Bible Translation Randomness

These days I’m fascinated by the various translations.  Not too long ago I said that the NRSV was becoming my translation of choice.  Four months later and I bought a copy of the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) and have been reading up on it.  The TNIV is essentially an updated version of the NIV (New International Version), reflecting updated scholarship and what they call “gender accurate” language (meaning what most people would call “gender inclusive” language).

A couple thoughts on the TNIV and translation in general:

1.  The TNIV gets a lot of flack because of it’s gender accurate language.  As far as I am aware, the NLT (New Living Translation) has received no such flack, even though it is also a “gender accurate” translation.  In fact, most new translations are “gender accurate” to some degree.  The concern appears to be what exactly “gender accuracy” is and how much of it should be included.  (I read somewhere that the TNIV gets all the attention because of its relationship to the NIV, the longstanding bestseller.  This makes sense.  I guess.)

2.  I like the TNIV so far because it’s familiar (having grown up on the NIV) and yet updated.

3.  The TNIV is accepted by the Evangelical Covenant Church (our denomination).  It is flatly rejected by the Southern Baptist Convention. (Klyne Snodgrass mentioned at the Midwinter Conference in Chicago that Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary endorsed the Holman Christian Standard Bible, in response to the release o of the TNIV, because he thought the Southern Baptists should have a translation they can control.)  In fact, it appears as if Calvinists have the hots for the ESV (English Standard Version) and the hates for the TNIV.

4.  I am developing a theory that one’s preference of Bible translation is a reflection of either one’s personality or one’s theological position (or both).  Example: Mark Driscoll digs the ESV; Rob Bell loves the TNIV.  The ESV is more literal, less readable; the TNIV is less literal and more readable.

5.  I’m becoming more and more convinced (well, I think I was already convinced) that objective reading of the text is impossible to come by.  It is often said that one should always study scripture with several different translations in hand (assuming one can’t read the original languages).  But it occurred to me the other day that chances are that a person will choose the translation among the bunch which suits the objective of study–the more “fitting” translation, the one the person likes more.  Simply reading multiple translations will not lead to the best reading of a passage, but the preferred reading.

6.  Having said that, reading multiple translations will give a person a broad sense of the possibilities of meaning or intent in  a passages.  But who is to choose?  Is choosing even necessary.

7.  I’m also learning that the differences between contemporary English translations are subtle and rarely affect meaning significantly.  From what I can tell, it’s mostly about nuance.

8.  Based on a YouTube clip of one of his sermons, John MacArthur rejects the TNIV because it allows cultural agenda to unduly influence translation.  I wonder what he thinks about the notion that gender-inclusive language (the root issue) is a way of making scripture more accessible to a particular culture.  Is all this fuss simply rhetoric?  It’s always couched in language about feminist agendas and pandering to culture and changing the meaning of the text.  But what about this: modern translations are in current English.  Nobody that I know of (other than the King James-only people) has a problem with translating into current English.  Since current English is increasingly gender inclusive, doesn’t it follow that new translations should be gender inclusive?

9.  Incidentally, “gender inclusive” translations don’t neuter all gender references.  What they do is take a passage that says “men” in the original language but which clearly means “men and women” and translate it so.

10.  I wonder: if you placed two people who have not read the Bible in a “perspective and context vacuum” (hypothetically speaking) and had one read the ESV and another read the TNIV (for example), would they have conflicting understandings at the end?  I doubt it.  One would just have a more pleasant reading experience than the other.

11.  One might argue that it’s good to wrestle with difficult text, rather than having the text do all the work for you.  But does it really make a difference if the difficulty is simply the “type” of English used?

12.  Judging by what I see online, angry people prefer more archaic, overly literal translations.  I find this off-putting.  Conversely, gentler people appear to prefer the more current, inclusive translations.  This attracts me.  (See #4)

13.  As Ian has mentioned a couple of times on this blog, there is no such thing as a literal word-for-word translation.A literal word-for-word translation would be, I suspect, largely unintelligible.

14.   I’m curious to know how one gauges which translation is more literal or more accurate than another, when all translations are…translations.  And translation is essentially interpretive work.  And interpretive work inevitably involves (differences of) opinion, perspective, preference, etc.–interpretation is not an objective process.

15.  #14 belies my postmodern scepticism.  Scepticism, at least, of there being a largely objective translation of scripture.

16.  In spite of my scepticism, I do see that, by and large, it won’t make much difference which translation you use.  (See #7 and #10)

17.  In conclusion: pick a translation you find readable and read it.

15 thoughts on “Bible Translation Randomness

  1. Toni

    Interesting how you link 4 and 12. My observation is that more liberal Christians (like Bell) pick the easier reading versions that also are more permissive to a liberal viewpoint, while conservatives pick those which are more literal and make a liberal view less reasonable. It is an unfortunate reflection of North American Christianity that the conservatives tend to be angry and aggressive, while the liberals *may* be more gentle.

