The Bible in Translation | Part One

by Glenn on November 12, 2019

I grew up with the King James Version of the Bible. Somewhere in the 1980’s, I switched to the New International Version, I think simply because of its popularity and readability. I assume the latter had something to do with the former. Most of the churches and pastors I knew had begun using it. The KJV was and is spectacularly beautiful (see Psalm 23 for a high-water mark in the English language) but at times it required a lot of background knowledge to uncover the meaning (as with 2 Corinthians 5:14: “For the love of Christ constraineth us …”) because so many words (like constrain) have changed over time. I dabbled with a New American Standard version for a while, but the NIV is the Bible I have used since college, especially when I wanted to memorize something. For example, I learned Psalm 1 by heart.

Somewhere along the line, the publishers of the New International Version decided to update their translation. But they didn’t call their update the New New International Version. They simply changed the publication date so that you now had the NIV from 1984 and the NIV from 2011. For a while, a source like Biblegateway.com provided both versions identifying each by copyright date. Today, that website only lists the New International Version in its latest version and without a publication date. (The 1984 version may still be found here.)

Admittedly, I am change averse, but this new edition of the NIV really messed with me. Things I had memorized from the Bible were no longer in the Bible so to speak, at least in this new version. Do you go back and re-memorize? It’s hard to hide God’s word in your heart when God’s word changes (you know, every 27 years or so, which still is a lot for the “unchanging word of God”). I shouldn’t be so dramatic, but something in this change was demoralizing. Do I still have the Bible (God’s word) memorized (at least this portion of the Bible)? Do I need to re-learn it using the new revision?

Admittedly, the changes are not severe. Here is Psalm 1, line by line, with the 1984 and 2011 (in italics) editions of the New International Version:

Blessed is the man
Blessed is the one

who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way of sinners
or stand in the way that sinners take

or sit in the seat of mockers.
or sit in the company of mockers,

But his delight is in the law of the Lord
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord

and on his law he meditates day and night.
and who meditates on his law day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

which yields its fruit in season
which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither
and whose leaf does not wither—

Whatever he does prospers.
whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked.
Not so the wicked!

They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
They are like chaff  that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

A number of the lines are exactly the same. (Where this is no bold typeface.)

One change has improved clarity. Changing “or stand in the way of sinners” to “or stand in the way that sinners take” seems to be a better rendering for the simple reason that the former sounds like you should not impede a sinner (as in “Blessed are those who … get out of the way of sinners, or “Blessed are those who … don’t get run over by sinners”), where the latter tells you to stay off the path that sinners take. This seems like better English, though, admittedly, this is without consideration of what the original Hebrew says (which should be a consideration).

The main change you can see is that the translators avoided the use of the word “man.” I’m not sure the word “man” to the exclusion of females was intended (or, rather, I’m fairly certain the word man was meant to include women), but I don’t know what it would be like as a woman to listen to or try to memorize the 1984 version. It’s probably easier as a man to say that the word man includes both men and women than it is for a woman to hear the word man and know that she is included. This new version appears to want to use more inclusive language. (Actually, I am certain it does, but am limiting my claim solely to this one passage.)

I like the idea in principal of inclusive language where appropriate, but there is one thing that bugs: It’s the singular “they,” as in “Blessed is the one … that person … whatever they do prospers.” It seems like the NIV has done a couple of things that I want to think about a little bit. First, it has gone beyond direct translation of the words into an interpretation of what the words mean. And perhaps this is a good thing in this case. The translators have said that “man” really means man or woman and I don’t argue with that. But second, it is making stylistic/linguistic changes to the English language by using a third person plural pronoun as a third person singular pronoun. This latter decision I find more troubling than the decision to use a less exclusive word (“man”) in a passage that seems to mean both men and women. I’ve used the formulation of they as a singular pronoun from time-to-time, but I feel awkward and it feels clunky when I do. You are changing grammar when you do that. Additionally, the word “they” has been politicized recently, to go beyond inclusivity of both genders to be an acceptable pronoun of choice for the so-called non-binary. I wonder if this confuses issues.

*   *   *

The changes to the New International Version have me thinking about translations in general. I’ve never really considered other translations. But for that matter, I never really considered why I use the NIV. What translation(s) do I want to read, study, memorize, and preach from?

