Monday, June 29, 2009

Bible Translations

There is an interesting tradeoff in bible translation that cropped up again for me today. Some bible translations tend toward being more literal - trying to translate word for word what the original text says. Others adopt a more dynamic approach, trying to convey the meaning of the text while not always being word-for-word (it might be described as thought-for-thought). I used to prefer the more literal translations, but one of the problems there is that the closer you get to the original text, the more you need to know about the original culture, and it is very easy to miss the significance of passages. Another problem, of course, is that the word order and grammar of Hebrew and Greek is quite different from English, so the closer you get to a word-for-word translation, the more stilted the English sounds.

Lately, I have been enjoying the New Living Translation (NLT), because it tries to use English as it is spoken today. Many translations end up with a style of English that is rarely spoken, although it is still grammatically correct. For some people, it feels more like "biblish" - a separate language that is spoken by those in-the-know. I don't believe the original texts felt this way to the hearers, and the King James bible probably still sounded pretty natural to early Friends. I have felt lately that for some people, hearing the bible in a more natural sounding form of English may help lower some of the barriers that might otherwise come up in the presence of such a different usage of English. I also think there is a temptation to think that speaking differently is an indication that the words are inspired. I know some people may feel a special connection when they hear a traditional rendering of a passage - my mom is this way about the traditional King James readings at Christmas time, but, I believe that it isn't the grammatical form of the words that is the important thing - it is that they are spoken from the Spirit. This works both ways - the biblish-sounding words can still reach people for whom they sound alien if they are spoken from the Spirit. But, people still have the choice of whether to listen or not - I think it helps to navigate around some of the barriers people may put up.

While the literal approach has the problem of not conveying enough context, the dynamic approach has the problem of conveying too much. That is, if there are multiple ways to read a text, a translation might not convey the various options. I ran into this today with the NLT in its translation of 2 Peter 1:19, which reads:

Because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets. You must pay close attention to what they wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts.

The NET bible translates it this way:

Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

The King James Version reads:

We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

Notice that the NLT has taken the "prophetic word" or "word of prophecy" and turned it into "the message proclaimed by the prophets". I think this is probably the typical protestant interpretation of this passage, but for Friends, possessing the prophetic word is not having the scriptures available, but being able to speak the prophetic word directly by the Spirit. I believe the NLT version of this verse does not allow for that interpretation, while other translations do, and I believe the Greek text allows it as well.

In his journal, George Fox relates an encounter with a priest in Nottingham that illustrates how Fox interpreted this particular passage:

When I came there all the people looked like fallow ground, and the priest, like a great lump of earth, stood in his pulpit above: he took for his text these words of Peter, "We have also a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto ye do well that he take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts." He told the people this was the scriptures, by which they were to try all doctrines, religions, and opinions. Now the Lord's power was so mighty upon me, and so strong in me, that I could not hold; but was made to cry out, "Oh! no, it is not the scriptures;" and told them what it was, namely, the holy spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the scriptures, whereby opinions, religions, and judgments were to be tried; for it led into all truth, and so gave the knowledge of all truth.

As Friends, I think we need to be especially aware that our understanding of the bible often differs from the traditional protestant view, and that despite the best efforts of the translators, various bible translations do tend to carry along the doctrinal views of the translators. While we must still rely on the Holy Spirit for illumination of the text, I think it helps if the text does reflect the original inspired message.


  1. Hystery, I have heard the Psalm 46 thing before, but it strikes me as being close to a coincidence. The Bishop's Bible that predated the KJV by many years had shake as the 46th word, but spear was 48. It seems just as likely that revisions in wording would account for "spear" moving up a little. The geneva bible was pretty close, too, I think it was 47 and 48. I know there were some scholarly problems with the earlier bibles, which is how the word Jehovah came into being. When the vowel points were added to the Hebrew bible, they used the vowel pointing for the word ADONAY (Lord) on the word YHWH since it was always read aloud as ADONAY or "HA SHEM" (the name). My understanding is that the translators weren't aware of that and applied the vowels in ADONAY to YHWH and got Jehovah. One of the advantages the KJV did have, though, is that at the time, English was a little freer in its word order, so it could more closely follow the word ordering of the original texts and still sound like "natural" English. Alas, such a order, to ears modern, sounds of unnaturalness.

    Tom, the Geneva bible, 100 years earlier, had the same wording, and in fairness to the translators, the Hebrew word is TZALMAWET which literally has a meaning like death-shadow. MAWET is the Hebrew word for death. It is good to remember that the KJV didn't appear out of thin air - it was based heavily on earlier translations, and I think I remember reading that it wasn't allowed to vary from a particular other translation, maybe it was the Bishops Bible, by more than a certain amount. I could be misremembering, though. It's certainly interesting stuff to me, and if you do remember other examples, I'd still like to hear them.

    I was probably a little harder on the Cotton Patch Version of that verse than was necessary, and your feedback certainly helps me see that! Translations like the Cotton Patch and The Message are attempting to render the bible in a way that sounds to our modern ears more like the original would have sounded to Jews and Greeks. In that respect, they are very valuable. My concern with that particular section of the bible is a worry over people missing the "spiritual" part of the warfare and thinking it refers to killing people.

    With love,

  2. I'm a fan of the Holman Christian Standard Bible myself. It's accurate and readable and not theologically biased like many of the translations today.

    However, I think we need to focus on doing what we can to see that the 2200+ languages that don't have any verses translated could have access to the Bible.

    I would love to hear your thoughts here

  3. For the New Testament, I really enjoy Richmond Lattimore's translation. His translation brings the words to life for me: the narratives read like narratives, the letters like letters, and so on.

  4. Mark & other Friends -- Wow! What a wonderful, enlightening discussion. You've all given me a lot to think about.

    I echo Alice, in that those older translations make my head hurt too -- and I'm an English teacher who lately has spent a lot of time studying 17th century religious and political writings.

    I've always been fascinated with the way that so many people WANT their Bible to sound different than "ordinary" books, more "Bibley" as I think you put it, Mark. I don't understand the impulse, but I think the same impulse is behind the way that, for most non-Quaker Christians, "Thee" and "Thou" got turned from intimate expressions into high, lofty special language you only use in church hymns and prayers.

    Mark, I'm going to Wilmington for Yearly Meeting on Thursday. Are you and Ceal gonna be there?