Thoughts On Bible Translations

This essay was first published in The Christian Renewal (March, 2002).

We live in an uncertain age. One German sociologist characterizes our time as defined by liquidity. This is a term we might associate with financial matters, but it applies to vocation and to virtually every other sphere of life. There was a time when it was not uncommon for a man to work for the same company all his life. My grandfather worked for IBM for 30 years. My father-in-law worked for the railroad for 40 years. Today, it is not uncommon for one to change jobs even professions every few years. Indeed, it is important for success to be flexible. Liquidity also affects morality. Practices of all sorts, which were once unmentionable in polite society, are featured on radio and television talk shows. The chief consequence of this liquidity is uncertainty.

Socially, some have reacted to uncertainty by trying to go back to some perceived golden age. In the church there has also been a retrenching, a reconsideration of the viability and acceptability of positions which were relatively non-controversial only a decade ago. One of those areas is Bible translation. In the last 100 years there has been an amazing number of English Bible versions, some of them well done and some not so well-done. The growth in English translations has caused some to question to whole business of contemporary translations.

Of course the matter of translations has only become more intense since the 1995 release of gender neutral edition of New International Version (NIV) in the United Kingdom. When WORLD Magazine publicized this development in 1997 it became known that the Committee on Bible Translation, the group which actually controls the content of the NIV, intended to release a gender neutral version in North America. There was, of course, a storm of controversy which died down only after the International Bible Society (IBS) agreed not to release planned gender neutral revision of 1984 edition of the NIV.

Now, however, the IBS has decided to release a gender neutral version of the NIV alongside the 1984 edition, to be known as Today’s New International Version (TNIV). Some of the changes seem innocuous. “With child” (Mt 1:18) will be replaced with “pregnant.” The Greek text says , “having in the womb.” This colloquial expression is faithfully rendered by our English word “pregnant.”

Other changes, however, are troubling. In Matt 5:9 peacemakers will now be “children of God” instead of “sons of God.” Such changes might seem harmless, but this change, and others like it, actually carries theological implications. Though feminists may not like it, sons had a certain status in the Biblical world, so that to call all those who are united to Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, “sons” says something significant about their position before God. To make them all “children” does not raise the status of females and does not faithfully reflect the original intent of the divine and human authors of Scripture.

Critics of the TNIV point to the use of gender neutral language in the translation of Hebrews 2:6 as another, even more pointed example in which a clear liberal social bias is evident. The NIV reads, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” This translation is quite faithful to the original and has the virtue of leaving in the English translation the ambiguity present in the original, which is itself a translation and quotation of Ps 8:4. Who is the “man” of Psalm 8:4 and Hebrews 2:6? Interpreters and commentators are divided and this translation quite judiciously does not decide the question. The TNIV, however, has decided the question for the reader by rendering it, “What is are mere mortals that you are mindful of them?” This ham-fisted translation not only runs roughshod over the intention of writer to the Hebrews, but also over English style by changing the singular noun “man” and pronoun “him” into the collective “children” and plural “them.”

Crossway Books has published an alternative to the NIV, called the English Standard Version. The ESV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version with which many readers will be familiar from its use in Christian Reformed pulpits and pews before the arrival of the NIV. The ESV has Psalm 8:4 and Hebrews 2:6 as “what is man that you are mindful of him?” Another alternative is the Holman Christian Standard Bible which is unpublished as yet. It has Hebrews 2:6 as “what is man….” Both these translations boast a conservative approach to translation.

The question before us is how we ought to respond to such developments. Already One response is to abandon all modern translations and return to the Authorized Version (AV) or the King James Version of 1611. Still others call for the return to a form of textual criticism, i.e., the study of the original texts and how they were copied, of the original texts, which was practiced before the late 19th century. These critics favor the so-called Majority Text and sometimes the English translation based upon that text tradition known as the New King James Version.

These approaches do not seem promising for several reasons. First, the AV is antiquated. The AV has 2 Corinthians 8:1, “…we do you to wit of the grace of God….” No one has used the expression “to wit” for “to know” in common or even high English usage for a very long time. Second, proponents of the “King James only” forget that it was itself a translation offered in competition with an existing and highly popular Calvinist English translation known as the Geneva Bible which had been in circulation for decades before the 1611 publication of the AV. If we should go back to the AV, why not go back to the Geneva Bible, which was arguably more faithful to the original text and less influenced by the Vulgate than the AV? The answer, of course, is that the horse is out of the barn. Moreover, the Scriptures were not given in an antiquated language. They were given to us in the language of the day.

Further, though there are many legitimate criticisms which one might make of the some of the contemporary translations, some of the criticisms of create more problems than they solve. Some, for example, have complained that the NIV is partly a translation and partly an interpretation, i.e., there are places where the NIV gets the sense of the original language (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) into English accurately, and other places where the translation appears to be too interpretive. This is a difficulty, but not a new problem.

In fact, there has never been a Bible translation which has not been an interpretation. This was true of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of Scripture which became the “Authorized Version” of the medieval church. It was true of the early English (e.g., Tyndale) translations, of the AV and all subsequent translations.

This is because interpretation is necessarily a part of the translation process. Some seem to think that translation is like a vending machine, one puts in a word from the original language and out comes a guaranteed correct English translation. Of course, in the nature of things, translation does not and never has worked that way, not even in our day of electronic translators. Anyone who has used a Web-based translation program has seen the sometimes-amusing results. This is because context affects the meaning of words. We experience this in speech daily. If I ask, “Would you carry that for me?” If the hearer is a skilled English speaker, he will likely guess that I am not addressing him as “Wood.” How does he know? Experience and context teach him how to interpret the request. The same phenomena occur in written speech. These sorts of nuances are things one cannot teach a computer, at least yet.

Rather, at every turn, the translator must choose a word or phrase or clause or sentence which best expresses what he understands the original to be saying. He must make judgments about the intent and message of the original language as well as the nature and usage of the receptor language. This process of deciding what the original text and receptor tongues are saying is the science and art of interpretation. Those who have done the great work of pioneering the work of translation, e.g., Martin Luther, have been very honest about the difficulties faced by a translator.

No successful English Bible translation, with the possible exception of the 1888 Revised Version (RV) or the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV), has ever attempted to use a one-for-one correspondence of the same English word for the same Greek/Hebrew word, because it doesn’t work very well. As any competent translator will admit, translating is as much art as it is science. It is as impossible to ignore the demands of the receptor language as it is to ignore the demands of the source (original) language.

Some have criticized the principle of dynamic equivalence (i.e., the practice of not repeating the exact words of the original text but using an equivalent word or phrase in the receptor language) as the methodological culprit which leads to conflating translation and interpretation. Certainly dynamic equivalence is open to abuse and there are better ways of translating.

Again, this problem is not new. The Vulgate contains numerous examples of dynamic equivalence. Even the translators of the AV were influenced by this principle. Because they thought it would communicate more clearly to their readers whom they expected to understand the prayer book and the church calendar better than the Old Testament calendar, they chose “Easter” for “pascha” in Acts 12:4. Few would charge the translators of the AV of liberalism or corrupting God’s Word in their translation.

There are more conservative ways of translating. The ESV, for example, says that it follows the “essentially literal” approach to translation, that is, it works on a word-for-word basis rather than on a thought-for-thought basis. This approach is inherently more conservative and tends to reign in the translator. For example, where the NIV has the more general word “atonement” (Romans 3:25), the ESV has the more correct and specific, “propitiation.” This translation has the virtue of using the more difficult word and allowing the reader rather than the translator to do the work of interpretation. When the translator chooses to use the more difficult word (e.g., propitiation), he is calling for the education of the reader. There are many other examples in the NIV where they should have been more conservative and allowed elders and ministers to do their work.

Still, for those who have had to do the work of translation, these are difficult choices. When the NIV was published, many complained that it was too difficult. Though aware of it, the NIV was not my first choice as a young Christian. Not having been raised a Christian, thus not knowing the Christian vocabulary, having come to faith as a young man through the work of a non-Reformed sect, I found my father’s Revised Standard Version absolutely baffling and was grateful when I was given a copy of the Living Bible. In time, I outgrew that translation, and my children, have been raised in a covenant home with the NIV and are able to understand it, but such is not the case for everyone. Of course, difficult cases make bad law, but the Bible is for everyone, not just for the well-educated.

