God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Does Your Bible Translation Measure Up?

I just had an interesting conversation with the AP’s Travis Loller about the new(ish) Bible translation The Voice. (Read her article: “New Bible Translation Has Screenplay Format.”) As we were talking, she asked me whether the new translation is better than the King James Version.

I think it’s a fascinating question.

The background is that I told Travis that I believe that The Voice is flawed, and I’ve told her in the past that I also believe that the KJV is flawed. (“The King James Version [KJV]: The Fool’s-Gold Standard of Bible Translation.”)

The Voice is a translation in the style of The Message, designed primarily to be modern, colloquial, and readable. And it has a few added quirks, like its screenplay-like formatting and use of “The Eternal” where most translations have “The Lord.” As with so many other modern Bible translations, I think the implementation falls short of the goals, though it’s not always easy to tell the two apart, because what I see as failed implementation could be my misunderstanding of the goals.

In the end, The Voice ends up related to the original text of the Bible in much the same way that a movie is usually related to the book it’s based on. The Voice contains roughly the same material as the Bible, though with some significant additions and omissions. But the experience of reading The Voice strays far from what the original text created. The Voice is sometimes straightforward where the original is nuanced, for example, and mundane where the original is poetic. And in some places the modern rendition is simply inaccurate.

But here’s where things get interesting, because — especially for modern readers — the experience of reading the KJV also strays far beyond the original. For example, the KJV is now perceived to be uniformly formal or archaic, while the original text of the Bible was often neither. And, like The Voice, the KJV is frequently inaccurate, either because English has changed (take the video-quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“) or because the original translators got it wrong.

So which is better? A translation that oversimplifies the nuances of the Bible (The Voice) or one that over-complicates its accessibility (the KJV)? Which version’s mistakes do less damage to the original? This, really, is what Travis Loller was asking. In many places, I think The Voice comes out ahead.

We can extend the question to other versions. Like The Voice, I think The Message improves on the KJV in places, even as it suffers from significant drawbacks.

Certainly I think my recommended translation, the NRSV, improves greatly on the KJV.

What about the NIV, which I have often criticized? (I’m particularly frustrated with the latest version of the NIV, because the translators seem to have bowed to political pressure to move away from accuracy in some places.) I think that it, too, improves on the KJV.

So what do you think? Is your preferred translation better than the KJV? Why?

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July 30, 2012 - Posted by | Bible versions | , , , , , , ,

14 Comments »

  1. I “think in” KJV so it is still my favorite. But for my studies these days I use the Anchor Bible because it has footnotes to show difficult Greek phrases and explain its translation decisions. I like that it has the “Apocryha” but I wish it had Enoch, was based on the LXX and did like the KJV and New World Translation, indicating plural vs singular 2nd person pronouns. And of course, when I’m looking something up I am usually referring to an online reference like E-Sword.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | July 30, 2012 | Reply

  2. –The KJV is still my favorite also, and I will admit to a strong bias. I have decades of familiarity with KJV and only passing acquaintance with new translations.
    –Whenever I am presented with parallel translations, for instance when googling a Bible passage takes me to a site like “biblos.com,” I see if something catches my eye as a potential translation to switch to. Sometimes the new translations are not too bad, but if I have ever seen a translation that I thought really surpassed the KJV, I can’t recall it.
    –To be fair, a superior translation will also be about the consistency of the whole, not just individual phrases and sentences. Various words need to be consistently translated the same, passages that reference other passages need to be recognizable.

    –From my perspective if a Bible does not make spiritual wisdom discernible to those that seek it with diligence, it loses much of its importance. But I suppose if it at least functions as a tool for teaching ordinary earthly morality, it might still deserve some of the reverence (actually mostly lip service) that our society gives to it.
    –My criteria for judging the quality of a translation has much to do with those two functions. Being written with that concise style that spiritual wisdom often has, is also important. Although making spiritual wisdom discernible, is useful to a much smaller percentage of those that read the Bible, I still consider that to be the more important function. But, I can see how others might disagree.
    –Suppose there was a document that on one level taught mathematics, but allegorized beneath that level of teaching were truths about quantum mechanics. While quantum mechanics might be the more profound teaching, it is of little use to a society that doesn’t understand trigonometry and calculus. So maybe the lower levels of teaching are as important as the deepest truths the Bible contains.

    –Sometimes it seems the practically every noun of any significance in the Bible, has some metaphorical/allegorical significance. So, making sure that the connection between the various uses of the same noun is recognized should be a very high priority for any translation. Obviously Bible metaphors need to be recognizable in a translation, and references to those metaphors elsewhere in scripture also need to be recognizable.

    Comment by Caleb J. | July 30, 2012 | Reply

    • I agree strongly that the KJV does a great job of lending itself to exposing what someone called “intertextuality” which is not to be missed!

      Comment by WoundedEgo | July 30, 2012 | Reply

  3. Looks like the KJV people are the first on the scene.

    Comment by Joel H. | July 30, 2012 | Reply

  4. From a Catholic perspective, while the KJV remains an important translation in regards to its influence on the English language, its attraction for the average Catholic is fairly minimal. However, due to the continued popularity of the RSV-CE, and to a lesser extent the NRSV, which trace their lineage back to the KJV, the KJV does hold some influence in what Bible many Catholics read.

