God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Translations for Children

Karyn Traphagen notes that Dr. Ellen Frankel has some thoughts about making the Bible PG for children. (Dr. Frankel authored the JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible.)

Seeing this reminded of something I saw some time ago in a “children’s prayerbook” along the lines of “Like wine, the sabbath is sweet.” The problem is that children think wine is disgusting, so I doubt that comparing the sabbath to wine is really a good way to reach children.

Then I got to wondering more generally if translations need to be tailored to children, and I think the answer is at least partially “yes,” because children speak a different dialect of English. (The translation issues are in addition to any content changes, such as perhaps removing rape.)

At the most basic level, children have a different vocabulary and syntax than adults. Just as the British and American versions of some translations differ according to the two dialects, shouldn’t a children’s version take into account how children use language?

Similarly, some biblical metaphors are completely opaque to children. For example, the common image among the Prophets of a “barren women” is beyond the understanding of young children, but the point may not be.

On the other hand, I see at least four drawbacks to children’s translations:

1. Children may come to think that their children’s version is the Only True Version of the Bible, and then, as adults, refuse to use any other. This would leave them with a permanently pediatric view of the Bible.

2. More generally, children may never learn that the Bible is suitable for adults.

3. Parents — many of whom read the Bible primarily with their children — may find reinforcement for their preconceived notions that the Bible is childish.

4. As a practical matter, translating for children is difficult. A bad translation is probably worse than no translation.

So I wonder: should we create children’s translations of the Bible?


October 20, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , ,


  1. Some good points here, Joel. I just posted my thoughts as well: http://blog.jasonstaples.com/2009/10/childrens-bible-translations-thoughts.html

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | October 20, 2009

    • Very well thought out response, Jason.


      Comment by Joel H. | October 21, 2009

  2. I read Jason’s thoughts and agreed with many of them.

    Personally, I like Bible story books for younger ages. I don’t like the ICB because of the explicit and technical language it uses, but again, good points have been made to the effect that it’s not a bad thing.

    I was one of the kids who tried to read books like Ivanhoe and Pride and Prejudice at the age of nine. I think kids would be a lot better served by being given a good dynamic translation, like the NLT, and allowed to run with it. I think they would have a harder time with versions like the ESV or NKJV.

    Comment by Hannah C. | October 22, 2009

  3. […] began to wonder and wander… about bible translations for children. He notes 4 drawbacks to such an […]

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  4. Also you’d need native speakers to do the translation, and not many children know Hebrew and Greek.

    Comment by Pete Head | October 22, 2009

  5. I spent 5 years as a children’s minister, and the NLT was my best friend. Inner-city kids reading 3-4 grade levels behind could understand this when we read it together. It was much more helpful than things like the NIrV or ICB.
    One thing I found helpful with kids was reading from books that compiled portions of the Bible without changing the text of the Bible. For me it was the best of both worlds. It kept them from feeling daunted by the sheer quantity of the Bible, and it kept me from feeling like I was altering the Word of God for them.

    Comment by Ryan | October 22, 2009

  6. One advantage I came across (not among English speakers) of a children’s Bible was that adult Christians were buying it and reading it themselves because they could understand it far more easily than the version in old fashioned language which their churches used.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | October 22, 2009

  7. […] Hoffman has just posted on the subject of Bible translations for children, spurred by Ellen Frankel's post on "Making the Bible PG." Hoffman […]

    Pingback by Children’s Bible Translations: Thoughts | Test Blog | October 25, 2009

  8. […] Translations for Poor Readers Not long ago, I asked about the merit of tailoring translations to children. When I starting reading about the new CEB translation, and in particular that “[t]he new […]

    Pingback by On Translations for Poor Readers « God Didn't Say That | November 2, 2009

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