As for the textual history underlying the various translations, the historical truth is that God has marvelously preserved the autographa (the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts) in many accurate copies of Scripture sometimes in pots in caves, sometimes in deserts and sometimes in monasteries. Whichever text one favors (Textus Receptus or Majority Text or United Bible Society/Nestle-Aland) there is no avoiding the exercise of judgment about which text is superior in a given reading. There are at least two decisions to be made in every case: (1) What are the external probabilities, i.e., which reading has the strongest, most ancient textual history; (2) What are the internal probabilities, i.e., which word/phrase did the author most likely use? On this both the advocates of the eclectic text (e.g., Metzger) and the majority text (e.g., Sturz) agree.

In the Reformed tradition we have consistently affirmed the inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture in the autographa (2 Tim 3:16). We have always known that there are no perfect translations. Therefore, as it is the minister’s sacred duty to study God’s Word in the original language as he prepares to stand in the pulpit and proclaim the Law and the Gospel, so it is his solemn duty to learn the history and practice of textual criticism so as to be able to determine the autograph in any particular case.

Finally, it just as it is the minister’s responsibility to teach God’s people about the true meaning of kaphar/hilasmos (propitiation) etc., it is also his duty to explain the basics of translations and even to explain, at least, that we do the work of text criticism. There is no reason not to tell our people about the questions surrounding John 7:53-8:11, Mark 16:9-20 or 1 John 5:7. Ignorance about these issues does not advance their understanding of the faith or their piety. In none of these cases or in any of the others, are any Christian doctrines jeopardized by textual critical questions. Therefore one should not dismiss all contemporary translations too hastily. They have their problems to be sure, but as a reader of God’s Word in the original languages, I find several of them to be generally accurate, reliable and readable.

One solution to the dilemma of which translation is to use different translations for different tasks. The ESV and NIV are perhaps better for public reading and the NASB (especially the updated version) is perhaps better for private study, especially for those who do not have access to the original languages.

I have found the NKJV to do an excellent job as a translation in some passages and a disappointment in others. My chief concern, however, is the textual theory behind the NKJV. Certainly we are free to use it, but I would chafe at being bound to the majority text and even more to being bound to the textus receptus, i.e., the received text which formed the basis for the AV which was corrected by a series of texts discovered by scholars in the following centuries.

Nor is it the job of an English Bible translation to inculcate readers into the history of the English language. This latter task is an important one which I take seriously, but the chief function of a Bible translation is to communicate the sense of the original as faithfully as possible in English. That said, I am quite in favor of educating the reader and quite opposed to “dumbing down” translations, hence the Living and the New Living and the New Revised Standard — which not only did not fix the earlier error the translation of Rom 9:5 but compounded it! — are probably not the best choices for public use in confessional Reformed churches.

We should also be cautious about elevating one translation or another as the official or quasi-official translation of our churches. There are some denominations which have spent a considerable amount of energy arguing about this issue. Some want to make the AV the official translation. Others want to make the NKJV the official translation. Some even wanted to bind us to a particular theory of text criticism. Some wanted us to be obligated to use only the textus receptus and others argued for the majority text. Certainly we ought not repeat those mistakes. In our search for certainty about and accuracy in the text and translation of God’s Word let us not rush hastily into premature pronouncements about this or that translation.

Though the plethora of English Bible translations seems threatening to some, in fact, we might be living in a golden age of sorts, when it comes to translations. Remember that for a millennium most Christians had no access to the Scriptures in their own language. Today we not only have access to the Scriptures in our own language, but we have tools with which to study Scripture about which our forefathers never dreamed.

The collect (prayer) for the Second Sunday of Advent in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is quite appropriate to these questions. It says,

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Whatever faithful translation we use in public worship or in private study and devotion, let it be that we may learn to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest God’s Word and therein find the comfort of the Good News that Christ died for sinners.