    Therefore, since the RSV has a more modern feel to it and has a better textual basis, I would choose it over the KJV. (Same thing with the NRSV.)

    Comment by Timothy | July 30, 2012 | Reply

  5. I use the following translations for the following reasons:

    NRSV primarily for personal use, prayer, devotion, study, memorization (I appreciate it’s use in academia, its broad ecumenical acceptance among Catholics and mainline Protestants, and its occasional willingness to ignore dogmatic doctrine when the correct translation is something other than what dogma tries to dictate). To be fair, I’d have to add as full disclosure that on a part-time basis I represent an organization that publishes a Bible using the NRSV text, so I’m probably partial because of that, too, but I liked the NRSV before I started that job.

    NIV 2011 for use at the nondenominational evangelical megachurch we attend on Wednesday and Saturday nights (I like the somewhat easier, modern English, and see it as important to know because of its popularity, but I’m not thrilled with the frequency of cosmetic updates in the last decade).

    KJV, which I personally dislike, but the Unitarian Universalist church I teach at on Sundays still uses its 150+yo KJV Bible. The English in it is too archaic for me (I understand it was not meant to be archaic, it just became that way over 400 years of evolution of the language). I’m far too aware of the various mistranslations in it to be able to take it seriously (one of the biggest drawbacks of critical analysis being it tends to leave the student disillusioned). In fairness, I think we can say that about every English translation to one degree or another.

    I avoid translations like the Message or the Voice because I feel they trivialize the text. I avoid the ESV because . . . I do not enjoy being in the presence of the kind of people who prefer it.

    Comment by Jason Engel | July 31, 2012 | Reply

    • I found this line priceless!: “…. I avoid the ESV because . . . I do not enjoy being in the presence of the kind of people who prefer it…”

      I have no idea what that means but it is quite a piqued remark!

      Comment by WoundedEgo | July 31, 2012 | Reply

  6. I grew up mainly with the NJPS, so I have a strong attachment to that. My understanding is that it fares fairly well by modern, scholarly standards. And, it’s certainly accessible – most of it actually sounds like English! So, overall, I’d have to say that it’s an improvement on KJV.

    Comment by Jason Rosenberg | July 31, 2012 | Reply

    • Having “grown up with” a text is certainly why the KJV is so popular. These days people are “growing up with” other texts, so this generate will likely finally gravitate away from such a heavy leaning toward KJV.

      It would be great if there were a complete text by Robert Alter because his stuff’s exceptional.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | July 31, 2012 | Reply

  7. Nobody else reads it, it seems, at least in my circle, but I find The New English Bible (1961) to be wonderfully readable while not seeming to dumb down passages in a way that I find in the NIV. I lost my copy for some time and simply didn’t read anything else.. I don’t suppose you would have an opinion on it as a translation?

    Comment by Tony C. | August 1, 2012 | Reply

  8. […] need so many versions of the Bible in English while Joel asks how our favourite Bible translations measure up. I am constantly amazed at the new and rather odd editions of the Bible which are produced in the […]

    Pingback by Bible and Mission Links 21 | August 3, 2012 | Reply

  9. As far as readability goes, I would say the KJV is the worst. While I did grow up on it, I see no advantage in relying on it now over a more modern version. If I want to look deeper I can always refer to the original language. I find it interesting that the NRSV, while being a lot older than many newer bibles, is still probably the modern benchmark for conservative accuracy. But I do shun versions like The Message, which I see as more like an entertaining novelty rather than the “words” of God.

    Comment by Robert Kan | August 9, 2012 | Reply

  10. Thanks, Joel, for your post. I was the lead scholar on The VOICE Bible so I speak with some authority on what we have done. Just a couple of comments.

    We did this translation not because we hoped to replace anyone’s favorite translation. We did this really for the virgin or first time reader. We did this for people who’ve picked up other translations and haven’t understood them, for whatever reasons. What we are hearing is that people are understanding the Bible for the first time. People who used to read a verse at a time or a chapter at a time are reading entire books in one sitting.

    We included explanatory paraphrase in the text in italic font and embedded commentary around the text to help the reader navigate through some of the tough parts. They were strategically located. Nuance is cultural. Try telling your favorite joke in a different culture and you’ll see how people don’t laugh. They won’t get it. In some cases we spelled out the nuance because we know virgin readers likely could not or would not intuit those slight cultural clues from 2000-3000 years ago embedded in the text.

    I would disagree that we have missed the poetic. There may be places we missed it but there are places we celebrate it. In THE VOICE BIBLE you will find assonance, acrostics (e.g., Lamentations, Psalm 25), and artful poetry/prose (Phil 2:6-11; John 1:1-4) where other Bible translations like the NASV format each verse as a paragraph.

    I like and have learned from every Bible translation which takes a good faith effort through the text. I do like the NRSV. We used that regularly in classes I teach at the university from 1998 to 2009. Today we use the ESV but not everyone is happy with it.

    I do a weekly blog which explains features of the new VOICE BIBLE at http://www.hearthevoice.com for any who might be interested. I’m writing a book called THE STORY OF THE VOICE for Thomas Nelson. It should be out in spring 2013 and it will tell the story of what we have done and why.

    Comment by David Capes | August 13, 2012 | Reply

    • Thank you, David, for joining the discussion. It’s a rare treat to hear from someone with such close involvement in a translation project.

      Comment by Jason Engel | August 13, 2012 | Reply


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