Many Christians are confused, some dismayed, by the numerous Bible translations available. It is not unusual for a Sunday-school teacher to use one version, with at least five or six other versions in use by class members.
Since World War II, English readers have had more than twenty new translations, in addition to reprints of at least eighteen earlier versions. With this variety, many wonder which one is really best. One article cannot clear this confusion. Nor can anyone achieve uniformity by decreeing that from this time on we will all use………. Evangelical Christians, however, will see no progress toward agreement until they understand some basic considerations long under-stood by scholars.
WHY CAN’T WE continue to use the King James Version (KJV)? Many people believe that everyone should use the KJV. Many have an enduring affection for the version they have used all their lives.
This version was a monumental achievement, and it has had a useful history. Based on the best scholarship of the early 1600’s, it communicated in the common English language to the people of the 17th century. Although it was initially opposed by the Puritans (they would not even allow a copy of it on the Mayflower, preferring instead the Geneva Bible of 1560), after a few years the KJV won its place in the hearts of English-speaking people.
But this is the problem. The KJV was an achievement for the seventeenth century. Yet many changes have occurred. Most biblical students agree that better Hebrew and Greek manuscripts are available today. Tremendous strides have also been made in our understanding of the original languages. While the KJV is a good translation, the tools of scholarship have created the possibility of better translations.
The English language itself has changed significantly since 1611. There have been changes in grammar, idiom, and meaning of words. Though most people still understand “thee’s” and “thou’s”, “howbeit’s” and “wherefore’s”, we no longer speak this way.
Some words in the KJV can’t be accurately understood without explanation because their meaning is different than in 1611. For example, “to allege” meant “to produce as evidence or to prove” (Acts 17:3 KJV); now it means “to claim or assert without proof.” “To let” meant “to hinder” (2 Thes. 2:7 KJV); now it means “to permit.” “To prevent” meant “to precede” (Matt. 17:25 KJV); now it means “to stop or hinder.” “Conversation” meant “manner of living or way of life” (Gal. 1:13 KJV); now it means “informal discussion.”
The KJV has more than three hundred such words. It is unreasonable to expect that any translation could be permanent because our language is in a slow process of change.
WHY ARE THERE so many different versions? There will always be an individual or group ready to produce what they think will be a better translation. No agency exists that could produce one uniform translation that we would all accept.
Another problem is that translations inevitably seem to reflect the theological convictions of their translators. People are dissatisfied with translations which reflect theological views contrary to their own.
Two significant examples are the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New English Bible (NEB). Both were the work of translators who generally held liberal theological and higher critical views. They did not believe the Bible was verbally inspired; to them it was a basically human book. Many believe this view of the Bible affected the translations at certain points. These versions have not been generally accepted in evangelical circles.
Another set of circumstances also contributes to the number of translations. Every translator faces a set of problems. How does one transfer equivalents of money, measurement, clothing, and custom from one language and culture into another? Should we use names of Roman units of money (denarius, etc.), or should we translate Roman money into dollars and cents? If we do, how do we establish equivalent values? If we solve that, how do we allow for the constantly decreasing value of the dollar? Do we use ancient names for units of measurement, or modern equivalents? Do we go metric?
Do we literally translate ancient customs (such as the disciples reclining to eat) that would puzzle many today? Or do we translate that they sat down to eat, which is our cultural equivalent? Or does that convey a mistaken impression?
What should the translator do with idiomatic expressions – expressions with a meaning different from a strictly literal understanding of the words? A literal translation might fail to communicate the original meaning. Paul uses a phrase which translated literally reads, “May it never be!” Even with an exclamation mark, it still comes across comparatively weak and insipid in English. But Paul’s phrase expresses the strongest sense of repudiation. Consequently, many have translated it, “God forbid!” Yet Paul did not use the Greek equivalent of either “God” or “forbid.”
Few words of one language have an exact equivalent in another language. Words have areas of meaning. For instance, our word “horse” refers to an animal, but can also be used of horse flies, horse radish, horsepower, horse play, and a game played with a basketball. But we cannot expect the nearest equivalent word in any other language to have this same variety of usage.
