A Life in Translation

For some reason, I've recently become re-interested in bible translations.

The first bible I ever owned was an New International Version, a Christmas gift from my parents. I loved it. I remember sitting by the Christmas tree in a new Christmas sweater and turning to the Sermon on the Mount. Reading the Sermon on the Mount in my first bible on Christmas morning was the holiest I've ever felt in my life. To this day, when I pick up a new translation the first passage I turn to is the Sermon on the Mount.

Unfortunately, the church I was raised in frowned upon the NIV. Apparently, the NIV was too "Calvinistic" as it taught the doctrine of "original sin." My tradition is Arminian so this was unacceptable. How did people reach this conclusion about the NIV? Well, they took my bible out of my hands and flipped to Psalm 51, David's psalm of confession after his affair with Bathsheba:

Psalm 51.5 New International Version
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
This translation, which seemed to teach original sin ("sinful at birth"), was, I was told, a mistaken translation. The better translations of this passage came from the King James, American Standard, and New American Standard versions.
Psalm 51.5 King James Version
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Psalm 51.5 American Standard
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me.

Psalm 51.5 New American Standard
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.
Beyond arguments like this (i.e., the NIV taught false doctrine) I was also told that the American Standard version was the "best" translation as it is the most literal and word-for-word translation of the bible. So I ditched my NIV for my second bible, an American Standard version. This was also my first fully black, high quality leather bible. So it looked and smelled very cool.

Unfortunately, the American Standard is virtually unreadable. It's really awful. By straining for an exact, literal translation the ASV imports the syntax and sentence structure of Greek into English. This creates long, awkward and convoluted sentences.

So after a year or so I switched over to the New American Standard which preserves the "literalness" of the ASV while smoothing out the worst of the ASV's syntactical awkwardness. I preached all my early sermons in High School and college from the New American Standard version.

However, as time went on, I grew tired of the NASV. For two reasons. First, the prose of the NASV didn't sing. And second, the NASV preserved the verse structure of the KJV and the ASV where the verse numbers were flush left, thus breaking up the text. For example, here is a picture of how the NASV is set up:

This setup obviously breaks up the text, cutting sentences in half and obscuring where paragraphs begin or end. One advantage of the NIV, to my mind, despite its being a damnable bit of heresy, was how it allowed the sentences and paragraphs to remain whole. Paragraphs look like paragraphs in the NIV.

So I started to drift back to the NIV later in college. But the translation that really had a impact upon me as an upperclassman was J. B. Phillips' The New Testament in Modern English. The fresh and colloquial style of this translation, combined with a lack of verse markers, made the New Testament epistles come alive for me. In Phillips' translation the immediacy of the epistles shone through. For the first time I felt I was reading actual letters, written by real people to real people. Philips made me forget I was reading "The Bible."

But Phillips' translation isn't good for teaching Bible class. With no verse markers it's hard to guide people to the passage you want them to read. Plus, Phillips' translation is so different that it is hard to track with when reading along with a more traditional translation. The phrasing is often very different, often unrecognizable. In this, the New Testament in Modern English is similar to The Message. However, I've never liked The Message. I'll take The New Testament in Modern English over The Message any day of the week.

So, when I started regularly teaching adult Sunday School classes I went back to the NIV. It's the most common version out there. But, once again, I grew tired of it and eventually switched to the New Revised Standard. Mainly because the NRSV is considered to be, by scholars, the "best" translation on the market. But despite its academic reputation, the NRSV doesn't read as smoothly as the NIV. So it's a trade off.

But lately, for some reason, the NSRV prose has been bothering me. So I've made another switch, one I'm really enjoying. My new favorite translation is the New Jerusalem Bible. Mainly used by Catholics, the NJB has a good academic reputation but its best feature is the poetry and melody of its prose. The NJB is, simply, the most lyrical and beautiful translation I've found. It's not perfect, but it's the best on the market.

And, never satisfied, this recent switch to the NJB has made me interested in a whole lot of other translations. Old and new. For example, I've recently enjoyed nostalgic feelings for the line drawings from The Good News for Modern Man. I'm also curious about "thought-for-thought" translations like the New Living Bible (anyone have an opinion about the quality of the NLT?). I also want to buy a copy the Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh ("Old Testament"). And I've recently been enjoying Willis Barnstone's The Restored New Testament, where Barnstone "restores" Hebrew names in the New Testament (e.g., "Jesus Christ" is rendered as "Yeshua the Mashiah"). So the search continues...

All told, it's been a life in translation.

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13 thoughts on “A Life in Translation”

  1. Delurking to say how much I enjoyed this post. Ever since I started studying Biblical languages as an undergrad I've struggled with finding translations I like- I couldn't take the NIV any more after I realised how bad it is with Paul, for example. The trouble is that, with a collection as enormously varied as the Bible, no one translation will get everything right.

    The JPS Tanakh is a really great, refreshing way of reading the OT- I also highly recommend Robert Alter's translation and commentary series (I believe he's covered the Pentateuch, 1&2 Samuel and the Psalms)- his literary sensibility is excellent.

