Monday, November 29, 2010

Bible Translations

As a new church, we are thinking through which Bible translation to use in our preaching. Some of what has brought on this discussion is that Cornerstone is also wrestling with this. One of the great minds on the Cornerstone elder team (sorry, Jeff, in this case I'm referring to Alex...) wrote some great thoughts on the topic. You can read his series of blog posts: click here

OR, you can just read a summary of all the posts put together...

Bible translations part 1

My last blog talked about getting a couple of new Bibles for Christmas even though I already have a bunch. The three reasons were that sometimes they wear out, sometimes a particular translation helps with a particular function, and sometimes it is just a matter of convenience. So in the next few blogs I am going to do a tour of the Bibles we have around since people are often interested in what the differences are.

Let me start with the big picture. I think of a translation as being like a map of the world in the sense that the world is in three dimensions but maps are in two dimensions. That is why all maps are a distortion of reality. Some make Greenland look as a large as South America, others make the countries at the equator look bigger than they actually are. Now we can either get frustrated by the fact that our maps are not perfect or we can be happy that we have lots of maps available that are perfectly adequate for what we need to do. The distortion on your map is not the reason you missed a turn or got lost the last time you went driving.

Bible translations, at the most basic, have to choose between trying to translate the original Hebrew or Greek word with a single English word each time so as to be as literal as possible or trying to capture the thought the author was trying to express and expressing it as clearly as possible in contemporary English. Both involve some distortion of the original. But the bottom line is that all of the translations I will talk about are, on the whole, good translations. As long as you are able to understand the language a major translation is using, it will be adequate for clearly communicating the main themes of the Bible. What they all have in common is far more important than the differences among them. Sometimes with “translation wars” we emphasize what makes our translation better to the point where minor differences are overshadowing the common truth that they all proclaim. When we get to heaven and are rewarded by our Father, I don’t think “nice translation choice” will be in the top 10 for any of us. Far more important is really believing the gospel and orienting our lives in gratitude to obey what we understand. Our mistakes in applying the Bible often have far more to do with the way we read it than with the translation.

So with all that as a disclaimer, there really are differences. Airline pilots use different maps than the ones in your car atlas because for the task at hand they need to minimize a particular type of distortion. In the next post I will start breaking down our inventory and the functions the different translations have.

Bible Translations, NIV and RSV
The translation I have used most is the NIV. I grew up with it, so it is familiar and it is the most commonly used one in evangelical circles so when I teach or preach it is the least distracting for the most people. People who use other translations even though the preaching is from the NIV are generally people who like comparing translations anyway. I am not sure if it is the “best” translation. Sometimes things become the standard because they are in the right place at the right time. In the 1970s there was a strong demand for a more readable translation then the King James which was written in the early 17th century and was not based on the earliest original manuscripts. Then once people get attached to something it is hard to change. Most of the scripture I have memorized is in the NIV and that is one of the main reasons for being reluctant to change. The NIV is somewhere in the middle of the translation continuum between being ultra-literal and being a mere paraphrase. It flows well for reading aloud and silently and generally does a very good job of capturing the author’s point.

The only stretch where I was not primarily an NIV person was in college and grad school. I wanted a more literal translation but thought the New American Standard Bible (NASB) was too stilted for every day use. I also wanted a study bible. So I ended up using the Revised Standard Version which was the most common alternative to the King James before the NIV came out. At the time I also remember wondering whether the NIV was “biased” in that evangelicals translated it in such a way to cover up “problem” passages. When I moved to Iowa I switched back to the NIV. It is easier to read and memorize and easier to teach from. I also decided my fears were overblown. I almost never use my duct tape repaired RSV study bible anymore but keep it around for sentimental reasons and because when I went to Zambia I was trying to take easy to read translations.

More literal Bible translations

The biggest weaknesses of the NIV come from the fact that it is not as literal. Sometimes I think that it interprets things wrongly. I don’t, for example, like “sin nature” as a translation of a Greek word that means “flesh” in Romans 6-8. I understand why they did it. They didn’t want people to think God hates bodies or that we should hate our bodies. But in the process they make it hard to see how much “body talk” is going on in those chapters. Paul talks about bodies, flesh, and “members” (body parts) constantly. I discussed this in a talk I did for Salt Company in November. Sometimes there is a repeated word or phrase that an author uses and if the word is translated several different ways you won’t notice it as much. The word “walk” in Ephesians is a key word that the NIV translates “live a life.” Thus “walk in love” becomes “live a life of love” and so on. “Live a life” is a more natural way of saying it in contemporary English, but sometimes that phrasing seems forced and so the NIV picks another one. All of this is why when I am teaching a passage I try to look at one or more literal translations.

For a long time my main Bible for this purpose was the New American Standard Bible, which is as literal as they come. I still think it is a very good one for that purpose. When Anastasia does “Precept” studies, she uses our NASB. But there are a few other options now that I like as well. The two new Bibles I got for Christmas were the English Standard Version (ESV) Study Bible and a $5 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). I got the ESV because 1) My current study bible is falling apart 2) A number of people at my church are using it now and so I wanted to be more familiar with it and 3) there is some logic to having a more literal translation when I am in “study” mode. I am going to be teaching a course this semester on the Old Testament and am planning to go through the ESV Study Bible to check it out as I do so. I had a paperback copy of the HCSB but I gave it away in Zambia. I like it because it feels like someone took the NIV as a baseline and then make it a little more literal. “Flesh” is “flesh” and “walk” is “walk.” It also has extensive notes on alternate translations of verses. Thi s is the translation I used for teaching Romans 7 last semester because it was literal enough to get the points across but still as readable as possible. I picked the ESV over it for the study bible not so much because the translation is better but more because it looked like the notes, maps, etc. for the ESV were better.

Less literal Bible translations

You reap what you sow. Even in Iowa, no one actually talks about reaping and sowing. They talk about planting and harvesting. It is sometimes hard for those of us who have been hearing the Bible for a long time to notice ways in which the language is very different from how we talk now. The less literal translations give themselves even more freedom to understand what the author was trying to say and say it the way we would now. Compare the beginning of Hebrews 8:1 “The point of what we are saying is this” (NIV) with “Here is the main point” (NLT). Honestly, I think the NLT is better here even though the NIV is closer to the original Greek. Free translations are best when you are simply listening to the Bible rather than doing close study of a particular passage. Every night before bed, I read to Anastasia from the Bible and the NLT has become our preferred translation for that. Sometimes the NLT will even throw in a little detail that is not in the text because it is something that would have been obvious to the original audience. Several of these examples were given to me by my father in law who also likes this translation. There are some other good ones as well. I gave away my Contemporary English Version (CEV) which is similar and has worked on getting the cadence and word order right for oral reading. Right now the difference between them isn’t enough for me to justify going out and buying another one. I think I also gave away my copies of The Message. It is one of the most interesting but has the disadvantage that it was all done by one person and is very free . Think of it as Eugene Peterson’s commentary on the Bible with no explanation for why he understands the passages the way he does. That said, it is very good. If there are parts of the Bible that are hard for you to understand and so you never read them, it might be worth trying again with one of these translations. I still have both the CEV and The Message for the New Testament as part of a parallel Bible I will talk about later.

Misc. Bible translations and software

I haven’t discussed the King James in this series of blogs. I do use it sometimes, mainly for historical purposes. For my job I actually read a lot of 17th century English prose, which happens to be what the KJV is. So when I read works from that time that reference the Bible (and the generally did so a lot back then) the KJV is what they tend to quote. So oddly enough I use the KJV for work more often than for personal use. I can read that style of English fairly well, but it makes reading the Bible seem like work and the KJV is not based on the more recent manuscripts. Sometimes I use the Strong numbers that go with the KJV to look up a greek word using my Bible software.

The main Bible software program I have, Logos, I got probably 12 years ago for about $70 and it has been one of my best investments. I don’t know if Logos is the best value for the money or not, but it gives me the NIV, the old American Standard, and the KJV indexed to the greek and hebrew originals. I can search words and phrases and it has some other tools that I occasionally use. I sometimes use e-sword which has the ESV available for free and some other nice free downloads.

If I had known where things were going with Bible software, I would not have invested in some of the books I own. I have a NT word study, a couple of greek new testaments, a parallel greek-english NT, and a greek lexicon (dictionary). All of this I could have on a CD if I were willing to pay for it. Eventually I will probably break down and upgrade, by I keep assuming that some next generation software will come out so I am waiting.

I also have some parallel Bibles. One is a NT only that has 8 translations side by side (4 per page on facing pages). It has the New King James, the ESV, the HCSB, the NIV, the TNIV, the NLT, the New Century, and The Message. If I could replace the New Century with the NASB it would be perfect. There is also a parallel bible that is NASB, NIV, KJV, and NLT that I like. I don’t own it, but I have it checked out from Parks Library most of the time and it sits in my study room at the library. The big downside to it is how much it weighs, but I never have to carry it so that is not a problem. If you have an ISU card you can recall it if you would like to use it.

I think that is a good overview of the Bibles I use. Let me conclude this particular series by emphasizing something I said at the beginning, which is that what the translations have in common is far more important than the differences. With so many good translations around, the real question is how we respond to what we read.

11 comments:

clarkitect said...

Thanks for posting Alex's thoughts on this Mark. I have gotten into the mode of taking the NIV to church to listen along with and make notes during the sermon and using my ESV study bible to compare and prepare for leading connection group over the same passage. This has worked very well-- it seems better to pull out more maps than fight over which map is better (great analogy).

I have also enjoyed HCSB's Apologetic Study Bible to pull off the shelf once in awhile and have found the HCSB Student Bible to be one of the most visually pleasing bibles. Not that formatting is my biggest deciding factor, but it certainly helps a visual guy (snob) like myself.

I still wish I could find a good bible translation that was formated as a reading bible-- stripped of its canonical chapter & verse appendages. I would love to read Psalms as poetry and Paul's letters as letters without being distracted by big numbers, little numbers, little italicized letters, side by side columns, etc. There is so much effort to cram bibles full of helps it can become distracting to read. Perhaps the ESV Minimalist Bible. Sorry, I need to go talk with Crossway now.

Anonymous said...

http://www.esvliterarystudybible.org/

this one is money

Metropuritan Mark said...

Carl- great insights. I agree on the need for a reading Bible w/o chap/verses.

Anonymous- another great resource in the esv literary... I need to get my hands on that.

Chuck (via Facebook comment) threw out the NET bible from bible.org. I thought the explanation of how they translated it helps people understand the choices translators have to make...

from http://bible.org/article/net-bible-principles-translation

NET Bible Principles of Translation

1. Text

Old Testament: For the OT the translators started with the MT (Masoretic Text) found in the current edition of BHS (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia). In particularly difficult passages the translator may have followed a variant reading found in the versions, alternative Hebrew tradition (e.g., DSS), or in some cases, conjectural emendation. Such variations from the MT were noted by the individual translator and reviewed by the OT textual consultant.
New Testament: For the NT the Greek text to be used by individual translators was decided by the textual consultant. The full Greek text will be published at a later date.
Traditional passages: For passages which lack adequate textual authority (i.e., are almost certainly not part of the autographs) the words were included in the translation in double square brackets with a note giving a brief discussion of the problem.

(see next comment for the rest)

Metropuritan Mark said...

(cont)

2. Interpretive Decisions and Tools

Interpretive decisions, where necessary to translate a passage, were made by the translators and editors. The alternative renderings, where exegetically significant, have been indicated in the notes.
Standard technical (critical) commentaries and relevant periodical articles were consulted in the translation process. These are often cited in the notes.
Current standard lexical tools were consulted as needed. For the OT, these included such works as BDB, KB3, and TDOT; for the NT, BDAG, Louw-Nida, and TDNT.
Computerized concordance programs and electronic search engines were used extensively in the production of this translation.

3. Form of Translation

No translation can ever achieve complete formal equivalence.1 Even a translation which sometimes reflects Hebrew and Greek word order at the expense of English style has to resort to paraphrase in some places. On the other hand, no translation achieves complete dynamic equivalence2 either. Thus this translation, like every other, ends up somewhere between the two extremes. These considerations are reflected by the following specific qualifications:

(see next comment for rest)

Metropuritan Mark said...

