Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Word by Any Other Name: A Study in Biblical Translation

A Brief History of the English Bible

The Bible in English is really born in 1611 with the Authorized or King James Version. Prior to the Sixteenth Century, the Vulgate (a Latin Translation from the 5th Century) was the most used Bible among English speakers. Some attempts had been made to translate the Bible to English (the Wycliffe Bible for instance), but these works were largely forbidden.

In the 1500s several factors led to the success of an English Bible. The Renaissance brought renewed interest in classical languages and scholarship, Greek and Hebrew scholarship increased, and Gutenberg’s printing press made the Bible affordable and readily available. In addition the Reformation made it desirable for everybody to have a Bible they could read for themselves.

All of these factors led to several attempts at Biblical translations culminating in the King James Bible in 1611. It was a combination of previous translations and new scholarship from the original manuscripts. For generations it was the greatest English Bible available.

Several factors have contributed to a need for newer translations over the years. Our understanding of the Biblical text has grown through textual criticism and the discovery of older and more reliable manuscripts. The King James translators had very few manuscripts at their disposal, none older than the Middle Ages. We now have at our disposal some New Testament manuscript fragments dating from the first century, and Old Testament Manuscripts from before Christ’s birth.

Evaluating a Translation

Four factors must be kept in mind when judging a translation of the Bible:


1. The Translators: Large groups of theologically diverse committees are always better than single translators or small groups of like-minded scholars. This prevents ideas of the scholars from becoming imposed on the text.

2. The Textual Sources: Most modern translations, save the NKJV rely on the best manuscripts and take into account all the resources available today. The KJV and NKJV use only the Textus Recepticus, a medieval body of manuscripts that have been shown to deviate from older more reliable texts.

3. The Translation Theory:

There are two basic ways to translate any language; word for word, or concept for concept.

The Word for Word method simply translates the text one word at a time and does no interpretation whatsoever. No translation does this completely, as it would result in an unreadable text. The advantage of this theory of translation is that it introduces no interpretation into text and allows the reader to make up his or her mind as to what the text is trying to say. The best example of this theory today is the NASB.

The Concept or Dynamic Equivalent method, attempts to convey as best as possible the ideas the text is trying to communicate. This theory of translation helps the reader understand concepts that are too foreign or archaic for the modern reader to understand without specialized study. The danger of course is that the translators convey the text as they understand it, giving only one of perhaps several possible nuances the text presents. Good examples of this theory of translation are the CEV and the NLT.

Some translations attempt to fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The NIV is a good example of this.

4. The Language: The clarity and quality of the language used in a translation is
important. The quality of language used for study may not need to be as high as one used for public reading in worship. The user must determine what quality of language will best suit them.

Modern Bible Translations

Today there are three basic types of translations: revisions, new translations, and paraphrases.

Revisions are works based on previous translations, although they do refer back to the original languages and make use of the most updated manuscript work. Examples of revisions include the King James Version (KJV, 1611), the New American Standard Bible (NASB, 1971, 1995), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989), and the New King James Version (NKJV, 1982).

New Translations go strait to the original languages for a fresh start. Examples of this approach include: the New English Bible (NEB, 1961-1970), the New International Version (NIV, 1973-1978), the Jerusalem Bible (JB, 1966), the Contemporary English Version (CEV, 1995), and the New Living Translation (NLT, 1996).

Paraphrases are the work of a single individual, and are open about being interpretations of the text, reflecting the theology of the author. Examples of paraphrases include: the Living Bible and The Message.

Which Bible do I use?

For regular use in quiet time study, worship service participation, and general reading the reader should choose a version they are comfortable with and can understand well. Most translations today are of a quality that one can be assured of receiving God’s word. The Holy Spirit communicates as well through these versions as He could if we had access to the original documents penned by the various authors used of God.

For study, several versions should be used. One can never discover all the possible interpretations or nuances of a text by simply reading one version. Hopefully, at least one version from each of the translation methods should be used. Affordable copies of most all versions are available today, and there are several good volumes containing more than one translation in a “parallel” layout.

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