God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: What’s the best Bible translation to read and study from?

From the about page comes this important question:

I am currently trying to find a good Bible translation to read and study from. What would you recommend and could you point me to any good articles/books/resources which could help me make this decision? Thanks!

It’s hard to imagine a reply that won’t get someone really angry with me, but I’ll still give it a shot.

My short answer is this: start with the New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”) or the New American Bible (“NAB”). Both are widely available, and in my opinion generally unsurpassed in accuracy (though each also has its own drawbacks).

The longer answer begins with some background. There are essentially four different kinds of English Bibles available today:

1. Paraphrases. These are like “English books based on the original Hebrew/Greek Bible,” sometimes only coming as close as a movie based on a book. The most common are The Message and The Living Bible. These tend to be written in colloquial, even chatty English, and are easy to read. But even though they are so accessible, I generally don’t recommend them, because they hide much of the original beauty and complexity of the Bible.

2. Word for Word Translations. I could equally call these “partial translations.” They take the words of the original Bible and try to reproduce each one in English. As a matter of translation, this is usually a really bad idea. But as a matter of religion (particularly for Jews) there are some good reasons to do this, so these partial translations of the Bible are more popular than they otherwise would be. The most common word-for-word translation is the English Standard Version (“ESV”). I don’t generally recommend publications that take this approach because they tend to create the wrong impression that the Bible was archaic or even incomprehensible.

3. Full Translations. These are Bibles that try to produce a true English equivalent of the text of the Bible, which is what you probably want. The most common are the New International Version (“NIV”), and the NRSV and NAB that I’ve already mentioned.

4. Outdated Full Translations. These are much older English translations, so they translate the Bible into English we no longer use. There’s no good theoretical reason to read one of these Bibles, but there’s a good practical reason. The King James Version (“KJV”) and the New King James Version (“NKJV”) are examples of this approach, and they are the most widely cited English Bible translations. When most people think of “what the Bible says,” they think of the KJV.

The reason I give all of this background is that at first glance each of (1), (2), and (4) seems to be appealing — for ease of reading, apparent fidelity to the text, and apparent authenticity — but they are each mostly misleading in this regard.

However, which Bible you ultimately want depends on what you want to do with it. If you belong to a religious community that has already chosen a translation, you probably want to stick with what your community has chosen; similarly, most translations reflect not only what the Bible originally meant but also what subsequent religious thinkers said that it meant. If you just want a general sense of what the Bible stories in Genesis or the Gospels are about, a paraphrase is the quickest path. The word-for-word translations frequently “sound like the Bible,” which can be comforting.

Regarding resources for deciding, the Better Bibles Blog has a wealth of helpful information and discussion. And lots of books explain the different Bible versions, but mostly with not enough insight into how translation works. Still, you might want to look at Philip Comfort’s Essential Guide to Bible Versions or Bruce Metzger’s The Bible in Translation.

Finally, I would suggest that more important than a good translation is a good teacher to work with. Even a perfect translation (and none exists) would only be a starting point.

November 10, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 49 Comments

Translating and Improving the Bible

Joel Berkowitz (in Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage) writes of the hubris of Yiddish theaters that promoted Yiddish productions of Shakespeare that were “translated and improved.”*

Though we mock it now, I often think I see the same thing in Bible translations, in two related ways:

1. “Translators” want to make the general flavor of the text into something it never was, frequently either overly formal (NKJV, for example) or overly informal (GNB / TEV).

2. “Translators” want to explain not just what the text says, but what it “means.” Sometimes this takes the flavor of theological interpretation. Other times it comes from a desire to make an opaque text simple.

The second issue came up recently in a comment by Peter Kirk, who correctly points out that expanding on bara in Genesis 1:1 to specify details of creation that are absent from the original text “go[es] beyond what is necessary for translation […] into theological speculation.”

One criticism of translating sarx as “sinful nature” is that is, too, is a “translation and an improvement” in that it fills in details on which the original text is silent. (Another criticism is that it’s not what the text meant. But my point here is that even if it is what the text meant, it might not be the right translation.)

Similarly, it seems to me that “translators” who take gender-specific texts and make them generic are “translating and improving.” For that matter, taking a generic text and making it gendered is a mistake, though I think this reverse pattern usually happens by error — because the translators don’t understand gender in the original language as well as they think they do — not by design.

A case in point is “ancestors.” Let’s assume I’m right that the Hebrew avot means “ancestors.” How, then, should we translate “to your avot, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 1:9)? Even though the ancestors listed are all male, and even if the biblical culture was such that only the men counted (I don’t think it was — but let’s assume), I still don’t think “ancestors” should be changed to “fathers.”

A more radical case makes the reasoning clearer. If patir refers to God, I think it should still be translated as either “father” or “parent,” not as “God.”

The reason I put scare quotes around “translators” so many times here is that in my opinion translation is incompatible with deciding a priori what the content or style of the translation should be. You can (try to) improve the text, or you can translate it, but you can’t do both.

(*) By the way, though the “translated and improved” slogan is widely cited, I’ve been unable to confirm it. If you have a photo of the original, I’ll be most grateful to see it.

November 3, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments