Hoping for a Peace Treaty in the Bible Wars
Aug 02, 2010 by Craig Blomberg | 2 Comments
I well remember in 1978, when the entire NIV translation of the Bible was completed and published, a series of clever network TV ads, with a man dressed up to look like a Reformation-era British king, using the slogan, “If King James were alive today, he’d use the NIV!” The ads were either successful or prophetic, because the NIV has become the most distributed and best selling Bible in the world over the thirty-two intervening years, with more than 300,000,000 copies printed, far outstripping the King James Version during that period of time, to say nothing of any other English translation of the Bible.
An updated 2011 edition of the NIV is now slated for release, hopefully by this coming Easter, with the possibility of part or all of the text becoming available in on-line format even earlier. 2011, of course, is the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the KJV. I have absolutely no insider information on what the marketing of the NIV, or any other translation of the Bible, will look like in 2011, but I will be shocked if more than one publisher does not try to exploit the special date somehow.
As I occasionally surf the Christian blog world, I am continually amazed at how few issues ruffle people’s feathers more than a writer asserting his or her preferences for Bible translations. One Irish Anglican clergyman currently visiting the US whom I recently met on-line likened them to cult followings, spurred on by Americans’ notoriety for crass commercialism. I disputed both generalizations with respect to modern translations (though not perhaps the cult-following label for the KJV ONLY folks). But I can see why visitors might start to think in these ways, especially if they are encountering some of the most forceful American spokespersons for or against certain versions and are unaware of how many Bibles the major Bible-publishing organizations give away free at home and abroad or at very reduced costs.
There are three major philosophies in Bible translation, as I have pointed out here and elsewhere in the past. Each has its merits and its drawbacks. Some translations make the highest priority of what is popularly called a highly literal translation or, more technically, a formally equivalent one. Of course, the absolute end of this spectrum leaves one with the unintelligibility of an interlinear Bible, in which, for example, James 3:3 becomes, “If but of the horses the bridles into the mouths we throw so that the to be persuaded them by us and whole the body their we guide”! So even the formally equivalent translations like the KJV, New KJV, Revised Standard, New Revised Standard, New American Standard, and English Standard have to use proper English syntax in order to be understandable. The ESV, for example, renders James 3:3 as, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.”
At the other end of the spectrum is dynamic or functional equivalence. Here the goal is for the greatest amount of clarity and fluency in English. It is less clear if there is an absolute end to this spectrum. One might envision paraphrases like Eugene Peterson’s The Message or translations that give several options for key words like the Amplified Bible, but it is not obvious that they are always even as clear as proper functionally equivalent translations like the New Living Translation, Contemporary English Version, Good News Bible, or God’s Word, and certainly they are far less literal. The Message for James 3:3 reads, “A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse.” The NLT, in comparison, has, “We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth.”
In between these two clusters of translations are those who aim for a “sweet spot” that maximizes both hearing the Scripture as it was originally written (and subsequently delivered orally) and understanding it as it was originally meant, i.e., both accuracy and fluency, recognizing that at any given point achieving one may require a slight sacrifice in the other and vice-versa. The NIV, Today’s NIV, Holman Christian Standard , NET Bible, and New American Bible all fall into this category, with the Revised English Bible and New Jerusalem Bible being just a little freer but also more literary. The NIV for James 3:3 reads, “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.” Similarly, the HCSB has, “Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal.”
Every single translation serves an important purpose. Each must be evaluated according to its goals and purposes, along with its target audiences. Some have achieved a much greater readership than was first envisioned; others have not done as well as hoped. Readers of multiple translations of Scripture will frequently find a favorite or recognize the greater usefulness of one version in one context and another in a different context. There is no such thing as one best translation for all settings. By definition, however, those Bibles that achieve the greatest reliability and understandability simultaneously will normally prove most useful in the broadest cross-section of contexts, especially in preaching and teaching for large, heterogeneous audiences. But notice that none of the versions cited for James 3:3 above mislead anyone. It’s clear that they are all renderings of the same verse in Scripture!
As one who has put in long hours over the last three years on the Committee for Bible Translation for the 2011 NIV, I am naturally biased in its favor. But I have also worked, at varying levels, on the ESV, HCSB and NLT and appreciate the distinctive strengths of each of those three translations and the philosophies behind them.
Let’s celebrate, not least in 2011, the privilege we have in English to have access to so many good translations and put down the weaponry that has led so many to exalt certain versions, bad-mouth others, and leave the watching, non-Christian world wrongly convinced that the Bible must not be translated very accurately anywhere, and that, like on so many other issues, all Christians can do is squabble!