Rooted - Question of the Week #2 (02/16/14)

Today we continue our Rooted series with another Scripture-related question. This week, someone asked,

Why are there so many different translations of the Bible?

Over the past 40 years, publishers have released a spate of new Bible translations. And the sheer number of versions may create confusion. Which Bible is best for me? Should I choose the KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, TEV, CEV, NLT, LB, or NCV? How about the TNIV, ESV, or the HCSB? What about The Message? Moreover, the variance between these translations may lead us to doubt the Bible's clarity. After all, if translators don't seem to agree on the meaning of Scripture, what hope do we have?

Why are there so many versions of Scripture? And does this phenomenon throw Scripture's intelligibility into question?

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Thus, publishers have an obvious financial incentive to publish new versions of Scripture. From a business standpoint, publishing new editions (with new features to entice new customers) just makes sense. This accounts for some of the diversity we find among translations. But there's a deeper reason. 

Different theories of translation underlie modern Bible versions. When translating, a committee is guided by some theory (i.e. set of assumptions) concerning translation. Theories of translation have to do with,

...the degree to which one is willing to go in order to bridge the gap between two languages. For example, should lamp be translated "flashlight" or "torch" in cultures where these objects serve the purpose which a lamp once did? Or should we translate the word "lamp" literally, and let the reader bridge the gap for him or herself? (Fee and Stuart, 35)

Translators have different purposes or goals. Understanding these goals serves to shape our understanding (and expectations) or different translations. There are three major theories of translation (much of this information is adapted from ibid., 33-44). 

  • Formal Equivalency/Literal: This theory of translation emphasizes the original language and word order of the text, and renders the most literal sense. FE translations make grammatical sense in the receptor language (i.e. the language the text is being translated into). But there is little attempt to bridge the historical/cultural/grammatical/verbal distance between the languages. The reader must do much of the interpretative work. Translators of the New American Standard Bible utilize this theory of translation.  
  • Free/Paraphrase Translation: In an attempt to overcome historical distance, this translation theory emphasizes simplicity and clarity in translation rather than rigid accuracy. Translators employing this theory are more concerned to convey the idea of a text than its precise grammar, or language. Translators of the New Living Translation utilize this theory.
  • Dynamic Equivalence: This theory of translation places emphasis on finding equivalent concepts in the translated language, while attempting to stay faithful to the sense of the text in its original language. Translators of the New International Version utilize this theory of translation. 

For a helpful chart comparing the various translations, see here

But why is it necessary for translators to abide by some translation theory? Why can't we simply develop a very literal translation that doesn't interpret the text in any way? 

Clint Arnold provides a good response:

The answer is simple: if we were to follow the Hebrew or Greek exactly, most passages would be utterly confusing and possibly unintelligible. For example, in the NIV, Jn 1:18 reads, "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." In contrast, here is a literal word-by-word translation: "God no one has seen ever: the only-begotten God the being into the bosom of the father that one explained.

Although one might be able to make some sense of this, it's difficult to understand and terrible English. All translations must make a number of changes and interpretative decisions to render Scripture into intelligible English. 

To translate intelligibly, scholars must alter the word order (English follows a rigid subject-verb-object sequence, Greek doesn't) and grammatical forms, supply words (which are clearly implied in the original language), clarify meanings, and perhaps even substitute a different word for the original. 

All that to say, biblical translations rarely differ because translators are in wild disagreement over a text's basic meaning. Rather, translators have different goals when conveying that meaning into the receptor language. This accounts for much of the variance. For example, consider these three translations of 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3. Paul says,

We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; 3 constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father… (NASB)

We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. 3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)

We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. 3 As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ. (NLT)

Let's note some of the differences. First, there are differences in vocabulary. Where as the NASB (a Formal Equivalent translation) says, "steadfastness" (v. 3), the NLT (A Free/Paraphrase translation) says "enduring". The former rendering uses a word that closely approximates the Greek (humpomonê). However, "steadfastness" has fallen out of common usage in English. Thus, NLT uses a more contemporary word. There are also differences in structure. The NASB translates these verses as one sentence, reflecting the Greek. But this isn't very readable in English. Thus, the NLT and NIV enhance readability by translating these verses as two sentences. Finally, notice differences in phrasing. The NASB translates the virtue list in verse 3 as, "work of faith...labor of love...steadfastness of hope."  Each of the virtues (i.e. faith, love, hope) is in the genitive case. It's customary to supply the word "of" when translating this case from Greek to English. While this is a faithful rendering, it does little to explain the relationship between "work" and "faith",  "labor" and "love", and "steadfastness" and "hope". In English, I wouldn't say, "I'm so grateful for your work of faith!" Thus, the NIV supplies the words, “produced,” “prompted,” and “inspired.” The NIV translators make clear that Paul is saying, “your faith is the source of your work, your love is the source of your labor,” etc. Of course, this isn’t a literal rendering. The words "produced," "prompted" and "inspired" don't appear in the original language. Nevertheless, this rendering better approximates what Paul's Greek actually means in English. We catch a nuance of Paul's words which we would have missed in the FE translation.  

Because there are different theories of translation, it's helpful to read multiple versions of the same passage. Doing so will give you a sense of the various nuances in the text. It will help you appreciate shades of meaning you would have otherwise missed. And, as you see where translations diverge more dramatically, you'll be able to pinpoint areas of interpretative dispute (and thus areas for further study). Which translations should you read? I'd pick a representative from each camp; read a literal translation (like the NASB), a careful paraphrase (like the NIV), and a free translation (like the NLT). At Creekside we preach from FE translations, such as the NASB and the English Standard Version. These versions require the reader to do more of the interpretative work (which is exactly what we're responsible to do as preachers!). 

Rather than undermining our ability to understand Scripture, multiple translations greatly enhance it!

Thus the sheer fact that such variety exists shouldn't cause us concern.