Currently, I use the New Revised Standard Version for my daily Bible readings from the Book of Common Prayer because the former includes the Apocrypha, from which the latter often has readings.

I am in the midst of a Bible study project reading through the entire Bible using the English Standard Version.

For now I use the NIV (2011) in my preaching, but my commitment to it is up for negotiation at this point. After a recent church service, I was asked by a church member, “What translation are you reading from?” I sensed a slight bit of exasperation and/or bewilderment in the question. She uses the earlier NIV and told me that her husband uses the New American Standard Bible and that neither of them could follow me when I read scripture in church, which makes sense—they are different translations. Which translation(s) should you use for the public reading of scripture and for teaching?

If you walk into a Bible book store or even visit the Bible section of Barnes and Noble, it is amazing how many translations are commonly available:

King James Version
New King James Version
English Standard Version
New Revised Standard Version
New International Version
New Living Translation
Holman Christian Standard Bible
New American Standard Bible
Common English Bible
The Message
Contemporary English Version

This just for starters. The list goes on.

So, which one do I read? Which one do I study from? Which one do I preach from? Which one do I memorize? I heard someone make this statement: “New American has the finest [New Testament] Greek rendering, NIV has the finest Hebrew poetry … and ESV has the finest blend of both.” But then he goes on to say that he uses the New King James Version for his teaching. So perhaps I need to be thinking in terms of multiple translations.

There’s a lot to think about, so I’ve begun a little investigation into Bible translations. I’m not trying to decide anything at this point. I’m certainly not wanting to persuade anyone of anything. I just want to learn and the best way for me to learn is to write.

As I began the most basic and preliminary research, I noticed that it’s not always easy to separate fact from opinion, both for those who hold strong opinions on this subject and for me as I attempt to tell the truth about what I know and believe. As I’ve listened to people talk about Bible translations, there seems to be two approaches: to inform or to convert, to help people figure out which Bible to use or to create loyalty around a particular translation.

So, this is a first attempt at thinking through some of the basic issues involved with Bible translations. My goal is to say what I think is reasonable. (There is plenty of unreasonable out there and I want to choose carefully what it is I want to be unreasonable about.) Here’s what I understand so far, and I am including visuals as a way to help me let this sink in:

1. Most of us need to read the Bible in translation because the Bible was not written in English. A translation is needed to get us from there to here.

I have all sorts of respect for, say, a Jewish person who can read the Hebrew Bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament) in the original Hebrew (and a little Aramaic) or for Bible students who can read the New Testament in its original Greek. (Although by “read” I don’t mean have some understanding of Biblical Greek, but can open a Greek New Testament and read it and comprehend it without aids. It seems to me that many people who have lots to say about the original languages don’t actually have that kind of fluency with those languages.)

Aside: I have noticed that some who are fluent in Biblical languages maintain that those who are reading the Bible in translation are reading an impoverished Bible at best. Part of me is sympathetic to that idea while another part of me thinks it is a bit snobbish or worse. It would be great to read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in French (I wish I could), but it’s worth reading even in translation. It’s possible to understand the story in English. I believe that is true of the Bible as well.

The fact that the Bible was not written in English seems self-evident, but there was a joke growing up—“The King James Version—good enough for Paul, good enough for me!”—which, while funny, illustrates the idea that ignorance sometimes enters these discussions. There aren’t easy cures for ignorance, but it begins by recognizing that no matter what English translation you have or favor, if you’re reading any English translation you aren’t reading what Paul wrote because Paul didn’t write in English. The English that most of us can understand, beginning with the English of Shakespeare’s day (which actually isn’t all that easy to understand) didn’t even exist until the 1500’s.

2. English is neither the first nor the only language into which the Bible has been translated. For a long period of time, Latin was the primary language in which the Bible was read. It was a big deal when the Bible was put into the colloquial language of the common person, as Martin Luther did with German. William Tyndale paid a high price for his work as a translator. His (partial) English translation resulted in his being burned at the stake. At this point in my understanding, I don’t think it’s important to know what all those translations were and when they came about. It is essential to know that there were earlier translations and there are other modern languages into which the Bible has been translated.

It’s fascinating to listen to how impassioned some people are about certain English translations when English is not the only language in which people are reading the Bible. (More on them another time.) It seems rather self-evident/obvious, but I notice that some who are intent on making the case for a certain English translation, don’t seem to have a way to explain their choice in a way that would help someone from another language choose an adequate translation in their language. If, say, you thought the King James Version of the Bible was the best (or perhaps the only appropriate) English version, how do you come to that conclusion in a way that isn’t some sort of circular argument (“The King James version is the best version because it’s the King James Version, which means it’s the best version …”) or simple dogma (“The King James Version is the only authorized version.”) or doesn’t exclude other language groups (“You need to read the Bible in the King James. It’s perfect.”)? (To readers for whom English is a second language I’ve heard the argument, “They should learn English,” but, instead, maybe we should all learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek so that we can read the Bible in the language God gave it. My view is this is not a simple discussion.)

3. We don’t have the original manuscripts of the Bible. For example, whatever the apostle Paul wrote down and what he wrote it down upon is gone to history. That is true of every book of the Bible. Similarly, we don’t have the first manuscript copies. Those are all lost as well. That’s another story that I haven’t internalized, yet. When we talk about translating the Bible into English, we are not translating from what the writers of the Bible wrote down. All we have for doing the work of translating are early manuscripts and the earliest available manuscripts.

Aside: It’s interesting to read claims on behalf of these original manuscripts (for example, “The Bible, including both the Old and New Testaments, is a divine revelation, the original autographs of which were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit.”) when we don’t have these original autographs.

There’s a lot to this discussion as well. At first, the idea of using the “earliest available manuscripts” seems the logical and self-evident choice. However, a problem emerges with the King James Version (and, therefore, the New King James Version), which used early manuscripts, but not the earliest available manuscripts. (I don’t think that last statement is controversial and I am certainly not looking to be controversial. It should simply be factual.) What gets controversial is when you consider the implications of your choice of which manuscripts you use to translate the Bible.

The “earliest available manuscripts” come from different places and times and there are small but not insignificant differences among the earliest available manuscripts depending on where they come from and when they were written. And there are difference between these “earliest available manuscripts” and the “early manuscripts” used for the KJV. The translator has to decide which of these manuscripts will be used to make the translation knowing that the end result will be affected by this choice. People often have strong feelings about this choice of manuscripts and, no surprise, there is no perfect agreement about which of these manuscripts should be used and how this issue should be resolved. I’ve seen reasonable people offer reasonable points-of-view in discussing these issues, but there is no easy way to say which point-of-view is “correct”. Some people seem better than others at stating why they hold to their point-of-view while others seem to believe their point-of-view is correct simply because it is their point-of-view, which is fine until you have two people saying the opposite thing. One of them (at least) is wrong (Why is it we assume it’s the other person?).

Here’s where the choice gets problematic: The translators of the NIV, for example, place John 7:53–8:11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, in italics and include this note: “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11.” Well, that’s a disturbing message to come across in your Bible. Is this passage in the Bible or not? It is in the KJV. It’s in italics in the NIV with that note in brackets. There may be versions that actually exclude the passage with or without a footnote.

Matthew 17:21 is actually missing in the NIV. In its place is a footnote: “Some manuscripts include here words similar to Mark 9:29.”

When you turn over to Mark 9:29 in the NIV, it reads,

“[Jesus] replied, ‘This kind can come out only by prayer.’”

There is a footnote to this verse which reads, “Some manuscripts prayer and fasting.” Again, which is it? Did they only need to pray or did they need to pray and fast? How do you answer this?

I’m not ready to draw any conclusions for myself, yet, but at this point it’s worth noting that when we talk about verses missing in modern translations of the Bible (that are present in the KJV), it’s not a long list. See here and here.

This is a complicated issue for some and not for others. On the one hand there are people who are on different sides of the issue but can talk clearly about it and are willing to acknowledge and consider differing viewpoints. For them it is a complicated issue. Alternatively, there are some people for whom this issue is relatively (or just plain) straightforward. And some of them consider this issue the proverbial hill to die on. They are committed to (for this and, perhaps, other reasons as well) “King James Version only.” The words of Revelation 22:19 are the end of the discussion for them: “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (See for example here.)

I will have to sort this out another time. At this point, I see it as a complicated issue and am uncertain how contentious it is (or should be).