  2. I enjoyed the Cotton Patch Bible back in the 80's, is it still in print?

    Of note, the translator used the word "lynch" in exchange for the word "crucified", noting that since shiny crucifixes had come to adorn the buildings and necks of Christians, the word, crucifixion, was no longer able to carry the event it was meant to signify.

    Lynching, he argued, had the connotative muscle to better convey Jesus's experience and its historical setting: "...Jesus was lynched for the sins of the world"..."Not knowing who He was, they lynched Him"....

    I agree with this translator; I think a lot more is said by the word lynch than by the word crucify.

  3. Eugene Peterson's translation, "The Message," startled me into reading the Bible more. And every time I need a sense of reading it fresh, I pick up "the Message" again.

  4. For what it's worth, in my unscholarly opinion, I read most often from the NLT. It's very similar to the NIV in its ability to keep the text in its original structure (it's very easy to follow one while listening to another) and it flows well, but it also incorporates some of the more modernly applicable phrasing/language that you probably appreciate in the New Testament in Modern English. It's been my favorite Bible for a few years now.

  5. I have an old JB from 1962 that I still use. It was a work of love that those translators did. KJV is still the one that I know best and use if I am searching for English words. But it wasn't till I started translating the TNK myself that I really began to read. I was forced to read slowly and revel in the internal structure of the text and really think about the communication with those ancient poets. Then I saw how many decisions were being made for me in translations. Now I almost never take a verse at the face value I would have taken it as before translating. Translators can impose much more than love on a text.

  6. I have an English Standard Version that I use as my main Bible. It seems to be a good mix between solid translation and readability. It was recommended to me by several of my greek-studying friends.

    I think it's quite important to have and read from several different Bible translations. The fact is that as 21st century readers, even those of us with backgrounds in Ancient Greek and Ancient Hebrew, we're never really going to be able to read and understand the language as it was by those who wrote it. Different (good) translations capture different aspects of the passage. Literal translations capture the meaning of certain words well, but lose the overall picture, while more loose translations challenge us to see the text in a fresh light, while losing some of the exact meaning in them.

  7. Our house has been using the NJB, mainly because it includes all of the daily BCP readings, but I think it reads well.

    I love my NIV Study Bible notes... specifically Romans 11:32 "For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all."

    The note says, "in no way is Paul arguing for universal salvation." I'm glad they have it all figured out for me.

  8. Sounds like you think Paul is arguing for universal salvation? I guess then you have a way of determining in what sense he is using the word 'all.' Does he mean a) each and every human, or b) all races (i.e., some from both Jew and Gentile races), or c) ????. The context does seem to be about God's handling of the Jewish and Gentile races, no?

  9. Haha I'm great Dr. Beck! Just survived my first week of grad school at Baylor and I'm alive and well :) Hopefully, that trend will continue for the next couple of years! I am an avid follower of your blog - I just miss your class lectures so much, and this was the next best thing...

  10. As the English language evolves -- or devolves -- translation of the ancient languages of the Bible into "modern" or "contemporary" English becomes increasingly difficult. You appear to prefer "dynamic equivalence" in translation, reaching for a text that "reads well" or "speaks" to you in the kind of English you use. More often than than not, in my opinion, "dynamic equivalence" becomes tendentious paraphrase, reflected in the Reformed-Evangelical tendencies of many passages of the NIV and in the blatant rewriting of pronouns and verb forms in the NRSV.

    Dynamic equivalence tends to homogenize the disparate authors of the New Testament and to minimize the distinctions of "style" and vocabulary among them. Even in English, in the RSV or another translation that attempts to translate the word order and sentence structure of the original into English, one can see that the "Paul" of the Pastoral Letters or, say, Ephesians is not the same author as the "Paul" of Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, or Philippians. A faithful translation will not "harmonize" the four Gospels by failing to reproduce their distinctions of style and vocabulary.

    In English translations some of us value accuracy most of all. How well does the translation reflect the original text in a readable English idiom? When i read, preach, or teach the New Testament, i work with a useful volume that offers a Greek text on one facing page and the RSV on the other. In the English RSV there are many penciled emendations and annotations. My working copy is wearing out, but i am loath to give it up, because of the labor represented in those pencil marks.

    For many of us reared on the "rhythms and cadences" of the KJV, the RSV has long been a compromise that reflected an accurate rendering of the original text in twentieth-century English. i still use it, with a pencil. i read and used the Phillips Translation as it appeared in the 1950, and found it liberating exhilarating, but finally rejected "dynamic equivalence" because i came to care about the original author -- what he or she was trying to say, and how he or she was trying to say it.

    God's Peace to you.


  11. I've been known to be a bit of translation junkie :). That said, lately I continue to come back to the ESV for accuracy, the NLT for clarity and ease of reading. I also still refer to the NKJV and NASB fairly regularly. If you're interested, I wrote a more detailed analysis on the NLT here:

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