    I’d agree that most of the time it doesn’t matter which version you read, however the problem comes when trying to understand what the original intent was (a truism I believe wholeheartedly is that the scripture cannot mean now what it did not mean then). Thus, if you are opposed to the doctrine of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, you might choose to use the Good News version, because of the manner in which certain verses are mis-translated. I mention this because this is an example of problems with specific versions outside the obvious gender/sexuality issue.

    FWIW I have an interlinear Greek-English version, and it is distinctly not easy to read. It is also not truly word-for-word, as there are certain words that do not translate directly. It does prove useful when people do argue original meanings or quote Greek words at me however.

  2. Linea

    I believe that translation is, indeed, interpretive. It just has to be by nature. If one has ever read any work translated into English from another language there are all sorts of expressions that are untranslatable. Then one must look for an equivalent meaning to make some sense of it. This is especially true of poetic works otherwise they lose the effect of poetry.

    I think that the Biblical scholars who do translation are so much more knowledgeable than me about the original Greek or Hebrew meanings that my understanding a limited amount of Greek is not going to allow me to dispute a meaning with any of them. And unless they are really out to distort the original meanings, which I doubt, I feel that what we get from the different translations is probably more nuance of meaning, as you say, as well as readability. It seems to me that the Holy Spirit can work with us to enlighten our understanding of God even if the nuances are slightly different. Being angry and rigid, on the other hand, may be more of an impediment to the work of the Holy Spirit.

  3. Marc

    “My observation is that more liberal Christians (like Bell) pick the easier reading versions that also are more permissive to a liberal viewpoint, while conservatives pick those which are more literal and make a liberal view less reasonable. “

    I have difficulty with this statement mostly because ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are relative terms. I may seem liberal compared to you (for the sake of example), but I am very conservative compared to others. Rob Bell may be ‘more liberal’, but in comparison to whom? Mark Driscoll? John McArthur? What about in comparison to Marcus Borg? Or Bishop Spong?

    It implies that the ‘more liberal’ (again, whatever that may be) reading is automatically incorrect or misguided.

    It seems to me that the Bible is neither liberal nor conservative, it just *is*. It is the translator/interpreter/reader who pulls the Bible one way or another.

    That’s why I have trouble with saying one translation is better than another. I have a lexicon as well, but I don’t know the languages. It’s all well and good to see the various meanings of a word (and they’re often translated in several ways depending on context, not just one), but there is 2,000 years + difference in culture and idiom and language (even with current Greek, I suspect) and if Hebrew and Greek scholars can’t agree on which word it should be or how it should be phrased, then I’m not likely to be able to figure it out either.

    The problem is that we come to the text with our own theologies in mind. So if I believe in the virgin birth, then that verse in Isaiah must be “virgin” rather than “young woman”. We look for affirmation of our theology and project it into the text.

    This is beginning to look backwards to me. We should do our best to set our theology aside and simply let the Bible speak. Same with translation: set theology aside in the process.

    Not sure if this is all coherent. It’s lunch hour and I’m rushing this off. (I may regret it later! 🙂 )

    (Also: the TNIV is not that much different from the NIV, from what I can tell)

  4. Andrew

    As Derrida said succinctly, “there is nothing outside the text”, in other words, context is everything. Everything, including every reading/interpretation is contingent. There is no ‘objective’ interpretation of the bible, and no one who reads it does so ‘objectively’.

    I think it is painfully obvious that the ‘bible believing’ evangelical subculture we grew up in does as much (re)interpreting of the bible to suit its own agenda as any other community using the bible (or any other sacred writings for that matter) to bolster its faith.

  5. Andrew

    Looks like we were writing at the same time.

    “This is beginning to look backwards to me. We should do our best to set our theology aside and simply let the Bible speak. Same with translation: set theology aside in the process.”

    That’s a good sentiment, though I think it’s unfortunately impossible. Strictly speaking, the bible doesn’t ‘speak’; when someone claims, “the bible says x and y” it really means “I read the bible as supporting x and y”.

  6. Andre

    What we read in scripture is thoroughly influenced by our existing theological attachments; this is just as true for those who write translations as read them.

    A Bible that kept all the possibilities of the original languages would likely be three or four times as long as our current translations. That’s a wild guess, of course. But the translator tries to communicate only what the translator thinks the text means, not everything it could mean.

    I think the great problem in approaching scripture is not the relativity of discerning what it could mean (there’s a similar relativity in all relationships with others, which we learn to negotiate) but in pretending the Scriptures present an objective theology that reason is supposed to unlock. It seems to me that some parts are at odds with others, and yet, here and there and throughout is the Spirit, nudging and guiding, saying ‘Here I am, here I am.”

