Saturday, November 14, 2015

Some Thoughts on Bible Translations

Discussions about the various bible translations (in English) have left me with some thoughts on the matter. However, let me say up front that I cannot read Greek or Hebrew, nor am I an expert on manuscript history. So, please do not take my remarks as scholarly, but rather as just the opinions of an experienced Christian who knows his Bible.

If someone asks me which Bible translation I would recommend (assuming that he is an adult with commensurate reading comprehension), I usually refer him to one of four translations: the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, the Modern English Version, or the New King James Version. What these four have in common is a commitment to a formal equivalence principle of translation. That is, they seek to translate on a word-for-word basis, within the constraints of comprehensibility. The alternative is dynamic equivalence, a translation on a thought-by-thought basis, that is, what does this verse mean in the source language, and how would we express that thought in the target language (English, in this case). It isn't strictly an either-or consideration, since translations fall along a continuum between the absolutes of translation principle.

My concern with dynamic equivalence is that it relies on the translator to determine the meaning, which would tend to subjectivity, or even paraphrasing. Formal equivalence is, relatively speaking, far more objective, leaving interpretation to the reader. That is what I want, to read the Bible for myself, and interpret according to my knowledge, conscience, and experience. I can then add whatever assistance I need, such as concordances, commentaries, or pastoral input. I have not been pre-fed the interpretation of a translator that may be an unbeliever or a rank heretic. That is because I believe what the Bible says of itself: "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (II Timothy 3:16).

Among the translations above, the New American Standard Version (hereafter, "NASB") is usually described as the most literal, that is, with the least interpretation by its translators. I cut my spiritual teeth on the NASB, back in the early eighties. It was my first Bible for several years after my conversion. In its original edition, the NASB still used "thou" and other archaisms in addresses to God. In 1995, the publisher did an extensive revision which updated all of that language. I find it very readable. I also like that it uses capital letters for pronouns that refer to deity, which is a personal peeve of mine. It also uses italics for words not in the original text, used to clarify or smooth something that doesn't work in English. While the NASB can't be called popular, It is being promoted by well-known pastors John MacArthur and Charles Stanley.

The English Standard Version (hereafter, "ESV") is the Bible we use in my church. Such usage is becoming more common as the New International Version implodes as a result of its unpopular 2011 revision. The ESV is slightly less literal than the NASB, but reads more smoothly. What I don't like is the use of small letters when referring to deity, and the lack of indication of inserted words. However, I like its use of footnotes to indicate, where relevant, when "you" is singular or plural in the original. And a very specific advantage is the use of "Jesus," instead of "Lord," in Jude 1:5, following the earliest Greek manuscripts. Even the NASB missed that one!

The Modern English Version is a new translation, having been published in 2013. Most people aren't even aware of its existence. This is the translation that I use for my private reading. It uses capitalized pronouns, but lacks italicization, so it's a mixed bag on those issues. However, it maintains the poetic dignity of the King James Version, just without the archaic language. The New King James is much older, of course, by roughly thirty years, and has all of the same advantages, plus italicization. These two versions are so similar that they are almost interchangeable.

The main difference among these translations is the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts used as their text basis. This is an issue that I don't stress, but some people do. The first two follow the Critical Text, that is, a collection of manuscripts based on the best efforts of scholars to identify transmission errors and reproduce the original autographs. The latter two are translated from the Textus Receptus, a much later class of manuscripts. The reason I don't stress this issue is that the differences between the two classes of manuscript are so tiny that most people don't even notice, and none of those differences affects any biblical doctrine.

Now, having expressed my own opinion, I welcome comments regarding the preferences of others. However, I will warn in advance that I will not post any comments promoting the mystical views that some King James-only folks have. I will not provide space for anyone claiming that the KJV is somehow an inspired translation, and therefore of authority beyond that of the Greek and Hebrew from which it was translated.

1 comment:

Kelly Dunn said...

Great explanations. I use to be on staff of a long-term program for men in a Rescue Mission. I taught classes to these men; most have little to no knowledge of the scriptures. Some of those me attended churches that were KJV only so I had a real chore to teach the truth about Bible translations -- bless you sir!