4. Translations of the Bible exist along a spectrum/continuum and fall into roughly three categories: Word-for-word translations (also known as formal equivalencies), thought-for-thought translations (also know as dynamic or functional equivalencies), and paraphrases. (There is a fourth category of translation that might be called corrupt or heretical translations. The New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is placed into this category by some. But that, too, is for another day.)

These concepts are relatively self-explanatory. A word-for-word translation will take the words and structure of the original language and choose English words on a one-to-one basis. A thought-for-thought translation will take complete thoughts in the original language and find like thoughts in English. With a paraphrase, the translator, will attempt to summarize what he or she (not they!) think the original means in a way that he or she believes will make sense in a modern language.

So here, for example, are two renditions of John 3:16 from the ends of the spectrum. First, John 3:16 from an interlinear translation:

“Thus for loved God the world that the Son the only begotten He gave so that everyone believing in Him not should perish but should have life eternal.”

This translation follows the Greek language in structure and, in my opinion, sounds not a little funny in English because our language isn’t structured the same way.

Out on the other end of the spectrum is the paraphrase. Growing up, The Living Bible was the most common paraphrase, but in recent years, Eugene Peterson’s The Message has become very popular. Here is how he renders John 3:16:

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

Basically, every translation falls along this spectrum in some way. Here is one picture of where the various translation would be placed along the spectrum (I think this is from the website Biblegateway.com):

(Note: The creator of this slide has only “two approaches” for translations of the Bible and considers paraphrases as thought-for-thought translations. Not everyone does. I prefer the three categories.)

Two things happen when you move from left to right on the spectrum, from the literal word-for-word to the paraphrase. First, you improve readability.

There is no question in my mind that The Message is easier to read and understand than the literal.

Aside: There is another spectrum to readability that has to do with the reading level of the translation. In other words, how educated do you need to be to read the translation? My understanding is that the language of the New Testament, at least, is in a rather simple, common Greek. But English translations can be more or less difficult to read. Someone has evaluated the reading level of various Bible translations and produced this infographic (it mentions 15 translations, but I only count 14):

I haven’t correlated this graphic with the graphic of the various translations along a spectrum, but it appears that in general the more thought-for-thought the translation, the simpler the vocabulary that is used. 

The second thing that happens as you move from left to right along the spectrum of translations is you increase the amount of interpretation. In other words, the more you are trying to translate thoughts, the more interpreting you are bound to do.

There isn’t necessarily an inverse relationship between readability and accuracy, but the less you focus on the words and structure of the original, the more you are answering the question, “What is this saying in our times and language?” This is an interpretive act, because two different people may look at the same passage and conclude it says different things in our day. For this reason, many people suggest that it’s best to think of a paraphrase as a commentary rather than a translation.

From an admittedly small sampling, people interested in offering an introduction to this subject have a sweet spot they recommend for people when choosing a Bible. That sweet spot is larger or smaller for some, but in general it ignores the most literal translation on the far left (the inter-linear) and the most interpreted renditions on the right (the paraphrases). (“Left” and “right” as used here are conceptual and not political terms.)

I’ve heard the following principle put forward: you should try to be as far left on the continuum as possible (again, no reference to politics, here). I’ve also heard the suggestion to find a Bible that mediates between the word-for-word and the thought-for-thought, but there are no rules for this as far as I can tell. There are people who are happy to tell you which Bible you should read and/or condemn certain translations, and I suppose it’s possible to belong to a group that make decisions for you or your congregation, or at least makes recommendations to you, somewhere from “You will use this translation” to “You might consider this translation.” As an individual, I find myself most responsive to those who encourage an informed choice but leave the choice in the hands of the individual, although I can see why a particular church or denomination would tend to gather around one particular translation.

I started my study on YouTube and enjoyed videos featuring (in no particular order) Tim Challies, James White, Todd Friel, Mark Strauss, Robert Plummer, Michael Brown, Mike Winger, and Todd Wagner. More to come as the exploration continues.

One comment

[…] I began some preliminary investigations into translations of the Bible (here, here, and here) and came across the King James controversy, I decided that I needed to understand […]

by A Year in Review | Reading and Listening « glennaustin.com on 1 January 2020 at 5:56 pm. #