You Can Tell a Lot About a Person by the Bible Translation They Use

Today I would like to briefly direct your attention to something that has become a rather contentious issue within evangelical Protestant-dom.  We evangelicals are well known for our team-sport mentality, and this issue is just one more manifestation of that.

The issue is Bible translations.

Christians from other traditions will probably look at this and laugh profusely, because in other branches of the Church it is just not that big a deal.  For example, there are several different Catholic translations of the Bible out there, some better than others, but I just don’t hear Catholics arguing about which translation is better.  Moreover, I bet it would blow the minds of Catholics who read this, that which Bible translation you use could be such a contentious issue in our neck of the woods.

But it is.  There is now a veritable plethora of English translations of the Bible out there, and we have it all worked out to where we can know almost everything we need to know about you by looking at which Bible translation you use.  For instance, if you use the King James, then you’re probably a fundamentalist.  If you use the New American Standard or the ESV, it means you’re a smart person who places a premium on understanding the true word of God.  If you use the NRSV, you may be smart but you are hopelessly liberal.  If you use the NIV, you just don’t have a clue.  And if you use the Message, the New Living Translation, then you’re just some young postmodern punk who doesn’t care anything about doctrine.

Tim Challies has written a full-length post extolling the superiority of essentially literal translations such as the ESV and the New American Standard, while disparaging other translations such as the New Living Translation.

Tyndale Press editor Keith Williams posted this response at the NLT Blog, taking issue with several points of Challies’ critique of the dynamic equivalence translation philosophy.

I will let you read these two posts and evaluate the arguments on each side of the issue for yourself.  Take a break and meet me back here in ten minutes.

OK, are we all back?  Now, here’s where I come down on all of this.

In the last post we just started looking at Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  This book was originally written in French, and had to be translated into English.  Now French is pretty close to English, but there is not an exact one-to-one equivalence between French words and English words.  Because of this, translating French into English can be a tricky issue at times.  There are several translations of Les Miserables out there, and each one takes a different philosophy of translation.  Some try to translate the text word-for-word, or as close to word-for-word as possible.  The problem with this is that in translating the individual words into English, you lose some of the meaning that results from certain figures of speech which exist in French but do not exist when the same words are put together in English.  The more recent translations try to translate the images and thoughts into English, finding images in today’s culture that match the images in Victor Hugo’s words as closely as possible.  The trouble with this is that you sacrifice the word-for-word accuracy of the translation.

So you see, translation is a judgment call.  The translators have to try to get inside the author’s head and find out just what it was that he was trying to express, and find words and figures of speech in English that will express it.  And this is true when translating from French to English, which are fairly close to each other.  How much more so when trying to translate from ancient Hebrew or Greek into modern English.

So let’s cut the crap about which translation is better than the others.  Each of the translators is driven by a philosophy of respect for the Word of God and trying to be as faithful to the original text as possible while conveying its meaning into our English.  Yet their philosophies of translation are widely different, and the results of their work are widely different.  Tim Challies has a profound respect for the Word of God, and it leads him to advocate a literal approach to translating the Bible.  Keith Williams of Tyndale Press has an equally profound respect for the Word of God, and it leads him to advocate a translation philosophy which is almost the exact opposite.

I think it’s safe to say that we can all agree to disagree on this one.

By the way, here is a Michael Spencer post in which he explores the issue and brings up the additional point that marketing may be behind all the hype about different translations.

Comments, anyone?  I would love to know what you think about this issue.

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3 thoughts on “You Can Tell a Lot About a Person by the Bible Translation They Use

  1. Excellent, Joe. I agree wholeheartedly. The only thing I’d add is the fact that there are still millions of people around the world who don’t have a single word of Scripture in their languages while we get on and argue the minutiae of English translations. The English speaking Church needs to sort it’s priorities out.

  2. Thanks for linking to my post.

    I completely agree with you, and I hope my post didn’t make it seem like I was denigrating the ESV. I have an issue with the way Tim Challies discussed the NLT in that post, and I think that the philosophy behind the NLT is worth defending, but that doesn’t mean I think the ESV is an inferior translation.

    And you’re right. iMonk, as usual, brings up a good point. I commented on that post with some thoughts on the issue of consumerism earlier this week.

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