Another problem is how closely the translator should follow the word order, word for word equivalency, and sentence construction of the original language. The more closely these are followed, the less likely the translation will sound like a natural English sentence. It produces what is called “translation English.” The reader has the feeling that it is not quite the right way to say it. But the more latitude the translator takes in rephrasing the statement in natural English, the farther he gets from the actual words of the original.
The Bible also contains a significant number of terms that have acquired rather technical theological meanings which may not be understood by the uninformed – justification, reconciliation, grace, atonement, propitiation, sanctification, and even blood. People without specific teaching or study of these terms wouldn’t comprehend their biblical significance. If we decide not to use these theological terms, how do we translate them? If we use a simpler term, we will ‘lose’ some of the rich meaning. If we explain the term every time, we create an interpretation rather than a translation.
There is no simple answer to these problems. But until we understand the problems, we are unable to understand the strengths and weaknesses of individual versions.
WHAT TYPES OF versions are there? There are many ways to classify types of versions – literal, thought for thought, colloquial or idiomatic, simplified, expanded, and paraphrase. But linguists today generally speak of translations as having either literal or dynamic equivalence.
These two types describe two different approaches to most of the translation problems discussed above. Rather than being concerned about word-for-word translation, dynamic equivalence is more concerned about the natural structure and expression of the English sentence. It aims for cultural equivalence rather than mere verbal equivalence.
Dynamic equivalence strives to communicate the over-all message and reproduce the original impact on the reader. The concern is to communicate in the common language of the people, just as Scripture in the Greek and Hebrew did for its original readers. It is less concerned with translating the details of the original text if these detract from the translation’s dynamic equivalence.
When skillfully done, this approach produces very readable translations. Dynamic equivalence versions are New International Version, Modern Language Bible, New English Bible, Today’s English Version, Phillips’ paraphrase, and Living Bible. They are listed in order from more to less literal.
This approach also has disadvantages. These versions tend to become interpretations rather than translations. Some of the nuances of the original text are lost by creating an easily understood English reading. People tend to read implications into the wording of dynamic translations, especially paraphrases.
For example, the Living Bible (LB) renders Phil. 1:6, “And I am sure that God who began the good work within you will keep right on helping you grow in His grace until His task within you is finally finished when Jesus Christ returns.”
Notice the phrase “helping you grow in His grace.” Paul did not refer directly to either helping, growing, or grace – “He who began a good work within you will perfect it…”
Galatians 6:16 in the LB is a typical example of the interpretative nature of paraphrases. This verse literally translated refers to the “Israel of God.” Grammatically, this could refer to the remnant of Jewish believers within the church or to the church as a new spiritual Israel displacing literal Israel. This is a critical text for one’s view of Israel and the Church. But you would never know there was a debate from reading the Living Bible. It refers to “those everywhere who are really God’s own.”
When reading a paraphrase, one cannot distinguish between translation and interpretation without also reading a more literal translation or consulting the text in the original language.
The more translations follow the principle of dynamic equivalence, the less appropriate they are for use as a study Bible or as a Bible for public teaching and preaching. They may be quite suitable for reading by the unconverted, new believers, the person who has been mystified by Scripture, or by one who simply has found the Bible hard to read because it seems to be written in a strange style. These versions should also be consulted when literal translations are stilted or obscure in meaning.
Literal translations aim for word for word equivalence. The more literal a translation is, the less it will sound like commonly spoken English. Some are rigidly literal; others give more attention to English style. Although they tend to read less easily, skillful translators can still produce an acceptable English translation.
The American Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, and Revised Standard Version are best included in this class, with the first being rigidly literal and the other two more attuned to acceptable English usage. The obvious advantage of literal translations is that they allow less freedom to the translator to interpret. Consequently, a good literal translation makes the best Bible for personal study and public exposition.
WHICH VERSION is best? No single version could fulfill all possible needs. So one should also ask, “Best for what purposes and for whom?”
I prefer translations produced by persons whose theology reflects a respect for the Bible as God’s written Word. Within that guideline, for general use in preaching, teaching and study, I prefer a version that is literal enough to be concerned about word for word equivalency where reasonably possible, but flexible enough to read as good English. Two recent versions stand at the top of my list: the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version. Leaning toward the more literal, I prefer the NASB. But the credentials of the NIV merit its careful consideration.
Stanley N. Gundry (former professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute)