By Neal Michell
Have you ever been in a Bible study that all of a sudden dies in its tracks when the group gets stuck in the quagmire of Well, what does your translation say? When that happens we’ve moved from Bible study to Bible comparison, a situation created by a uniquely modern problem.
In our time, the proliferation of English translations is stunning: the King James Version and its children, the Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, New King James Version, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, and English Standard Version — and that’s not all of them. Then there’s the Jerusalem Bible updated to the New Jerusalem Bible, the New English Bible updated to the Revised English Bible, the Living Bible updated to the New Living Translation. It makes the head spin to read the various translations that seem rooted in the Hebrew and Greek texts.
I recently bought a King James Version — the Authorized Version, as it was originally titled. That may seem like an odd purchase, given the penchant of our culture to contemporize and make relevant everything for popular consumption. But I have used different Bibles at different times in my life. In my childhood the King James Version was really the only game in town, but I later moved to the NASB, the NIV, the RSV, the English Bible, and most recently the ESV. I have long forgotten what little Hebrew I learned in seminary, but I keep up my Greek. I don’t think of myself as a curmudgeon who prefers only things that are old. I have been thinking for quite a while about buying a KJV to use as my preferred devotional and study Bible and have made several trips to the local bookstore in search of the right one. I finally found it.
It’s soft, leather-bound, doesn’t weigh like a ton of bricks, has nice readable print, words of Jesus in red, and a few cogent cross references scattered throughout. It is both a physical, aesthetic pleasure to have and hold, as well as a wonder “to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”
What started me on my journey was an essay on this blog by Professor Nathan Jennings, in which he stated that he has been reading the Authorized Version as his go-to Bible. I have since gained a new appreciation for this version and am now reading it as my go-to Bible as well.
I don’t think there is any better translation of the Bible that combines both beauty of language and faithfulness to the text. Certainly, different people have their preferences based upon perceived fidelity to the underlying text, readability, level of gender inclusiveness, and even theological orientation (meaning, whether the translators share roughly one’s theological biases). But I love the fact that Christians have been reading these very words for more than 400 years.
This interest in the King James Version has also led me to a greater appreciation for the English found in the traditional language liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer.
An interest in and appreciation of such things cuts against a disease fairly common in our culture that C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield have called “chronological snobbery.” Chronological snobbery is a philosophical bias in favor of the new and recent. In terms of arts and sciences and philosophies, newer is better. Older is, well, rather passé, relegated to the trash heap of flat-earth theory, the belief that the sun revolves around the earth, and even that a religion that believes in miracles, a virgin giving birth to a baby, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus are woefully out of date and must make way for newer ways of articulating religious truth so as to save religion from itself.
It’s natural, then, for Americans to assume that newer is also better when it comes to Bible translations. Surely we know more than the 1611 translators of the KJV. It’s more complicated than that, however, and I think it is important to discuss Bible translation. Many of our parishioners are ignorant of the various translations and their underlying approach to translating the biblical text.
In this post and another next week, we will journey through the field of Bible translation to understand the place of the KJV in the diverse family of contemporary translations. We will then discuss the merits of the KJV’s text and conclude with a discussion about the language of the traditional liturgies that help worshipers to a deeper sense of worship.
If you already are familiar with the nature of biblical translation, or if you find this topic boring, stop reading here and wait until next week, when I will write about what reading the KJV means for my worship life — and can mean for yours.
Formal Equivalence and Dynamic Equivalence
There are two major approaches to Bible translation and two other approaches on the ends of that spectrum. Formal equivalency is the attempt to translate the underlying text so that there is a word in the translated text for every word or nearly every word in the original text. The words and phrases in this approach to translation are translated in a literal way, as much as is possible for them still to make sense. The dynamic equivalency approach is an attempt to translate whole phrases without concern for a literal word-for-word translation. This is also known as a “sense-for-sense” translation.
On either end of these two approaches are the interlinear approach (which is more literal than the formal equivalent approach) and the paraphrase (which is not at all concerned about any literal equivalency of words). Interlinear Bibles will have the translated words directly under the text. Word order often doesn’t make sense to the reader who does not know Hebrew or Greek.
Here are a few examples of these approaches at play.
Formal Equivalency: Used in the Authorized Version (KJV), Revised Standard Version (RSV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) (sort of), and English Standard Version (ESV). In the KJV and NASB, italics are used, not for emphasis, but to denote that this is not a word from the original text that was translated but that this particular word or words weresupplied by the translators.
- KJV is the most beautiful, artful, and mellifluous of all the translations, bar none (in my opinion). You could say it is the King of all the Bibles (yes, pun intended).
- NASB, while the most literal translation, is also the most wooden and least readable. It capitalizes all pronouns referring to God. Like the KJV, it also italicizes words that are not in the original language, so the reader will know that the translators added this word or words for ease of translation.
