By Sharon Dewey Hetke
Stained glass window at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, photographed by Sue Careless.
A RECENT ARTICLE in The Economist opened: “If you can have everything in 57 varieties, making decisions becomes hard work” – and went on to describe the “tyranny of choice” inherent in choosing everything from jams to potato chips to cheeses to university courses (Dec. 26, 2010).
To be sure, the number of Bible translations produced in the last 50 or so years is connected to a wider cultural obsession with variety and choice – and not necessarily our increased devotion to reading and studying God’s Word. C.S. Lewis once said “Odd, the way the less the Bible is read, the more it is translated.” Nonetheless, hopefully we who do read it may find these many translations from which to choose to be more gift than tyranny. What follows is an attempt to provide a short primer of Bible translations in the hopes of making your next trip to your Bible bookstore a little easier and a bit less like ‘hard work.’
We can identify two main streams in Bible translation. The first flows along in the tradition of the King James Version (1611*) and the New King James Version (1982) and has been called the “formal equivalence” (or “essentially literal”) approach. These are translations that stick very closely to the original manuscripts.
Bible versions in this stream include the American Standard Version (1901), the Revised Standard Version (1952) and the New Revised Standard Version (1989). These last two both stick closely to the original text; however, the NRSV does take the liberty of using inclusive language – the translators infer that “brothers” often refers to both men and women and so take the next step of actually including “sisters” in the text where they consider it appropriate.
A recent translation, which is a revision of the RSV and is also in the KJV stream, is the English Standard Version (2001). The ESV appears poised to become a very popular translation as it is thought to combine readability and poetic nuance with accuracy – thereby having wide appeal to theologians, preachers and devotional readers alike. Both the ESV and the KJV are very “memorizable” translations and, owing to the dignity and poetry of their language, are eminently suitable for public reading. Canadian Anglican theologian Dr. J.I. Packer served as the ESV’s General Editor.
In the 1960s Eugene Nida, the Executive Secretary of the American Bible Society’s Translations Department, envisioned a new style of translation called “dynamic equivalence.” That is, the meaning of the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic would be expressed in a translation that was “thought for thought” rather than “word for word.” A notable example of this thought-for-thought approach is the 1978 New International Version (NIV) – an enduringly popular version, especially among evangelicals. It was revised just this year.
One key difference between the dynamic equivalence stream and the KJV (or formal equivalence) stream: while the translators in the former will translate ambiguous phrases unambiguously – in other words the linguists will provide a phrase that tells you what they think the original means – the KJV line translators will tend to keep ambiguous phrases ambiguous, declining to overwrite the text with their own interpretations.
In 1976 the American Bible Society produced the Good News Bible – one of history’s bestselling Bibles. The beginnings of the GNB can be traced to requests made by people in Africa and the Far East for a version of the Bible that was friendly to non-native English speakers. As a result the GNB is written with a basic, everyday vocabulary and is considered particularly suitable for children and for those learning English. It also includes simple line drawings. Because it is not a paraphrase (see below) but a dynamic equivalence translation, it has been renamed the Good News Translation.
The Biblical paraphrase is another important development that pushes the boundaries even beyond what is found in the dynamic equivalence stream. A paraphrase does not claim to or attempt to stick to the text in a word-by-word or even a short-thought by short-thought fashion, but rather tries to take the general sense of a longer passage and then rephrase it in the vernacular. In The Message (published in segments from 1993-2002), Genesis 1:1-2 reads: “First this: God created the Heavens and Earth – all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”
An earlier paraphrase that was published in 1971 and is still found on many church bookshelves is The Living Bible. This version has been, in recent years, discredited and is not thought to be sufficiently accurate. However, the popularity of The Living Bible (check out your local church basement bookshelves!) did signal a hunger for very accessible texts.
And then in 1996 came the New Living Translation. It emerged in this tradition of paraphrases; however, it is not itself a paraphrase but rather a complete translation from the original languages. The New Living Translation is a very readable Bible: the sentence structure closely matches English. It was produced by very fine scholars and can be an excellent translation for a reader who finds traditional “Biblical language” off-putting or intimidating.
So what to choose? It is, first of all, important to know what you’re looking for, and in the end to know what you can expect in whatever translation or paraphrase you choose. All will have particular strengths. For example, many readers, perhaps for devotional purposes, may choose a paraphrase, and may also enjoy a translation from the “dynamic equivalence” stream – but may consider both of those to be too distant from the original text to be useful for serious study. Finding this, they may turn to the KJV or another translation in its line.
Besides the approach to translation and the denominational background of the scholars, the reading level may also be an issue when choosing a translation. For instance, the ESV is considered suitable for middle school while the KJV is considered high school English. Also do you prefer reading English vocabulary and idioms that are British, American or “universal”? There is no Canadian English Bible as such.
This is very far from an exhaustive list or study of Bible translations but rather an attempt to identify some of the main trends – and it should also be noted that we are focusing solely on Protestant translations. (The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) is a translation of the Bible by Roman Catholic scholars that was published in 1985.)
However, there is no shortage of resources available for further exploration: www.biblegateway.com – the Bible reader’s equivalent to the cheese bar – is an excellent place to read various translations.
As we ponder holy Scriptures, may the Holy Spirit guide our hearts and minds so that we might truly “hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them” (BCP p. 97). TAP
* Publication dates generally refer to when a copy of both Old and New Testaments was issued. In most cases publications of the New Testament were available at an earlier date. (The KJV came out with both Old and New Testaments in the same year.)
A shorter version of this article appeared in April, 2011 in the Dialogue, Ontario’s diocesan newspaper. It was part of a series of articles on the 400th Anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible.
HERE ARE a few samples of the first three verses of Psalm 23 – just to whet your appetite:
English Standard Version:
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
New Living Translation:
1 The LORD is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
2 He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
3 He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
1 God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. 2 You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. 3 True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction.