Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirty-Four: Bible Translations

When I did my year of reading through the Bible, I spent a lot of time looking up translations. To give you an idea of how translations are judged, here are the top five I considered, along with a description of each from a First Presbyterian church website I referenced at the time:

English Standard Version (ESV), an “essentially new literal translation,” follows the tradition of the King James, American Standard Version, and Revised Standard Version. Published in 2001 by Crossway, it was developed by a translation team of more than 100 scholars, with the goal of being very accurate (word for word), and yet very readable. It has become quite popular, as it is more readable than other literal translations.

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is another new word-for-word translation that strives to be both literally accurate and readable. It is not as literal as the ESV or NASB, but is more so than the NIV. The Holman, published by Broadman & Holman in 2003, is the product of nearly 100 scholars.

New International Version (NIV), completed in 1978, was the product of 115 evangelical scholars. Within a decade it became the best-selling English version, a position it still holds! It combines contemporary, literary English with traditional biblical vocabulary. The NIV is copyrighted by the Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). NOTE: A major revision of the NIV was released in early 2011. While it only changes about 5% of the text of the last edition (1984), the changes are significant, and it almost reads like a new translation. This new revision also includes “gender-neutral” language when referring to people, similar to the NRSV (below).

New Living Translation (NLT), published in 1996, is the product of 90 Bible scholars from around the world, from various theological backgrounds and denominations. This is a very readable translation, while remaining more faithful to the original texts than the Living Bible (see above). Also published by Tyndale. An update was published in 2004.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) – published in 1989 by the National Council of Churches, revises the Revised Standard Version of 1952. While following the literal tradition of the RSV, the NRSV eliminates much of the archaic language. One distinctive is the use of gender inclusive pronouns to replace male pronouns when the original writers meant both men and women. The NRSV does not change masculine pronouns referring to God, however.

I ended up going with NRSV, and I was happy with my choice. The key issue when looking at Bible translations is the relationship between the literal and the relatable. In theory you want something that gets you as close to a word-for-word translation as possible. But at the same time, you want a text that you can actually read and understand. Something that isn’t very literal doesn’t feel authentic, and something that isn’t very readable will be difficult to relate to.

In the middle of this you have instances where a literal translation becomes misleading when devoid of culture context. For example, in the story of Jesus turning water to wine, his mother Mary is the one who tells him they are out of wine at the wedding. Jesus responds, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” Most translations puts a footnote for this line to explain that in the original language, there is no negative connotation to the word ‘woman’ when used this way.

I like any translation that does away with archaic language when it can. The King James Bible may be sitting in a million motel nightstands, but nothing makes me feel more disconnected from God than prose use of the ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ pronouns. Speaking of King James, I’m also wary of any translation written with a political or denominational agenda, as King James most certainly was. One could argue that a version that purposely removes gendered language when the original text doesn’t specify gender also has an agenda, but I would argue that the real agenda was the one that made everything masculine in the first place.

I’ve done Bible study sessions where we read the same passage from multiple translations, and it’s amazing the differences you hear with even the smallest word changes. One version sounds inspiring while the other cautionary, one seems to honor a character that the other judges. Language is a tricky thing even when you start and finish in the same one. There will never be a perfect translation of the Bible. However there will always be a special place in my heart for any translation that lists Genesis 1:21 as “So God created the great sea monsters…”