Lost in translations?
Did you know that there are over 450 English translations of the Bible! I was recently looking at the several different versions of the Bible that St. Brendan’s has in our library, and I realized I knew very little about what made them different or why there were so many translations available. So, I decided to do a bit of research, and here is what I found:
The Bible, as we know it today, is actually a combination of several different texts written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic by dozens of authors over a span of more than a thousand years (The Episcopal Handbook, 2015, p. 140). Thus, very few individuals, mostly scholars and theologians, can read the original texts of the Bible. The rest of us rely on translations to interpret the Scriptures.
According to the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (1979), Episcopalians call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God “because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible”. In other words, Episcopalians, along with many other Christians, tend to see the origins of the Bible as a human response to the presence and actions of God rather than a divine dictation (The Episcopal Handbook, 2015, p. 140). The Catechism continues, “We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures”.
So why does a translation matter? Well, the translations we read or hear can affect our interpretation and understanding of the Bible. Translations vary based on the choices, biases, and cultural understandings of the authors and translators. Some translations focus on being historically or grammatically accurate while others place more emphasis on the intent or message of the texts. Some are very scholarly while others use simpler language and are easier to read.
Types of Translations
There are three main approaches to translation: formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, and paraphrase. Formal equivalent translations, sometimes called word-for-word translations, attempt to keep translations as close to the original texts as possible, including sentence structures, figures of speech, and other grammatical features. Dynamic equivalent translations, or thought-for-thought translations, try to preserve the effect that original readers would have experienced in their own language. This means that the translators often replace figures of speech with modern equivalents or interpret the original texts in ways that are easier to read, such as “the usual daily wage” instead of “a denarius.” Finally, a paraphrase is a rewording of the Scripture into more common or conversational language, and, many times, the editors of these versions include their own reflections in the text. Sometimes you will see paraphrase versions of the Bible categorized as dynamic equivalent translations, but some people don’t consider these versions to be translations at all. (The Episcopal Handbook, 2015)
You are probably familiar with the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV); this is the version that is printed in St. Brendan’s weekly bulletin and read in church. And you may also be familiar with the King James Version (KJV), sometimes called the “Authorized Version,” originally published in 1611—with all the “thee”s, “thou”s, and “shall”s. While the KJV is a word-for-word translation, the NRSV is hybrid between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translation styles. The maxim of the NRSV translators was “As literal as possible, as free as necessary.” But did you know that the NRSV is translated in the tradition of the KJV? The NRSV (published in 1989) is an authorized revision of the Revised Standard Version (1952), which was a revision of the American Standard Version (1901), which was a revision of the KJV (“To the Reader” by Bruce M. Metzger for the translation committee, included at the front of every NRSV translation). The NRSV, which was produced by the National Council of Churches, is also unique because it is authorized for use by most major Christian churches including Protestant, Anglican, and Roman Catholic. The NRSV also tries to use inclusive and gender-neutral language, as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture (“To the Reader”).
Some other common translations are the New American Bible (NAB), which is the official version used by the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, and the New International Version (NIV), which is used widely in conservative and evangelical Protestant churches.
Each translation presents a slightly different reading and interpretation of the Scriptures. For example, St. Brendan’s mission statement quotes John 10:10b, “I have come to give life—life in all its fullness.” Here is how that passage appears in other translations:
KJV: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
NRSV: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
NIV: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
The Message (MSG): “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”
Here are some handy comparison charts of common translations of the Bible: http://www.mardel.com/bibleTranslationGuide https://www.cokesbury.com/FreeDownloads/BibleTransGuide.pdf
How to choose a Bible translation?
Officially, the Episcopal Church approves the use of fourteen different translations, which are listed here: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/bible. However, that does not mean that Episcopalians are limited to reading only these translations! Which version you choose depends on your purpose and motivations. Are you looking for a translation that is easy to read and understand? Then you might prefer a thought-for-thought translation. Are you planning an in-depth study? If so, you might find a word-for-word translation more useful or even a version that has a side-by-side comparison of two different translations! Beyond the translation, there are numerous types of Bibles available, including children’s Bibles, study Bibles, picture Bibles, devotional Bibles, digital Bibles… the list goes on!
Are you perhaps interested in reading a new translation? One good way to explore new translations is to read a familiar passage in several different translations to see which version speaks to you. This website (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/) makes it easy to see the same passage in many different translations.
With so many translations and such a range of types of Bibles, there is sure to be a Bible that meets your needs and helps you best engage with the Word of God. However, whichever type of Bible you use, it is worthwhile to understand which translation it is (NRSV, KJV, NIV, etc..) and what kind of translation it is (word-for-word, thought-for-thought, or paraphrase). Some other good questions to ask are: When was the translation made? (There have been many changes in the English language between 1611 and 1989, for example.) Was it translated by one individual, a group of scholars, or an organization? Is it a revision of another translation or did the translators use the original texts? Are there footnotes offering alternate translations or other commentary. These types of questions can help us understand the context hidden within each translation. Perhaps appreciating the diversity and richness of Bible translations can also aid us in asserting our interpretations with appropriate humility.
Most of us need to read the Bible in translation. And why is reading the Bible important? As is written in Psalm 119:
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105, NRSV).
Grace and peace,
A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please let me know! If you have any questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.