  7. Linea

    Andre – you said:
    “It seems to me that some parts are at odds with others, and yet, here and there and throughout is the Spirit, nudging and guiding, saying ‘Here I am, here I am.”

    That is brilliant!

  8. Marc

    Easy to forget, too, is that translation doesn’t just involve converting Hebrew and Greek words into a modern language, but it also includes the addition of punctuation and paragraph breaks, neither of which are present in the original language texts. Without this the Bible would be nearly unintelligible in English. But this, too, is an interpretive task. (Not to mention section headings and extra words not in the original texts.)

  9. Phil L

    Thanks for motivating me to post an update on my journey through the “Evangelical Parallel New Testament”. As I elaborate in today’s post, I chose not a single “compromise”, but two versions:
    NLT as “reading” bible;
    ESV as “study” bible.

  10. Toni

    Did I tweak a nerve there, Marc?

    I’d be interested to know if you really thought all translations (and all the various names you quoted fro Driscoll to Spong) were correct in their interpretations? I think you may have interpreted a little of what I said too, though not *entirely* unreasonably.

    I’m reminded of a line from a Dire Straits song: “2 men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong”. If we read and the one Spirit is bringing us the meaning then why are we at such poles over certain issues?

  11. Don Hendricks

    Great Thoughts, Old guy here with a Seminary degree and six years of Greek and three of Hebrew, who grew up with the NASB. …..after you know the language enough to understand what commentators are discussing, it really won”t get you any closer to answering the interpretive issues. We have 1600 years of unconciously reading augustinian ideas into the scripture, someone comes along and raises some good questions, and we are all becoming open to some new ways of understanding old issues, and we are being reformed by the word and by currect thought. That may be how the One Spirit likes to see the process along.

  12. Marc Post author

    Toni: No nerves tweaked. It’s a subject I’m fascinated by, so I get animated.

    I hope I didn’t come across to strongly. That wasn’t my intention.

    I guess all of this is why I ended with #17: just pick a translation and read it. With all the different views out there about translation, how many people that strongly defend on translation are actually reading it? I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it?

    Of course, one could could ask, is it better to read a poor translation than not read the Bible at at all? 🙂

    (Also one more argument in favour of readability: the Bible was, for the most part, meant to be read aloud.)

  13. Toni

    Marc – me too, so that’s good.

    🙂

    I’d largely agree about picking one. There are some I’d specifically avoid (the good news is onesuch) because clear meanings have been changed, the message as a study bible. but most current translations are fine for both reading and study. I like to check several versions on biblegateway.com when I want to be sure about a verse, and most translations agree with each other quite closely.

    About poor vs not reading, depends how poor. But there are lots of good versions, so why should anyone read a poor one?

  14. Toni

    Oh, BTW “It implies that the ‘more liberal’ (again, whatever that may be) reading is automatically incorrect or misguided.”

    Some consider me quite liberal, despite much solid evidence to the contrary. However my experience has been that liberal interpretations of the bible have tried to make it say stuff that it does not in order to support their argument. Now it may be that the more sound liberals don’t do that, but many I’ve met through blogging and forums do.

    It’s my view that you’re actually quite orthodox and reasonably conservative in theology, but with some liberal ideas that you’ve inherited from your ‘fathers’ in various forms. I could be quite incorrect, but I don’t think so. One of the reasons they keep reappearing here is that you’re still working them through – they keep coming up because they aren’t sorted out yet, so need revisiting.

    But what do I know? I’m just a biologist: not a shrink.

  15. Marc Post author

    You’re probably right, Toni. I think, too, I’ve been going through a long period of looking at other areas of Christianity that differ from my own heritage, which is conservative to fundamentalist.

    I didn’t respond to this earlier, but meant to:

    “I’d be interested to know if you really thought all translations (and all the various names you quoted fro Driscoll to Spong) were correct in their interpretations? I think you may have interpreted a little of what I said too, though not *entirely* unreasonably.

    I’m reminded of a line from a Dire Straits song: “2 men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong”. If we read and the one Spirit is bringing us the meaning then why are we at such poles over certain issues?”

    I would say that not all interpretations are correct–what I’ve heard from Spong, for instance, makes me wonder why he bothers with the faith at all.

    As far as the Dire Straits song: I’d say at least one of them is wrong, possibly both. 🙂

    Why are we at poles over certain positions? That’s the age-old question and one that frustrates me to no end.

    I wonder if we are meant to live with this interpretive tension, so as to avoid getting to the point of saying, “I’ve got the Bible and faith and God all figured out”?

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