Monday, November 17, 2008

Choosing Bible Translations

Scot McKnight has a piece today on choosing the "best" translation of the Bible. Like other pieces I've read/studied over the years, McKnight starts out by asking the question, "What is my purpose in reading the Bible?" This may seem like an obvious question, but give it some thought. Are you reading to study specific passages? Are you reading for comprehension of the Bible's "big concepts"? Are you looking for a translation appropriate to use in the pulpit or some other public speaking venue? Different translations may well be better for some of these tasks than others. I'm glad to see that, rather than just leave us with that question, McKnight actually does give something of a list, suggesting possible translations for different goals. It's worth a read.

This discussion got me thinking about the various translations I've used over the years. The first translation with which I have any solid memory is the "Good News" translation, sometimes referred to as "Today's English Version." This was the Bible that was always in the pews of the church in which I grew up, and almost anyone who has used this version remembers it for the quaint little line drawings used as illustrations throughout. This version is definitely a product of its time (the 1960s and '70s), and I don't know how common it is these days (although I know it's still published). Although the publishers insist that it is a translation, rather than merely a paraphrase, it's a fairly loose translation, and I really don't recommend it for serious study anymore, although I expect it's probably fine for readability if you're just looking to understand what the Bible's about in a "broad strokes" sense. I notice that McKnight doesn't mention this version himself, although it does get a brief "shout out" in the comments.

When I was in college, the NIV was the translation that was "in vogue," perhaps because of its strong evangelical ties. I still consider it a good translation, although I agree with the sentiment behind the comment of one of my Bible professors of the time, who would often refer to it as the "Nearly Inerrant Version." Not because he actually thought it was, but rather because it was so uncritically accepted by so many. It's still a very good translation (he thought so, too), but it must be remembered that it's not perfect. No translation is.

The PC(USA) uses the NRSV in many of its churches and conference settings, and it is a rather good translation. One of the benefits to it is that it is one of the first translations to seriously consider the question of whether gender-exclusive language accurately conveys the sense of the original text to the modern reader. Of course, the fact that it does try to render certain terms in gender-neutral terms has caused this translation to come under attack from some, such as Wayne Grudem, who consider such rendering an unfaithful translation philosophy. His basic argument, as I recall it, is that it is inappropriate to add a layer of the translator's own interpretation to the text. Put another way, even if a gender-specific term may have been intended to refer to both men and women in the original text, it is inappropriate to "remove" that gender-specificity by translating it with a gender-neutral term in English when a more "precise" gender-specific term in English exists. Defenders of gender-neutral translations (such as myself) do so on the basis that, if readers see a gender-specific term in our time and culture, they are less likely to understand that the term was intended to include both men and women in the original time and culture, and it is important that such barriers to comprehending what the Bible is trying to convey should be removed when such can be done faithfully.

In my lectionary reflections (both here in the past and, now, over at the Presbyterian Bloggers site), I tend to use the TNIV. The TNIV is also a "gender-neutral" translation, but I think it is a bit more restrained than the NRSV on this matter, while also making a few other interpretive decisions that other translations may not, in the effort to maintain readability for the modern reader. On the whole, I consider it a more "literal" translation than the NRSV, while still being free to translate whole phrases (rather than word-for-word) to convey concepts more clearly to the reader. Besides the "gender-neutral" controversy, faithful Christians do still have differing opinions on whether these decisions are the right ones, but all that means is that it is still good to have multiple translations available if one wants to seriously study the Scripture.

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