Which Translations Should You Use? Lester L Grabbe
There are dozens of translations and paraphrased versions on the market, with more being produced continually. Which ones have merit? Which are less valuable? This article gives principles in choosing and using a translation.
FOR centuries the word "Bible" in English has been practically synonymous with the King James Version of 1611. As one lady naively commented, "If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus and the apostles, it's good enough for me." Of course, most people are aware the Bible was originally written and inspired in Greek and Hebrew. Unless you read these languages fluently, you have to depend upon translations. Yet the fact is there are no perfect or inspired translations. How can you find a sound translation or know when a translation is in error? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to give a little background on the original text of the Bible.
The Old Testament was inspired mostly in the Hebrew language, with portions of Daniel and Ezra in Aramaic. The painstaking accuracy with which the Jewish community copied and proofread each official manuscript through the centuries is nothing short of amazing. The general reliability of the Masoretic text has recently been confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have already discussed the importance of using the Masoretic text as the basis for a translation of the Old Testament in the article "The Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls".
Our knowledge of the New Testament text comes from approximately 5,000 Greek manuscripts, most of which are of the so-called Byzantine text type and differ very little among themselves. The King James Version was based on this type of text. The earliest of these Byzantine manuscripts goes back only to about the 7th century. (Most Hebrew Masoretic text manuscripts are even later in date.) But a few older Greek New Testament manuscripts and papyri, now available, have a somewhat different type text, which scholars generally follow. Thus modern translations sometimes read a little differently than the King James. Yet we have to realize that the actual differences generally involve only words or phrases which do not change significantly the message of the passage. As one scholar put it, no major Christian doctrine depends on a particular textual reading. God has seen to it that doctrine is gained from a knowledge of the Bible as a whole rather than through an understanding of one verse alone. Also, many of the Byzantine readings which were thought to have arisen long after the apostles have now been shown to be as early as any other portion of the New Testament. In the final analysis, only two sections of any length have been called into question by variations in the non-Byzantine text type. These are Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11. While the ending of Mark is not found in some of the oldest nonByzantine manuscripts, it is found in some very old copies. It is also quoted in whole or in part as early as the 2nd century A.D. Scholars have noted that it differs slightly in language from the rest of the book. Some have suggested it was written by Peter himself, who, according to tradition, was Mark's master for a long time. The story of the woman taken in adultery is not found in any of the early non-Byzantine manuscripts. But even those who do not believe it was originally part of the book of John agree "the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity." Almost all modern translations include both these sections either in the text or in the footnotes. Furthermore, modern translations correctly omit certain passages (such as the "trinitarian" statement in I John 5:7-8) which the King James Version includes. The sense of any particular passage is generally the same. Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the New Testament
Problems of Ancient Languages
From the fall of Rome to the Renaissance, only a few knew ancient Greek or Hebrew. Not until the 15th century did a revival of the study of these languages occur. Almost fifty of the best Greek and Hebrew scholars in England translated the King James Version. But since that time, by the diligent study of these languages by many scholars (both Christian and Jewish), knowledge and understanding has taken great strides forward. Since 1890 new discoveries of papyri and other linguistic evidence for the Greek of New Testament times have completely revolutionized our knowledge. Today, vocabulary, grammar and idiom of New Testament Greek are very well understood. The meaning of certain idioms is still debated. But these are relatively few and far between. Old Testament Hebrew, on the other hand, still presents difficulties in both idiom and vocabulary. The Dead Sea Scrolls and other discoveries, plus continued work by Semitic scholars in many lands, have helped elucidate the language of the Hebrew Bible. But our knowledge of biblical Hebrew is not on a par with our biblical Greek. So two translations of the Old Testament may differ widely in their rendering of a particular passage.
Solving the Difficulties
Translators may do several things if present-day knowledge of Hebrew does not elucidate a particular passage. Attempt to find a similar word or expression in another Semitic language such as Arabic (this has been done a great deal in The New English Bible). Follow an ancient translation such as the Septuagint, Targums, or Vulgate. Or resort to textual emendation on the assumption that the text has been corrupted during centuries of copying by hand. Of course, each method has its drawback and may not derive the original meaning. Further study and new discoveries will help solve the difficulties in the Old Testament. But until then, we have to realize the meaning of certain passages is still unsure. We cannot blame a translator when he has done his best. But at times the text is emended even when the Masoretic text is quite clear on its own. An example is Hosea 11:5. Every word of the Masoretic text is perfectly understandable: "He shall not return into the land of Egypt." But the Revised Standard Version reads, "They shall return to the land of Egypt...." The text has been emended because the translator thought it contradicted Hosea 8:13 and 9:3. Of course, this is subjective and should not be done. Many modern translations will give a footnote if the translator has followed an ancient translation or has emended the text. But not always. If a modern translation gives a smooth and clear reading where the King James sounds awkward, be aware that the translator may not have followed the Masoretic text in that particular case. He may even have amended the Hebrew text arbitrarily. You would want to check other translations and even commentaries which might tell you what has been done. We are now ready to look at different versions and the principles used by the translators in producing them.
