In one respect, today's English-reading believers are the most privileged Christians of all time. Available to us are more vernacular versions of Holy Scripture than any generation before us had, and all the mainline ones are good. (I am not considering here such renderings as the Jehovah's Witnesses' New World Version. ) It is important, however, to grasp that they are good in different ways, according to how each seeks to impact its targeted readership. The goal is still Luther's and Tyndale's goal, that ordinary people might clearly understand the Word of God, but it is pursued by different routes.
Versions is an umbrella word that covers all the products of the two main translation methods currently in use. Some versions opt for grammatical equivalence, that is, a word-for-word and clause-for-clause correspondence with the original as far as possible. The risk here is stiffness of style, unnatural English, and consequent obscurity. Other versions aim at dynamic equivalence, that is, a rendering that conveys the substance and force of the original, though at the cost of periodic paraphrase. The risk here is a woolly superficiality that keeps readers from deep and exact understanding. The ideal would be an equivalence that was fully literal and fully dynamic too, but that is not always possible, because the usage of pre-Christian Hebrew and first-century Greek does not always match that of modern English. So tradeoffs are inescapable in the translation process, and here the versions fan out into three main types.
Some prefer verbal equivalence, even if awkward, over punchy vividness in places where you cannot have both. Examples of this are the New King James Version (NKJV) and the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Instances of the opposite choice carried through are the Living Bible (LB), the New Century Version (NCV), Today's English Version (TEV; also called the Good News Bible), God's Word (GW), and the Contemporary English Version (CEV). In between come compromise renderings that aim at the best of both worlds, as much grammatical literalness and punchy vividness combined as they can manage. Here the Revised Standard Version (RSV), now off the market, and the New International Version (NIV) have established themselves as the top products of this type, with the NIV currently the best-selling of all the translations. Whether the recently arrived New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the yet more recent New Living Translation (NLT), both of which exemplify the balanced tradeoff mode, will ever displace the NIV remains to be seen.
Do we need so many versions? Probably, yes, for our world is split into many subcultures, each with its own linguistic and reading habits and shifting wavelengths of comprehension. Shakespeare lovers and connoisseurs of Milton and Bunyan still appreciate the stately King James Version of 1611 (KJV), as do elderly folk brought up on it. But tabloid readers and teens get further faster with the brasher liveliness of the NLT or CEV, or Eugene Peterson's The Message. The American cultural kaleidoscope that has made niche marketing necessary in retail trade has also made necessary "niche rendering" in the world of Bible translation. So it should cause no pain or consternation to learn that one's own favorite version rings no bells with someone else who likes a version that rings no bells with you.
WHEN IN DOUBT, LEAN LITERAL
Translators of the spoken word, in preaching, diplomacy, business, or any other field, are rightly called interpreters, for all translation is interpretation to some extent. Translators decide what a speaker means and how to convey it most clearly in the other language and are rated according to their skill in doing this. So it is with written material, and signally so with the text of Scripture, in which much of God's teaching is carried by choice of words and phrases and by significant verbal echoes. Paraphrase renderings can be a problem here, because they make the original wording inaccessible and give only the translator's view of what it all adds up to; and that view may be disputable.
This is illustrated by the recent debate about inclusive-language versions. It was urged that rendering brothers in the New Testament as brothers and sisters (which secular Greek usage allows, though Old Testament thought-forms hardly encourage) and cutting out the generic masculine he (which is standard in Greek and Hebrew, as it has been in English and most other languages) would make translations more accurate by showing that God in Scripture addresses women as well as men. It was assumed that nothing of theological significance hangs on these changes. But is this inclusive masculine part of a pervasive biblical and general-revelation witness to a male priority (headship, however precisely defined) in the order of creation? There are those who think so; and while the debate about this continues, and everyone understands, even if some do not like, the inclusive masculine, the wise way is not to paraphrase it out—certainly not to cut it out of any version that currently displays it, as if any such display is a defect. The rule should surely be: where there is doubt or dispute about the significance of the data, render literally so that readers have access to the wording of the original and so can engage with the problem directly. To paraphrase out a disputed feature would be, from one standpoint, to slant the version, and from another, to undertranslate.
Undertranslation, in pursuit of an easy English flow, can be more of a problem than is sometimes realized. Two examples show this. First, in Ephesians 4:13 most modern versions (NIV, RSV, NRSV, GW, NLT for starters) make Paul say that through reaching unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son we are to become mature, or to reach mature manhood, the fullness of Christ being the standard of our ma-turity. Only the KJV and NASB let us know that Paul actually wrote of reaching "a mature man." The paraphrasing translations take the "mature man" to be either a full-grown Christian or Christ himself, both of which find support in the commentaries. But, as John Stott observes, the context points to a corporate understanding of the "mature man" as the "one new man" of Ephesians 2:15, the Jewish-Gentile church that Paul pictures as Christ's body, building, and bride. Paul's point then is that only through the maturing of the whole worldwide, multinational, multicultural Christian community will the fullness of Christ—that is, all that he is and gives—find full expression. No single one of us can embody it all! But the translations mentioned conceal from us the possibility that this is Paul's meaning by putting "manhood" where he put "man," or indeed by dropping "man" altogether. This is undertranslation.
Second, in James 2:1, most modern translations, including the NASB, give us the phrase "our glorious Lord Jesus Christ." James, however, wrote "our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory" (or "the Lord of the glory," as the KJV and RSV less naturally render the words). "The glory" in the Old Testament was the bright light that signified God's presence to bless, and what James seems to be saying is that our Lord Jesus Christ is precisely that—God present with us through his Spirit to bless us according to his revealed character and promises and purpose. But "glorious" fails to catch this, and so is undertranslation.
Paraphrasing out such semitechnical New Testament terms as propitiation, justification, redemption, reconciliation, and righteousness keeps the readers from realizing that these were among the apostolic teachers' keywords, and thus is a further instance of undertranslation.
These examples show that it is no more possible to produce a translation of the Bible that caters to all the concerns of all Bible readers than it is to square the circle. My opening statement that all the current versions are good did not mean that any of them was perfect, only that all of them do surprisingly well in terms of their own ground rules. So we should thank God for the scholarly labor that gives us so rich a range of options for our Bible reading and show our gratitude by soaking ourselves in the version or versions that suit us best. A comparison of the time we spend daily with the newspaper and with the Bible would put some of us to shame. We should banish the irrational though widespread suspicion that the multiplicity of versions means that none of them can be trusted; we should acknowledge (for this is the truth) that each of the best of them from time to time throws greater light on the detailed meaning of the text than do the others; and we should make Bible reading a life priority, as our Christian forefathers did. To read through the Bible annually, ringing the changes perhaps on a grammatical-equivalent, a dynamic-equivalent, and a middle-of-the-road version, would be a good goal for us all.
The Bible presented to the sovereign in the British coronation service is there described as "the most valuable thing that this world affords … the lively oracles of God." This witness is true, and it will be well for us if we learn to behave as those who believe it.
J. I. Packer teaches theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.