(cont)

In vocabulary and grammatical forms every attempt has been made to reflect the different styles of the different authors of the Bible. Paul’s letters should not sound like John’s or Peter’s or that of Hebrews in the English translation where possible.
The level of English style is formal (not, however, technical) except in passages where somewhat more informal style would be more in keeping with the content. In general the use of contractions (“don’t,” “isn’t”) has been avoided, except in quoted speech.
The language of average adults had priority. The translation attempts to use good literary style but is not overly formal or embellished.
The translation is intended to be understandable to non-Christians as well as Christians, so liturgical language or Christian “jargon” has been avoided.
Archaisms have also been avoided (e.g., “letter” was used instead of “epistle” in the NT). This includes the absolute avoidance of “thou” and “thee,” since there were no distinctions in the original Hebrew or Greek between pronouns used to address people and those used to address Deity. On a related note, pronouns which refer to Deity are not capitalized for this same reason.
Long, complicated sentences in the original languages have been broken up into shorter sentences more acceptable in contemporary English. However, an attempt has been made to maintain the connections present in the original languages wherever possible.
Idiomatic expressions and figurative language in the original languages have been changed when they make no sense to a typical modern English reader or are likely to lead to misunderstanding by a typical modern English reader. The literal reading has been placed in a note giving a brief explanation (a translator’s note).
Nouns have been used for pronouns where the English pronoun would be obscure or ambiguous to a modern reader. This has been indicated in a note.
Questions expecting a negative answer have been phrased to indicate this to the English reader.
Clearly redundant expressions such as “answered and said” have been avoided unless they have special rhetorical force in context. The literal reading is frequently indicated in a note.
Introductory expressions like “verily, verily” have been translated idiomatically, the single ajmhvn as “I tell you the truth” and the double ajmhvn (peculiar to John’s Gospel) as “I tell you the solemn truth.”
Introductory particles like ijdouv (“behold”) have been translated to fit the context (sometimes “listen,” “pay attention,” “look,” or occasionally left untranslated).
Use of quotation marks (which did not exist in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) conforms to contemporary American English usage.
The basic unit of translation is the paragraph. Verse numbers are included in boldface type. Poetry is set out as poetry.
Greek historical presents have been translated by English simple past tenses since English has no corresponding use of the present tense.
In places where passive constructions create ambiguity, obscurity, or awkwardness in contemporary English, either the agent has been specified from context or the construction has been changed to active voice in the English translation, with an explanatory note.
Ellipses have been filled out according to current English requirements (e.g., 1 John 2:19). This is normally explained in a note.
Proper names have been standardized in accordance with accepted English usage.

Metropuritan Mark said...

(cont)

In vocabulary and grammatical forms every attempt has been made to reflect the different styles of the different authors of the Bible. Paul’s letters should not sound like John’s or Peter’s or that of Hebrews in the English translation where possible.
The level of English style is formal (not, however, technical) except in passages where somewhat more informal style would be more in keeping with the content. In general the use of contractions (“don’t,” “isn’t”) has been avoided, except in quoted speech.
The language of average adults had priority. The translation attempts to use good literary style but is not overly formal or embellished.
The translation is intended to be understandable to non-Christians as well as Christians, so liturgical language or Christian “jargon” has been avoided.
Archaisms have also been avoided (e.g., “letter” was used instead of “epistle” in the NT). This includes the absolute avoidance of “thou” and “thee,” since there were no distinctions in the original Hebrew or Greek between pronouns used to address people and those used to address Deity. On a related note, pronouns which refer to Deity are not capitalized for this same reason.
Long, complicated sentences in the original languages have been broken up into shorter sentences more acceptable in contemporary English. However, an attempt has been made to maintain the connections present in the original languages wherever possible.
Idiomatic expressions and figurative language in the original languages have been changed when they make no sense to a typical modern English reader or are likely to lead to misunderstanding by a typical modern English reader. The literal reading has been placed in a note giving a brief explanation (a translator’s note).

Metropuritan Mark said...

Nouns have been used for pronouns where the English pronoun would be obscure or ambiguous to a modern reader. This has been indicated in a note.
Questions expecting a negative answer have been phrased to indicate this to the English reader.
Clearly redundant expressions such as “answered and said” have been avoided unless they have special rhetorical force in context. The literal reading is frequently indicated in a note.
Introductory expressions like “verily, verily” have been translated idiomatically, the single ajmhvn as “I tell you the truth” and the double ajmhvn (peculiar to John’s Gospel) as “I tell you the solemn truth.”
Introductory particles like ijdouv (“behold”) have been translated to fit the context (sometimes “listen,” “pay attention,” “look,” or occasionally left untranslated).
Use of quotation marks (which did not exist in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) conforms to contemporary American English usage.
The basic unit of translation is the paragraph. Verse numbers are included in boldface type. Poetry is set out as poetry.
Greek historical presents have been translated by English simple past tenses since English has no corresponding use of the present tense.
In places where passive constructions create ambiguity, obscurity, or awkwardness in contemporary English, either the agent has been specified from context or the construction has been changed to active voice in the English translation, with an explanatory note.
Ellipses have been filled out according to current English requirements (e.g., 1 John 2:19). This is normally explained in a note.
Proper names have been standardized in accordance with accepted English usage.


4. Additional Features of the Translation and Notes

Any place supplementary information is required (e.g., word-plays, historical details, cultural differences, etc.) this is provided in a brief study note.
Any technical terms (corban, Mark 7:11) used in the translation are explained in a study note.
Any unfamiliar terms for weights, measures, and coins have been explained in a study note, although in general these have been expressed in contemporary American units, with metric units given parenthetically in the notes.
A limited system of cross-referencing to principal parallel texts, cross-references, or significant allusions is found in the notes.
Descriptive section headings have been provided by the translators and editors as an aid to the reader.
Greek and Hebrew in the translator’s notes use Greek and Hebrew fonts, often followed by transliteration. The occasional reference to a Greek or Hebrew word in a study note is transliterated.
Abbreviations of biblical books and reference material follow Patrick H. Alexander et al., eds., The SBL Handbook of Style: For Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Early Christian Studies (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999) with only a few exceptions.

Metropuritan Mark said...

Nouns have been used for pronouns where the English pronoun would be obscure or ambiguous to a modern reader. This has been indicated in a note.
Questions expecting a negative answer have been phrased to indicate this to the English reader.
Clearly redundant expressions such as “answered and said” have been avoided unless they have special rhetorical force in context. The literal reading is frequently indicated in a note.
Introductory expressions like “verily, verily” have been translated idiomatically, the single ajmhvn as “I tell you the truth” and the double ajmhvn (peculiar to John’s Gospel) as “I tell you the solemn truth.”
Introductory particles like ijdouv (“behold”) have been translated to fit the context (sometimes “listen,” “pay attention,” “look,” or occasionally left untranslated).
Use of quotation marks (which did not exist in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) conforms to contemporary American English usage.
The basic unit of translation is the paragraph. Verse numbers are included in boldface type. Poetry is set out as poetry.
Greek historical presents have been translated by English simple past tenses since English has no corresponding use of the present tense.
In places where passive constructions create ambiguity, obscurity, or awkwardness in contemporary English, either the agent has been specified from context or the construction has been changed to active voice in the English translation, with an explanatory note.
Ellipses have been filled out according to current English requirements (e.g., 1 John 2:19). This is normally explained in a note.
Proper names have been standardized in accordance with accepted English usage.


4. ... no more room for comment. Apparently blogspot has a limit !

Michael Gormley said...

The Catholic Bible

As Catholics were responsible for writing the New Testament (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), the Catholic Church doesn't "interpret" the Bible. We explain it.

Protestants can only "interpret", because they are not the author (guided by the Holy Spirit), and therefore, can only guess at the possible meaning of a chapter, passage or phrase, just as anyone can only guess at any author's intentions in any other book.

As the author, the Catholic Church is the only proper authority to consult in matters pertaining to the Bible.

clarkitect said...

FYI, Westminster Bookstore has all ESV Bibles on sale for 45% off until December 3rd. The best prices I've seen anywhere.

V said...

Thanks for posting this Mark. I grew up in a strictly KJV only household, so a breakdown of the different translations is pretty useful to me since I have been contemplating trying a new translation.