Friday, April 15, 2011

In search of the perfect Bible

Stumbling briefly last night through the mirky recesses of Facebook, I noticed that for some reason many Sydney Anglicans currently seem obsessed (once again) with the question of the merits of various English translations of Holy Scripture. Some are saying "I follow Paul", others "I follow Apollos", and yet others "I follow Christ". Extravagant claims are made for one version or another, one opening the eyes of the blind, a second making the lame to walk while a third comes with a free set of steak knives.

Removing tongue from cheek, there are indeed relevant differences between the various options and such discussion is not empty of benefit, but all the major and well-known translations are generally very good and the benefits of one over another are relatively slight. Yet the marketers are not content with this, seeking to create artificial scarcity to generate an economy of fear and desire (and sell more units), and so claims are made that cannot possibly be true of any one translation.

The question of which translation is the "best" is context-dependent. It depends who is reading and for what purpose (and sometimes even the passage in question). The ideal study version for a scholar is going to be different to the ideal version for children and those still learning English. The merits of different approaches shine in different contexts.

And this is how it ought to be. The search for the perfect English Bible is a chasing after the wind. The Scriptures may be venerated, but not worshipped. The are holy, but not themselves divine. We are happy to translate them because their value ultimately lies not in the words, but in the word they communicate, that is, in their message, the good news about Jesus. The words are our access to this word, and it is our delight to pay close attention to them (and for some to work hard at the difficult and imperfectible task of translation), but in the end we pay attention because they point to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the one who is the true Word.

But don't take my word for it, read this excellent piece by a translator of Holy Scripture with years of experience in the craft.

Or better still, follow the simple advice that transformed the life of Saint Augustine: take and read.


Anonymous said...

I saw a promo for a particular translation yesterday and felt both vomitous and then rebellious. Not gonna buy your book, so there!

But seriously. The company that is selling this translation should be slapped - as Jesus did to the traders in the temple. They're using a very bad framework to sell a book that is decidedly against said framework. Not cool.

byron smith said...

I wonder if we saw the same advert.

Mike B said...

A few years back I was trying to engage a friend in a discussion about all these new Bible translations when he stopped me in my tracks by asking, 'Why are we happy about all this money being poured into fancy new English translations when the ones we've got are quite good, and when, for so many language groups around the world, Bible translations are poor, partial or non-existent?' His comment has haunted me (in a good way) ever since.

Mike W said...

Bible translations are context dependent, so the fight is really about whose context wins, or what kind of people 'own' church.
The discussions usually focus around which translation will help me win a particular battle against other christians who might take a verse a different way.
I was pleased to see one poster on the SydAng website defending the NIV11's translation in 1 Timothy 2, not because it supported his view (it was ambiguous), but because it best reflected the greek text.
It might be nice if all the churches in one diocese generally used the same bible though. Or maybe not.

byron smith said...

MikeB - I may have had a conversation with the same person. At least, I've had a conversation where the same point was made and it has also got under my skin. It is not all that needs to be said (since if we follow that logic everywhere, then we would also feel guilty about trying to make any kind of improvements to a church that was already doing better than average in any way), but it is worth saying.

MikeW - What do you think would be nice about it? Would it be nice if all the English-speaking Christians in the world used the same translation? Or if all the Christians in the world spoke the same language and used the same translation? These are genuinely open questions. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Donna said...

Mike W - I agree with your comment. The "battle" is often about context. Both who's theological point will come across more clearly in a translation of a particular verse. But also who's idea of what a bible should sound and read like will win. Should it sound foreign, or should it sound natural.

These days, I advocate the NLT when asked, but many people object to it because the language sounds "too easy".

Here's an interesting blog for these types of discussions:

Donna said...

Perhaps I should clarify, that I don't think the concepts in the NLT are easy, it's just that they have actually used natural English (unlike any literal translation) so the meaning is clearer.

glorya said...

well writ Byron

Luke said...

I have to say when I saw said promo for said latest and greatest translation the other day I found myself becoming surprisingly angry. It seems like just a few years ago that we were being sold on the wonders of the ESV and that has proven a pretty drastic failure as far as public reading is concerned. Now along comes the shiny new thing. It is so pointless. The big problem in our churches is not the minutiae of bible translation but that the average church goer rarely reads their Bible, and I am sorry but a new translation is not going to fix this. I am very tempted to establish a grass roots resistance campaign. To Facebook!!

byron smith said...

Donna - If I can push back on your use of "natural" here, I wonder whether there might not be better ways of describing the kind of English used in the NLT that don't make an appeal to a linguistic norm. Just as there is no "best" translation, I don't think there is a "natural" English, just a variety of different registers that are most appropriate to different contexts.

Glorya - Thanks! Good to hear from you.

byron smith said...

Luke - I agree that I don't think a dearth of decent translations is what stops people reading the scriptures.

Donna said...

Byron, I guess you're right in so far as "translationese" can be considered a natural form of a language, however I don't think it can because it is a fusion between two separate languages. Sure "translationese" can become naturalised, but that hasn't happened yet with many English translations apart from those in the KJV line.

I don't think of literal translations as a register, because that type of languages doesn't occur anywhere else apart from in literal translations.

Language which communicates best is language which people actually use, not just what people say they can understand - and that's what I call "natural" language.

But in any case, say I don't use the word "natural" what phrasing would you suggest?

byron smith said...

Perhaps the translation people read influences their language use (over time), turning a register that once only belonged within the pages of a literal translation into a wider phenomenon...

Though that's quite a damning call - that literal translations are such an idiosyncratic register as to fall outside the scope of registers widely used in everyday life (which is how I would phrase "natural language" in a more technical register).

Mike W said...

sorry, I thought I ticked the "follow ups box", obviously I didn't.
I think it has just been easier having the NIV as the dominant translation. Even if it has flaws, problems, yadayada, they get pointed out once and you get over it.
Multiple translations in one area means multiple problems which means multiple addressing of said problems.

Having said all that, I'm always carrying round different translations to bible studies etc.
I just don't care that much.

Donna said...

Of course, "naturalness" is a matter of degree, so there are natural aspects to even literal translations.

I do however think that whether you are aiming to translate into the language of "what people speak" or "what people can understand" is a key difference in guiding translation philosophy. Literal translations do the latter, some more functional equivalent translations aim for the former - which in my opinion makes those translations far more vivid and comprehensible. I don't believe that a person fully understands words and phrases that they don't actually use in their life. (Sure, they may understand them accurately, but it will be a more emaciated understanding of the meaning than if the translator had used language that the audience actually does use.

I'd be interested if you could find a register used in everyday life which uses grammar like the ESV (which is not a text translated from Greek). :-)

A quick glance at the same passage in HCSB reveals that it does read as more natural than the ESV - but I still think the NLT wins.

byron smith said...

Mike - Better the devil (in the details) you know? Sometimes, I think a bit of confusion over what the text actually says can be a good thing. That is, the presence of different translations can mean we offer our interpretations of the text with a grain or two more of salt and humility, since we recognise that smart people (yes, I'm flattering translators here) differ over the best way of translating the passage. For instance, we've been studying Ecclesiastes in Bible study recently and there are about four different translations in our group. It is a notoriously difficult text, and where our translations differ, it can be helpful in holding open some of those difficulties for a little longer before we come to some kind of conclusion, which may be premature. To get even more specific, how to translate the key term of the book (hevel) - is it "meaningless", "empty", "vanity", "mist", "insubstantial" or something else? I think that having only one of these terms in front of us might close down our understanding of the breadth and nuance of the author's argument.

Donna - Yes, that's a helpful distinction, as long as we recognise that it too is a scale rather than a binary opposition.

St Barnabas Broadway (Barneys) said...

I'm guessing that the translation video you saw may well have included me in the footage.

Vomitous? Rebellious? Really, Anonymous (courageous of you to own this bold statement, btw)?

I wonder how scarred by the 'bible wars' we have become if we are no longer able to speak to Christians from a range of denominations and say: 'here's a new English translation. we like it.'

If I am asked to say something nice on video about the NIV, I'd do the same (though there are different distinctives I'd praise). We currently use the TNIV at Barneys, which is the best fit we have found for our demographics (which includes internationals).

byron smith said...

Hi Mike (Paget),

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I'd like to hear more of your experience if you're willing to share.

Do you think that the video in question, taken as a whole, says anything more than "here's a new English translation, we like it"? Do you think that someone hearing your comments on it would be surprised to hear that Barneys does not generally use the Holman?

And more generally, how does the gospel shape the way in which we "sell" things?

byron smith said...

Mike Wells: Beware the translator who interprets.

byron smith said...

Why Driscoll is wrong (and not just about women). A critique of Driscoll's defence of the ESV.