the Family led the way in decrying the horrors of a feminist Bible, so it got black-balled before anyone really took a look at it. The Southern Baptist Convention also opposed it. What does it say?

    In instances where the original manuscripts said “adelphoi,” the translators put “brothers and sisters” instead of just “brothers.” Paul used this word a lot when writing to churches, and he would address the letter to the “adelphoi” – a letter which often included commands to women specifically, as well as generally as part of the Body of Christ. This isn’t an issue in other languages. “Adelpoi” is used for all-male audiences or for co-ed audiences. “Adelphai” would be used for an all-female audience. The translators also used words like “humankind” instead of “mankind” to reflect a changing ethos in our language. It’s a language thing, not a feminist thing. The TNIV has recently been discontinued due to all the division caused by it. My opinion? I like it. It reads well and it was my primary Bible translation for 3 or 4 years. I find it awkward to be called one of the “sons of God,” as I’m sure men feel really awkward about all the “Jesus is my touchy boyfriend” worship songs (but that’s another post for another day). And I’ve found that even the people most vehemently against it never notice a feminist agenda when you read from it.
  4. NIV (New International Version). This one has been around since the 70s, but it was recently updated. There is a maelstrom of controversy surrounding it now. The old NIV is a dynamic equivalence translation, and it reads very well. My issues with it only came when I started doing exegetical work in Greek. For instance, it uses the word “spiritual,” a deeply misunderstood and amoebic word in the English language. It means nothing close to what “spiritual” means in Greek – we see spiritual as just any connection to otherworldly concerns. New Agers can be spiritual. Buddhists are spiritual. We can be spiritual but not religious. But the Bible means that it pertains to the Holy Spirit. Enter the TNIV and the updated NIV, which translates the same word as “of the Spirit.” So, the verse in Ephesians that used to say, “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” now reads, “psalms, hymns, and songs of the Spirit.” I love it. It’s so much clearer.

    I mentioned controversy. Yes, the new NIV has gone the way of the TNIV, but it is somewhat tempered. It still uses “brothers and sisters” where the context obviously includes women. But it leaves words like “mankind” alone, since most of us still say this instead of “humankind.” It also drops the awkward “his or her” possessive that the TNIV sometimes had and uses the neutral ”their” instead, since we also talk this way. For instance, “Whoever wants to come after me must take up their cross daily and follow me.” Did you even notice it? No. It’s how we talk. The command is obviously for women too. The updated NIV is my current translation of choice for personal devotions, reading, and lectio divina.
  5. The Message. Not a translation, but a paraphrase. It was written by Eugene Peterson, a pastor-theologian who writes like a poet. It gets abused sometimes, but it is a great read for a new believer who doesn’t understand the Bible phrases that we are used to and think nothing of. I’ve referred to it every now and then to see Peterson’s interpretation of a passage, and sometimes it is helpful, sometimes not so much. Sometimes it’s flat-out weird. The Living Bible, a product of the 1970s, was also a popular paraphrase. My grandma actually gave me this Bible every year at Christmas for three straight years. My opinion: Again, I don’t really use it, but it’s great for new believers or people who struggle with reading. It is great for devotional reading as well. I recommend to everyone else to get a translation, rather than a paraphrase, for personal study and primary use. Supplement with the paraphrases.

Did you learn anything new? Do you disagree on my opinions of each translation? Which is your translation of choice and why? Should we chill out on English translations for awhile and work on the thousands of other languages that don’t have a scrap of Bible in their language?

Let’s talk. Go.

Aubry Smith is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom in North Carolina, where she and her husband are training for overseas missions.

CC Image • sixsteps  on Flickr

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JR. Forasteros
I'm not a huge fan of the ESV or the NIV (both have way too many ideological choices in translation for my tastes).

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the NRSV (I'm a nerd at heart). As a Teaching Pastor, I've made the call to use the NLT as our go-to translation on Sundays - it's just the most understandable translation that is still recognizably
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Bible (the Message's lack of verses makes it really really hard to use in conjunction with other translations). We also give new believers a copy of the NLT. It's a great first bible.

I'm also becoming a fan of The Voice translation, now that the full Bible is finally out. It'll take some time before I can render a verdict on it, but so far so good!

Great article. Great summary of a complex topic!
2 years10 months ago · ( 0 )
Sele Mitchell
Great article, we all struggle at times to find the perfect translation to use. I personally use the NLT to teach from and generally use the NRSV to study.
2 years10 months ago · ( 0 )
Blake Atwood
I agree. This is a great primer for anyone that's unfamiliar with why so many different Bible versions exist. Years ago I worked at a Christian bookstore and felt overwhelmed with trying to describe the main differences between versions. I wish I would have had this post back then! (Then again, that was pre-ESV, Message, and Voice)
2 years9 months ago · ( 0 )
Jeffrey Cinnamon
NKJV was the first translation that I read cover-to-cover. Keeping with the poetics of 1611 english with a modern feel! The NLT and NIV are also 2 other tranlsations that I like.
2 years9 months ago · ( 0 )

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