Two Basic Types of Translation
Translations can be broken down into two broad categories according to the technique used by the translator. These are the more literal translations and the more free renderings. At least one translation does not really fall in either category but is in between in a mediating position. The more literal translation is best represented by the King James Version. It attempts to follow the Greek or Hebrew text very closely, even word for word if possible. This is fine where the wording of the original corresponds closely to English idiom. But that is often not the case. That is why such literal translations tend to sound awkward and are even occasionally incomprehensible. The King James Version sometimes sounds odd simply because the English of 1611 was different from 20th century English, but quite frequently also because it follows the Greek or Hebrew very literally. Included among the literal translations are such translations as the Revised Version, the American Standard Version, and the Jewish Publication Society translation of 1917. These are heavily based on the King James Version even though advertised as new translations. The freer method of translating is that used by most recent versions. Here the attempt is made to render sense for sense rather than word for word. The translator first tries to understand the text. Then he does his best to get this sense across to the reader in idiomatic English. He may have to paraphrase and even add words or phrases not actually in the original. He may render weights and measures by those in current use (such as inches or pounds) instead of the Greek or Hebrew terms (as homer or denarion). Examples of the more free versions are the Phillips', Williams', and Today's English version of the New Testament, or the Moffatt version of the whole Bible. The New English Bible and the New American Bible are more conservative than some of the free translations. But they still tend to fall in the free-rendering category. The Revised Standard Version, however, is a mediating translation, avoiding both extremes. It is in modern and idiomatic English without using slang. Yet it attempts to be fairly literal while avoiding awkwardness. It is one of the most neutral translations available today. The major objection is its occasional textual emendation. But this is relatively infrequent and is usually noted in the footnotes.
Each Has Its Place
Some prefer the King James Version. Others find its language difficult and prefer something more modern. Actually, both the literal and the free translations have their place and use. Most people can learn more by using both types and comparing them. As one expert on translations noted, the literal translation takes you back to the thought world of the original. You find yourself wrestling with ancient measurements and coinage (cubits, shekels, etc.). You see the bare straightforwardness of Hebrew narrative and the beauty of Hebrew poetry. You realize why Paul's writing contains "some things hard to be understood" when you see his complex sentences rendered literally into English. On the other hand, the free translation tries to bring the Bible world to the present and give it to you already interpreted into modern concepts. Greek denaria become dollars or pounds. A bath measurement is rendered into gallons. This means one can learn the more technical expressions with less effort. Yet one has to depend on the translator's judgment. If the translator misunderstood the original, then the reader may believe an error. Generally, a one-man translation will tend to be more extreme and subjective than one done by a committee. A committee translation will usually be more moderate and cautious because many different people have criticized the proposed text. The one-man translation is like Quite Contrary Mary: "When it is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is awful." A single translator may have more individual flair and bring out certain passages in a superb way. But he is also more likely to make errors and give a biased rendering. The judicious Bible student will make use of both free and literal translations, both one-man efforts and committee productions. That way he can obtain the flavor of the world of biblical times through the literal version while checking his understanding through the free translations of expert scholars. He can also benefit from the individual insight of single translators, yet avoid their pitfalls by comparing their renderings with those done by groups who put their heads together.
We have already discussed some translations, such as the King James, Revised Standard Version, and The New English Bible. Here are some others: New American Bible. This is a new Catholic translation in modern English, a scholarly translation and based on the original Greek and Hebrew texts. Admittedly, Catholic bias shines through in a few passages. In the Old Testament the ancient versions or textual emendation has often been resorted to without any footnote to say so. Moffatt translation. This was one of the first translations into modern English. It is often helpful. But Moffatt has frequently made subjective reshufflings of the text. Today's English Version, popularly known as Good News for Modern Man. This is an idiomatic, very free but quite uninspiring translation. Only the New Testament has been done, but the Old Testament is being worked on. Phillips' translation of the New Testament. This is a very free translation. Phillips often adds phrases and whole sentences to present his understanding of the text. He is usually very clear and seems to capture the flavor of the original Greek. But sometimes he wrongly interprets (as in I Corinthians 11:30 where he has "spiritually asleep" though the context plainly shows it is really "dead" as most commentators realize). Jewish Publication Society translation. Although this is made from the Masoretic text, it often follows the King James very closely. A new translation in modern English is being prepared, but only the Pentateuch is complete. The New Testament from 26 Translations. This draws on 26 modern translations of the New Testament. Only two or three of these 26 translations are usually cited for any one verse. But the editors have attempted to pick the most diverse renderings for each passage.
The Amplified Bible. The glowing advertisements for this version are exaggerated and inaccurate. As professional translators have pointed out, it is really a paraphrase and commentary. It can be helpful in the same way a commentary is. But it cannot claim to be a translation. The Living Bible. This is a paraphrase made by a layman from the Revised Version. It can be good where the author has understood the text. He frequently condenses lengthy Old Testament verses and gives only the "core." This can be useful in getting an overview of a section or a whole book. But realize your chances of being misled are greater with a nonprofessional's understanding of an English translation than with a translation by professional scholars. Further information about The Living Bible can be found in our free booklet How To Study the Bible (see pages 24 and 25).
Putting It All Together
Each person should have a good study Bible. Many people prefer the King James because of familiarity and the fact that it tries to be as faithful to the original as possible. For others, however, who might prefer a more modern translation, the Revised Standard Version would probably be the best choice. A moderate or fairly literal translation would probably be best as one's basic Bible. One can then supplement his Bible study from other translations, many of which may be obtained in inexpensive paperback editions. A change of translation may bring new light on a passage which familiarity has made hackneyed. But after using different free translations, one will want to come back to the more stable and less-interpretative text of his study Bible. Where a particular translation gives a new twist to a passage and seems to bring out a new understanding, one should carefully compare the passage in other translations. If no others bear out this new understanding, chances are it is a subjective judgment on the part of the translator. So compare translations. Also especially check the context and compare one passage with other relevant sections in the Bible itself. The proper use of different translations and study aids can make your personal Bible study much more interesting and profitable.