- RSV is a worthy successor to KJV. A project of mainline Protestants but approved for use by Roman Catholics, it retained the archaic Thee and Thou for addressing God but changed the archaic pronouns (thee, thou, thy) and verb forms (art, hadst, hast, didst, wast, etc.) for humanity to contemporary forms. The RSV uses newer and more trustworthy texts than the KJV translators had.
- NRSV was the first major translation to use gender-neutral language for humanity. This, to me, is more characteristic of a dynamic equivalent or paraphrase in that it includes words and phrases that the editors believed the biblical writers would have used if they had been as enlightened as late 20th-century translators were.
- ESV is the work of international evangelicals. It has more of a conservative evangelical bias than the NRSV and uses gender-neutral language sparingly, primarily in those places where the (usually Greek) word is gender inclusive.
Dynamic Equivalency: New International Version (NIV), New English Bible (NEB), Jerusalem Bible (JB) and New Jerusalem Bible (NJB).
- NIV is one of the most popular Bible translations on the market. Its aim is to be a balance between word-for-word and phrase-for-phrase. It lacks, in my opinion, the beauty of the King James but is an acceptable alternative to the NRSV. It has more of a Protestant and evangelical bias.
- NEB is a translation from the United Kingdom, and was aimed to be translated in a British idiom. My favorite example of this is 1 Corinthians 15:8, when St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “But I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost.” The NEB translates this verse as “But I shall remain at Ephesus until Whitsuntide.” At the time the NEB was translated, what we now refer to as Pentecost was still known as Whitsunday.
- JB, NJB. The JB is popularly believed to be a “translation of a translation,” namely, an English translation of a French translation. Denials abound, but one of the editors of the New Jerusalem Bible says that the JB is clearly a translation from the French. Both JB and NJB render the name for God as Yahweh. NJB uses more gender-inclusive language than JB and NRSV. J.R.R. Tolkien lovers will appreciate knowing that he translated the Book of Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible.
Interlinear Bibles and Paraphrases
An interlinear translation places words translated directly under the words in the original language. Hence, it is more literal than a formal equivalent translation, but the English word order doesn’t always flow together or make grammatical sense. Word order in Greek and Hebrew simply does not flow like English. The parts of speech determine the meaning and which words go with which words (most of the time). Consider Galatians 1:10, in smooth English word order, or in the Greek word order.
For am I yet seeking the approval of men or God? Or do I seek to be pleasing to men? If I still sought to be pleasing to men, I would not be the slave of Christ.
Still for from men I seek approval, or God? Or do I seek to men to be pleasing? If still to men I am pleasing, Christ’s slave not would be I.
Interlinear translations are not limited to the Bible. Here is an example of an interlinear translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).
A paraphrase is at the opposite end of the translation scale from the interlinear translations. It is aimed at articulating the truths in Scripture in such a way that its language and imagery do not seem so foreign or dated to the modern or postmodern reader. The most popular paraphrases are The Living Bible (TLB), Good News Bible (GNB: formerly Today’s English Version, and Good News for Modern Man), The Message (TM), and the lesser known yet deserving of notice Phillips New Testament in Modern English (PHI).
- TLB is one of the most popular versions. What began as a paraphrase by John Taylor for his children’s family devotions turned into a full-blown paraphrasing of the whole Bible. It is a paraphrase using the New America Standard Bible as the basis for paraphrasing. It has since been updated by Greek and Hebrew scholars and is appreciated for its American English readability.
- GNB was “translated” by scholars sponsored by the American Bible Society. Although they claim it is a translation, it reads very much like a paraphrase. I recall reading that the original translators in 1966 aimed the style of English at a reader in the fifth grade. Now the same language is that appropriate to a seventh-grade native English speaker.
- TM was translated by Eugene Peterson and uses idiomatic expressions and phrases targeting the American reader. Its contemporary idiom makes this version appear fresh in the ear of the listener.
PHI is a paraphrase by J.B. Phillips, an Anglican clergyman. The title of his work is The New Testament in Modern English but is usually referred to as “the Phillips Translation.” One of my favorite readings from Phillips is Romans 8:18-19. In the KJV:
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.
In my opinion whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us. The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own.
That is beautiful imagery.
So, what does all this translation discussion have to do with the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer? I’ll answer that next week.
Correction: The New English Bible was not an update of something called The English Bible. The NEB was a fresh translation begun in 1946, NT completed in 1961, OT (and thus the complete translation) in 1970, with an update in 1971 to correct a few embarrassing typos and renderings (the infamous fart joke, for example). The Revised English Bible (REB) was an update to the NEB that was released in 1989. While the NEB chose to use archaic language, the REB updated everything to modern English, used mild gender inclusive language, and toned down some of the NEB’s more dramatic… Read more »
Thanks, Jason. We’ve made a correction.